The civic drama of Socrates trial

Prof Josiah Ober Stanford University (majoring in political science and classics) has an interesting piece on trial of Socrates. He says the Conventional wisdom sees Socrates as a martyr for free speech, but he accepted his death sentence for a different cause.

The trial and sentence show Socrates was not above the law:

The trial of Socrates was not a show trial. The jury’s vote was close, and Plato’s version of his speech gives reason to suspect that, if Socrates had delivered a different, more ordinary defence speech, playing to the jurors’ sympathies, he could have changed enough votes to win his case. But, both Plato’s and Xenophon’s reports make it clear that Socrates did not deliver an ordinary defence speech. Rather than appeal to the jurors’ sympathies, he challenged them. With unsettling metaphors and logical demonstrations, he made it clear that he opposed democracy and would never abandon his mission of public philosophising. Xenophon implies that Socrates chose that sort of speech as a method of jury-assisted suicide: he was, according to Xenophon, tired of life and allowed the Athenians to end it for him. But Plato’s version is, I think much more convincing.

Plato thought that Socrates remained, to the end, motivated by his deep sense of civic commitment. He couldn’t keep silent, nor could he offer a pandering defence that would undercut the value of a life spent helping others see their own good, by radically changing their priorities. In this view, Socrates remained obligated to public life to the very end. His defence speech was a final, very public, attempt to awaken his fellow Athenians. Socrates’ ‘defence’ was a last, best sting. Along with his refusal to break the law by fleeing his mandated punishment, it was also a final act of civic duty. We can unpack that duty as courage, respect and engagement.

Socrates’ defence speech was an act of profound civic courage, the same sort of courage that led Athenian soldiers to die in defence of their country. It was an act of civic respect that recognised the jurors as adults who might benefit from a logical argument. And, for all its seeming intellectual arrogance, it was an act of civic solidarity – an assertion that Socrates the philosopher was also Socrates the Athenian citizen who owed an account of his actions to his fellow citizens. Far from a simple drama pitting democracy against intellectual freedom, the trial of Socrates is a deep drama of civic engagement, tragic in its outcome, but at the same time revealing that democracy makes space for acts of profound heroism.

Today, in the 21st century, free speech is deeply entangled with issues of personal and group identity. In our moment, there is real value in reflecting on the centrality of civic duty in the trial of Socrates, a foundational moment in the history of free thought and democratic action. What will we have lost when the idea of civic duty, as exemplified by the relationship between Socrates and his democratic city, no longer gains purchase on our own thought and actions?

These issues continue to shape our thoughts till date. Just amazing…


One Response to “The civic drama of Socrates trial”

  1. Oleg Komlik Says:

    Speaking of Socrates — this post sprang to my mind: Socrates on Oligarchy and Democracy

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