Arrogance of Socrates made a compelling case for his death

New book questions philosopher's reputation as an innocent martyr to his beliefs

The infamous trial of the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, has long been regarded as one of the first, most dramatic cases of a miscarriage of justice, ending in the death penalty for the founding father of Western thought.

Socrates was accused of "impiety" and "corrupting the young" in 399BC – charges many historians think were invented by his prejudiced fellow citizens – and was required to perform his own execution by consuming hemlock. But now a Cambridge University professor claims that Socrates' trial was legally just and that he was guilty as charged. What's more, Professor Paul Cartledge believes that Socrates actually invited his own death.

In his new book, Ancient Greek Political Thought In Practice, published today, Professor Cartledge says that while politicians and historians have used the trial to suggest that democracy can sometimes descend into mob rule, this was not one such example. "Everyone knows the Greeks invented democracy, but it was not democracy as we know it, and we have misread history as a result," he said. "The charges Socrates faced seem ridiculous to us but in ancient Athens they were genuinely felt to serve the communal good."

In his book, Professor Cartledge questions traditional arguments that Socrates was purely the victim of political infighting. Historians influenced by ancient writers, including Plato, have claimed that Socrates' open criticism of prominent Athenian politicians had made him many enemies, who then pinned the impiety and corruption charges on him to silence him. Other historian believe Socrates' teachings stirred political rebellion, and he was made an example at his trial by those seeking to quash dissidents in Athenian society.

Professor Cartledge said Socrates questioned the authority of many of the accepted gods and claimed to be guided by his inner "daimonon", a term which he may have intended to mean "intuition", but which could also be interpreted as a dark, supernatural influence, which would have outraged conventional believers.

The charge of "impiety" was entirely acceptable in a democracy deeply reverential of their gods, Professor Cartledge said. Accusations were brought by amateur prosecutors before a jury of 501 ordinary citizens of "good standing" who acted on behalf of what they took to be the public interest. If the prosecution could prove that a defendant was responsible for jeopardising the public good, he was likely to be found guilty.

The author also believes that Socrates invited his own death. Under the Athenian system, in this kind of trial a defendant could suggest his own penalty. Instead of taking this opportunity seriously, Socrates first joked that he should be rewarded and eventually suggested a fine that was far too small.

Unsurprisingly, his jurors did not see the funny side and passed the death sentence. Instead of fleeing, Socrates accepted the verdict, claiming that "he owed it to the city under whose laws he had been raised to honour those laws to the letter".

Professor Cartledge said: "There is no denying his bravery, and he could even be seen as an intellectual hero. But the idea that Socrates himself was not guilty, but executed by mob rule, is wrong. By removing him, society had in, Athenians' eyes, been cleansed and reaffirmed."

Professor Angie Hobbs, a philosopher at Warwick University, said that, until recently, the official charges were regarded as being a smokescreen for what the democrats really wanted, revenge for Socrates's association with the rival oligarchic party.

But she added: "Whether one thinks this was a just case or not that he was a genuine trouble-maker is open to debate. Socrates had annoyed important and influential people. He was abrupt and tactless. Philosophers were seen as dangerous at the time and he was not the only one to get into trouble. Athenians were probably right to be a little bit disturbed by what he was up to, getting the young to think for themselves.

She agreed that Socrates "didn't have to die" and that he made it very difficult for the courts not to impose the death penalty. When prison guards made it clear they would allow him to "escape", he declined.

"Socrates wanted to be some kind of martyr for philosophy," Professor Hobbs continued. "According to Plato, he gives an incredibly arrogant speech in court, saying, 'far from punishing me, they should be so grateful for the way I have helped them cleanse their souls, they should give me free meals for the rest of my life'."

Professor Mary Beard, a classicist at Cambridge University, added: "We have invested in him [Socrates], re-invented him as a beacon of honourable free-thinking, standing by what he believed (and the right to believe it) even unto death, thanks to Plato, of course, in large measure. But, in Athenian terms, it was a fair cop."

Socrates: His thoughts

*Socrates is considered one of the founding fathers of Western philosophy but, problematically for scholars, his thought is preserved only through the accounts of his students, most notably in Plato's dialogues.

His most significant contribution to Western thought is the Socratic method of debate or Method of Elenchus, a dialectical method of questioning, testing and ultimately improving a hypothesis. Through asking a series of questions, the method sought to show contradictions in the beliefs of those who posed them, and systematically move towards a hypothesis free from contradiction. As such, it is a negative method, in that it seeks to identify and demarcate that which a person does not know, rather than which he does. Socrates applied this to the testing of moral concepts, such as justice. Plato produced 13 volumes of Socratic Dialogues, in which Socrates would question a prominent Athenian on moral and philosophical issues. So often cast as the questioner, it is hard to establish any of Socrates' own philosophical beliefs. He said his wisdom was an awareness of his own ignorance, and his statement, "I know that I know nothing" is often quoted.

Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal