Why Athens Executed Socrates: Two Axial Symbols at Odds

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In Don Nardo’s The Trial of Socrates, Socrates is quoted as stating, “We should not be concerned about winning fame or political honors, but rather should try to gain more intelligence, to arrive at more knowledge of truth, and to develop finer character.” His devotion to virtue and good character during his life demonstrates just how axial Socrates was. Yet in 399 BCE he was executed by Athens, the Greek city state that is known as the world’s first pure democracy. It is puzzling as to why such a profoundly axial community would put their most axial philosopher to death. But in truth, Athens and Socrates were very much at odds. Socrates held the rather elitist view that only certain people were capable of true knowledge, whereas Athenian democracy was based on the idea that every citizen was capable of governing themselves.

These disparate philosophies led to near-constant criticism of Athenian politics from Socrates. Pre-Peloponnesian War Athens was a strong, tolerant democracy that could contend with critics, but the hardships they experienced between 431 and 404 BCE made them paranoid and intolerant. In fact, a former follower of Socrates was responsible for one of these hardships. After the war the philosopher further alienated himself by failing to speak out against the Thirty Tyrants, who unjustly murdered many Athenian citizens. Athens executed Socrates because, at a time when it was weak from a devastating war, he relentlessly criticized their democracy, yet failed to speak out against tyrants in the city, and preached compassion, yet associated with people who had harmed Athenian citizens, resulting in the death of an Axial thinker who helped to shape the world as it is today.

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The once open-minded Athens had been weakened into a suspicious and paranoid society by the hardships they experienced in the Peloponnesian War: the plague, severe casualties, and loss of unity. In Pericles’ funeral oration, as reconstructed by Thucydides, the statesman brags about Athens’ powerful army, successful democracy, and rich culture (40-41). While his claims have the clear motive of boosting morale through hubris, it is a widely accepted fact that the Athenian democracy was unusually free and tolerant for its time. The Peloponnesian War, which took place from 431-404 BCE, changed that entirely. The first phase of the conflict, called the Archidamian War, ended in a stalemate, but not before Athens had been ravaged by plague in 430 BCE. In Thucydides’ “The plague: human nature laid bare by a natural disaster,” he writes, “This was a kind of disease that defied explanation, and the cruelty with which it attacked everyone was too severe for human nature” (48). In the end one third of the Athenian population died from the plague. Sparta and Athens declared peace in 421 BCE, but Athens’ hardships were far from over. The demagogue Alcibiades encouraged Athens to attack the Sicilian city of Syracuse in 415 BCE. But, according to Mark Kishlansky in his book A Brief History of Western Civilization, “The Sicilian expedition ended in disaster. Athens lost over two hundred ships and fifty thousand men” (78-79). This massive loss, which had happened at the discretion of a public leader, made Athenians distrustful. In 411 BCE, when Alcibiades told them that Persia would stop supporting Sparta if they established an oligarchy, they did so. He had lied again, and democracy was restored, but “the brief oligarchy left the city bitterly divided” (Kishlansky 80). These disasters left Athens distrustful, disunified, and looking for someone to blame.

Alcibiades, who led Athenian men into battle then betrayed them, and Critias, one of the most hated Thirty Tyrants, were both former followers of Socrates; many citizens of Athens considered Socrates guilty of corrupting them because of this relation. In 432 BCE Socrates met Alcibiades during a military campaign, when the two men shared a tent (Nardo 18). Years later, Alcibiades turned traitor during the Sicily expedition, resulting in the death of thousands. Nardo wrote, “Many Athenians believed that Alcibiades had become the philosopher’s ardent follower and that Socrates, an acknowledged eccentric and critic of the state, had somehow corrupted the younger man” (37). Additionally, the most infamous of the Thirty Tyrants, Critias, had been a follower of Socrates before he was part of that ruthless oligarchy. This fact gave Athenians another reason to question what Socrates had taught the younger men when they were his pupils. In fact, one of the charges he was put on trial for in the first place was “corrupting the city’s youths” (Nardo 43). Plato gives an account of Socrates’ reaction to this charge in his dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates observes, “Meletus is perhaps first cleaning us out, the corruptors of the young sprouts, as he asserts. Then, after this, it is clear that when he had taken care of the older ones, he will become the cause of the most and greatest good things for the city” (3a). The philosopher recognized that Athens saw him as the cause for part of their suffering, and that they worried he would further harm them by teaching others to act as Alcibiades and Critias had. Therefore, Athens needed to get rid of this threat to their state.

Despite heavily criticizing Athenian democracy, Socrates failed to speak out publicly against the Thirty Tyrants during their reign of terror. In his dialogue “The Allegory of the Cave” Plato wrote, “Neither could men who are uneducated and inexperienced in truth ever adequately preside over a state, nor could those who had been permitted to linger on to the end in the pursuit of culture” (519c). In effect, Plato believed that only the most intelligent people could properly lead the government. Due to the fact that Plato was a pupil of Socrates, it is highly likely that his teacher shared this view. Nardo confirms this inference; he wrote that what aggravated Athenians the most about Socrates was “his belief that only a select few individuals were capable of acquiring meaningful, insightful knowledge” (32). As a result, Socrates lambasted Athenian democracy with criticism. He could not accept their democratic idea of ordinary citizens ruling themselves. However, when the Thirty Tyrants came into power in 404 BCE, Socrates fell silent. The group of despots claimed that their motive was to cleanse Athens of criminals, but in reality they jailed and murdered citizens in order to gain wealth and maintain power. Not once did Socrates publicly speak out against them, making many Athenians suspicious of his loyalty to justice and virtue (Nardo 39-40). Taken together, Socrates’ criticism of Athenian democracy and failure to condemn the wrongdoing of the Tyrants made him many enemies who were not hesitant to harm him.

Socrates devoted his life to finding virtue and knowledge, but the supposedly enlightened Athens executed him. After years of war and misfortune, they needed someone to blame, and Socrates was the obvious choice. He possessed a great mind, one that helped to explore and spread the idea that compassion and empathy are the most important qualities people can possess. This idea of ethical action is the basis of Western philosophy. But unfortunately, he used his intelligence to criticize Athens’ democracy, and failed to use it when the city was controlled by despots. Perhaps he would have lived out his days in that way, as the “gadfly” to the horse that was Athens, but the Peloponnesian War created an environment so hostile it killed its most famed philosopher. Socrates’ trial and execution stand as a testament to the horrendous effects of war. The world today would do well to learn from Socrates’ ethics, and not the circumstances that ended his life.

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