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  • Oedipus at the Trial of Socrates
  • George Hole

The trial of Socrates is puzzling. Xenophon, in his version of the trial, expressed dismay at both the charge and verdict: "I wonder how the Athenians were ever persuaded that Socrates was not moderate concerning the gods. . . . It appears to me a wonder that some were persuaded that Socrates corrupted young men."1 In Plato's Apology Socrates rebutted, it seems convincingly, the official charges against him "of corrupting the young and of not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other new spiritual things."2 Socrates defended his life's mission with force and enunciated his inspiring ideal of the examined life. Nonetheless, the jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death. If the guilty verdict is puzzling, it is even more perplexing that thirty jurors who voted for his innocence on the charges then voted in favor of his execution. What might account for their shocking change? The place to look is between the two votes, at what Socrates said and how jurors responded with such fear that they decided Socrates must be executed.

Since the official charges seem slight to some scholars, they argue for different charges. For example, while there is no record of the prosecution's case, the motives of his accusers may have been political. Accordingly, Socrates was seen to be subversive: he espoused antidemocratic ideas and three of his student friends, Critias, Charmidies, and Alcibiades, were known to be corrupt and traitors. Because of a prior amnesty Socrates could not be accused of political crimes so, it is argued, he was charged with impiety/corruption instead. Even so, regardless [End Page 360] of the nature of Socrates's crime, why execute him? If the crime was political, no evidence was presented to suggest that he was still plotting intrigues with any antidemocratic characters. Socrates testified that he was only reluctantly and minimally involved in official political life in Athens (32). How dangerous was his impiety? And, did his eristic demonstrations corrupt the youth by producing acolytes who, in mimicking him, spread the disease of disbelief? I will offer an explanation why these thirty jurors voted to execute a man who they believed was not guilty of the charges.3


Suppose the thirty jurors were moved less by retribution for past acts thought to be criminal than by an imminent catastrophe. Indeed, they had reasons to fear something life threatening. Moreover, how Socrates conducted himself in his defense, particularly during the punishment-determining phase, only heightened their fear.

Socrates began his defense by recounting old accusations against him, suggesting he was aware that he was facing a prejudiced jury. However, old slanders, like Aristophanes's portrayal of him as "walking on air" and "talking a lot of other nonsense" (19c), would not likely move jurors to act against him with such finality. More likely, these exaggerations of Socrates as a natural scientist and a Sophist would generate pity for him as a comic fool.

At the time of Socrates's trial, powerful sources of fear existed for Athenians. Because they had lost wars with Sparta, Athenians lost their immense power and their sense of invincibility. A series of coups with accompanying purges gave rise to political terror. Both factors would make plausible the political reasons for convicting Socrates. But it is doubtful that jurors saw him mainly as a personal threat to their restored democracy. Sophists might provide another source of fear insofar as they were perceived as relativists challenging traditional values. Even though Socrates could be easily mistaken as a Sophist, there is little evidence that Sophists were taken as a threat serious enough to warrant criminal charges being brought against him for sophistry. On the contrary, Sophists were sought out and paid for their "wisdom."

Two past events deserve notice in regard to the impiety charge. In 415 B.C.E., Athenians were outraged when many statues of Hermes were mutilated and the Mysteries were profaned. This violation of religious statues quite likely provoked in many the specter of a wrathful [End Page 361] intervention of the gods. Alcibiades, about to be tried for the mutilations, fled to...


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