The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Courtesy Wikimedia


What kind of citizen was he?

Conventional wisdom sees Socrates as a martyr for free speech, but he accepted his death sentence for a different cause

by Josiah Ober + BIO

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Courtesy Wikimedia

Some 2,400 years ago, in 399 BCE, Athens put Socrates on trial. The charge was impiety, and the trial took place in the People’s Court. Socrates, already 70 years old, had long been a prominent philosopher and a notorious public intellectual. Meletus, the prosecutor, alleged that Socrates had broken Athenian law by failing to observe the state gods, by introducing new gods, and by corrupting the youth.

Meletus, as prosecutor, and Socrates, as defendant, delivered timed speeches before a jury of 501 of their fellow citizens. Meletus’ prosecution speech is lost. Two versions of Socrates’ defence speech, one recorded by Plato and the other by a clever polymath named Xenophon, are preserved. A majority of jurors (about 280) voted Socrates guilty, and he was executed by hemlock poisoning.

There is no dispute about the basic facts of the trial of Socrates. It is less obvious why Athenians found Socrates guilty, and what it might mean today. People who believe in both democracy and the rule of law ought to be very interested in this trial. If the takeaway is either that democracy, as direct self-government by the people, is fatally prone to repress dissent, or that those who dissent against democracy must be regarded as oligarchic traitors, then we are left with a grim choice between democracy and intellectual freedom.

But that is the wrong way to view Socrates’ trial. Rather, the question it answers concerns civic obligation and commitment. The People’s Court convicted Socrates because he refused to accept that a norm of personal responsibility for the effects of public speech applied to his philosophical project. Socrates accepted the guilty verdict as binding, and drank the hemlock, because he acknowledged the authority of the court and the laws under which he was tried. And he did so even though he believed that the jury had made a fundamental mistake in interpreting the law.

The conventional wisdom maintains that the impiety charge against Socrates was a smokescreen, that politics motivated his trial. Just four years earlier, a democratic uprising had overthrown a junta that ruled Athens for several tumultuous months. Meletus’ prosecution speech at the trial likely urged the citizens of Athens to focus on Socrates’ long association with members of this vicious and anti-democratic junta.

In his influential interpretation The Trial of Socrates (1988), the US journalist-turned-classicist I F Stone saw this trial as an embattled democracy defending itself. In Stone’s view, Socrates had helped to justify the junta’s savage programme of oligarchic misrule and was a traitor. More commonly, Socrates is seen as a victim of an opportunistic prosecutor and a wilfully ignorant citizenry. In truth, politics is indispensable to understanding the trial of Socrates, but in a slightly more sophisticated way. Seeing Socrates as the paradigm of the autonomous individual, as a simple martyr to free speech, is wrong. Athenian political culture and, specifically, the civic commitments required of Athenian citizens are essential to understanding the trial. Socrates’ own commitments to his city influenced the trial’s course, and those commitments were core parts of Athenian political culture, shaping the relationship between public speech and responsibility. Indeed, the actions of Socrates, Meletus and the jury must be understood in the context of the Athenians’ emphasis on the role of the responsible citizen in the democratic state, on their ideal of civic responsibility. Thus it is a story, in many ways, of civic engagement, in some respects far removed from the politics of recognition that characterise contemporary US debates.

In his retelling of the trial, the late Roman-era writer Maximus of Tyre claimed that Socrates refused to respond to Meletus’ charges, maintaining a dignified silence throughout. Indeed, dissidents who seek to deny the validity of a given political system have periodically adopted a principled refusal to participate in a court proceeding or legal system. But, Socrates did acknowledge the authority of the court. He actively participated in his own defence – though it was, in many ways, an idiosyncratic one.

Having thus accepted the Laws’ fruits, on what grounds could Socrates now turn around and deny their legitimacy?

