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Socrates’ Trial Today

January 13, 2011

It is interesting to note how far we have come in terms of under what circumstances the death penalty is considered. One of the most interesting and controversial examples of the allocation of capital punishment is the 399 BC execution of Socrates. This case is worth comparing to capital murder trials today because Socrates was not prosecuted based on him physically harming anyone but rather based on his ideological theories.

First, let us start off with what actions allow for the death penalty today. According to the Office of the District Attorney in the State of Kansas, Sedgwick County,

“The death penalty may only be given in circumstances where a defendant is convicted of pre-meditated first degree murder under the following limited factual circumstances:

• during a kidnapping for ransom

• during a killing committed under a contract or agreement

• the killing of any person by someone confined in a state correctional institution, community correction institution or jail or while in official custody

• a killing during the commission of, or attempt to commit, a rape or aggravated sodomy of any person

• the killing of a law enforcement officer

• the killing of more than one person as part of the same act or in two or more acts connected together

• the killing of a child under age 14 during a kidnapping or aggravated kidnapping with the intent to commit a sex offense upon the child” (

Yes, this is just an example of one state’s guidelines. But, although different states follow slightly different guidelines when considering the death penalty, none of the punishable offenses include impiety or the presenting of controversial ideas to the young.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to think about the outcome of Socrates’ trial if he was tried in a modern day court? Could you imagine if someone was tried in a court of law because his or her ideology was considered outlandish? If you think about it, this would mean that every single person who preached something that the government or the majority of people didn’t agree with would be prosecuted. Clearly things have changed since Socrates’ time.

This brings me to my next point of analysis: majority opinion versus truth. Majority opinion is simply when a large group of people believe in a certain set of principles or the masses agree on a certain issue. Truth on the other hand is a more elusive term, and refers not to the socially acceptable, superficially produced majority view but to the actual reality of a situation. In Socrates’ time, majority opinion (otherwise referred to by the Athenians as democracy: a system of decision making) alone was considered just. In a modern day court of law, majority opinion is important but in and of itself is not enough to give a defendant the death penalty. Instead the court has adopted a more Socratic form of prosecution and has a number of rules and procedures in place in order to search for the truth. In colloquial terms, just because a bunch of people think that something is bad or punishable by death doesn’t mean that their accusations or points of view technically reflect the truth.

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  1. chrisshu permalink
    January 13, 2011 9:28 PM

    Although the United States doesn’t try people for their, as you put it, “outlandish ideologies” many countries still do, or worse, they skip the trial and go directly to the execution so this does still occur in modern day. Another person in this blog even wrote about the eerie similarities between Julian Assange and Socrates. Even looking back in American history, times of war have caused the American government to strictly monitor speech, such as anti-war protests or any form of ideology that seems unpatriotic.

    Secondly, I disagree with your statement, “In a modern day court of law, majority opinion is important but in and of itself is not enough to give a defendant the death penalty.” I think your chart of Sedgwick County’s reflects clearly that majority opinion is what decides what deserves the death penalty. All our laws are based on our ideology of what is “good” and what is “bad”. We dish out capital punishment to murderers because we perceive murder to be “bad”, so bad in fact it deserves the reciprocation of death. However, I do agree with you in that people’s accusations do not reflect truth. Yet, I don’t think peoples’ opinions can ever reflect truth, but rather are always influenced by the traditions and norms of their society. Additionally, laws themselves are not based on, as you say, “truths” but rather the manmade idea “evil” or “bad”. If we make laws based on what we think is “bad”, then we are already subjective in out view rather than objectively finding truth, since evil or bad, by definition is something human and doesn’t occur in nature.

    • lernerm permalink
      January 14, 2011 11:27 AM

      It is fitting that you mention Julian Assange in this context. Assange reportedly fears extradition to Sweden because Sweden would be amenable to American attempts to extradite him to the US.

      He beleives that, if tried in the US, “there is a real risk that he could be made subject to the death penalty” ( He is not being misleading in this respect; US officials have said as much in news reports.

      It is incorrect to claim that the US does not kill its citizens for committing the modern-day equivalent of impiety: “whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death” (18 U.S.C. § 2381).

      If Julian Assange is brought to the US through rendition or extradition, he very well could be put to death if the government manages to, through some form of legal gymnastics, prove that Assange’s encouragement of Pvt. Manning treason brings him under the jurisdiction of the US Code. We are not so fortunate as to live in a time when ideological challenges to institutions go unpunished.

      • chrisshu permalink
        January 14, 2011 10:08 PM

        Treason is very different from impiety. The code you site, “whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death” has nothing to do with impiety and I see no relation between the two. Treason is not at all synonymous with impiety and I am sure Athens had their own laws against treason if an Athenian were to help Sparta, Persian, or any other enemy state, and vice versa. Also, freedom of religion is guaranteed in the first amendment through separation of church and state. Thus I feel your assertion that treason is a modern-day equivalent of impiety is a non-sequitor.

