The Verdict of History: The Great Trials. From Ancient Times To Our Days.

The Verdict of History: The Great Trials. From Ancient Times To Our Days.

by Virginia Lalli


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ISBN-13: 9781504986786
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 03/24/2016
Pages: 120
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.25(d)

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The Verdict of History

The Great Trials. From Ancient Times To Our Days.

By Virginia Lalli


Copyright © 2016 Virginia Lalli
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5049-8678-6



I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and [...] the life which is unexamined is not worth living.

Apology by Plato

Plato's Apology was written as a direct testimony of Socrates' trial for impiety.

This trial took place on a morning in May 399 BCE, at the Heliaia, the court of Athens.

Three accusations were made against Socrates (Athens 469 BCE - Athens 399 BCE) before the Heliaia: impiety, corruption of youth, and introduction of new deities and non-recognition of the traditional ones. For these, Meletus and Anytus asked for the death penalty to be inflicted upon the old philosopher. At the time, criminal cases could only last one day: therefore, the trial began early at sunrise and ended at sunset.

Socrates began by saying: "I cannot in a moment refute great slanders". At the time of the trial, Socrates was seventy years old, was married and had three children. It was the first time for him to appear in court.

"Thus," continued Socrates, "I must defend myself against two categories of accusers: those who are in court and those who have slandered me for a very long time now." He noted that there was also a third category of accusers: a number of "Athenian citizens, much more fearsome than Anytus and Meletus".

This category counted several members and had engaged in criticism of Socrates for a very long time, to the extent that those who attended the trial had already heard him speak when they were adolescents, and thus accused without allowing him the chance to defend himself.

"These citizens cannot be named," said Socrates, "except for certain dramatists." These in particular had managed to persuade others, who in turn then convinced yet others. This brought Socrates to say that to defend himself, he "must simply fight with shadows". "Yet Socrates, a victim among many of that satire, felt in court that the origin of his troubles lay precisely in the fame and in the face that the dramatists had thrust upon him; and Anytus shrewdly took advantage of this to win over popular opinion and lend credibility to his accusations".

The most important dramatist named by Socrates was Aristophanes. The latter had poked fun at Socrates in his comedy The Clouds (verses 264-266), written in 423 BCE. As told by Socrates himself, in that play he is portrayed to walk among the clouds and "talking a deal of nonsense".

The Clouds describes Socrates as a sophist and a naturalistic philosopher who lived in a house called a phronisterion (thinking place) and who taught "unjust dialogue" to prevail over "just dialogue". It was no coincidence that in the play's debate between Just Dialogue and Unjust Dialogue, the latter casts doubt upon traditional morality. Even a value such as respect for one's parents becomes relative, seeing as Zeus himself rebelled against his father Chronos.

"In addition, in the comedy, Socrates presents the supreme divinities specific to intellectuals: the Clouds 'alone are divinities, all the rest is nonsense' (v. 365) and, out of carelessness and superficiality, Strepsiades will be led to swear on 'fog' and to get rid of the gods of the Olympus."

However, according to Plato's Symposium, Socrates was actually on friendly terms with the comic poet.

In comedies, Socrates was usually assimilated to the Sophists, a current that in reality he opposed. In his view, for a mere fee, the Sophists (who included figures such as Gorgias from Leontini, Prodicus of Ceos and Hippias of Elis in their midst) would teach one to say everything and its opposite through the art of eloquence. According to the Sophists, there was no single truth that applied to all, because of the relativity and mutability that they believed were at the basis of laws, customs, religions and of all possible "truth" in scientific realms. Therefore, Man was the "centre of the universe" and words were extremely powerful "extrinsic means of persuasion". Socrates, on the other hand, felt the need to "replace these devastating teachings with a renewal that was at once both scientific and moral".

Socrates' greatest supporter was Chaerephon, who once consulted the Oracle at Delphi to ask whether there was anyone more knowledgeable than Socrates. The priestess of Delphi, the Pythia, answered that there was nobody wiser. Unfortunately, buBy the time of Socrates' trial, Chaerephon had died, but the trial was attended by Chaerepon's brother, who referred the episode. Thus, Socrates said: "[f]or wherever a man's place is, whether the place which he has chosen or that in which he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remain in the hour of danger; he should not think of death or of anything but of disgrace. [...] [I]f, I say, now, when, as I conceive and imagine, God orders me to fulfil the philosopher's mission of searching into myself and other men, I were to desert my post through fear of death, or any other fear; that would indeed be strange, and I might justly be arraigned in court for denying the existence of the gods, if I disobeyed the Oracle because I was afraid of death: then I should be fancying that I was wise when I was not wise. For this fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good."

Likewise, Socrates could not live quietly, maybe exiled, because it would equate with disobeying God: this would be impossible to him, for he perceived the greatest good of man to be "daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you her me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living. [...] And yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you."

