Socrates in Death

In 399 B.C. Socrates was brought to trial on the charges of (1) not worshipping the gods whom the State worshiped, but introducing new and unfamiliar religious practices, and (2) of corrupting the youth of Athens. Why did Socrates suddenly find himself in such dire circumstances?

Socrates' philosophical vocation had not changed but political realities in Athens had. The protracted Peloponnesian War — sometimes referred to as “Athens Vietnam” — began in 431 and ended in defeat for Athens in 404. Socrates had lived freely during much of his time in Periclean Athens. (Pericles (495-429 B.C.) was an Athenian statesman and general noted for his oratory and leadership skills. He championed democracy and presided over Athens's “Golden Age,” sending out colonists and building its empire.)

But now the climate was different. The Athenian politician and general Alcibiades turned out to be a traitor, aiding rival Sparta's victory. Many Athenians knew that Alcibiades was Socrates' pupil and concluded that Socrates must have had a hand in his corrupt actions. In addition, Critias and Charmides, friends of Socrates, were involved in the Commission of Thirty, a violent oligarchy executing anyone having to do with the democratic Athens of Pericles' time. For Socrates it was another example of guilt by association.

Prior to his trial, Socrates could have gone into exile. He also could have hired a lawyer, or “rhetor,” to defend him in court. Instead he chose to defend himself before 501 jurors, which was a snapshot of a diverse Athenian society. In his defense he challenged the trumped up charges against him, showing that the real grounds for bringing him to trial were political. But he was found guilty by a vote of 280 to 221.

Defendants had from morning until evening to conduct their defenses and there were no appeals. Some people have commented that Socrates might have swayed more jurors to his side if he had more time. But this is doubtful. After all, between the verdict and penalty phases of his trial a second count was taken and Socrates lost eight-one people who were previously on his side.

In the penalty phase of his trial the prosecutor Meletus proposed the death penalty. As was customary, the defendant proposed a counter-penalty. Socrates offered to pay a meager fine of thirty minae, which he said his friends in the court would put up. He then argued that he should be maintained publicly in the Prytaneum, an elegant residence, as a reward for his years of service philosophizing for the State. This was an honor bestowed upon eminent generals, Olympian winners, and other outstanding people.

As for holding his tongue or going into exile, both were unthinkable. He said that he would not stop philosophizing, since to cease and desist in this way would be tantamount to agreeing with the court that he had harmed his citizens rather than helped them.

During his trial Socrates considered whether he should cease philosophizing. Ultimately he decided that he could not, for he believed on Apollo's authority that the philosophical pilgrimage of his life had been a good choice, and at no time during his trial had his inner voice instructed him to change his views.

Socrates had irritated his audience further. Affronted by his arrogance, a second vote was taken. Now the tally was 361 to 140 for the death penalty. Some four weeks after the trial Socrates faced death in jail. Crito, as described in Plato's dialogue of that name, tried to persuade Socrates to escape. But Socrates refused. He argued that escaping would be unjust, since it would nullify the verdict of the court. The jailor brought Socrates a cup of hemlock. He drank it and died.

How does hemlock kill an individual?

The cup of hemlock (obtained from a poisonous hemlock tree) that Socrates drank would numb his lower extremities and make its way up his body. He was told that if he kept moving about and getting overheated, the poison would work more quickly. He drank from the cup, before sitting and then lying down to die.

Crito used other arguments to convince Socrates to escape. The reasons he offered were that Socrates had duties to his children and that the reputation of his friends would suffer if he didn't escape, since it would appear that they refused to spend the money to spring him from jail. Socrates replied that it is always wrong to do wrong. Further, all revenge is a kind of wrongdoing and escape is a kind of revenge. It follows, therefore, that it is wrong to escape.

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