Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Mythsby Robin Waterfield
Socrates’ trial and death together form an iconic moment in Western civilization. In 399 BCE, the great philosopher stood before an Athenian jury on serious charges: impiety and “subverting the young men of
A revisionist account of the most famous trial and execution in Western civilizationone with great resonance for American society today.
Socrates’ trial and death together form an iconic moment in Western civilization. In 399 BCE, the great philosopher stood before an Athenian jury on serious charges: impiety and “subverting the young men of the city.” The picture we have of itcreated by his immediate followers, Plato and Xenophon, and perpetuated in countless works of literature and art ever sinceis of a noble man putting his lips to the poisonous cup of hemlock, sentenced to death in a fit of folly by an ancient Athenian democracy already fighting for its own life. But an icon, an image, is not reality, and time has transmuted so many of the facts into historical fable.
Aware of these myths, Robin Waterfield has examined the actual Greek sources and presents here a new Socrates, in which he separates the legend from the man himself. As Waterfield recounts the story, the charges of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens were already enough for a death sentence, but the prosecutors accused him of more. They asserted that Socrates was not just an atheist and the guru of a weird sect but also an elitist who surrounded himself with politically undesirable characters and had mentored those responsible for defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Their claims were not without substance, for Plato and Xenophon, among Socrates’ closest companions, had idolized him as students, while Alcibiades, the hawkish and notoriously self-serving general, had brought Athens to the brink of military disaster. In fact, as Waterfield perceptively shows through an engrossing historical narrative, there was a great deal of truth, from an Athenian perspective, in these charges.
The trial was, in part, a response to troubled timesAthens was reeling from a catastrophic war and undergoing turbulent social changesand Socrates’ companions were unfortunately direct representatives of these troubles. Their words and actions, judiciously sifted and placed in proper context, not only serve to portray Socrates as a flesh-and-blood historical figure but also provide a good lens through which to explore both the trial and the general history of the period.
Ultimately, the study of these events and principal figures allows us to finally strip away the veneer that has for so long denied us glimpses of the real Socrates. Why Socrates Died is an illuminating, authoritative account of not only one of the defining periods of Western civilization but also of one of its most defining figures.
Socrates and Alcibiades were an unlikely couple: an ugly old philosopher and a charming, intelligent, ambitious and arrogant aristocrat. The fallout from this relationship and an unpopular war toppled the world's most significant philosophical figure. By placing the execution of Socrates against the context of the Peloponnesian War, classicist Waterfield (Xenophon's Retreat) argues that a guilty verdict against the philosopher, charged with impiety and corrupting Athens's youth, was a rational outcome. "Athens of the last third of the fifth century B.C. was affected by a striking list of stress factors. Old certainties were being undermined by prolonged warfare, morally subversive ideas, population displacement" and other forms of social upheaval. Sitting atop a solid foundation of scholarship, this valuable survey of an important period of ancient history is especially useful as a prelude to texts by Plato, Xenophon and Thucydides. Of the many introductory studies on the Athenian judicial system, the trial of Socrates, the conflict between Athens and Sparta and the reasons that democracy gave way to oligarchy in Athens, this is among the clearest, most well-organized and most concise. 4 pages of illus., maps. (May)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Classicist Waterfield examines the trial and conviction of Socrates (c.470-399 B.C.E.) in the context of the fifth-century B.C.E. political upheavals in Athens that led to humiliating defeat by Sparta in 404 B.C.E. Waterfield sets the stage for Socrates' trial with a thorough and fascinating account of the democratic process of lawmaking and justice in Athens. In Waterfield's view, citizens of the Greek city-state blamed the catastrophe of defeat on the displeasure of the gods. Who could be more responsible than Socrates, who taught the young to doubt their fathers and question ancient values? His belief in governance by expert seemed to favor oligarchy over traditional democracy. Socrates was also closely associated with leaders of the short and bloody oligarchic coup (404-403 B.C.E.) following defeat. Waterfield argues that citizens of the restored democracy blamed the philosopher for his heretical education of the generation that came to maturity during the upheavals, most prominently the adventurer Alcibiades, who represented for many the corruption of values that led to defeat. Waterfield brings to life the ideas and emotions teeming in ancient Athens and makes Socrates' sentence of death seem inevitable. This learned book in clear, concise prose belongs in all libraries.
