What Happened During the Trial of Socrates?

Despite having never written anything, Socrates remains the most iconic philosopher to have ever lived. How did the trial of Socrates end?

Oct 20, 2022By Alexander Standjofski, BA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian Ideology
famous trial of socrates
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, c. 1787, via Metropolitan Museum of Art


Socrates single-handedly initiated the very foundation of Western Philosophy. While he massively influenced arguably every philosophical thinker since his lifetime, his direct mentorship was over a young Plato. Plato, in turn, molded the mind of a young Aristotle when he attended The Academy in Athens. The profound effect Socrates had directly on philosophical conduct is therefore amplified via his influence on arguably the two other most famous ancient western philosophical thinkers in history. In this article, we will see what led to Socrates’ trial and, ultimately, to his demise.


Early Life: What Led to the Trial of Socrates?

Socrates with a Disciple and Diotima, by Franc Kavčič, c. 1810, via the National Gallery of Slovenia


Not much is known about Socrates’ early life. The only historical accounts of his life come via two of his pupils: most notably the philosopher Plato, and the historian Xenophon. What is known about Socrates is that he was an Athenian citizen, fought in service of the city in the Peloponnesian War, and was educated in the city as well.


Socrates was famously an unattractive man – known for his crooked and upturned nose, as can be noted in his busts, and large protruding gut. He practiced moderation in everything that he did, from food to sex. By historical accounts, written posthumously, Socrates held no regard to physical and material pleasures and affairs: he did not often bathe himself, and was indifferent to his physical appearance. He roamed the streets of Athens barefoot wearing solely a robe.


Politically Socrates remained a moderate as well and took no sides between the Athenian Democrats and the Athenian Oligarchs – the two rival political parties in his era. By the number of posthumous accounts of his life and his death, it can be argued that Socrates was well known among the Athenian population and well liked.


The Socratic Mind

Bust of Socrates, a copy of a bronze statue by Lysippos, c. 4th century BCE – 1st century CE, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Having never grasped or conceptualized philosophy as well as Plato, Xenophon’s account of his mentor was purely biographical. The philosophical character of Socrates – the one that influenced all Western Philosophy – is a product of Plato himself.


Plato implemented Socrates as his protagonist in all his work. In his famous dialogues, Plato constructs Socrates as an entity who directs lines of questioning at various other prominent characters of ancient Athenian society, each representing a different demographic or faction in the city.


It is impossible to know whether Plato distorted the philosophical works of his mentor. In his later works, Plato has been criticized for using the name of his protagonist/mentor as a mouthpiece to project his own ideas into the philosophical playing field. Herein lies the danger of Plato’s works; it is easy to forget that all arguments (and each counter argument presented by each interlocutor) are Plato’s constructions.


Socrates himself authored no texts and remains a mystifying character for that reason, much like Jesus Christ. Another parallel to be drawn between the two figures is the polarizing and controversial effect each had on society, and their ultimate execution at the hands of the state.


The Socratic Method

The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia, by Nicolas-André Monsiau, c. 1800, via Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts


In Plato’s earlier works (the ones where Socrates, according to scholars, seems more Socrates-like) the main tenet of his philosophy is the concept of ignorance. One of the most famous lines attributed to Socrates is the paradoxical claim: “I know only one thing: that I know nothing”.


Though confusing, this is exactly the approach that Plato portrays Socrates taking. In what has come to be known as Socratic Questioning, Socrates encounters various figures and characters from Athenian society. In many encounters, Socrates hilariously asks his opponent to simply answer the questions he poses them with yes or with no, and to not talk too much.


Assuming nothing, starting with blatantly obvious questions, Socrates then holds a line of questioning to these characters, holding their answers as absolute. He applies this logic and reasoning and continues to question his opponents until a contradiction is revealed, at which point there is an impasse.


In most cases, Socrates’ opponent becomes increasingly frustrated, and yet Socrates continues to point out logical flaws and inconsistencies, despite never adding any information or counter-arguing himself.


Often, the interlocutors are experts in a certain field or represent mainstream opinion on a matter. Socrates employs his own ignorance to expose the ignorance of others. The mission to seek truth through argument, as a result, became central to Socratic philosophy, and to the new notion of Western Philosophy as a whole.