Meletus argued that Socrates was guilty because he corrupted youths. Socrates answered that, if he corrupted youths, he could not possibly be doing so intentionally: to corrupt people means to make them evil, which exposes oneself to the risk of being harmed by them. At the very worst, this could only be done involuntarily, and thus could not attract a criminal sanction. Indeed, these sanctions made sense only if imposed for intentional deeds, and could not lead those who may have made unintentional mistakes to understand the reasons for their wrongdoing.

In the ensuing dialogue with Meletus, Socrates "maieutically" asked questions that eventually led the accuser to doubt himself. Socrates asked: "Would you say that this holds true in the case of horses? Does one man do them harm and all the world good? Is not the exact opposite of this true? One man is able to do them good, or at least not many; the trainer of horses, that is to say, does them good, and others who have to do with them rather injure them? [...] Happy indeed would be the condition of youth if they had one corrupter only, and all the rest of the world were their improvers."

In other words, Socrates demonstrated that Meletus was no expert on the education of youth and indeed had never been interested in such matters.

According to another accusation leveled by Meletus, Socrates did not believe in the existence of the gods, but rather believed that the sun was made of stone and the moon of earth, and that neither were deities.

Socrates replied that this accusation was better made against Anaxagoras; in any case, youths could hear these ideas at the theatre, for an admission ticket costing no more than one drachma. Socrates brought Meletus' contradictions to the fore in the space of only a few remarks. He got Meletus to admit that people only agree to spend time with those who bring them good, fleeing from those who bring them evil. Therefore, Socrates could not possibly be teaching evil; otherwise, nobody would spend time with him. Alternatively, if Socrates did teach evil, he did so unawares and as such, in accordance with Athenian law, those who err unintentionally were not to be put to trial but rather to be educated.

Socrates' merciless destruction of Meletus continued as he refuted the accusation of eschewing the traditional gods in favour of new ones (namely, the Socratic daimon): Socrates showed that it was impossible to not believe in the traditional gods yet profess faith in certain other gods, such that Meletus ended up contradicting his own accusation. Then, Socrates only had to prove that he believed in one of the city gods and that his daimon was the offspring thereof. This he did by means of an analogy. He first stated that there could not be the existence of human things and not of human beings, of horsemanship and not of horses, or flute-playing without flute players. Likewise, there could not be new gods if these did not originate (even as impure offspring) from the existing gods.

However, even if the Athenians decided to disregard Anytus' call and to free Socrates on the condition that he no longer engage in philosophy, Socrates stated that he could not obey the Athenians and ignore the gods; he could not refrain from engaging in philosophy and exhorting and advising.

But what was the nature of Socrates' speeches? What was their content? Socrates himself provided us with a description that Plato reports in his Apology: "O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and might and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? [...] "And if the person with whom I am arguing says: Yes, but I do care; I do not depart or let him go at once; I interrogate and examine and cross-examine him, and if I think that he has no virtue, but only says that he has, I reproach him with undervaluing the greater, and overvaluing the less. And this I should say to everyone whom I meet, young and old, citizen and alien, but especially to the citizens, inasmuch as they are my brethren. For this is the command of God, as I would have you know; and I believe that to this day no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God. For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue come money and every other good of man, public as well as private."

Are these things so evil as to deserve the death penalty?

Or, said Socrates, would the Athenians have "injured [them]selves more than [they] would injure [him], by wrongfully imposing the death penalty against the gift of the god who placed [him] alongside the city, to arouse, persuade and reproach [them] one by one, always and in all places fastening upon [them]." Chosen by the heavens, Socrates argued that he had strived to fulfill his tasks to the best of his abilities, neglecting his own concerns and living in utter poverty. He came to the Athenians as a father, as an elder brother, to exhort them to be virtuous.

Socrates noted that some may have wondered why, with all his wisdom, he did not enter politics and advise the state. He explained that he was willing to advise citizens but not the state because his daimon prevented him from doing so. It would be impossible for someone to save himself if he legitimately opposed the state and yet sought to avoid injustice or illegal deeds from being committed in the city.

Socrates stated that "as part of the Council", "[their] tribe of Antiochis had the presidency at the trial of the generals who had not taken up the bodies of the slain after the battle of Arginusae; and [the Athenians] proposed to try them all together, which was illegal, as [the Athenians] all thought afterwards."

Socrates was the only Prytaneis to disagree and appeal to refrain from committing illegalities. For this, the Prytaneis were willing to put him to trial and imprison him, but Socrates nevertheless preferred to risk and remain on the side of justice and the law. The Oligarchy of the Thirty then gained power. These "sent for [him] and four others into the rotunda, and bade [them] bring Leon the Salaminian from Salamina", as they wanted to execute him (his only fault being that he supported democracy).

On that occasion too, Socrates showed that he did not fear death, but was instead concerned with refraining from injustice or impiety. While his four companions went to Salamina, Socrates returned home. The government was overthrown and Socrates could not be put to death.

