It’s been said that there is no present and future, just the past happening over and over again. If that’s true, the trial of Socrates certainly qualifies on a number of historical and social platforms. Offending the powers that be, being tried in the court of public opinion, and irrationality born of a society under the threat of war are all here. In response, as it always has, this scenario calls for an individual ready to meet his accusers with a courageous act of civil disobedience. But the initiation of Socrates’ persecution comes primarily out of a political system more analogous to a democracy envisioned by a medieval king or even Hitler than to the democracy we think of today.
At the time, according to Westchester Community College law professor Russell Ippolito, who recently delivered a lecture on the trial of Socrates at the Somers Library, all male citizens had full participatory rights in this functioning democracy. In contrast, it took until 1820 before males without property could vote in America, and the fact that full civil rights legislation didn’t arrive until 150 years later really puts Athenian progressiveness into its proper perspective.
Nonetheless, standing apart from this enlightened outlook was Socrates. Like many Americans who often consider the votes for the other side to be without merit or insight, Socrates felt that the population was not up to the task of voting; it was not majority opinion that should rule, but rather that of a select enlightened few who have the intellectual capacity to make rational and wise decisions. A philosopher should be king since the wisdom required for the post did not exist within the masses, said Ippolito of Socrates’ teachings.
Such beliefs had to put Socrates in a very vulnerable position — especially in the particular type of jury trail that was practiced at the time. Individual accusers brought indictment, but losing came at a financial and political cost to those accusers. Selected by lot, juries consisted of up to 1,000 citizens, and decisions could literally become popularity contests.
Socrates would be at the mercy of the very population he was on trial for condemning.
Additionally, since several satirical plays had been written about Socrates in his own lifetime, there was already a negative popular impression of him that wasn’t necessarily accurate. “How can I cross examine a shadow,” is the supposed response of Socrates, according to Ippolito, who also practices law in Westchester County.
Socrates also didn’t endear himself to many by embarking on a quest inspired by the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle told him, “no man was wiser than Socrates.” While reluctant to sign onto such doctrine, he could not deny the truth of the gods. Looking for further interpretation, he considered whether this meant that all men were equal to him in wisdom, or that no man was wise at all.
Taking on this mission, Socrates spoke to the poets and learned that their understanding of their great plays was inferior to that of their audiences. He deduced from this that poets were not very wise. He then sought out the artisans. He conceded the expertise of their craft, but saw that they lacked the wisdom to realize that, outside of their skill, they were as lacking in wisdom as he. He found a similar scenario with politicians. He concluded that his unique understanding of his own lack of wisdom was enough to determine that he had wisdom above them all.
Whether he was being modest or returning some satire of his own, this kind of banter had to have put a label of arrogance on the philosopher-teacher, and brought further accusations that he disrespected the gods. And no matter the form of government, intellectual arrogance like this never sits well — especially when he also corrupts the youth. The annoyance of creating rebellious youth aside, when the traitorous actions of two of Socrates’ students brought military defeat at the hands of Sparta, Socrates was guilty by association. With 27 years of Peloponnesian War in their midst, the powers that be had had enough of putting up with the musing of their philosopher-king.
In the end, his entire defense pointed to a calculated maneuver in civil disobedience. “He had a recipe for death,” said Ippolito.
This would become even more evident in the sentencing phase. After having been found guilty by a count of 281-220, a death sentence was then passed by a margin of 360-141, a decision that was largely the doing of Socrates himself.
In Athens, the prosecution and defense both offer a sentence; in response to the prosecution’s offer of death, Socrates proposed that he receive a lifetime upkeep like that of the Olympians. With this final arrogant comment, he sealed his own fate.
Principle prevented him from compromising upon his fundamental belief that the individual must not exist in service to the state, but rather to the betterment of the soul. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said famously. Had he backed down, concluded Ippolito, he would have been lost to history.