Socrates’ Trial and Subsequent Death Penalty Were Legally Just

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787). Greek philosopher Socrates, after being condemned to death for impiety in 399 BC, was given a potent infusion of the hemlock plant.
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787). Greek philosopher Socrates, after being condemned to death for impiety in 399 BC, was given a potent infusion of the hemlock plant.

Over the centuries, historians have presented the trial of Socrates as a parody of that time, claiming that the Athenian philosopher was forced to face charges invented by his fellow citizens because of ignorance.

In the 399 BC trial, Socrates was found guilty of impiety and corruption of youth and the court sentenced him to death by swallowing conium.

A recent study, however, tries to overturn the theories that are accepted so far. Cambridge Professot Paul Cartledge argues that the trial was legally just and Socrates was indeed guilty as charged.

“Everyone knows that the Greeks invented democracy, but it was not the republic as we know it today. As a result, History has been misinterpreted,” the professor says.

“The accusations Socrates faced may seem ridiculous to us, but in Ancient Athens they seemed to serve the common good,” he adds.

Historians have traditionally claimed that Socrates created many enemies by openly criticizing prominent politicians. The trial gave them an opportunity to get rid of him.

The Athenian philosopher was the scapegoat of a series of disasters that befell Athens, including a plague and a military defeat.

Professor Cartledge argues that some people interpreted those events as a sign of displeasure of the gods. They claimed that Socrates had offended the gods because the philosopher used to question the authority of several deities.

Cartledge believes that the charges of impiety against Socrates were not only fair – given the beliefs of the time – but also attributed to the common good.

The study concludes that Socrates essentially caused his own death. According to the Athenian legal system, the defendant could suggest his own sentence. In the beginning Socrates joked saying that he should have been rewarded instead. Eventually he suggested a small fine, but the jury did not find his joke funny and decided the death penalty.