The indictment against Socrates

We have different sources, giving an account on Socrates’ trial. Of course, Plato’s Apology is not a historical document, but a philosophical one. It does not want to give a one hundred percent historical accuracy, but tries to explain the case of Socrates and his philosophical standards. He even goes further and spins a tetralogy around Socrates’ trial starting with a meeting between Socrates and Euthyphro in front of the court (in the Euthyphro), then goes to the trial (Socrates’ defense in the Apology), after that Crito tries to free him from prison, but Socrates refuses to leave (in the Crito) and then finally, we have the report of his death (in the Phaedo). Every of these works has a philosophical content on his own, and none of them should be seen as a historical narrative.

Now why was Socrates’ put on trial? We learn it in Euthyphro 3b, where Socrates says: “For he says I am a maker of gods; and because I make new gods and do not believe in the old ones, he indicted me for the sake of these old ones, as he [i.e. Meletus] says.” [Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1. Translated by Harold North Fowler. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1966.] So this is the indictment, the actual reason why he had to come to court. But to Euthyphro’s question, why there is an indictment against him, Socrates replies “For he [i.e. Meletus] says he knows how the youth are corrupted and who those are who corrupt them. He must be a wise man; who, seeing my lack of wisdom and that I am corrupting his fellows, comes to the State, as a boy runs to his mother, to accuse me.” [Euthyphro, 2c, transl. Fowler] But why are both things mentioned separately? In contrast, in Apology 24b f., “it [i.e. the charge] states that Socrates is a wrongdoer because he corrupts the youth and does not believe in the gods the state believes in, but in other new spiritual beings.” [transl. Fowler] At first, the order is interesting here. The indictment is also mentioned in Xenophon’s apology, but unlike Xenophon, Plato first mentioned that Socrates corrupted the youth and then goes to the actual charge of asebeia. [Hartmut Erbse: Die Nachrichten von Anklage und Verteidigung des Sokrates. Hermes 132 (2), 2004, 129-140. Cited from p. 132] So at first, we can assume that Socrates was put to court, because of asebeia, which was a serious crime in Athens back then, but then there is the mentioning of the corruption of the youth. However, we have no actual other case which incites that there was such a crime in Athens. This is why Socrates’ trial seems to be unique to some. So is the corruption of the youth really part of the indictment or does it have another meaning? Because Athens was a democracy back then and the city state had a rule of law, so it was impossible to invent a case. Fuhrmann asserts that perhaps it was possible to mention further deplorable activities, which also were seen as a danger for the community, following the actual allegation of asebeia. [Fuhrmann, 2015: 67 f. In: Platon: Apologie des Sokrates/ Kriton. Übersetzung, Anmerkungen und Nachwort von Manfred Fuhrmann. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2015.]

Xenophon refrains in his Apology from analyzing the background of the lawsuit. One reason might be that he was not able to do so, since he was not present during the crucial years, and furthermore, he lacked the necessary material. [Erbse, 2004: 129] Concerning the accusations against him, Xenophon’s Socrates assures in Chapter 1 that he made the usual sacrifices on festivals and memorial days, and that his daimonion is nothing more than an allusion to a certain saying, and thus is treated like an ordinary mantic voice. [Erbse, 2004: 129] In Chapter 2, the prosecutor claims that Socrates disturbed the relationship between fathers and sons. Here, Xenophon’s answer that he rather confined the madness to the actual cases. [ibid.] We see that Socrates first tries to explain in depth why the actual indictment, which was a serious issue, was not true. Only in a second step, he explains why he cannot be a threat to the youth, but not in such a deep way, as done before. Therefore, it seems that Fuhrmann has a point. The mentioning that he corrupts the youth rather should undermine that Socrates’ activities were seriously dangerous for the society. Especially given the background that the Peloponnesian War and the tyrannical rule just ended years before, the case was a very emotional matter. And the Athenian citizens were very concerned about the education of their sons, it was important to make them virtuous men. [Timo Schmitz: Warum wurde Sokrates angeklagt? (Euthyphron 3b, Apologie 19b). 10 April 2022, updated 10 August 2022. https://schmitztimo.wordpress.com/2022/04/10/warum-wurde-sokrates-angeklagt-euthyphron-3b-apologie-19b/, retrieved on 11 August 2022.]

This would clearly explain why on the one hand, the corruption of the youth and the case of asebeia are not mentioned completely together, when Euthyphro asks about the indictment. When Socrates first explains that they try him for corrupting the youth, Euthyphro must have been surprised and asked “But why are you charged? What is your alleged crime?”. Or as he does it: How do you corrupt the youth? And then, Socrates reveals the actual indictment why he is brought to court. The same also goes to Apology 19b, where the rumors turning around Socrates are cited: He is researching nature (which hints to asebeia) and teaches others therein. Through allegedly teaching them rhetorical skills to turn around the truth, we can see that he is depicted as a Sophist and has the potential to corrupt the society, but the youth is not explicitly mentioned. (Though the asebeia is not explicitly mentioned as well, but anyone who was researching natural phenomena was in danger to be accused of trying to deconstruct the cosmic order, so it is well included.)

Despite Fuhrmann, also other modern scholars seem to share such views. For instance, Hartmut Erbse wrote in a research paper that Socrates was put to court for asebeia, while he does not mention the corruption of the youth at all.  [see Hartmut Erbse: Parmenides und Sokrates bei Platon: Ein literaturgeschichtlicher Versuch. Hermes, 126 (1), 1998, 15-30. The charge against Socrates is discussed on p. 25.] It is noteworthy that since neither Plato nor Xenophon are completely historical on Socrates’ trial that we also do not have the exact wording of the charge against Socrates. Stenzel, according to Schweingruber, assumes that it was written in the indictment that Socrates conducted asebeia through introducing new gods while not believing in the official ones, propagating a daimonion, and teaching all of it to the youth. (Freely translated from Ancient Greek by me.) [Fritz Schweingruber: Sokrates und Epiktet. Hermes, 78 (1), 1943, 52-79. Cited from p. 60.] Here we also see that the actual charge was asebeia, while there was also other behavior mentioned which undermines it. But this is only a reconstruction. Also K. v. Fritz did not mention the corruption of the youth in his analysis, but mentioned that Socrates was charged for asebeia for introducing new gods, which referred to the Socratic daimonion and which the accusers took as allegation to construct the trial. [K. v. Fritz: Zur Frage der Echtheit der xenophantischen Apologie des Sokrates. Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, Neue Folge 80 (1), 1931, 36-68. Cited from pp. 54 & 56.]

To put it in a nutshell, Socrates was charged for asebeia. The written indictment itself also probably mentioned acts which were attached to it, and which were condemned. However, they were no separate point of charge and therefore, the mentioning of Plato that Socrates corrupted the youth, when he let Socrates cite his accusation, is only a condemnation attached to the charge, but not the charge itself.

Timo Schmitz, 2 September 2022

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