The point is that Socrates did not dispute the legitimacy of the trial, he did not take a stand outside a corrupt political system; rather, he participated as a citizen. As a citizen, his civic obligation required him to answer charges that he had acted in ways that harmed that community. Plato’s version of the defence speech makes clear that Socrates sought to vindicate himself, to show that he had not harmed the community. Indeed, Socrates represented himself as a civic benefactor, who ought to be rewarded. His record of contributions to the civic life of Athens, he believed, merited the honour of free meals at the state hearth.

Plato’s many dialogues establish the commitments of Socrates the citizen, and paint a vivid portrait of Athenian political culture. In the dialogue Crito, Socrates explains that despite his conviction, it was not ethically permissible for him to escape from the prison. In Crito, Plato gives readers a ‘dialogue within a dialogue’, in which the personified Laws of Athens speak to another, counterfactual Socrates. This counterfactual Socrates intends to avoid punishment by escaping from prison and fleeing to some distant land.

The Laws of Athens in Plato’s dialogue are not only the formal, written rules of the Athenian state, but also its civic norms. They ask the counterfactually disobedient Socrates what he found lacking in them, and when he had discovered that lack. The Laws point out to Socrates that it was through them (the laws concerning marriage) that he came into the world. The Laws point out that, through the norms concerning parents’ responsibility for their children, they nurtured him. Finally, through them he received his education. Socrates acknowledges all of this. He willingly accepted those goods, and he acknowledged them as good. Having thus accepted the Laws’ fruits, on what grounds could Socrates now turn around and deny their legitimacy?

The Laws of Athens further point out that Socrates could have left Athens for some other place within the wide Greek world. He would have been free to go. But since he had chosen to stay, he had, the Laws point out, again recognised their rightness. The trial itself, the Laws reminded Socrates, had been conducted in a procedurally correct manner – according to the very rules that Socrates had affirmed by this continued presence.

The Laws concede that the jurors might have erred in their verdict – Socrates’ argument for his innocence might have been better than Meletus’ for his guilt. But that was a human error. It was not the fault of the Laws. The possibility of error on the part of the citizen-jurors who would be his judges was part of the package deal that Socrates had taken up in the course of his upbringing and education, and that he had affirmed by his continued presence in the civic community of Athens. He should know that the Athenian citizens, when gathered as legislators or as judges, were fallible mortals. They could not always get it right.

Indeed, Socrates knew well that assembled citizens could get things very wrong. Seven years before the trial, he had spent a year as an appointed member of the 500-member citizen Council that set the agenda and led the meetings of the legislative citizen assembly. Socrates sat on the Council when it fielded a historic proposal. The proposal was to try a group of Athenian generals en masse, for having criminally failed in their duty towards crews of Athenian warships sunk in a sea battle. Socrates regarded the motion to condemn the generals as a group, rather than remanding them for individual trials, as procedurally improper. He thought it violated norms offering every accused Athenian his own day in court. Socrates opposed bringing the proposal to a vote, but the other members of the committee overruled him. He thought that the group trial was a fundamental mistake, but he had made his point:­­ the Laws remained authoritative when citizens responsible for carrying them out erred, or even chose to ignore them.

Throughout his trial, Socrates recognised his civic obligations. When he defended himself in court against Meletus’ charges, rather than staying silent, Socrates was acknowledging the right of the court to judge him. When he remained in prison and drank the hemlock, rather than collaborating in Crito’s escape plan, he conducted himself as a law-abiding citizen of the state of Athens. Socrates was, of course, much more than just a citizen of Athens. He spent much of his adult life pursuing what he saw as a divine mission to discover the truth about matters of fundamental and universal importance: justice, courage, wisdom, moderation, love and knowledge. He dedicated his life and considerable talents to investigating, overall, one question: what makes for a good life? He sought to show anyone willing to converse with him why it was right to choose the well-examined life over a life seeking the empty, commonly valued ‘goods’ of fame, wealth and power.

For what people today call ‘the wisdom of crowds’, Socrates had nothing but scorn. Athenian democrats who argued that the many, the group, were collectively more likely to get important matters right than any individual expert earned his antipathy. Whether or not anyone actually was expert in the art of politics, Socrates certainly supposed that there could be such an expert, and that the Athenians were deluded in thinking themselves collectively wise.

