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Was Socrates’ Trial and Subsequent Death Penalty Legally Just?

The Death of Socrates
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787). Greek philosopher Socrates, after being condemned to death for impiety in 399 BC, was given a potent infusion of the hemlock plant. Credit: Public domain. 

Over the centuries, many historians have presented the trial of the Greek philosopher Socrates as a parody of that time, claiming that the Athenian philosopher was forced to face charges invented by his fellow citizens because of ignorance.

In the 399 BC trial, Socrates was found of two charges: asebeia (impiety) against the pantheon of Athens and corruption of the youth of the city-state; the accusers cited two impious acts by Socrates: “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities.”

The death sentence of Socrates was the legal consequence of asking politico-philosophic questions of his students, resulting in the accusations of both moral corruption and impiety.

At trial, the majority of the male-citizen jurors, who were chosen by lot, voted to convict him of the two charges; then, consistent with common legal practice, they determined that his punishment would be a sentence of death and that Socrates would be executed by the drinking of a poisonous hemlock beverage.

Historians have traditionally claimed that Socrates created many enemies by openly criticizing prominent politicians. The trial provided them with an opportunity to rid Athens of the philosopher, who was the unfortunate scapegoat of a series of disasters, including a plague and a military defeat, that befell the city.

Socrates: “the wisest and most just of all men”

The trial and death of Socrates inspired the writers, artists, and philosophers to revisit the matter. For some, the execution of the man whom Plato called “the wisest and most just of all men” demonstrated the defects of democracy and popular rule; for others the Athenian actions were a justifiable defense of the recently re-established democracy.

In The New Trial of Socrates in 2012, an international panel of ten judges held a mock re-trial of Socrates to resolve the matter of the charges levelled against him.

Five judges voted ‘guilty’ while five judges voted ‘innocent.’ Limiting themselves to the facts of the case against Socrates, the judges did not determine a sentence, but those judges who deemed the Greek philosopher guilty of charges admitted that they would not have considered the death penalty a just form of punishment for him.

A more recent study by Cambridge Professor Paul Cartledge argues that the trial was legally just and Socrates was indeed guilty as charged.

“Everyone knows that the Greeks invented democracy, but it was not the republic as we know it today. As a result, History has been misinterpreted,” the professor says.

“The accusations Socrates faced may seem ridiculous to us, but in Ancient Athens they seemed to serve the common good,” he adds.

Professor Cartledge argues that some people interpreted those events as a sign of displeasure of the gods. They claimed that Socrates had offended the gods because the philosopher questioned the authority of several deities.

Cartledge believes that the charges of impiety against Socrates were not only fair given the beliefs of the time but also attributed to the common good.

The study concludes that Socrates essentially brought on his own death. According to the Athenian legal system, the defendant could make recommendations for his sentence.

Initially, Socrates maintained that he should have been rewarded. However, later on, he ironically insisted that he was not capable of proposing an appropriate form of punishment since he was convinced that he had not intentionally wronged anybody. According to his own reasoning, since he was incapable of intentionally wronging anyone, he could hardly intentionally wrong himself by proposing an unjust penalty. Eventually, Socrates suggested a small fine, but the jury voted in favor of the death penalty instead.

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