Ancient History & Civilisation



We went in and found Socrates just released from his chains and his wife Xanthippe – you know her – holding his little son and sitting beside him. When Xanthippe saw us, she cried out and said the sort of things which women usually do say, ‘Socrates, this is the last time that your friends will ever speak to you, or you to them.’ Socrates looked up at Crito and said, ‘Crito, let somebody take her off home.’    Plato, Phaedo 60A

But now is the time to depart, for me to die, for you to live, but which of us is going to the better business is unclear to all, except God.           Plato’s ‘Socrates’ to his jury: Apology 42A

In a tribute to classical Athens, Hadrian’s villa included a ‘Lyceum’, an imitation of the shrine in which the most famous of all Athenians had taught and conversed. He was neither rich nor handsome. He never wrote a book and he never received a prize. He was described by the Delphic oracle as the wisest man in Greece, but wise, it was said, because he knew his own ignorance. His style of teaching appears to have been by question and answer, through which he exposed his participants’ contradictory beliefs. He inspired at least two Athenian comedies at his expense, a cluster of texts on his supposed ‘Conversations’, posthumous allegations that he had been a bigamist and a series of recollections by the sober, though artful, Athenian Xenophon to show that he had wholeheartedly worshipped the gods and had been opposed to sex with boys. Above all, he inspired the writings of his pupil Plato. Through them he shaped the entire future of Western philosophy.

In spring 399, however, a large jury of Athenians condemned him to death. Socrates, the prosecution claimed, ‘does not acknowledge the gods which the city acknowledges’; he introduces new ‘divinities’; he ‘corrupts the young’.1 After a month in prison, he died from a cup of hemlock. The condemnation of a chubby, quizzical seventy-year-old who had been teaching in Athens for some forty years is a reminder that the world’s most thorough democracy was not liberal, tolerant or committed to personal freedom on every issue.

Socrates was born at Athens in c. 470 BC into a humble family, the son of a stonemason and a mother, it was said, who was a sturdy midwife. He was strikingly ugly, with a snub nose, a paunch, big lips and protruding eyes which swivelled as he spoke. He was wonderfully scruffy, wearing a worn-out cloak and sometimes not troubling to wear shoes. His priorities lay elsewhere, and he was said to become rapt in intellectual concentration, oblivious of his surroundings. He was married, nonetheless, to Xanthippe and, according to Xenophon, she was awfully difficult. ‘I want to keep company with the human race and so I have acquired her,’ he makes Socrates say, ‘for if I can put up with her, I will easily get on with all the rest of mankind.’2 He had three sons, none of whom came to anything special. He also proved his resilience and courage by serving on at least three Athenian campaigns abroad as an infantryman, in one of which he saved the life of the city’s controversial ‘golden boy’, the young and noble Alcibiades. In his later years he served on the council at a critical moment and opposed a ferocious proposal to condemn the Athenians’ generals in a single block vote. To be serving on the council he had had to be appointed by lot: he was willing, then, to take his turn in a democracy, although, in discussions, he regarded the random lot as a stupid device with which to run a state. Two years later, after a brutal political coup in the city, he bravely opposed another outrageous order, to arrest a resident foreigner and cause his death. Ever the loyal citizen, Socrates made no attempt to escape when he himself was awaiting death in prison under the restored democracy.

One of his effects is to leave us with a ‘Socratic problem’. Evidence about him is tendentious in two ways. It is either hostile and satirical, or it is defensive and idealizing in the hands of his pupils Plato and Xenophon. If Socrates was modestly born and took no fees, how ever did he live, while questioning all comers (but especially noble young men) day after day? We do not know, but like other scruffy academics he liked a good dinner-party and was said to have a strong head for wine. He also liked beautiful, well-born young men: did they pay for him, or did he find some source of income which his admirers have hidden from us? His followers included two pupils who took contrary views on luxury. One opposed it, and focused on the ‘ascetic’, shoeless Socrates, whereas the other endorsed ‘pleasure’ as the supreme good, like the Socrates who enjoyed a smart dinner table. Centuries later, the Christian St Augustine noted Socrates’ contradictory ‘effect’ in this respect. It seems that he liked a good evening, enriched by upper-class Athenian splendour, but it was not his ambition or his measure of his own worth.

Socrates enquired above all into questions of values and ethics. Justice and its advantages were no doubt one such question and Socrates would seek a clear definition of the concepts at issue, in order to help sort out disputed cases. He did not teach religiously assured ‘values’, but he did argue from premisses. It was later believed, wrongly, that he claimed to know nothing, except that he knew nothing at all. Instead, he said that he lacked wisdom. Unlike an expert in carpentry or shoe-making, he had no body of knowledge which he could pass on systematically and prove in practice. He knew some things, but he did not know a system. This questioning was so important because others in Athens claimed to have found such knowledge on so many exciting new subjects.

Socrates was remembered, especially by Plato, for his irony or mock modesty. Importantly, he practised it as one among a wider group of intellectuals. Since the 440s Athens had become a magnet for visiting thinkers and foreign teachers who transformed the horizons of the city’s young: by the 420s it is correct to talk of a generation gap here between fathers and sons. It was not an absolute gap, because some of the old listened to the new thinking, too, but it marked a real, perceptible change in Athenians’ ways of reasoning and arguing. Some of these thinkers taught the art of speaking; some of them had radical views about the gods, even claiming that they were man’s creations for social reasons. They continued to teach astronomy, geometry and the sciences which had been first broached in Ionia; Hippias, whom Plato mocks, even worked on the chronology of the past. They also distinguished what was ‘natural’ from what was ‘conventional’, thereby raising a fundamental question in human ethics and societies: Protagoras argued, according to Plato, that some conventions might actually be natural, because man is a social animal by nature. For those in their charmed circle, lectures by these people were thrilling. Plato’s dialogue the Protagoras catches the excitement of one such visit by these great men. Hearers had swarmed into the exclusive home of the rich aristocrat, Callias, and had slept over in every corner in order to hear the lectures.