Socrates’ analogy sees him as a gadfly while the people of Athens are a beautiful, lazy horse that might be jolted awake by the gadfly’s sting

How did Socrates both scorn the idea of collective wisdom and yet maintain obedience to Athens’ laws, even when he disagreed with how they were interpreted? The rudimentary answer lay in the foundation that Athens (as opposed to, for example, Sparta) provided in its laws and political culture. Athens mandated liberty of public speech and tolerance for a wide range of private behaviour. Moreover, Athenian laws on morally fraught matters, including piety, tended to be more procedure than substance. Thus, the law forbidding impiety did not define piety. It left it open to the jury to decide whether a given action or course of behaviour fell outside the bounds of the community’s standard. It rather provided a specific process for the community to make that decision. This substantive ambiguity benefitted Socrates as it allowed him to pursue his distinctive way of life without violating the letter of the law.

Socrates knew that urging others to abandon ordinary pursuits in favour of philosophy made him unpopular. According to Plato, in his defence speech, Socrates likens his dialogical testing of the opinions of others to the agonising sting of a gadfly: the value of the sting is that it shocks its victim out of the slumberous condition of quotidian existence into a moment of moral clarity. In the best individual case, on Socrates’ terms, that moment initiated a lifetime’s pursuit of genuine human goods. But, as Socrates’ extended gadfly metaphor shows, individual conversion to philosophy was not all that he hoped for. Socrates pairs his analogy of himself as a gadfly to one in which the people of Athens are a beautiful, lazy horse that might be jolted awake by the gadfly’s sting. By his defence speech, as well as by explicit statements from other sources, including other of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates reveals that he understood his life of philosophy as political as well as moral. He aimed at nothing less than converting Athens as a civic community into a just society.

Socrates probably recognised that full-scale civic conversion was an improbable goal. He thought that pursuing the most direct form of political engagement ­– proposing specific legislation or advocating a general direction for public policy in the citizen assembly ­– was impossible for him. Nevertheless, he understood his commitment to philosophy as a mission of civic betterment. Athenian political culture expected that a good citizen would exercise any special talents or resources for the good of the community, not merely for himself or his friends and family. Poets would compose publicly performed tragedies or comedies. Skilled singers and dancers would perform in state-sponsored choruses. The courageous would fight on the front lines. The rich would contribute generously to public works. In the words of Pericles (in the Funeral Oration attributed to him in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War): ‘We regard the citizen who takes no part in these public duties not as unambitious but as useless.’ Contributing to public life was part, maybe the highest part, of what it meant to fully be a man.

Socrates was not rich, nor was he a fine singer or dancer. His talent lay in his recognition and devotion to the value of the examined life. He pursued moral dialogue ­– in the public space of the city square, where he could regularly be found hanging out by the money-changers’ tables. This act constituted the fulfilling of his civic duty. One moral conversation at a time, he put his unique excellence in the service of his community.

Those stung by a gadfly do not usually respond in gratitude. Most might feel instead a murderous impulse to end the accursed creature’s existence. For decades before his trial, Socrates had carried out his stinging duties on a daily basis. He did this, invariably, within the city of Athens, save for when abroad on military duty. Despite the provocation of Socrates’ constant demands that they abandon the pleasures of ordinary life in favour of philosophy, and despite his scorn for democratic ideology, it was not until the trial of 399 BCE that Athenians finally slapped him down. The obvious question is, what had changed? After decades, what happened to provoke Socrates’ prosecution, conviction and execution?

The Athenian conception of free speech had not changed. Athenians’ commitment to the principle of free speech, including that every citizen had an equal right to speak his mind, remained resolute. But Athenians also conceived of speech as a form of action, with the potential for profound consequences. Citizens had a responsibility for the public consequences of their public actions. An Athenian who spoke in public, in the Council, in the assembly, or even in the public square could expect to be held accountable for the consequences of his speech. If, for example, he advocated a policy and it brought good, he could expect praise and honours. If the results of his policy proved harmful to the community’s welfare, he might be blamed and punished accordingly.

