Socrates was born about 470 B.C.E. in the midst of the golden age of the most famous city that ever was, and he lived through its greatest triumphs to its ultimate tragedy. His birth came a decade after an Athenian-led coalition of Greek city states had repulsed an invasion by the mightiest empire of its time, that of Persia. The Athens of his time was not only a great naval power and commercial hub, but the center of the most fascinating combination of political and cultural experimentation the world had ever seen.
The Athenians were living under the form of government they had invented for themselves: democracy. Athenian democracy was not like ours. It was rich, vibrant, and tempestuous. No one represented anyone else: each citizen had a full and direct vote on every public question for himself. There were no lawyers: each citizen was free to bring a suit before his fellow citizens, and each citizen was responsible for his own defense. There were no judges to keep order, charge juries, or interpret the law—no screen at all between one citizen and another.
No Wild West city in America, no Dodge or Tucson, was ever more politically tumultuous than fifth century Athens. Yet, not only did the city function and flourish, but it also produced a cultural flowering unlike any seen before or since. Ancient drama, both tragic and comic was born here, and reached its apogee during Socrates’ lifetime. No freer, bolder, and more inventive theater ever existed; no subject was off limits, and censorship of any kind was unthinkable. Greek classical painting and sculpture reached its height in this Athens too, to serve not only as a model for the rest of Greece but as the ideal of grace, proportion, and beauty for Western art ever since. The Athenians of Socrates’ day built what remains the world’s most famous building to celebrate their culture and achievement, the Parthenon, and great museums around the world compete for the fragments of its ruins to the present day.
The most famous citizen of this great city, the one whose name is synonymous with it after 2500 years, was Socrates. And what did Socrates do? He talked. Not as an orator; he never made a speech. Not as a playwright; he was the butt of satire himself. Not as a teacher: he denied he had anything to teach; in fact, he openly proclaimed himself the most ignorant of men. What he did, by his talk alone, was to invent philosophy.
It is conventional in discussing ancient philosophy to divide it into two periods: those who came before Socrates, the so-called Pre-Socratics, and those who came after, beginning with Socrates’ disciple Plato and Plato’s own pupil, Aristotle. But there was really no one before Socrates. His predecessors speculated about the nature of the world and how humans could have knowledge of it. Socrates’ contemporaries lumped him in with these folk, but, although he was curious about a great many things, the nature of the cosmos seems not to have interested him very much, and he certainly propounded no theories about it. Today we leave these subjects pretty strictly to physicists and astronomers, and possibly theologians and poets.
What interested Socrates was how men should behave toward each other. We call this deontology today, or, in plainer language, ethics. For Socrates, this was the only real question of human life, and he asked it endlessly, every day of his life. He talked about it to anyone who would listen, from those reputed wise to those considered foolish. For Socrates, wisdom was neither something you got through book learning nor acquired by experience or expertise. No one could have it, strictly speaking, because it was attached to the practice of virtue, and virtue meant right action in any given case. There was no formula for this. You could only examine each case as it presented itself, trying to do as much good and as little harm as possible. The practice of doing this made you the best person you could be, and your commonwealth the best place to live in.
Since Socrates wrote nothing, lived a poor man, and left nothing but his memory behind, we know of him only through what others said or wrote about him, particularly Plato, who made him the protagonist of the philosophical fables he called dialogues. In these dialogues, Socrates discusses various subjects with individuals or small groups. A good example of this is the dialogue called Euthyphro. Socrates encounters Euthyphro on the steps of the courthouse, which was also the citizen assembly. Euthyphro is about to denounce his father for having killed a slave, and Socrates asks him why he is doing this. Euthyphro replies that it is the right thing to do, and Socrates asks him how he knows this. The conversation devolves into a discussion of the respective merits of piety and justice, in which Euthyphro is unable to formulate an argument that stands up to Socrates’ criticism. Euthyphro finally breaks off the conversation to make his charge, even though he is unable to give a coherent explanation of why he should do it.
But what is Socrates doing at the courthouse himself? As it happens, he is about to answer a charge of his own, one for which his accusers will demand the death penalty. These accusers, about whom we know little, claim that Socrates has undermined the state by introducing false gods and corrupting the young—very serious charges indeed, if true. But how has Socrates, for many people a harmless busybody and crank who lured into open-ended conversations that distracted them from their business, come to face such condign accusations?
