Death of Socrates Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The death of Socrates was decreed after he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to die by an Athenian jury for crimes against the state, but his final days offered a lasting model of moral integrity and composure in the face of death.

Summary of Event

The conclusion and aftermath of the Peloponnesian War left Athenian democrats bitter and resentful. By the time this war ended in 404 b.c.e., the empire had crumbled, and the fleet and walls of Athens had been dismantled. Democracy had finally been restored in 403 b.c.e. following two periods of oligarchic rule, one beginning in 411 b.c.e. under a group of aristocrats known as the Four Hundred, the other under the Thirty Tyrants in 404 b.c.e. In the person of Socrates, there seemed to stand the symbol, if not the principal cause, of all the factors of intellectual and moral enervation that had destroyed from within the power of Athenian democracy to prosecute the war successfully and to sustain the integrity of its own governmental institutions. Socrates Meletus Anytus Plato Xanthippe Crito

An indictment was therefore brought against Socrates in 399 b.c.e. by a religious fanatic, Meletus, supported by the politician Anytus and by the orator Lycon, on the charge of impiety. Socrates was officially charged with failing to worship the gods of the state, introducing new gods of his own, and corrupting the youth of Athens. Although his accusers demanded the death penalty, their intention seems to have been to drive Socrates into self-imposed exile, a sentence which they believed he himself would propose if found guilty.

Plato’s Apologia Sōkratous (399-390 b.c.e.; Apology, 1675) makes it clear that Socrates was identified in his accusers’ minds with the natural philosophers and Sophists, whose teaching had indeed contributed to the deterioration of the traditional Athenian religious and political values. The natural philosophers had promulgated doctrines of a world sustained by impersonal laws rather than by personal deities, and the Sophists had encouraged their young noble pupils to be skeptical of all forms of institutional authority. Most damaging of all in their teaching was the doctrine of political power based on the assumptions that every individual’s natural inclination was toward self-aggrandizement, and that the law of the state was an artificial restriction on the individual’s self-realization.

It was the Sophists, rather than Socrates, who were responsible for these demoralizing ideas. Socrates himself scrupulously lived by the laws of Athens and fully participated in the formal religion of the states. He did, however, openly criticize the tendency of the democracy to entrust tasks of professional competence to amateurs chosen by popularity or, worse still, by lot. Moreover, he freely associated with the young aristocrats who were then the most conspicuous pupils of the Sophists. To the Athenians who did not know him intimately, Socrates must have appeared to be a typical Sophist, and it was as such that he was caricatured in Nephelai (423 b.c.e.; The Clouds, 1708) by Aristophanes, a play that must have left an indelible impression on many Athenian minds. After the double humiliation of defeat and revolution in 404 b.c.e., people remembered Alcibiades of Athens, who had deserted to the enemy during the war and severely damaged the Athenian war effort by helping to bring about a major Athenian naval defeat at the Battle of Syracuse, and Critias of Athens, who was despised by Athenian democrats for his role as leader of the Thirty Tyrants. They also recalled that these two men had been pupils of Socrates in their youth, and so Socrates seemed an ideal scapegoat for the frustrated resentment of many Athenians.

After being sentenced to die, Socrates drinks the hemlock.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Despite these considerations, the vote to convict Socrates was fairly close. Out of a total of 500 jurors, 280 voted to find him guilty; a switch of only 30 jurors would have acquitted him. As Plato shows in his Apology, Socrates spoke forcefully in his own defense, denying all the charges brought against him. The Apology of Plato presents a portrait of Socrates as an earnest moralist who, though no Sophist, was indeed a real threat to whatever aspects of the Athenian traditional could not be rationally grounded. Far from the atheist his accusers would have proved him, Socrates believed in objective moral values and a transcendent deity of truth. Athenians who were personally confronted by him were faced with a relentless challenge to their pretense of certain knowledge in matters of religion and morals. Although he himself professed ignorance in these areas, he claimed a wisdom unique among people by virtue of his awareness of ignorance.

Socrates stood on common ground with the Sophists in refusing to acknowledge any self-evident authority in traditional Greek theological and moral ideals. Yet he differed from them in that his skepticism was methodological rather than radical; he believed that valid moral ideals could ultimately be grounded rationally, although the effort might be long and arduous. To this end, he committed himself to a life of intellectual inquiry through conversation with any who would join him, and he honestly believed that his informal intercourse with the Athenian man-in-the-street was a divine commission of vital concern to Athens. The only life worth living, he insisted, was the life based on values formulated through rigorous, honest, personal self-examination. Through such individual self-examination alone might come about eventual moral regeneration in the state.

Once found guilty on the counts brought against him, Socrates refused the traditional option of voluntary exile and obstinately insisted, goading the jury, that only death would make him cease from his customary activities in Athens, whereupon the jury felt compelled to sentence him, this time by a larger margin, to execution by poison. During the interval between his trial and death, Socrates conversed freely with his disciples, who sought to persuade him to go into exile. Plato’s Kritōn (399-390 b.c.e.; Crito, 1804) gives Socrates’ reason for resisting these entreaties: The command of the state, which he had heeded throughout his life, must be heeded now even though the condemnation was unjust.

Significance

The death of Socrates is dramatically portrayed in the Phaedōn (399-390 b.c.e.; Phaedo, 1675) of Plato. On the day of his execution, Socrates appeared calm and relaxed. After a final reunion with his wife, Xanthippe, distraught over the idea that her husband would no longer be able to have philosophical conversations with his disciples, Socrates dismissively ordered his disciple Crito to take her home. Before drinking, without any protest, the cup of hemlock that would bring about his death, Socrates had one last philosophical conversation with his disciples, in which he argued for the immortality of the soul and the nature of human existence as a constant struggle between the body and the mind. The lasting value of this conversation, however, goes beyond the substance of Socrates’ arguments, as Plato’s Phaedo exalts the pattern of philosophic life consummated in Socrates’ death to a transcendent ideal for all people.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brickhouse, Thomas C., and Nicholas D. Smith. The Philosophy of Socrates. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000. An analysis of the philosophy of Socrates. Bibliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brickhouse, Thomas C., and Nicholas D. Smith, comp. The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. A collection of ancient sources, including Plato’s work, and modern scholarship on Socrates’ trial. Bibliography.
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    xlink:type="simple">Colaiaco, James A. Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial. New York: Routledge, 2001. A study of Socrates’s trial and the ethical questions raised. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Rickey K. Democratic Virtue in the Trial and Death of Socrates: Resistance to Imperialism in Classical Athens. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. Green examines Socrates’ trial from the standpoints of ethics and politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hansen, Mogens Herman. The Trial of Socrates: From the Athenian Point of View. Copenhagen: Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 1995. A close look at the trial of Socrates from the Athenian viewpoint.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stone, I. F. The Trial of Socrates. New York: Doubleday, 1989. This best-selling book by a famous independent journalist is a lively investigation of the democratic values of ancient Athens and Socrates’ relation to them.
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