Why was Socrates executed? He was tried in front of 501 of his Athenian peers who, acting as judge and jury, declared him guilty and sentenced him to death.1
The material charges were impiety toward the gods and corrupting the youth of the city. In reality, these were vague, trumped-up charges and Socrates would find himself tried in a kangaroo court. And he wasn’t even Australian. The real immaterial reasons for this turned out to be much more complex.
Tyranny in Athens
After Sparta had defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C., they installed 30 oligarchs (known as the 30 Tyrants) that oppressed Athens and are said to have killed 1500 Athenians—5% of the population—during their short eight month reign.2 Many Athenians left during this time. Socrates stayed. Some historians feel that this implicated him by association in their tyranny, even though it is recorded that Socrates disobeyed the 30 Tyrants when they asked him to join with them in their wrongdoing on several occasions. Nevertheless, perception is often taken to be reality. It also didn’t help that one of Socrates’ students, called Critias, became a leader of the 30 Tyrants. Eventually, the Tyrants were overthrown by rebel Athenian forces. The trial of Socrates occurred in this uncertain time of rebuilding after the reign of terror.
Socrates Irritates Athens
That historical-political background helps to clear up some of the confusion surrounding Socrates’ trial, but it doesn’t explain everything. For example, many people, even prominent figures, stayed in Athens during the reign of the Tyrants, but they were not tried and executed as Socrates was. So there was something more going on here. And that something was the fact that Socrates was a real irritant for the new rulers of Athens, a real pain in the ass, to put it bluntly. It didn’t help that he was ugly as well—he had a pug nose, sunken cheeks, thick lips, and bulging eyes.3 So there was this ugly, irritating guy going around Athens constantly causing trouble. No matter how unpopular Socrates became, he did not relent, for he was on a divine mission from which he could not be dissuaded. What was his divine mission that so irritated Athens?
The Oracle at Delphi
It all started when one of his friends visited the Oracle at Delphi.4 This was a very important Greek sanctuary where people would go to get wisdom and advice for individuals and cities from a priestess. His friend asked the oracle if Socrates was the wisest of all men and the oracle said yes! Imagine this ugly, irritating fellow being the wisest of all men. Well, when Socrates found this out, he proceeded to try to verify if the priestess was right or wrong. After all, that is a pretty big claim to make. So Socrates went around to anyone that he might find—politicians, craftsmen, ordinary citizens, etc., and asked questions about justice, truth, and wisdom. And Socrates found out an amazing thing: no one that he talked to knew anything. They were all ignorant. And not only that, but nobody knew that they didn’t know anything. Everyone thought that they had knowledge, but they were in total ignorance!
Wisdom out of Ignorance
Now this is the paradox of the matter. On the surface, it sounded like the Oracle stated that Socrates had more wisdom and understanding on matters such as justice and truth than everyone else. But in reality, Socrates was just as ignorant as everyone else on such matters. His wisdom lay in the fact the he knew that he didn’t know anything, whereas no one else had the wisdom to know the depths of their own ignorance. You can imagine why this would make people feel uncomfortable, to say the least, and why Socrates was so irritating: he exposed people’s ignorance. He was the opposite of a flatterer. From a historical perspective, we can find Socrates amusing, but to know him personally, we would probably find him to be abrasive. Needless to say, he was not the type of person that you would want to go out and have a beer with. It would be quite humbling to have an encounter with him.
But how about those charges of corrupting the youth and impiety? And why would the city fathers become so incensed at Socrates simply asking questions? More on that later.
Socrates Makes Enemies
Socrates gave up everything for the pursuit of wisdom and lived a life of poverty. He went around barefoot and unkempt in a city that valued good looks and proper conduct for a man who would have any chance at all of succeeding in politics. That was no concern to Socrates who eschewed any type of political career. We can romanticize a person like Socrates, but someone like that who did not play the game could easily make enemies. Someone who questions the status quo is the last thing that a heavy-handed government wants. What they fear more than violence is truth.
For example, in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, Socrates is excoriated by Callicles, a gritty, no-nonsense, pragmatic political philosopher and an advocate of “might makes right” rule by elites. Whether Callicles was a real person or a fictional character of Plato’s dialogue does not really matter, for it portrays to us through Plato’s eyes how his teacher was most likely viewed by the governing elites.
Concerning Socrates, Callicles states the following:
“It is a fine thing to partake of philosophy just for the sake of education, and it is no disgrace for a lad to follow it: but when a man already advancing in years continues in its pursuit, the affair, Socrates, becomes ridiculous…For when I see philosophy in a young lad I approve of it; I consider it suitable, and I regard him as a person of liberal mind…But when I see an elderly man still going on with philosophy and not getting rid of it, that is the gentleman, Socrates, whom I think in need of a whipping.”5-Plato, Gorgias 485a-d
Nothing has really changes in over 2000 years. When a private citizen questions a tyrannical government, then the usual response from the ignorant ruling class is an ad hominem verbal smear at best and physical violence or even death at worst. Twentieth century history is rife with examples of such treatment for those who question oppressive authority and unfortunately the 21st century is no different. Those who wish to make real change in a corrupt society, must be countercultural.
