Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College



The Rest of the Story:

A bit of Athenian history

Socrates is being tried by the Athenian court on a variety of charges, ranging from the relatively specific "not believing in the gods of the state" to the more general "corrupting the youth" and "impiety," some of which can be considered capital crimes.

Why are these charges being brought against him? What has he done or been that has provoked this severe response from the Athenian citizenry?

In reading Plato's Apology (or even in reading Xenophon's account of the same trial in his Apology), we hear only Plato's and Xenophon's side of the story, both of them friends of Socrates. In reading their accounts we are left with the impression that the Athenians were simply unthinking philistines, simple-minded, shortsighted and boorish.

Surely we must wonder what the other side of the story could have been? Why would three prosecutors be confident that they could get a conviction and why would over half of the Athenian jury vote to convict, despite Socrates persuasive defense?

The following summary of events in Athenian history during the thirty-some years prior to the trial and death of Socrates is intended to provide "the rest of the story," under the following headings:

Athens the city

Socrates (469 ­ 399 BCE) was born, grew up, lived, and died in Athens.

The fourth and fifth centuries BCE are often referred to as the golden age of Greece, and Athens was very much at the center of this dynamically alive period in Greek history. Historians point to several important aspects of our lives today ­ democracy for example, and the practice of medicine ­ that were born or came to maturity in ancient Athens. For example:

The idea of democracy, the idea that citizens were actually capable of governing themselves, was developed in Athens. The notion of representational drama, that is, the practice of more than one person on a stage formally acting out the behavior of characters in a story was developed in Athens. The art of sculpting the human figure in stone reached one of highest points ever during this period. The concept of Hippocratic medicine, that is, the notion that disease and health were functions of natural laws rather than caused by actions of the gods, and that these natural laws could then be studied and put to use to treat disease and preserve health ­ this too was born in the fourth century BCE. Hippocrates (c. 460- ? BCE), who lived on the island of Cos, was in fact almost exactly contemporaneous with Socrates. The idea of Philosophy, namely the search for wisdom and understanding by means of reason and other purely human faculties, was also born and came to fruition during this time. The idea of history as an accurate report of real events that had actually occurred ­ unlike the telling of stories about heroes and gods, as Homer and Hesiod had done -- also came to birth and was developed during these centuries, primarily by Herodotus and later by another contemporary of Socrates, Thucydides (460-398 BCE). When Thucydides wrote his History of the Peloponnesian War, he wrote it with the intention that that people would have an accurate record of what he considered perhaps the most significant set of events that had ever occurred in human experience, and would remember its lessons. His History still today makes for powerful (and highly relevant) reading. Mathematics and geometry were also developed, and so was the beginning of physics, as well as a wide variety of useful technologies, during these centuries.

In other words, much of what we value and live by today had its early origins in and around 4th and 5th centuries BCE in Athens. Athens was clearly one of the highest points in the history of human civilization, at least in the West. Some historians question whether we have ever, even today, experienced an emergence of the human spirit as rich as was seen during those centuries in Athens.

And then came the Peloponnesian war.

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The Peloponnesian War

The long war between Athens and Sparta (431-404 BC) had many and complex dimensions, but at least one of its aspects was that it was a war between two very different Hellenic (Greek) cultures. On the one hand, the culture of Athens was what we might call a culture that celebrated the human spirit in all its dimensions, much as might be found today in seaport cities in the US (like Seattle, San Francisco, New York, etc). Athens too was a seaport city and thus had commerce and relations with seaports in other nations around the Mediterranean. Athens was thus not what we might think of as a conservative, staid or "old school" kind of culture, but was rather an exploratory culture, a culture that enjoyed trying new things, that reveled in the arts, that was constantly developing new technologies and learning new ideas from other parts of the world with which she had commerce. Athens was also a strong and formidable naval power. Her navy, in fact, helped protect many of the surrounding islands from pirates and marauders, and in the process exacted payment from those island governments for these protection services. Athens was also, as a consequence, a very wealthy city/state.

