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The years following Peloponnesian war were a time of disenchantment and frustration for Athens. The Athenians could not perceive and accept that despite all their powerfulness they had lost the war. It was a time that can be called today “a cultural war”. On the one side of this war were the traditionalists who blamed democracy and the sophists for the defeat in the war; they propagated to reinstate the conventional religious form of practice and reinforce the old-fashioned values. On the other side of this war were the young men, often those who were taught by sophists, seditious by nature and openly contemptuous of traditional values.
– In this political atmosphere, highly electrified with controversies and quests for guilty ones, the most disgraceful and infamous act of the fifth century’s Athenian history took place. The public trial and the capital punishment of Socrates, who was officially accused in the impiety and the corruption of the youth, was this misdealing. However, the greatest irony of this trial and the argument of this paper is that Socrates, who was accused of these treasons, was the most innocent and honest man of Athens, whereas the accusers, inconsiderate, foolish and ignorant people of Athens, were those who were guilty of these misdeeds. They convicted Socrates and, ultimately, condemned him to death for their sins. They were those who lost faith in their Gods and corrupted the youth.
Socrates was officially accused of the impiety and the corruption of the youth. It is important to notice that in ancient world religion and politics were extremely closely bound. No political system could exist without being reinforced by religion or some sort of mythology. The reason of it is that not worshiping the Gods of the state and not sharing their traditional value is a danger to the political order of the state. Thus, the charge of the impiety was equal to charge of treason and the blame for the corruption of youth, consequently, was equal to blame for preparing the base for rebellion against existing legitimate government.
Socrates begins his defense in the Apology as following: “… I can tell you they almost made even me forget where I was, so convincingly did they speak. But when it comes to the truth, they’ve said virtually nothing” (71). The actual speech of the prosecution is not given by Plato, but some parts of speech can be understood from Socrates defense speech. The main reason why charge of corruption of the youth was preferred is that the people of Athens wanted to punish Alcibiades. He became a trader during the Peloponnesian war, went over to Sparta side and actively participated in war against Athens. Many years ago, Alcibiades was one of those who looked up to Socrates, so the people of Athens suggested that Socrates was the source of Alcibiades corruption. Although the philosopher said that he has never taken money from anyone, so he could not be considered a teacher, he did admit that there were young people who followed him around and looked up to him. Considering, that people of Athens were not educated properly, it was a sufficient reason to convict Socrates for the corruption of the youth. However, in fact, as can be seen in the Symposium, Socrates tried to educate “the brilliant but traitorous Alcibiades” (257) but, to Socrates’ disappointment, he failed to do so. The matter is that the prosecution could not accuse Socrates for sins of Alcibiades or for having an admiration for Sparta directly. That is why the prosecution presented very diffuse charges, knowing that they are not real. Socrates sees the hypocrisy clearly and says that he has never been into politics and made no threat to the state. Futhermore, he has never been in the court because he was a law-abiding man; otherwise “no one else in the world would survive for long like that” (96). It was worth noting that Socrates was 70 year old when brought to trial. The philosopher saw that his appeal for fair trial was not successful, so he began to cross-examine one of the accusers. Meletus realized that he had not enough incriminating arguments and absolutely no evidence to withstand Socrates’ questions. The philosopher proved that he believed in the Gods and he respects them, moreover he was one of the most pious men in the state. Of course, one can argue that the way in which Socrates claimed he had communicated with the Gods is unorthodox and can be considered disrespectful. He stated that the Gods actually spoke to him and told him what he shall not do. Since, it is highly unconventional that divine creatures would speak to a human being it could be interpreted as a form of impiety. However, fairly speaking, Socrates was not any human being – he was an exceptional person and true faith is not measured by means but by purpose. From this point of view, the philosopher was a really pious man who devoted his life to glorification of the Gods. He said that he did his questioning activity and philosophy because he was obeying the Gods and he believed that Zeus would punish those, who were guilty of his death: “… you, Athenians, who have become my killers, that just as soon as I’m dead you’ll meet with a punishment that – Zeus knows – will be much harsher than the one you’ve meted out to me by putting me to death” (105). Nevertheless, despite the charges against Socrates were circumstantial, superficial and ambiguous, he was returned guilty for the impiety and the corruption of the youth.
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Verdict and Refusal of Socrates to Flee
An Athenian legal procedure of a trial had two distinct phases. First was a sentencing, where the jury heard the prosecution and defense, after which they voted to conviction or acquittal of charges. Second part occurred only if the verdict was that the accused was guilty. In this phase, the prosecution recommended the punishment and the defense had a right to offer an alternative punishment. After that the jury voted to pick one of them as a verdict. In Socrates trial, the party that represented the state recommended the capital punishment. However, when it was Socrates turn to offer an alternative penalty, he said: “So what does fit the case of a poor man who’s your benefactor and needs free time to exhort you all? There’s nothing that fits better than to have such a person fed at public expense in the Prytaneum” (101). He proposed to give him the highest honor that the Athenian citizen could be awarded. No hesitation, that jury was extremely offended and voted to sentence him to death by even with more votes than while finding him guilty. Although, his disciples organized his escape and Crito supplicated him earnestly to go with him, Socrates refused to leave. He told Crito that, in spite that he was treated unjustly, he would not do the same, because he was not an ordinary man. He had always obeyed the law and the Gods, so he was doing no exception now even in the face of imminent death.
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Therefore, when Socrates was given a cup of poisonous hemlock, he readily took the drink.
In light of all abovementioned, the most portentous moment, that revealed Socrates’ total moral and spiritual superiority, was when he stood up and offered the alternative punishment for himself. Precisely at that moment Socrates was the only one who knew that his wish would invariably displease the members of the jury and make them vote for his capital punishment. Moreover, he was the only one who knew that he would not flee from Athens. In other words, he was setting into motion a chain of events that would result in his imminent execution advisedly. In his Apology Socrates says: “I’ll even die not giving in.” (95). Hence, could Socrates consciously sacrifice himself to the Gods for sins of those who he failed to educate? It is possible that, in his opinion, to be convicted and continue living bearing such reputation was to give in and betray everything that he believed in. For Socrates his whole life was devoted to improving his “fellow men by making them recognize their own ignorance” (81). Therefore, I do not think that Socrates was a problem for Athenian society at all, so, if I was on the jury, I would have voted: “innocent” at both stages: verdict and sentencing.
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