Socrates, Bad Guy

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The Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David.
(From Wikimedia Commons)

Another post from the History Book Club.

I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates

I first read I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates many years ago. Recently I viewed Prof. Donald Kagan’s excellent iTunes course Ancient Greek History, so I thought I’d take another look.

Like most people, I first encounted Socrates in high-school in Plato’s Apology. Socrates steps forth onto the stage of history as a secular martyred saint. Athens, birthplace of democracy, put Socrates to death for exercising free speech. I didn’t notice the contradiction at the time.

I.F. Stone, crusading journalist, did notice. In 1971 health issues forced him to give up I. F. Stone’s Weekly. Determined to understand the roots of this black mark on Athens, he embarked on a full-time study of ancient Greek history, politics, and philosophy, learning ancient Greek for the purpose. And he resolved the contradiction. In a nutshell, Socrates had it coming.

OK, Stone is not that crude. Ultimately he does not excuse the verdict. But he does try to resurrect the prosecution’s side of the case. Socrates emerges as very unappealing figure, a hanger-on of aristocrats, foe to democracy and free speech, friend to bloody tyrants. I found Stone’s reconstruction surprisingly convincing, with one main caveat.

Let me begin with the (well-known) caveat: as Stone himself puts it, the sources are “scanty and one-sided”. Besides Plato, we have some works by Xenophon (including an Apology), a couple of passages in Aristophanes’ plays, and a few scattered references in the classical literature, often from centuries later. Stone skillfully deploys this material; like a good investigative journalist, he keeps digging for overlooked clues, and even comes up with a “scoop” or two of sorts. The internal consistency of Stone’s case, and its general accord with the picture of ancient Greece I gained from Kagan’s course, put my doubts into a light doze, if not fully to rest. In one sense, does it matter? Plato’s Socrates is Socrates, from the perspective of 2500 years of western civilization.

Stone documents Socrates’ hatred of democracy without difficulty and repeatedly. To quote Stone: “The various followers of Socrates disagreed … as to just what Socrates had taught them … But on one matter they agreed: They all rejected the polis. They all saw the human community not as a self-governing body of citizens with equal rights but as a herd that required a shepard or a king. They all treated democracy with condescension or contempt.”

Xenophon’s Apology gives one of the accusations against Socrates: he taught his pupils to be tyrannical and unprincipled by quoting the worst passages from celebrated poets. Xenophon omits the two most damaging poets, but Stone makes hay with the most famous of them all, Homer. In one passage, Homer says: “It is not good for the many to rule // Let one man rule // one man be king.” Xenophon quotes right before and right after, but skips the crucial lines.

In another well-known scene, Thersites speaks up against Agamemnon: “The only assembly in all of Homer where a common soldier spoke up in the debate.” Odysseus beat him until he bled and threatened to kill him if he ever spoke again. Homer, poet to kings, approved of this treatment. Did Socrates? Xenophon, clever defense lawyer, omits this passage, but does say (according to Socrates) that insolent ones ought to be stopped from speaking. The name “Thersites” stems from the same Greek root as the word Xenophon uses for “insolent”.

This may seem terribly indirect. Stone however has no problem finding numerous passages in Plato where Socrates mocks the common man and the middle class. On a larger scale, he re-examines the famous antagonism between Socrates and the Sophists. Stone notes that before Xenophon and Plato, “the term sophistes had been complimentary”. With the coming of democracy and a burgeoning middle class, a market arose for teachers. Without skill in rhetoric, one was at a critical disadvantage in both the law courts and the debates in the assembly. (Athenian courts had no lawyers or judges in our sense.)

The upper class, of course, always had their teachers, but they did not charge fees: “the landed estates were not run on a money economy”. The new class of Sophists offered instruction for fees. For this, Socrates treats them with withering disdain. As Stone sardonically notes, “Generations of classical teachers have echoed this uncritically, though few of them could afford to teach without pay either.” The true root of the antagonism lies in the reluctance of the aristocracy to yield one scrap of political power to the lower and middle classes.

This reluctance displayed itself most dramatically in what Stone calls “The Three Earthquakes”: in 411 and again in 404 BC, reactionary conspirators, with the aid of Sparta, overthrew the Athenian democracy and instituted a reign of terror. They tried again in 401. Socrates’ trial took place in 399.

Let us look more closely at the events of 404, a period known as the regime of the Thirty Tyrants, right after Athen’s defeat in the Peleponnesian War. The Thirty summarily executed 1500 of Athen’s most prominent democrats, banished 5000 women and children, and executed resident aliens just to confiscate their property. And the leader of the Thirty was Critias, a former pupil of Socrates, and a cousin of Plato.

Critias and Charmenides (another former pupil and a member of the Thirty) “appear in the Platonic dialogues surrounded by a kind of golden haze.” Stone again has no problem documenting Plato’s pro-Spartan, anti-Athenian sympathies. After eight months, during which Socrates lived quietly in the city under the bloody tyranny, suspending his “gadfly” role, the Thirty were finally overthown. In an act of magnanimity, without sequel until modern South Africa, the newly restored democracy declared a general amnesty in 403 for all actions before or during the regime of the Thirty (except for the Thirty themselves).

Socrates could not be prosecuted for what he did or didn’t do during the regime of the Thirty. But he went right on attacking democracy and free speech for the common man. His behavior had acquired a far more sinister complexion in the wake of these right-wing coups.

This, says Stone, explains the prosecution of Socrates, and answers the question, “Why then?” Stone finds an orator, 54 years after the trial, telling a jury: “Men of Athens, you executed Socrates, the sophist, because he was clearly responsible for the education of Critias, one of the Thirty.”

It remains to dispose briefly with the trial itself. Socrates self-defense was arrogant and contemptuous, his disdain for the jury softened by Plato’s unctuous prose, showing through more clearly in Xenophon’s version. Even so the vote for conviction was close. By Athenian law, the convicted defendant proposed an alternate penalty. Socrates first proposed free meals for life in the Prytaneum, an honor normally accorded only to war heroes and the like. Next he suggested an insultingly low fine. Finally he grudging suggested a larger fine, but the damage was done. The vote for death passed by a larger margin than the vote for conviction.

Stone cannot finally say that Socrates got what he deserved; his belief in free speech trumps his dislike of his subject, who had no such love of free speech. He concludes:

“Socrates needed the hemlock, as Jesus needed the Crucifixion, to fulfill a mission. The mission left a stain forever on democracy. That remains Athens’ tragic crime.”

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1 Comment

Filed under History Book Club, Reviews

One response to “Socrates, Bad Guy

  1. Fascinating summary! I’d been meaning to read this book someday. Socrates comes off looking so good in Plato’s dialogues that it’s hard for someone raised on those to accept him as a flawed human being… but he probably was.

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