Socrates Had it Coming

… or at least that’s what Paul Cartledge asserts in his most recent tome (and I tend to agree with him), which is beginning to get some media attention (although the various news outlets seem unsure whether to consider this news or a review). Here’s a bit from the Independent:

In his new book, Ancient Greek Political Thought In Practice, published today, Professor Cartledge says that while politicians and historians have used the trial to suggest that democracy can sometimes descend into mob rule, this was not one such example. “Everyone knows the Greeks invented democracy, but it was not democracy as we know it, and we have misread history as a result,” he said. “The charges Socrates faced seem ridiculous to us but in ancient Athens they were genuinely felt to serve the communal good.”

In his book, Professor Cartledge questions traditional arguments that Socrates was purely the victim of political infighting. Historians influenced by ancient writers, including Plato, have claimed that Socrates’ open criticism of prominent Athenian politicians had made him many enemies, who then pinned the impiety and corruption charges on him to silence him. Other historian believe Socrates’ teachings stirred political rebellion, and he was made an example at his trial by those seeking to quash dissidents in Athenian society.

Professor Cartledge said Socrates questioned the authority of many of the accepted gods and claimed to be guided by his inner “daimonon”, a term which he may have intended to mean “intuition”, but which could also be interpreted as a dark, supernatural influence, which would have outraged conventional believers.

The charge of “impiety” was entirely acceptable in a democracy deeply reverential of their gods, Professor Cartledge said. Accusations were brought by amateur prosecutors before a jury of 501 ordinary citizens of “good standing” who acted on behalf of what they took to be the public interest. If the prosecution could prove that a defendant was responsible for jeopardising the public good, he was likely to be found guilty.

The author also believes that Socrates invited his own death. Under the Athenian system, in this kind of trial a defendant could suggest his own penalty. Instead of taking this opportunity seriously, Socrates first joked that he should be rewarded and eventually suggested a fine that was far too small.

Unsurprisingly, his jurors did not see the funny side and passed the death sentence. Instead of fleeing, Socrates accepted the verdict, claiming that “he owed it to the city under whose laws he had been raised to honour those laws to the letter”.

FWIW, I’ve always felt that the ‘traditional’ view of the trial of Socrates –which tended to see the religious side of things merely as a pretext, as mentioned above — has been one of the longest-lingering examples of modern scholars imposing modern values on the ancient world. There continues (I think) to be a view that the ancients — especially those rational Greeks, but even those brutish Romans — in general didn’t really take their religion seriously. Whenever they used it, it had to be for some other, cynical reason. Did Socrates take it seriously? Perhaps … perhaps not. But it seems to me that a large portion of the jury likely did and when he suggested an alternate form of punishment, he alienated a pile of others as well … I’ll have to keep my eye open for this one.

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One thought on “Socrates Had it Coming

  1. Elizabeth Anne says:

    The fact that a few of his students had gone very bad indeed didn’t help, either – a fact that most modern classrooms leave out of the equation.

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