Socrates left a legacy that revolutionized Western Civilization. He laid the foundation, if you will, of Reason. He did this by not only emphasizing the importance of seeking the Truth, but by making it evident that the best place to start is by admitting one’s ignorance. This is an apropos message for today. We think that our unparalleled technological advancements are a substitute for the wisdom of life. We mistake science for prudence. We mistake knowledge for wisdom. We are so adept at using our technology, but woefully unable to answer basic questions, like “What is the nature and purpose of man? Do humans have a soul or are we just material beings? And what is the nature of being itself?” It seems that the more advanced we become with technology, the more ignorant we become in the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Maybe we have come full circle and it is time for a change. The modern age is characterized by hubris. We are puffed up by our scientific advancements. Despite our great achievements, we are unable to quell the discord and heal division in our nation. Scientism rather than science has come to rule the day and the humanities have turned into indoctrination rather than an endeavor to seek the truth. What Socrates teaches us is that a good first step is to admit our ignorance.
The Way Forward
We live in a time in the West where the truth is obscured, buried under many layers of falsehoods and obfuscations. In our postmodern society, people do not have a category for pursuing objective truth regardless of where it leads. Those days are long gone. Truth, rather, is subjective. It is a matter of what people think, and more importantly feel.
In one way, our task is more challenging then what Socrates had to deal with. The Greek philosophers, such as Socrates and Plato, wanted people to correct errors in their thinking. They reasoned that one of the worst things that could happen to a person was to go through their life believing falsehoods. They thought that these false beliefs could have detrimental effects on their lives. Even though they often disagreed with one another, they viewed themselves as all pursuing one truth.
Having said that, the principles that Socrates taught us remain unchanged. As such, his questioning technique can yield benefits even today. Rather than getting into an emotional tug-of-war with people that leads nowhere, it may be more beneficial to ask probing questions about the other person’s beliefs, thus exposing flaws in their thinking. If people believe in falsehoods, they need to come to that realization themselves. The goal is not to “win” an argument, but to encourage people to start really thinking, possibly for the first time ever. In this way, Socrates’ technique may be the best approach that we have.
Socrates is not just an interesting curiosity of history to be studied, but he is an example to be followed by those who believe in objective truth. It is imperative that we all become Socrates in our small orbits of influence in order to start pushing back against the darkness that is rapidly encroaching upon us.
I leave you with a Socrates quote:
“Be sure that this is what God orders me to do, and I think there is no greater blessing for the city than my service to God.6
What do you have to say about the wisdom of Socrates? Please comment below and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!
If you want to learn more about Socrates, this is the place to start. These five dialogues by Plato gives a more complete portrait of the man who has intrigued people for over two thousand years. From Socrates’ view of knowledge and the afterlife to the dramatic events that surrounded his trial and death, this is a must read. In addition, it is a good and easy introduction into Plato’s dialogues.
- “An Athenian Juror at the Trial of Socrates'” Robert Garland, PhD, Colgate University, The Great Courses Daily, August 2, 2020
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Thirty Tyrants”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 9 Mar. 2018, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Thirty-Tyrants.
- Zanker, Paul, Author and Shapiro, Allen, Translator, The Mask of Socrates: The image of the Intellectual in Antiquity, pp. 173-174, University of California Press, Berkley, 1996
- Plato, The Apology, Five Dialogues, Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, pp 25-27, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002
- Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 3 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1967
- Plato, The Apology, Five Dialogues, 30a-b, p. 34
Aristophanes, Clouds, translated by Jeffery Henderson, Focus Information Group; First edition (November 1, 1993)
Coppleston, S.J., Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book One, An Image Book, Doubleday, New York, 1985
Grayling, A.C., The History of Philosophy, Penguin Press, New York 2019
Hughes, Bettany, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life Paperback – Illustrated, Vintage Publishers, 2012, New York City
Plato, The Apology, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, Second Edition, Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002
Plato, Gorgias, Robin Waterfield, translator, Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press (June 15, 2008)
Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, Revised Ed., Harold Tarrant (Editor, Translator, Introduction) and Hugh Tredennick (Translator), Penguin Classics, New York, 2003
Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 2: The World of the Polis, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018
Wilson, Emily, The Death of Socrates, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007
Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates, Waterfield, Robin H, Editor and Translator; Tedennick, Hugh, Translator, Penguin Classics, Ney York, Revised ed., 1990