The daimon thus appears to be an interior calling inspired by divinity, that ceaselessly spurs one to a quest for justice without ever being sated, and to remain vigilant because nothing can ever be taken for granted.

As for the death penalty called for by Anytus, Socrates wondered aloud whether perhaps he should not rather receive a reward. He had "never had the with to be idle during his whole life; but has been careless of what the many care about – wealth, and family interests, and military offices," and other public honours; he sought rather to "persuade every man among [the Athenians] that he must look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests", to become better and wiser.

"What do I deserve to suffer?" asks Socrates. "A reward for a benefactor who educates you, or to enjoy the support of the Prytaneum".

There were five hundred persons eligible to vote. Ultimately, Socrates was found guilty by a margin of only thirty votes: 220 were cast in his favour and 280 against him. If only thirty more people could have been persuaded, perfect parity would have been reached and no penalty could have been imposed, as established by the law of the time. Yet, when Socrates' friends offered to help him flee the city and escape all the accusations, he answered:

"I do not want to escape; one must never commit an injustice, even when one has suffered from one." After the judges had read out the penalty, the accused was to propose a "counterpenalty". Indeed, according to the laws of the Athenian tribunal, both the accused and the accuser had to propose a penalty and submit it to a vote. But how could Socrates propose a penalty for himself, that is, for one who is well aware that he has not committed any crime? The possibilities open to him were prison, exile or a sum of money – the latter of which, however, Socrates did not possess. He did not consider incarceration and enslavement to be just; therefore, it was all the less likely that he would have considered exile to be honourable: if he was sentenced by the people whom he loved, who else could ever accept him and his philosophy? Especially since he was incapable of refraining from engaging in philosophy, out of obedience to God and personal conviction. However, Socrates predicted, those who voted for his death would receive an even worse revenge from Zeus.

"What, then, is death? Death is one of these two things: either it is as if one becomes nothing, a loss of consciousness, or, as commonly said, death is a change, a migration of the soul from this place to another. If death means to have no consciousness, then it is akin to sleeping. If death is a migration from this place to another, and it is true that in the new place, one can meet all those who are already dead and the greatest heroes of ancient times, what greater good can there be than death, o Judges? If in the Hades one finds the true judges and those who were just in life, how is this transmigration to be despised?"

Finally, in Socrates' view, a just man could not possibly receive harm; nor could his life be neglected by the gods. As a consequence, his circumstances were no coincidence. This was why the mark of God did not attempt to force Socrates to backtrack, as well as the reason why Socrates did not hate those who voted against him or accused him of wrongdoing.

His friend Crito visited him in prison and tried unsuccessfully to convince him to escape; he could have done so easily, also because his friends had the financial means to bribe the prison guards.

As Socrates' execution approached, his followers watched him sleeping peacefully.

When he awoke, he told them about his dream: "I thought a beautiful and majestic woman was approaching me, dressed in white and calling me by name, telling me:

"O Socrates, on the third day you will reach the florid land of Phthia".

"Listen to me and save yourself, I would lose such a friend as is impossible to find" said Crito.

But Socrates was serene, leaving those who survived him without a trace of doubt: without knowledge, life itself has no value and can be abandoned without much regret. The philosopher needs the city, because his research is not self-sufficient but takes place in a community; however, he cannot live in a city that does not accept this research.

In any case, neither Meletus nor Anytus could cause Socrates' downfall. He continued on his path all the same without concern for his life, just like the heroes who fought at Troy. Each citizen, regardless of the modesty of his means, should only be concerned with acting justly, for the good of the city: this is why Socrates refused to leave the place that God assigned to him. The death penalty would damage not Socrates, but the Athenians, who would lose someone who constantly pushed them towards virtue. To explain why he could not escape, Socrates told a tale in which he personified the Laws.

In his tale, the Laws warned Socrates that "one must account for one's behaviour, because by escaping, you will destroy the Laws and the City, at least in part. What value and effectiveness do you believe that can have? What would happen if judgments handed down had no force between private parties, but were, on the contrary, jeopardized by them?

Socrates said that it could be replied that the judgment was unjust.

The Laws, in turn, argued back that "it is by means of Laws that your mother and your father could marry and you could be born." Socrates had nothing to answer to this nor to the Laws on education, in accordance with which Socrates too was raised. "The Laws have justly imposed upon your father to educate you in music and in gymnastics."


Excerpted from The Verdict of History by Virginia Lalli. Copyright © 2016 Virginia Lalli. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface, ix,
Demosthenes and The Distracted Judges, xiii,
1 The Trial of Socrates, 1,
2 The Conspiracy of Catiline, 14,
3 The Trial of Galileo Galilei, 44,
4 The Trial Of Oscar Wilde, 55,
5 The Trial of Nicola Sacco (1891-1927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1888-1927), 66,
6 The Nuremberg Trials, 89,
About the Author, 103,
About the Translator, 104,

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