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Read an Excerpt
Everyone has heard of Socrates, and even if they know little or nothing else about the man, they usually know that he was put to death by his fellow Athenians in 399 BCE. The events surrounding Socrates’ death have become iconic — more discussed, portrayed or merely mentioned — than any except those surrounding the death, some four hundred years later, of a Jewish prophet called Yehoshua. In fact, the two trials and executions often seem to meld in people’s minds, so that Socrates too becomes a kind of martyr — a good man unjustly killed for his views, or for being an outstanding individual in a collectivist society, or something like that. Do a web search for ‘Socrates and Jesus’ and you will see what I mean. But Socrates would have been the last to want to leave a cultural icon unexamined, and that is what I do in this book: examine all the evidence in order to reach a fuller understanding of Socrates’ trial and execution than has been achieved before.
Socrates’ trial was a critical moment in ancient Athenian history, and so provides a very good lens through which to study a complex and perennially fascinating, somewhat alien society. That is my second intention: to provide a readable account of as much Athenian history as is necessary to fill in the background of the trial. For we will, of course, never understand the trial without being able to enter, as fully as possible, into the mindset of the Athenians who condemned him to death. This is a book about classical Athenian society as much as it is about Socrates, and especially about the social crisis that Athens endured in the decades immediately preceding Socrates’ trial.
Socrates was famous: we have more evidence about him, and about Alcibiades, his beloved (who also features prominently in this book), than any other two figures from classical Athens. But even this good fortune may be two-edged. Socrates himself wrote nothing, and almost all the evidence about him comes from two of his followers, Plato and Xenophon, both of whom had their own agendas and reasons for writing. Among these reasons was a desire to exculpate their mentor — to make their fellow Athenians wonder why they ever condemned him to death (in this respect, at least, he truly resembles Jesus). So we may have a greater number of words about Socrates than about any comparable ancient Athenian, but every single word needs to be weighed and treated with caution. And the same goes for Alcibiades, a flamboyant, larger-than-life character whose image became exaggerated over the years, until he became an archetypal dandy, profligate and sexual omnivore, whose tyrannical political intentions could be read off from his private life. As if the dubious source material did not make the work difficult enough, at the heart of this book is a trial. The nature of Athenian society, and of the legal system in particular, means that very few trials — and none of those on social charges such as those of which Socrates was accused — were concerned only with the explicit charges. So all the evidence needs a judicious approach.
Socrates himself wrote nothing, as I have said, and there is a temptation to understand this as an eloquent way of asserting his mistrust of the written word. It is true that he preferred the flexibility of living conversation and the spark of pre-verbal knowledge that can occasionally be transmitted in such circumstances, but it is more to the point to remember that disseminating one’s ideas by means of the written word was still very rare in his day. But he did have views and opinions, and we need to unearth them from the pages of those who wrote about him, while recognizing that it will never finally be possible to disentangle Socrates’ own views from those of his followers.
I have long believed that the historical Socrates is pretty irrecoverable, but also that it would be sheer stupidity to deny that he cast a shadow over the works of Xenophon and Plato. Scholars often cling hopefully or desperately to a distinction between the ‘historical’ Socrates of Plato’s earlier dialogues, and the character ‘Socrates’ who seems to speak for Plato’s own ideas in later dialogues. I no longer believe in this distinction, except that in the light of Plato’s genius the shadow of the historical Socrates becomes harder to discern; but in order not to beg the question, I have avoided using Plato’s later dialogues for anything except corroborative evidence. I make far more use of Xenophon’s testimony than has been normal in the scholarly study of Socrates for the past hundred or so years — but I have already groused enough in print about the neglect of Xenophon, so I will say now only that without his help we are never going to gain a rounded picture of Socrates, or even of just his trial.
Socrates was a philosopher, one of the most influential the world has ever seen. Naturally, then, in this book I make quite a bit of use of philosophical texts. But I do not want to alarm any reader who associates ‘philosophy’ with ‘density and complexity’, or even with ‘futility’. Neither of these is a fair reaction to the majority of the ancient philosophers, for whom philosophy was, above all, a practical exercise in self-improvement. These early philosophers were dealing with real issues, problems arising from real life, so their work was not futile; many of them were trying in part to reach the ordinary educated man, and when they were making this attempt they did not write with density and complexity. At any rate, the Socratic works of Plato and Xenophon should more properly be classified as intelligent fiction than as tough philosophical textbooks.
In any case, this book is a work of history, and I scarcely scratch the surface of Socrates’ philosophy. But in locating political concerns at the heart of Socrates’ enterprise, I do present a revisionist picture of his thought. In this book, however, I write not as a philosopher but as a historian, and from a historian’s point of view the evidence for a more politically engaged Socrates is as plentiful as that for many reconstructions of the period.
Meet the Author
Robin Waterfield, whose many translations include works by Plato, Plutarch, and Aristotle, currently resides on a farm in Greece. His career spans both academia and publishing.
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