2412 years ago, one of Hellas' greatest thinkers stood trial before a jury of 500 men, chosen by lot. Socrates (Σωκράτης), a philosopher who was of the opinion that people should not be self-governing; they needed to be led, like a shepherd led a flock of sheep. He was of the opinion that the average Athenian had the basic virtue necessary to nurture a good society, nor the intelligence to foster such virtue within themselves. As such, he was against the democratic system that came to fruition in the city of Athens at the same time he did.
His views came from an oracular message from Delphi. In the words of Diogenēs Laertios (Διογένης Λαέρτιος), a biographer of the Hellenic philosophers:
"And it was in consequence of such sayings and actions as these, that the priestess at Delphi was witness in his favour, when she gave Chaerephon this answer, which is so universally known:
Socrates of all mortals is the wisest.
In consequence of which answer, he incurred great envy; and he brought envy also on himself, by convicting men who gave themselves airs of folly and ignorance, as undoubtedly he did to Anytus; and as is shown in Plato's Meno. For he, not being able to bear Socrates' jesting, first of all set Aristophanes to attack him, and then persuaded Melitus to institute a prosecution against him, on the ground of impiety and of corrupting the youth of the city."
Ánytos (Ἄνυτος) was an ancient Athenian politician. He served as a general in the Peloponnesian War, and was later a leading supporter of the democratic movements in Athens opposed to the oligarchic forces behind the Thirty Tyrants, but more on them, below.
Socrates was vocal about his ideas. He took to the streets and proclaimed them loudly, often while looking down upon those who passed him. Playwright Aristophanes in 'Clouds
' famously mocked him for his holier-than-though attitude. From the play:
Hey Socrates! Socrates, my little mate!
Who is that tiny, insignificant, ephemeral creature down there? Are you calling me and why?
Also portrayed in the play is Socrates' disdain for the Theoi, one of the charges against him in his trial 24 years after 'Clouds' was first produced.
Gods? Gods? What are they? We don’t have any gods around here! They have no currency in our school.
Socrates, it seems, took the play in stride. The Athenian youth, however, did not. Socrates' anti-governmental and reformatory speeches spoke to them. In a trying time after the loss of a major offensive against Sparta, old and young Athenian men--and their ideals--collided, and Socrates put fuel on the fire. Socrates' actions seem to go from being laughable to being subversive around 417 BC.
Critias and Theramenes, possible followers of Socrates' philosophy, were leading members of the Thirty Tyrants (οἱ τριάκοντα τύραννοι), a pro-Spartan oligarchy installed in Athens after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC. They took power over Athens in 411-410 and another slightly longer period in 404-403. During their reign, hundreds were condemned to execution by drinking hemlock, while thousands more were exiled from Athens.
These events may have played a large role in getting Socrates tried; the Athenian people saw obvious similarities between what Socrates had been spewing for years and the actions of the Thirty. Participation in legal functions--which had previously been open to all Athenians--was restricted by the tyrants to a select group of 500 citizens; the wealthy ones. Socrates, famously, refused to work for, or against, the Thirty, meaning he went home while the atrocities took place, keeping his hands and conscious clean.
A general amnesty issued in 403 BC made sure Socrates could not be tried for his actions during the ruling time of the Thirty. In the four years to his trial in 399, however, Socrates managed to make himself very unpopular by continuing his teachings and speeches. Another uprising in 401 against the democracy--although unsuccessful--might have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back; Socrates was sued by Melitus, a poet. From Laertios, who appears to have seen the original trial minutes:
"Melitus, the son of Melitus, of Pittea, impeaches Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus, of Alopece: Socrates is guilty, inasmuch as he does not believe in the Gods whom the city worships, but introduces other strange deities; he is also guilty, inasmuch as he corrupts the young men, and the punishment he has incurred is death."
Laertios goes on to describe the vote that concludes one of the most famous trials in history:
"So when he had been condemned by two hundred and eighty-one votes, being six more than were given in his favour, and when the judges were making an estimate of what punishment or fine should be inflicted on him, he said that he ought to be fined five and twenty drachmas; but Eubulides says that he admitted that he deserved a fine of one hundred. And when the judges raised an outcry at this proposition, he said, "My real opinion is, that as a return for what has been done by me, I deserve a maintenance in the Prytaneum for the rest of my life." So they condemned him to death, by eighty votes more than they had originally found him guilty. And he was put into prison, and a few days afterwards he drank the hemlock, having held many admirable conversations in the meantime, which Plato has recorded in the Phaedo."
Well, his famous trial will soon get a lot more attention: star litigators in Chicago are preparing to re-try the case. ABA Journal reports
that Socrates will be defended by Dan Webb (Winston & Strawn) and Robert A. Clifford (Clifford Law Offices) at the Jan. 31 proceeding, which is being held as a fundraiser by the National Hellenic Museum
in Chicago. The case for the City of Athens will be made by former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom), and Patrick M. Collins (Perkins Coie).
Judge Richard A. Posner of the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will head a three-judge panel that also includes his federal appeals court colleague William J. Bauer and Cook County Circuit Judge Anna Demacopoulos. They will decide the validity of these charges alongside a jury of twelve distinguished citizens of Chicago. Tickets for the event are for sale from $50,- up.
I'm very interested in the outcome of this trial. As far as I can tell, Socrates' trial was fair and the outcome considered the best for the current circumstances. So, will this trial condemn Socrates to death again? And if so (or even if not) will the judges do so based on our current society or that of ancient Athens? If I was anywhere near Chicago, I would spend the $50,- without hesitation, just to watch this go down. I'll keep up with the trial and report back when the votes are in.