Sparta, on the other hand, was a land based power, situated in the center of the Peloponnesos land mass, and was a culture more firmly rooted in its ancient traditions. It was more "old school" in its values, and much less taken with novelty. While Sparta did favor the functional arts (pottery, metal-working, wood-working, etc.), it did not favor the non-useful arts; it considered them a waste of time and somewhat effeminate. If Athens could be said to nurture the feminine as well as the masculine aspects of the human spirit, Sparta was more clearly a masculine (and military) culture. Sparta did treat women as the equals of men, but what that meant, in effect, was only that women were encouraged to be just as masculine as men, and that they were encouraged to train for battle and conflict just as strenuously as men did. (I am painting these two cultures with a very broad brush, as you can see, so these statements are true only in a very broad sense.) Furthermore, Sparta was not a democracy, but was an oligarchy, that is, was ruled by the few rather than the many. Sparta was in fact ruled by thirty leaders, i.e., 28 "ephors" (lords?) and two "co-kings."

We're not going to look at all the reasons that the war between these two cities/states started ­ Thucydides does that for us ­ but you can at least see that the differences between Athens and Sparta were deep and fundamental ones.

When the war began in 431 BC there was little doubt that Athens would pretty readily overcome Sparta and win the war. But then in the second year of the war an enormous plague struck Athens. It lasted months (Thucydides' description of the plague is quite gory and gripping) and it ended by killing almost half of the Athenian population. Athens was thus devastated and her strength did not ever fully recover from the effects of this plague. The war lasted for 25 more years, but in the end Athens lost the war to Sparta.

Sparta did not come to Athens and take over her government, but rather, as a result of winning, was simply freed from all further requirements to pay tribute to Athens and was free from any more Athenian power or influence.

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The Thirty Tyrants

But something worse happened to Athens. A small group of dissident Athenian citizens who had opposed the war, and who in fact opposed the whole idea of Athenian democracy, got together a small army and literally overthrew the weakened Athenian government. The coup was a very bloody one: 1500 Athenian "democrats" were killed and 5000 were exiled. That is, virtually everyone who was a believer in Athenian democracy was either killed or exiled.

In its place, these Athenian traitors established their own form of government, which they called "The Thirty" (modeled after Sparta), and which history usually refers to as the thirty tyrants. Their reign was a very bloody one, but it fortunately lasted only ten months before the believers in democracy were able to get a force together and re-take the city.

All this happened in 404 BC, right after the end of the Peloponnesian War, and just five years before Socrates' trial in 399.

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What's the point?

Why am I telling you all this?

Because of two very interesting facts, facts that everyone in Athens was entirely familiar with.

1. One of the key leaders of The Thirty was Critias, one of the young men known to be a follower of Socrates. Where might Critias have picked up all his anti-democracy feelings and beliefs? Many Athenians surmised that he got those ideas from Socrates.

Was Socrates, after all, a believer in democracy, would you suppose? You've not read The Republic yet, but you have seen the story of The Cave. In that story, does Plato (also a follower of Socrates) seem to characterize "the many" as having the kind of wisdom necessary for governing themselves well? Clearly not. They are all stuck in the cave of ignorance.

In fact, there is much evidence in Plato's Dialogues that Socrates was perhaps more a supporter of Spartan values and ways of thinking and doing than of Athenian ways. Did Socrates in effect undermine the Athenian democracy by his effect on young Critias? Many Athenians believed that Socrates had "corrupted the youth" and the youths' belief in all that Athenian democracy stood for, and that he had done so by his particular style of talking, maniipulating conversations, asking questions, and so on.

2. A second interesting fact is that during the reign of the thirty tyrants Socrates was neither killed nor exiled. The Thirty let him stay in the city. While so many Athenians and their families had suffered tragic death, suffering and exile for their belief in Athenian democracy, Socrates himself had gotten off completely free. (Despite the fact, many of them believed, that he was the ultimate cause of The Thirty coming into power in the first place.)

Socrates, in other words, is held in deep suspicion by many Athenians for his perceived role in the overthrow of Athenian democracy.

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The Charges

So if the Athenians in 399 wanted to get rid of Socrates, why didn't they just charge him with treason, with supporting The Thirty, and with subverting the Athenian democracy?

Answer: Because they couldn't. In 403 BC, soon after Athens overthrew the thirty tyrants and regained the city, she decided to grant amnesty for all crimes or perceived crimes that had been committed prior to 403. They were concerned that resentments, recriminations and lawsuits could go on for years or decades as a result of all that political turmoil, so they believed the wisest course was to simply declare amnesty for anything that happened prior to 403.

