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Why Socrates Died

An original and thought-provoking examination of the trial and execution of Socrates.

By Kevin Hartnett / July 20, 2009



Since his death in 399 BC, Socrates has lived well in history, enjoying a reputation as the West’s first philosopher and its first dissident. According to Robin Waterfield, though, it was actually more common qualities – innocence, naivete, and maybe a little vanity – that got Socrates into trouble.

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This is the central insight behind Why Socrates Died, Waterfield’s remarkable and thoroughly original new book, which attempts to understand Socrates’s trial and execution in light of the political and social upheaval racking his native Athens at the time he drank the fatal hemlock.

“Why Socrates Died” opens with Socrates on trial in the Athenian Agora, in front of a jury of 500 dikasts (or they may have been 501 of the Greek officials; the record on this, like many other points, is inconclusive), and facing the dual charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. Waterfield, an accomplished translator of ancient Greek texts, notes that in Athenian law all cases began as personal grievances. There was no state, as such, to bring charges, and so Socrates very likely had personal history with any or all of the three men – Meletus, Lycon and Anytus – who prosecuted him.

This is the first hint that Socrates’s was not your garden-variety sedition trial.

From there Waterfield travels back in time to place the prosecution in context, retracing the 30 years that led up to the trial. He provides a blow-by-blow account of the ill-fated Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) and then surveys the war’s tumultuous aftermath, in which defeated Athens lurched from oligarchy to civil war and then back into an uneasy democracy.

By the time Waterfield returns to the trial itself, he has given his narrative a cinematic sweep, as if all the contingencies of the preceding decades could not have led anywhere but the final verdict: 280 to convict, 220 against.

Following the conviction, Socrates was given an opportunity to recommend his own punishment. Only half-jokingly he argued that for his crimes, he should be fed at public expense for the rest of his life. Three hundred and sixty dikasts voted for death, meaning the suggestion was sufficiently grating to move 80 jurors who believed Socrates was innocent to vote that he should be executed anyway. (Jesus, to whom Socrates is often compared in the annals of injustice, had the good sense four centuries later to answer his accusers with silence.)

The Peloponnesian War, like failed wars of any era, placed significant stress on Athenian society and it was over these fault lines, Waterfield argues, that Socrates stumbled. The city lost more than a quarter of its population to disease in just four years, and massacres and other wartime brutalities tested Athens’ sense of its own virtue. Dissent generally divided by age, with a cadre of grasping young aristocrats arguing that Athens’ loss to Sparta proved the inefficacy of majority rule. Many of them were known to have studied under Socrates.

Socrates himself was equally critical of both the willy-nilly democrat and the vain aristocrat. He believed that it was the job of the state to guide citizens towards knowledge and that power should be vested in the wise in order to accomplish this. Waterfield argues that Socrates took it upon himself to identify and train these philosopher-kings, many of whom were no doubt happy to receive philosophical cover for their ambitions.

Socrates’ prized pupil (and likely unconsummated love was a charismatic young aristocrat named Alcibiades whose hubristic assault on Sicily contributed as much as anything else to Athens’ defeat against Sparta. It thus did little to improve Socrates’s political standing when Alcibiades was banished from Athens for life in 406 BC for assorted wartime treacheries.

Following the war, Socrates again found himself keeping suspect company, when a board of 30 oligarchs was installed by Sparta to run the city-state. While most democrats either fled or were purged from the city, Socrates remained and, in Waterfield’s account, generally enjoyed the favor of the ruling elite, who came to be known as the Thirty Tyrants.

When the democrats regained control in 403 BC they had scores to settle, and Waterfield’s lurking but unmistakable conclusion is that, in the end, Socrates got what was coming to him.

Socrates is traditionally depicted as a gadfly, but in “Why Socrates Died,” Waterfield colors him as more of a rube. “Even great philosophers can be naive,” he writes. Many of the conclusions in the book are, of course, conjecture. It’s debatable whether Socrates actually believed rule by the wise to be a realistic design, and many scholars argue that in fact Socrates held democracy to be the best form of government in practice.

Waterfield dismisses this last assertion out of hand, maintaining that Socrates’s criticisms of democracy were “too fundamental for that.” Yet 2,400 years after the fact, with no appeals pending, whether Socrates was a full or partial critic of democracy is almost beside the point.

“Why Socrates Died” is meant to provoke thought about the role of philosophy and education in social life and in the best sense of the Socratic tradition, it achieves just that.

Kevin Hartnett is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.

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