Socrates’ public speech was of a different order: he did not advocate specific policies and he spoke in the streets, not in the assembly. But it was civic speech, in the sense that it was carried out in public. It addressed matters of public importance, and aimed to change society. Initially, the effects of Socrates’ philosophising were not obvious. But following the fall of the anti-democratic junta, led by associates of Socrates, the Athenians thought they had a pretty good sense of the consequences of his speech. Still, they did not slap him: an amnesty agreement in 403 BCE, in the wake of the democratic restoration, forbade legal prosecution for actions taken by private citizens during the short junta era. This agreement, it seemed, covered Socrates’ prior speech, however damaging.

But another thing that had not changed by 399 BCE was Socrates’ conception of his duty: he kept on with his project of public stinging through public conversations. Ongoing actions that endangered the newly restored democracy were not covered by the amnesty. According to the Athenian view of civic responsibility, Socrates must accept the consequences of his public speech. Given that his lofty talk of philosophy and denigration of democratic wisdom had, it seemed, contributed to a tyrannical government, he ought, as a good citizen, to desist. Socrates had a different understanding of his obligations. He remained convinced that calling upon people to better know themselves could result only in good. The wicked actions of his former associates must have had other causes, ones independent of his mission of philosophising about the examined life.

Socrates did not deliver an ordinary defence speech. Rather than appeal to the jurors’ sympathies, he challenged them

By 399 BCE, however, four years after the end of the tyranny, and with Socrates doing the same things in public that had seemingly inspired the junta’s leaders, the Athenians regarded his speech very differently. In the eyes of the majority of his fellow citizens, Socrates was no longer an eccentric with potential for contributing to public life. He was now either a malevolent public enemy, or deluded and dangerously unable to recognise that his speech predictably produced seriously bad outcomes. And so the way was left open for Meletus to launch his prosecution.

The trial of Socrates was not a show trial. The jury’s vote was close, and Plato’s version of his speech gives reason to suspect that, if Socrates had delivered a different, more ordinary defence speech, playing to the jurors’ sympathies, he could have changed enough votes to win his case. But, both Plato’s and Xenophon’s reports make it clear that Socrates did not deliver an ordinary defence speech. Rather than appeal to the jurors’ sympathies, he challenged them. With unsettling metaphors and logical demonstrations, he made it clear that he opposed democracy and would never abandon his mission of public philosophising. Xenophon implies that Socrates chose that sort of speech as a method of jury-assisted suicide: he was, according to Xenophon, tired of life and allowed the Athenians to end it for him. But Plato’s version is, I think much more convincing.

Plato thought that Socrates remained, to the end, motivated by his deep sense of civic commitment. He couldn’t keep silent, nor could he offer a pandering defence that would undercut the value of a life spent helping others see their own good, by radically changing their priorities. In this view, Socrates remained obligated to public life to the very end. His defence speech was a final, very public, attempt to awaken his fellow Athenians. Socrates’ ‘defence’ was a last, best sting. Along with his refusal to break the law by fleeing his mandated punishment, it was also a final act of civic duty. We can unpack that duty as courage, respect and engagement.

Socrates’ defence speech was an act of profound civic courage, the same sort of courage that led Athenian soldiers to die in defence of their country. It was an act of civic respect that recognised the jurors as adults who might benefit from a logical argument. And, for all its seeming intellectual arrogance, it was an act of civic solidarity – an assertion that Socrates the philosopher was also Socrates the Athenian citizen who owed an account of his actions to his fellow citizens. Far from a simple drama pitting democracy against intellectual freedom, the trial of Socrates is a deep drama of civic engagement, tragic in its outcome, but at the same time revealing that democracy makes space for acts of profound heroism.

Today, in the 21st century, free speech is deeply entangled with issues of personal and group identity. In our moment, there is real value in reflecting on the centrality of civic duty in the trial of Socrates, a foundational moment in the history of free thought and democratic action. What will we have lost when the idea of civic duty, as exemplified by the relationship between Socrates and his democratic city, no longer gains purchase on our own thought and actions?