Because of this amnesty they could not charge Socrates with anything he had done in relation to the thirty tyrants.

But the prosecutors were concerned nonetheless that Socrates was still doing exactly the same things that he had been doing before Athens was overthrown, viz., still going about the city questioning, examining and teaching. (Question: Is Socrates teaching?)

Many Athenians believe that, since the democracy has been so recently damaged, and since it has gotten back on its feet only in the last 4-5 years, that it is still very weak and not yet again solidly grounded in a long history, and that Socrates may still be exerting the exact same influences that ruined Athens in the first place.
They are anxious to protect their city from the kind of trauma that it experienced before, and one part of that will be to get Socrates to stop what he has been doing.

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How to get Socrates to stop

If the prosecutors saw it as essential to the continued existence of Athenian democracy that Socrates at least temporarily stop what he was doing, how could they go about getting him to stop?

Could they send a delegation to Socrates, explain the matter to him, and then ask him to please stop what he's doing for a while until Athens gets more solidly grounded? If they did this, Socrates would doubtless have engaged the delegation in dialog about some subject or other, which would eventually lead to their embarrassment and frustration, and the delegation would thus be unsuccessful.

Could they perhaps urge Socrates to leave Athens for a time? There was little doubt that Socrates would almost certainly not agree to leave Athens.

Instead the prosecutors hit on a plan that they believed would work well.

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The plot

The plan that was designed to get Socrates to stop his behavior was a fairly simple one. It involved four steps.

First it would be necessary to charge Socrates with some offense and bring him before the court. They thus charged him with impiety, corrupting the youth (a la Critias and other leaders of The Thirty), not believing in the state gods, and so on.

The second step would be to find him guilty of these charges so that a punishment could be assigned. They were confident that an Athenian jury would find him guilty.

The third step would be to propose the death penalty as the proper punishment for those crimes of which he had been found guilty. No one had any intention of ever putting Socrates to death, but this step was necessary because of the way the Athenian court determined punishments. Here's how it worked: If a person was found guilty of a crime, first the prosecutor proposed a punishment and then the guilty person proposed another punishment. Then the jury would choose between those two proposed punishments. The jury was not allowed to suggest a third punishment but instead had to select either the punishment proposed by the prosecutors or the one proposed by the person who had just been found guilty. The plot here was that the prosecutors would propose the death penalty in hopes that Socrates would then choose another penalty.

In the fourth step, Socrates would propose some punishment other than the death sentence, perhaps simple exile or perhaps simply stopping his Socratic practices. The idea was that the jury would select that punishment (since no one intended that he be killed), and either way, with either exile or silence, they would then be through with him.

So that was the plot. But as you know from your reading so far, it did not end up going quite that way. Socrates did not propose exile or silence as the alternative punishment. In fact, when asked what he thought he deserved for his behavior, he answered that since he was doing good things for Athens he should be rewarded for his services, should be paid a salary, and should have all his expenses paid by the state. But if they still insisted on a punishment, he said, perhaps a small fine would be sufficient ­ something that might amount to twenty dollars or so today. Furthermore, he himself didn't actually have that much money, he said, but he was sure that one of his friends would put up the money for him.

But in any case, that's what the original plan was.

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The rest of the story

So that's the Athenians' side of the story. They have lived through the downfall of Athens and the devastation of the thirty tyrants. Their sons and fathers and brothers have been slaughtered, their mothers, sisters and daughters raped, and whole families have been destroyed by the thirty tyrants and their followers. While the thirty were clearly proximally responsible for the devastation, the original cause (many Athenians believed) was the person who was the source of those traitorous ideas.

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The question for you: guilty or not?

So the question for you to consider now is whether you would, if you were a good Athenian citizen voting on these charges, vote to find Socrates guilty or not guilty. Those who would vote to find him guilty were voting to preserve the Athenian democracy and to stop the influences that destroyed it. Those who would vote to acquit would be accepting Socrates' own courtroom account of what he had been doing in his conversations.

Now you must decide which way you would likely have voted if you had been in the Athenian courtroom on that day.

(The details of this history are taken from a variety of sources,
Including a book by I F Stone's The Trial of Socrates ,
Little, Brown, 1988)