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SOCRATES: Innocent or Guilty?

January 24, 2011

Since the time Socrates has gained fame for accepting his death for the charges of corrupting the youth and not believing in the G-d’s, scholars, professors, and students of all kinds have argued and debated the truth behind his guilty sentence. There are those who believe that Socrates was simply guilty, and only further proved this by his informal and obnoxious behavior in the courtroom. There are others who believe in his guilt, but feel that it did not deserve the death penalty. Still, there are others who believe he was innocent, plain and simple, and was used solely as an example. Who to believe is found in the account that Plato leaves us, telling the story of Socrates’ trial, his behavior and defense during the trial, and the seemingly insufficient prosecution that led to the penalty of death.

For those who believe in Socrates’ innocence, I would have to agree. Though I am in no way a historian in the subject of Socrates, I have been able to analyze the texts that are left for us by Plato. For me, Socrates’ defense against the charge that he doesn’t believe in G-d’s is fairly sufficient. He admits to not believing in the G-d’s of Athens, but does assert that he lives his life by the words of some sort of higher being, or spirits. As he mentions, “I live in great poverty because of my service to G-d” (23c). I agree with his argument when he says that claiming he is an atheist is completely false, considering he does believe in higher power spiritual beings. Therefore, for the charge of not believing in the G-d’s, I would cast my vote as not guilty.

Next is the claim that Socrates has corrupted the youth. However, in what I have seen there is no proof that the youth is corrupt in any way. I agree, however, that waiting many years to find out whether Socrates’ words were actually words of corruption is pointless, especially considering Socrates’ old age at the time. Next, Meletus and the rest of the prosecution claim that Socrates, and Socrates only, is the one person in Athens that does not better the youth, and is in fact harshly corrupting them. Again, I am hesitant to believe that one person can be blamed for the sole corruption of an entire generation of young adults. Therefore, for this charge as well, I would have to cast my vote in Socrates’ favor, not guilty.

I acknowledge that there are still those who believe in Socrates’ guilt, and that they believe that his obnoxious and seemingly insincere defense led the majority to vote in the prosecution’s favor. Moreover, I can fathom the idea that the mixture of his intolerable behavior and the fact that the city wanted to make an example out of Socrates would lead to his guilty conviction.

Finally, the only way that Socrates was found guilty, in my eyes, is that there is some information and evidence that was lost in translation. Some part of Plato’s recount of that day vanished over the years, and we are now stuck with a case with little to no evidence. I cannot imagine that a majority in any country or for any reason could find a man guilty and deserving of death given the information we have from Apology. Although it is hardly imaginable that we will recover any other information on the case of Socrates, I hope one day we do so I can find solace in Socrates’ guilty sentence.

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4 Comments
  1. Bobby Marshall permalink
    January 25, 2011 8:41 PM

    I agree with your assessment, very well-thought out. In my eyes i had trouble finding exactly in the text where Socrates was guilty. Like you said, for the first offense of not believing in the gods of Athens, Socrates does indeed admit that he does not believe in the Athenian gods but does believe in some sort of high being which governs his conscience and actions. One could make the argument that following a different God is completely different for the moral actions governed by one God is different than the moral actions governed by one who believes in another God, but in the case of Socrates i disagree. Though Socrates did not believe in the same God as the Athenian people, i see no way of charging him for this offense. He does nothing wrong or unjust, and even goes as far as to say that in the end he knows nothing. I feel like the Athenian court system took this law far too literally and therefore on their literal translation of the law were able to charge Socrates. I can understand how the Athenians could argue that Socrates had corrupted the youth, for he had a group of individuals following his teachings and actions but i believe this offense also lacked any substantial evidence whatsoever. Again i believe that the literal translation of the law was used against Socrates. Due to the overwhelming lack of evidence against Socrates i wholeheartedly believe that this trial and his eventual death were used to make an example of Socrates and propaganda against the idea of acting out against the social norm. Though i think it would be incredibly interesting that there was a third offense lost in translation, i don’t believe so, rather i believe that the Athenians were cruel yet similar to most who seem to walk this Earth: afraid of change and what is different.