  2. roninglehart permalink
    January 13, 2011 11:16 PM


    You raise some interesting points in your post, and I certainly agree that there has been a great deal of change in concepts of justice over the centuries. I do, however, find myself concerned with the way that you set up the poll that you attached to your post. In it, you left the reader with two options, which I feel are insufficient. A reader had either to decide that only murder should be punishable by death, or else that “ideological offenses” were also deserving of the death penalty. There was no option for someone who felt that the death penalty was immoral under all circumstances, while there was also no option for someone who felt that, while more crimes than murder alone warrant the application of the death penalty, “ideological offenses” do not. If you want to get an accurate idea of people’s perceptions, it would be a good idea to consider phrasing and the range of options offered to respondents before posting a poll.

    Please note – no offense intended, I do think that you have a good idea and made some interesting points in your post, I just was thinking that it’d be a way to improve the post if the poll was set up to give a wider range of options.

  3. Zachary Orsini permalink
    January 15, 2011 7:20 PM


    Nice post; it is interesting to think about how much society’s judicial system has changed within the past 2500ish years.

    A good question to ask ourselves is the following: “Has human society really developed a “better” judicial system over time?” We would (of course) like to think that we have, and most people today would say that we have; but how do you define a “better” judicial system? Is it one that further increases human happiness? Is it one that is more accurate in determining who is “guilty” and who is not? Are accuracy in justice and human happiness intertwined (human being dependent upon accuracy in judgement)? I don’t have absolute answers to these questions; they are, however, interesting to consider.

    Along with chrisshu, I have a bit of a problem with this statement:

    “In a modern day court of law, majority opinion is important but in and of itself is not enough to give a defendant the death penalty. Instead the court has adopted a more Socratic form of prosecution and has a number of rules and procedures in place in order to search for the truth.”

    Today (in the United States), the jury determines the guilt or innocence of individuals in criminal cases. The laws that determine what actions would make people “guilty” of a criminal offense are determined (indirectly) by “majority opinion” in the form of representative government. Thus, both the description of what is a crime and the determination of who is guilty are determined by “majority opinion.” Yes, we do “search for the truth” through our judicial system, but so did the Athenians! (Whether or not they actually “found the truth” in every court case is a different story.)

    The problem is that the truth is rather difficult to obtain. Human perception always seems to get in the way.

  4. Boris Pevzner permalink
    January 17, 2011 4:25 PM

    This is an interesting post trying to compare the system of laws between two very different societies.

    I think the biggest difference between the system of laws and overall status quo of dealing with injustices and wrongdoings between Socrates’ time and today is that the majority opinion is not seen with as much importance in today’s law system. Back then in Athens, when the form of government was a more direct democracy than ours, the majority of citizens voted on many more issues than simply electing an official.

    With that increase of power to the average citizen, the majority opinion of the city was treated with a much higher regard. Because of their direct democracy, the opinions of the average joe in Athens actually became the laws, no matter whether they were seen as morally just or unjust.

    Thus, simply because most of Athens was not used to someone like Socrates questioning their children and allowing them to think outside of the box, they saw it as wrong. In today’s court system, ideology is not punished unless it has direct plans to do evil. So even if someone was known to have an agenda for racism and other ideas that the majority of America has a problem with, this would not be punishable in a court of a law, unlike what happened to Socrates.

    Therefore the main difference between those ancient times and our modern times is a general seeking of truth in today’s America, not simply accepting the majority opinion on a matter that they might not be experts in.

  5. January 20, 2011 10:59 PM

    The ideas in this thread are very sophisticated. I wish to respond to the though provoking comment produced by Zachary Orsini which addresses the question of whether or not our judicial system is “better” than the Athenian judicial system. I believe the current judicial system is better because it is more sophisticated, systematically yearns for truth appropriately, and attempts to be as just as possible. Unlike the Athenian judicial system, the U.S system has a hierarchy of courts. Such a sophisticated system allows for appeals that can dilute erroneous human perceptions and biases. Moreover the jury in U.S courts is more representative of the U.S population unlike in the Athenian court system. I further believe that certain laws are in place to appropriately find the truth. We give our defendants rights, and we have a conviction premise of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I reasonably doubted whether Socrates did not believe in Gods. Moreover, we have laws that give guidance to our police officers. For example, all evidence must be attained legally or will be inadmissible in court. I believe this allows for a more appropriate pursuit of truth not found in the Athenian judicial system. My last comment is that to make a judicial system better, you do not base it on a “happiness maximizing” premise. The truth can be ugly, and justice provoking. Thus, what is just does not necessarily make people happy, it simply means that it is the right thing to do.

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