The year is 399 B.C.E., and Socrates is now a man of seventy. Athens, a little too proud, has fought and lost a disastrous war with its chief rival, Sparta, which had ended only a few years previously with the occupation of the city and the temporary installation of a bloody, oligarchic regime, the so-called Thirty Tyrants. This group had carried out a purge of those held responsible for the conduct of the war, some of whom had been associated with Socrates. The tyrants had been expelled and democracy restored, with an amnesty that protected the principals from prosecution. But many still felt the need of a scapegoat, someone to blame, even if only symbolically, for the city’s woes. Socrates suffered guilt by association, and he was considered by some an expendable pest. Others may well have felt that, in bringing traditional values and morality into question, he had weakened the moral fibre and resolve of the city. Perhaps Athens had been too tolerant of novelty, of hucksterism, of irreverence, of dissent. Maybe the old guy wasn’t so harmless after all. Maybe he really deserved—okay, perhaps not death, but at least a good whipping.
We know of Socrates’ trial through two principal eyewitness sources, Plato and his slightly older contemporary, the historian Xenophon. The principal account, and by far the more interesting one, is Plato’s. The two accounts, together, give us the earliest trial record in history. They show us how the Athenian court worked, what its procedures and protocols were, and how it reached its verdicts. There were no public prosecutors; all charges were brought by private citizens against other citizens, though often at the behest of powerful interests. These private prosecutors framed their charges and demanded their own penalties. The accused defended themselves with no formal counsel, and, if found guilty, could propose an alternate penalty. The jury consisted of all citizens interested to attend. Their decisions were final, and executed immediately. The accused, if found guilty, had the right to propose an alternative penalty to that of the prosecution, on which the jury would then vote. There appear to have been five hundred jurors present at Socrates’ trial. It is clear from Plato’s account that there was a lot of noise.
Plato called his account the Apology, which meant not what it means for us but, roughly, The Defense. It consists entirely of Socrates’ response to the charges against him, his interrogation of his accusers, and the alternative penalty he offered after being convicted. I don’t think there is a more extraordinary trial document in history, or a more remarkable specimen of what amounts to an extended soliloquy. Because Plato almost entirely suppresses all other voices in the trial other than Socrates’ own, it sounds almost like what Socrates never delivered otherwise, a lecture.
What Socrates does is to describe and defend his own life and practice. He rejects the accusations against him as baseless and frivolous, and almost unworthy of reply. Since he must nonetheless make a response, it runs more or less like this: Socrates does not corrupt the young or anyone else because he has nothing to teach, but only attempts to learn from others. He does so by asking questions and testing answers, a method invented by him and known to us as the dialectic. Socrates tells the jurors that he has been challenged to do this by the Delphic Oracle, linked to the god Apollo, which had reportedly pronounced him the wisest man in Greece. Since Socrates knows himself to be utterly ignorant, he has spent his life testing this strange claim. He has found only men whose claim to wisdom proves unfounded, and thus concludes that the Oracle has meant to say that Socrates is wise only in knowing his own ignorance.
You can probably imagine how popular it makes someone to be showing up the shallowness and stupidity of every man he happens to meet. We call such a person a know-it-all. But imagine being shown up by the man who claims only that he knows nothing at all.
Socrates is of course aware of the effect he has on others, and in the Apology he speculates that he has only been accused of causing harm for this reason. But his whole point is to avoid having people harm each other by acting without a true understanding and justification of their motives. Why, after all, does Euthyphro really want to turn his father in? If he can’t adequately explain himself, should he do it?
Socrates continues by saying that he has been accompanied since childhood by an inner daimon or voice that never tells him what to do, but only warns him when he is about to do something he shouldn’t. Where this daimon comes from he doesn’t say, but he strongly suggests that it has been sent by some divinity, perhaps Apollo. We would today call such an inner voice one’s conscience, but the Greeks had no word for such an idea. We might really call Socrates its inventor.
If Socrates had had a lawyer, something which also didn’t yet exist, he might have advised his client as follows: All this is very interesting, Socrates, but how do you help your case? You’ve been accused of introducing new gods, and you’ve just admitted having a private one all of your own. You say you are obliged to follow this god, this daimon of yours, no matter what anyone else says or commands, or even what society thinks is fit and necessary. Aren’t you really saying that you will obey no law but your own, and how then should society exist at all? Better drop this line of argument, because you’ve just convicted yourself of all you’ve been accused of out of your own mouth.