  2. Layne Simescu permalink
    February 2, 2011 9:27 PM

    In the case of Socrates and the ancient Athenian government, it is difficult to determine whether or not he was actually guilty. We have to keep in mind that the Athenian Law is much different than laws today. Even though Athenian laws may have been unjust, they were still laws and Socrates’ trial would have to assessed accordingly. In other words, the laws in Athens back then may be immoral today, but they were still enforced and absolute. Setting aside all modern concepts of justice, was Socrates guilty based solely on the laws of Athens? I think he was. That is not to say I agree with his death sentence or ancient Athenian laws in general. I think that Socrates’ trial was very unjust, but based solely on what was legal and illegal in Athens at the time, he was guilty.
    Socrates was charged with not believing in the gods of Athens. It was a law that all citizens of Athens should believe in the gods of Athens. Socrates never explicitly says that he does believe in the gods of Athens. He doesn’t defend himself with proof of his belief in those gods. Instead, he says he believes in spirits. His beliefs in The Divine are obviously different than that of conventional Athenians. Socrates even describes his mistrust in the gods. He claims that he questions people and lives the way he lives because he is on a mission of the god at Delphi to find a man wiser than he. But, the god at Delphi never sent Socrates on a mission to find a man wiser than he. The oracle at Delphi plainly stated that no one is wiser than Socrates. There was no request of a mission involved. Socrates even states that he wanted to “refute the oracle and say to it: ‘This man is wiser than I, but you said I was (21 c of Plato’s The Trial and Death of Socrates).'” This statement proves that his mission was purely out of distrust for the oracle and the need to prove it wrong. This is not believing in the god. Believing in the gods is putting ones soul into trusting whatever the gods say and knowing them to be correct and almighty. This is what Athenians believed in. Socrates did not share that belief. He didn’t believe the oracle to be true and so he went on a mission to try to prove it wrong. In this he is guilty in the eyes of Athenian Law.
    Again, I do not think the trial of Socrates was just, but it was judged based on the laws of Athens at the time. Even though those laws are not just, Socrates was fairly proven guilty based on the laws alone.

  3. Joseph Dallo permalink
    February 3, 2011 3:33 PM

    I agree with Stephan, that Socrates was not guilty. Many people may think that Socrates’ defense was a weak one, for he didn’t actually go out and defend himself. However, this was the case because he wasn’t being attacked in the first place. He was charged for invalid reasons.
    1. Not believing in the gods of Athens? He never went out and said that he doesn’t believe in them. The words he says still leave room for the possibility that he belived in the gods of Athens. The spirits Socrates believed in don’t rule out Athen’s gods.
    2. Corrupting the youth? All Socrates is doing is going out to different people, and questioning them. He may have had some young people following him, but all they were doing was listening to the conversations Socrates had with the people of Athens. If the youth come up with ideas based on the conversations he had, then that is perfectly okay. Their beliefs are forming from within their own selves, not Socrates, for Socrates explicitly showed that he is not teaching anyone anything.

    Therefore, Socrates’ trial was unjust, even under Athenian law.

  4. josephdallo permalink
    February 3, 2011 3:45 PM

    I agree with Stephan, that Socrates was not guilty. Many may think that Socrates’ defense was a weak one, for he did not actually go out and defend himself. However, he did not need to, because he wasn’t even being attacked in the first place. The charges set on Socrates were invalid and unjust.
    1. Not believing in the the gods of Athens? Socrates makes it clear that he believes in spirits. However, this does not rule out the fact that he does not believe in Athenian laws. He never goes out and denies that they exist, it’s just that he may have a different reason to believe in them, or a different view of them.
    2. Corrupting the youth? Socrates clearly did not do so: All he did was go around the city questioning people. There may have been some students following him, but all they were doing was listening to the conversations Socrates had. Whatever ideas the youth had came from themselves, for Socrates did not explicitly did not teach anything.

    In my opinion, I think that Socrates’ accusers knew in their hearts that he was right – they were just afraid of the truth, among other things. Even if they didn’t completely believe what Socrates said, they felt uncomfortable with his “teachings” because his “teachings” had more truth than the accusers themselves had.

    Therefore, Socrates was not guilty, even under Athenian law.

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