Teacher Socrates on Trial

“Judge” Janet Justice Speaks Out

The teacher stood before the court. For Socrates, there was no court of appeal and no judge, but an official overseer for smooth proceedings and a jury of 501  Athenian citizens who had reached the age of 30, were of sound mind and free from any disabilities. The jury panel could also consist of 101 or 1001 citizens. Poor people applied to serve on juries since each juror received a small sum of money.

Anyone who enjoyed the full rights of citizenship could accuse another of wrongdoing and have that person tried in a court of law. The accuser had to pay all court costs if he or she lost the case. If one-fifth of the jurors did not support the charge, the accuser was heavily fined. The accuser in turn could name the penalty. If convicted, the accused could suggest an alternative penalty. For Socrates the accuser had asked for the death penalty.

Socrates was charged with “impiety (not recognizing the gods of the state), corrupting youth by introducing divinities not recognized by the state, putting improper thoughts into the minds of the youth, causing them to question the judgements of their parents, and ridiculing the poets.”

The court of Athens in 399 B.C. was very pro-culture. He was seen as quite subversive. All the charges were related to pulling away from the status quo. In the era, there would be city-gods. The temple rituals and accompanying economy would have been an integral part of the socio-economic engine. Our government casinos pale in comparison.

Although I would have accepted the small fine that Socrates suggested, the jury thought otherwise. Five hundred and one citizens did not approve nor condone Socrates’ teaching methods or philosophy. They felt their whole culture threatened. Most had anticipated he would request banishment from Athens.

By all accounts, Socrates’ life was over in Athens. I can only surmise that Socrates didn’t have the heart to start somewhere else. He worshipped Athens and its people more than its gods and put his trust in it and its laws. The suggestion of a modest fine reveals how forward thinking he was: it exposed his naivity over the capacity of the Athenians to see his vision.

Socrates was put in the customary custody of 11 guards. His friends collected enough money to bribe the guards so that Socrates could escape but Socrates refused. His life was dedicated to doing what was right and would not commit a crime against the state even though he knew his accusers and jurors had been wrong. He knew the importance for all to accept the law as supreme.

The common law and precidents were followed. In other words, the intractability of the precident was exposed in the Socrates trial. His death, although inevitable under the circumstances, could only galvanize others left behind to re-evaluate common law and effect change.

Resource: St. Catharines Lifetime Learning Centre (ON): Understanding Canadian Law, Unit 1, lesson 5, case study “A Teacher on Trial” 2008.