The Trial of Socrates

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, c. 1787, via Metropolitan Museum of Art


By all known accounts of his character, Socrates roamed the streets of Athens practicing his bizarre questioning process – what has come to be known as the Socratic Method. In many cases, the Method resulted in a fundamental irrefutable Socratic Truth that often criticized the Athenian political establishment, or an individual’s sense of morality.


The formal accusation of Socrates was wrought by Meletus, a contemporary of whom little else is known, in 399 BCE. Meletus offered his legal inquiry to an archon – a state official – who accepted the accusation. Socrates was officially charged with two counts: corruption of the Athenian youth and impiety. He was summoned to trial by jury.


According to Plato’s account of the trial, Socrates was found guilty by a mere thirty votes. Regarding the sentencing, Socrates joked that he should be sentenced to receive free meals (which yielded no reaction – tough crowd) and offered to pay a fine of 100 drachmae. Plato, who was of more substantial means, and a group of peers offered to pay the state a sum of 3000 drachmae on Socrates’ behalf. Meletus, alternatively, suggested the ancient thinker be sentenced to death. When taken to a vote, it was decided on execution.


The people of Athens expected Socrates to flee the city; his loyal friends and followers encouraged it. Socrates refused to show contempt for the law and faced his trial without flinching. The seventy-year-old philosopher remained true to his teachings of civic obedience (and criticism), drank the hemlock poison concoction, and died of paralysis shortly after.


Interpretations of the Trial

Lysander Outside the Walls of Athens, c. 1899, artist unknown, via All Art.


The Trial of Socrates has been imagined (and re-imagined) several times through the centuries. For context, the Trial transpired in the wake of the Peloponnesian War, when Greece was under the influence of the victorious Spartan hegemony.


Upon their defeat, the Athenians had a puppet government installed by Sparta, dubbed the Thirty Tyrants, tasked with unwinding much of the democratic structure of the city. Democracy at the time was defined very differently than how it is today; the outset of the Peloponnesian War is blamed on the ideology as the Athenians used it to abuse their power and surrounding Greek city states. It was the Thirty Tyrants who controlled the political and judicial operations of Athens.


The Spartans were no strangers to corruption. It is estimated that close to 5% of the Athenian population was slaughtered under their rule. Ironically, the leader of the Thirty Tyrants, Critias, was a student of Socrates.


Varying interpretations of Socrates’ submission to authority and willingness to comply with his sentence, all impossible to prove correct or refute, often contradict with one another. On the one hand, was Socrates demonstrating his faith and confidence in the Spartan puppet regime? The character of Socrates offered by Plato loudly critiques democratic political figures through his dialogues – was his ultimate move to submit to the institution or was his death a criticism of its structure?


The Legacy of the Trial of Socrates

School of Athens, by Raphael, c. 1511, via Wikimedia Commons.


Socrates’ trial remains one of the most ironic and dissected political executions in history. The event has been interpreted and re-interpreted time and time again by various playwrights, historians, thinkers, philosophers, and poets through the years.


In many ways, parallels have been drawn between Socrates and Jesus Christ himself. Having been martyrized and dying for our sins, the death of Jesus has been exemplified as the very pivotal point of human morality – as is interpreted by the Christians. Socrates, simultaneously, was publicly executed by the very political entity he loudly criticized. Was he killed for the sake of our own philosophical morality? Was he killed so his students could live and write in his stead and mold the very foundation of Western Civilization?


Plague in an Ancient City, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652-1654, via Los Angeles County Museum of Art


While we know what happened during the trial itself thanks to Plato, I think the underpinnings of the event are summarized most eloquently in his Allegory of the Cave. In it, Plato depicts society as a group of people tied up inside a cave facing the back wall. All these people can see and understand are the shadows projected onto the back wall of the cave from the sun.


One day, one of them breaks free, escapes the cave, and sees the world for what it truly is – the real things rather than just shadowed projections. The freed person returns to the cave and speaks their truth but is immediately dismissed (and executed?) by the others, who claim the “truth sayer” is crazy and does not live in the real world.


Do we, as a society, dismiss “truth sayers”?

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By Alexander StandjofskiBA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian IdeologyAlexander holds a BA in history and political theory from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He has studied the historical narrative of the western world as well as pre and post-Christian political thought and ideology spanning from 500 BCE to 1800 CE.