Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths

Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths

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by Robin Waterfield

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A revisionist account of the most famous trial and execution in Western civilization—one with great resonance for American society today.

In the spring of 399 BCE, Socrates stood trial in his native Athens. The court was packed, and after being found guilty by his peers, Socrates died by drinking a cup of the poison hemlock. But,See more details below


A revisionist account of the most famous trial and execution in Western civilization—one with great resonance for American society today.

In the spring of 399 BCE, Socrates stood trial in his native Athens. The court was packed, and after being found guilty by his peers, Socrates died by drinking a cup of the poison hemlock. But, Robin Waterfield asks in this provocative reinterpretation of one of the most famous court cases in world history, is this the whole story? Examining not only the actual records but placing Socrates in the historical context of an Athenian society in a state of moral decline, Waterfield provides a gripping portrait of our most enduring philosopher.

Praise for Robin Waterfield’s Xenophon’s Retreat:

“An excellent book. Robin Waterfield writes very well, in a style that is accessible and sophisticated.”—Barry Strauss, Cornell University, author of The Trojan War

“A timeless story as well as a vivid tale of its times.”—BBC History magazine

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

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)

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Library Journal

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.
—Stewart Desmond

Historical Novels Review
From the author of Xenophon's Retreat comes this fascinating study of the history behind the case against Socrates. A useful glossary, bibliography, and extensive notes complete this fine work. A real page-turner.— Ann Oughton
Starred Review. Impressive scholarship redefining an iconic event.— Bryce Christensen
Ann Oughton - Historical Novels Review
“From the author of Xenophon's Retreat comes this fascinating study of the history behind the case against Socrates. A useful glossary, bibliography, and extensive notes complete this fine work. A real page-turner.”
Bryce Christensen - Booklist
“Starred Review. Impressive scholarship redefining an iconic event.”

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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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.

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