Socrates is in fact found guilty, having managed to offend the jury just as he has everyone else. When he is asked to propose an alternative to death as his penalty, he suggests he receive permanent maintenance at the expense of the state, since he has served it above anyone else. This naturally inflames the jury, which votes for death. No one really wishes the foolish old man to die, and even his accusers fear they are making something new for which there is also no word, a martyr. Socrates is virtually begged to flee prison, even by his jailers. But he refuses to admit he has been anything but a public benefactor deserving of honor, and dies of a self-administered poison.
Obviously, Socrates was a difficult man to deal with. He not only gave us our concept of conscience but of martyrdom, and the figure he has been most likened to, from antiquity to the present, is that other celebrated troublemaker, Jesus of Nazareth. Socrates is thus our great culture hero, next after Jesus himself, and of course he is far better known to us than the historical Jesus, whose life is swathed in legend and about whom we have no direct contemporary testimony at all. Yet, he raises exceedingly difficult questions for us, such as those my hypothetical lawyer presents to him. Does any man have the right to hold himself above the laws, and under what circumstances and with what limitations? Is our individual sense of what is right wiser than the collective wisdom of law, which represents the experience of the ages and without which society cannot be maintained? Even if Socrates claims to compel no one else nor even advise them, and even if he is willing to take responsibility for his own acts even unto death, how could a society consisting of men like him even exist? If Socrates is right, can we afford to follow him? Can we even afford to put up with him—especially in a democracy, where all men must be bound by the will of the majority?
But we can also turn the question around: What sort of a world would it be that made no place for a man like Socrates?
You could make the case that Socrates was the most dangerous man in Athens, more dangerous than any killer or traitor. You could also make the case that it is precisely the most dangerous man, the dissident, the questioner, whom we must especially accommodate. The Athenians did not want to execute Socrates; they’d put up with him, after all, for a very long time, and there is no honor in killing an old man of seventy. They would—Socrates even tells them so—have far preferred to simply send him into exile. But he forces them to follow the logic of their own actions to the end, just as he had always demanded they do. He wins by dying, even though he would only say that reason itself was the victor.
It must have been hard indeed to live with the original D. Spock.
And we, what do we gain by still putting men to death today, as the last Western nation to do so? Socrates was a scapegoat, which meant in ancient religious practice a person sacrificed or exiled to symbolically purify the community and purge it of its accumulated sins. The people who attacked him may have thought of him in these terms, as someone whose punishment might clear the city of the ill humors of military defeat and civil war; or they may have cynically accused him to distract attention from themselves. It seems to me that those we condemn today serve much the same function. They are objects of our sacred disgust. If we cannot deal substantively with poverty, violence, and all our many ills, we can at least remove certain persons we associate with them from our midst. Capital punishment, we are told, is reserved only for the worst of the worst, but this is untrue. Individual prosecutors have wide discretion to decide who will be capitally prosecuted, and they preponderantly choose unpopular minorities and invariably the indigent. Rich people don’t die at the hands of the state in our country, however heinous their crimes may be. We rid ourselves of those we consider expendable, or whom we associate with feared or despised groups. With ill-paid and ill-prepared attorneys to defend them and death-qualified juries disproportionately stacked against them, getting convictions is in most cases like shooting fish in a barrel. If the evidence doesn’t convict, fabricate or fudge it. It doesn’t matter in the end whether those selected to die by the system are guilty or not. A scapegoat isn’t someone necessarily guilty of anything. He or she is simply a communal sacrifice on the altar of justice.
We have heard a lot in recent years of innocent people rescued from Death Row through the heroic efforts of pro bono attorneys or of groups such as the Innocence Project. These, we are assured, are the rare mistakes of the system. But they aren’t. They are the result of an arbitrary selection process that trawls among the poor and tilts against minorities, particularly in those states of our Union where racism is most deeply entrenched. They are designed to produce, not justice in any defensible sense of the word, but kills.
Socrates warned his jurors that in killing him they would be doing far more harm to themselves than to him, and he was right. Athens, the great city, never recovered, and even today, recalling its glory, we also think: but this is the city that killed Socrates.
I suggest that the United States is doing itself the same harm today.