Martyrs of Reason: Socrates

Martyrs of Reason: Socrates April 26, 2018
Socrates Drinking The Conium. Engraved by unknown engraver and published in Pictorial History Of The Worlds Great Nations, United States, 1882.

Blogger’s Note: Over long millennia, officially sanctioned murder and ruthless persecution have been the two most successful tactics employed by church and state to silence opponents and perpetuate every era’s religous status quo.

Many of Western civilization’s brightest lights were thus brutally extinguished by the dark forces of intellectual bigotry. These are important stories (still being multiplied) that need constant retelling to emphasize the serial catastrophe for civilization and reason they represent.

So, welcome to the first in a periodic series of posts in Godzooks under the heading “Martyrs of Reason,” in which I hope to shine a light on these recurring crimes against humanity. This first installment — about the self-execution of incomparable Socrates — is rather long (my deep apology) because it’s seminal in this chronology of appalling narrow-mindedness. Subsequent installments will be mercifully shorter. I promise.

The galling philosopher

It is heartbreakingly clear: The Powers That Be in Athens at the tail end of the fifth century BC loathed Socrates, the famously homely philosopher who had the gall to speak novel truth to power — as well as to anybody and everybody else, apparently.

Socrates was a gadfly extraordinaire, happily stinging his detractors and proponents alike with criticism, wit and disturbing ideas. His fellow citizens viewed him as an atheist, a characterization that helped seal his doom in a fearful city that sensed its traditions, including a pantheon of beloved gods, were under threat.

Conservative Athenians in Socrates’ day frowned on his cult-like appeal to youth and his teaching them what seemed radically dangerous nonsense. Unhelpfully, as Plato wrote, his mentor was also “boy crazy,” a predilection not prohibited in pederasty-comfortable Athens but not universally condoned, either. Roman writer Diogenes Laertius in The Lives of Eminent Philosophers, wrote in the third century AD  that Socrates often expressed his unpopular views “disdainfully and with an air of condescension, providing his listeners to anger.” Popular Athenian playwright Aristophanes in Clouds (produced in 423 BC) portrayed the ugly sage as a spaced-out, impoverished windbag “who contemplates everything in the world but does not know where his next meal is coming from.”

So, Socrates in the latter part of the fifth century was considered an eccentric opponent of the democratic Athenian establishment, which was trying to strengthen Athens and her traditional institutions, mitigate military risks and marshal her resources after decades of wrenching warfare and upheaval. The city was nervously trying to come to terms with an acute sense of existential loss after their devastating loss to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). Socrates was lumped with the sophists, freelance itinerant teachers widely viewed as money-grubbing blowhards who preyed on youths (although Socrates always denied he was like this). Nonetheless, he was blamed along with the sophists for fomenting immorality and disrespect among the city’s young.


Socrates was already tarred as a professional wise-ass, political outlier and morally questionable fellow in Athens when politics took a nasty turn. In 411 BC, anti-democracy opponents of the Athenian government — Socrates’ former students Alcibiades and Critias among them — staged a coup and tried to install an authoritarian oligarchy in its place. But they were thrown out the following year and democracy was restored.

Socrates was no democrat. He apparently believed the rabble shouldn’t vote, only the educated and mature, an opinion likely not widely popular with Athens’ fervid democrats of the day. Religion was also an issue. Athenians viewed religion more as civic virtue than mystical doctrine, expressed in traditional rituals and observances that dutifully rather than piously honored the Greek pantheon of gods.

Most Athenians retained a strong, intuitive commitment to these traditions and were also deeply suspicious of anyone not religious in the city’s traditional way. Socrates’ unique sense of piety was widely seen as strange, even subversive. His religion, as it were, was in part the act of honoring the gods by questioning his fellow men so that they could face their biases and ignorance and learn to better know the truths of life. He referred to a kind of divinity — a daimon — whom he consulted on moral and ethical questions, but the apparent apparition seems far more like an inner voice, a conscience, than a sky-god.

Socrates also sometimes consulted the Oracle of Delphi, the so-called high priestess of the Temple of Apollo (actually a series of priestesses over time), which was not uncommon for devout Greeks. It has been written that he also believed no gods would harm him because he tried to live a virtuous life, and that when he died, they would necessarily take care of him appropriately.

The abruptly changing political environment in Athens eventually rendered Socrates’s put-down style and unorthodox ideas increasingly risky.

Thirty Tyrants

After defeat by Sparta in 404 BC, the victors installed a thirty-man puppet government in Athens (years later, it became infamously known as the “Thirty Tyrants”). The Sparta-backed “Tyrants” were installed to develop a more autocratic rule (Sparta viewed Athenian-style democracy as dangerously chaotic). The leader of the extreme faction of this newly empowered group was Critias, one of Socrates’ circle, and another Socrates confederate, Charmides, was also one of the “Tyrants.” Among the autocrats’ sins were confiscating aristocrats’ estates, banishing citizens and executing hundreds.