Thinkers are always good for a laugh and in 423 BC two separate Athenian comedies picked on Socrates. The best known, Aristophanes’ Clouds, satirizes him as a sophist who teaches new gods with names like Chaos or Swirl, and who denies that thunder and lightning are instruments of Zeus’ punishment. He runs a ‘Thinking Shop’ and teaches fee-paying pupils how to make unjust arguments prevail over just ones. His scientific eccentricities mean that the usual gods are no longer his ‘common currency’. His pupils learn amoral behaviour. They cheat, behave unjustly and beat up their elderly fathers. One father, in conclusion, urges that the ‘Thinking Shop’ should be burned down. ‘Why did you insult the gods,’ he asks, ‘and inspect the moon’s backside? Chase them, beat them, pelt them for a hundred reasons but most of all for remembering how they “wronged the gods”.’3

Aristophanes appears to have dined in Socrates’ company and bantered with him. Social acquaintance, however, can go with private ridicule and disgust, especially when one of the guests is an intellectual. Perhaps some of Aristophanes’ hearers and readers were as sophisticated as some of his modern scholars and somehow took the extreme aggression of the aggrieved father in this play as another joke. But most of them took it, surely, at face value.

These attacks had a wider context. In the 430s an Athenian decree had been passed which appears to have made impiety a criminal offence for ‘those who do not acknowledge the divine’ and who (perhaps) ‘teach about things on high’.4 The democracy did not tolerate atheism, but it took a crisis or some political manoeuvring to make it a major issue in the law courts. In 415 BC, just before the ill-fated Athenian expedition to Sicily had sailed off, organized groups of wreckers smashed the erect phalluses off the herms on Athenian streets. Fearing a political coup, the people prosecuted the suspects and uncovered even more who had profaned the Athenians’ cherished cult of the Eleusinian Mysteries in their private houses. The guilty parties included well-born young men, often in their mid-twenties or thirties, who had probably enjoyed the intellectuals’ teaching. The most spectacular profaner of the Mysteries was the gifted Alcibiades, nobly born, lisping, handsome and a bold and envied presence on the political scene. He was also Socrates’ most celebrated pupil and was widely believed to be one of his lovers.

In spring 399 the case against Socrates was ‘impiety’ and the charges against him reflected the satire in Aristophanes’ play. He was said to be introducing ‘new gods’, which was not an offence in itself, but only if the ‘new’ gods excluded worship of the traditional gods of the city’s cults. Socrates’ supposed scientific divinities were said to do just this, and he was also known to appeal to a guiding ‘inner divinity’, which stopped him from some things, according to Plato, and gave positive orders too, according to Xenophon. Atheism, implicitly, was the consequence, and Socrates also ‘corrupted the young’.

To our minds, ‘corruption’ suggests sexual harassment. Such harassment was obviously an issue in Socrates’ reputation, although Aristophanes ignored it. Both Plato and Xenophon protest too much against its existence. Xenophon’s Socrates admits that he is ‘always in love with someone’,5 but deplores homosexual acts: he rebukes an Athenian who is about to engage in one, and criticizes him for behaving like a piglet which is rubbing itself against a stone. Plato’s Socrates admits to being set on fire by catching a glimpse of a lovely boy’s body under his tunic. Plato also acquits him, too emphatically, of having sex with Alcibiades: Alcibiades wanted it, Plato tells us, but Socrates supposedly slept chastely in his arms. Socrates’ social life is teeming with homoerotic lovers and their passions: one rare item in his personal knowledge was certainly the god of love.

To the Athenian jury in 399 BC, what mattered most was Socrates’ moral effect on his most famous pupils. By rejecting the accepted gods, was he not encouraging grossly amoral behaviour? Here recent events were against him. His beloved Alcibiades had behaved outrageously at Athens’ expense, even deserting to the Spartans. His darling Charmides had ended up as one of the abominable Ten who had terrorized Athens in the final stages of a Spartan-backed coup at the end of the war. Sweet, flaxen-haired Critias had been unspeakably awful, the master-mind behind the Thirty Tyrants who had started the rot and had cost many innocent Athenian lives.

In spring 399 an amnesty forbade political charges based on these dreadful events. Socrates was accused of other things, but his prosecutors will have cited the bad company he kept: it seemed to be the supreme proof of his amoral, irreligious influence. One prosecutor, Meletus, had just pursued a charge for impiety against Andocides, another unpopular aristocrat: he is probably the speaker of a surviving speech for the prosecution of this case which is filled with notable religious bigotry. The manoeuvring escapes us, but Meletus then helped to prosecute Socrates. It was not that Socrates had ever taught tyranny or the political philosophy of a junta: if he thought use of the lot silly, he could still tolerate it or reconcile this view with his continuing to participate in the democracy. His best-known friends were already corrupted before he met them; they had been spoiled by their birth and family position, and Socrates was only culpable in so far as he did not convert them. The legal form of his trial left the jurors to choose between either party’s proposed sentence. The prosecution proposed death, and if Socrates had proposed exile or a big fine, he would have saved himself. He did not, because he knew the trial was unjust and a mockery of his life. To Plato we owe the sublime speech of defence which he himself had never troubled to make. In it, ‘Socrates’ anticipates an afterlife spent discussing philosophy with pupils in the next world. It was indeed his mission, and as the afterlife will be eternal, he will, logically, be spared the risk of tutorial fatigue and boredom.

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