Athenians were likely well aware that the reputedly murderous and treasonous Critias was known to have received an early education from the philosopher.

The Tyrants’ reign of terror was short-lived, however, as exiled Athenian democrats regrouped and restored democracy in the city-state the next year. Yet, in 401 BC, another anti-democratic uprising was summarily crushed. The city had grown sick and tired of subterfuge and treason, along with Socrates’s unwelcome, disconcerting ideas and his youthful, disrespectful, “Socratized” adherents.

Socrates accused

In 399 BC, as the city’s legal system allowed, a private citizen, the poet Meletus, brought formal charges against Socrates. Meletus orally summoned Socrates to appear before Athens’ legal magistrate. The charges can be summed up thusly: “Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.”

Accusers also charged that the sage was “guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state and introducing other, new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death.”

Meletus was joined in the trial by co-accusers Anytus and Lycon, but Anytus, a tanner, was reportedly the ringleader. Socrates apparently had mentored Anytus’ son, during which he purportedly urged his acolyte to develop a livelihood less low-class than his father’s (an insult of which Anytus’ father was likely aware). So the motives of the accusers may have been other than noble justice.

Unfortunately, the charges against Socrates were, in some sense, true. He was impious to the state’s gods, did indeed march to a different divine drummer than other Athenians, and did discuss topics with youth that were — if not corrupting — certainly corrosive to their elders.

Trial of the millennia

At his trial, Socrates’s only defense of the accusation of impiety was to counter Meletus’ charges of atheism. Plato, 27 at the time and present at the trial, wrote that Socrates responded by reminding Meletus that he had also charged Socrates with believing in a daemon and in the Oracle of Delphi, which, he pointedly noted, was an unresolvable paradox. It was impossible to be an atheist and believer in deities at the same time, he argued.

And Socrates had long dismissed the charge that he corrupted youth, claiming that he was never a mercenary teacher or deceptive sophist but merely a citizen who freely and honestly answered questions of people he met in the street, young and old. Socrates told the court he would refuse to stop philosophizing, to stop battling to “save the souls of Athenians” by directing them to the path of an “examined, ethical life,” author and historian Doug Linder wrote in Famous Trials. Socrates told the jury he preferred death to capitulation.

The sentence: Death

The verdict was not as foregone a conclusion as it seemed. The jury of 500 picked by lot handed down a fairly close verdict — 280 voted guilty; 220 not guilty. But Socrates’ in-your-face unrepentance in the penalty phase of the trial probably helped assure his execution; the final vote was 360-140 for death, a count far more lopsided than the first vote. Athenian law then prescribed drinking of a toxic hemlock-laced concoction as the method of execution.

Immediately after the trial, Socrates returned to his jail cell, where many of his grief-stricken devotees soon joined him that evening, after his jailers had kindly removed his shackles. The next morning, admirers returned to his cell, where he reportedly tried to calm them with philosophy and the idea that he believed his soul would soon return to the realm of purity, immortality and wisdom. There was some loose talk of his escape, but the philosopher waved it off, arguing, in effect, that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Then the jailer, who previously had wept after kind words from Socrates, handed the philosopher a cup of hemlock and advised him to drink it and lay down when his legs felt heavy. In a few minutes Socrates reclined on his bed, and when his eye became fixed a sheet was pulled over his face.

Socrates’ bequest

Despite his absence from this watershed moment in the history of philosophy, Plato went on to make Socrates a timeless legend and spread his seminal ideas throughout the world. The great Roman statesman Cicero 300 years later would say that Socrates “pulled philosophy down from the heavens and sent it into the cities and homes of man.”

Historian Arthur Herman wrote in The Cave and the Light: “Socrates is why we still praise the power of reason in human affairs today: a power we praise more than we practice.” Ironically, Herman added, we now know a lot more about Socrates than Plato, his most famous disciple.

But his execution bode ill for independent thought for many centuries hence, as established Western political and religious establishments sought mightily to entrench their power — mainly using muscle and magical thinking, and only nodding to reason when it served their greed or survival. Socrates’ was among the first of what would be countless more executions in ancient and medieval history for the apparently mortal sin of independently thinking in new ways. It was a take-no-prisoners war, not against martial aggression but against the honest quest for truth.

Sadly, the apparently endless battle of reason against superstition is still ruthlessly being fought today. Yet, without the culture-transforming contributions of ancient knowledge-seekers like Socrates, it might never have been joined.

Image: Adobe Stock/Standard License

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