The trial and subsequent execution of the great philosopher Socrates has long puzzled academics and historians. We will first briefly examine the case against Socrates, and then speculate as to what would occur if he were to be tried in court today.
Socrates was neither a democrat nor an egalitarian. He did not believe that democracy was an efficient or laudable form of governance. Rather, he believed that citizens lacked the basic virtue that was necessary to build and nurture a good society. He eagerly criticized the foundations of Athenian democracy, deriding the fact that every citizen of that proud city had the right to speak in the Assembly. When the Athenian democracy was briefly overthrown twice by some of SocratesÆ ex-pupils, the philosopher lost much of his standing in the city (Linder).
In Athens, criminal proceedings could be called to order by any citizen. SocratesÆ trial began when the poet Meletus delivered an oral summons for Socrates to appear before the magistrate, King Archon. The magistrate questioned both men and gave each the opportunity to question the other. Then, having decided that the MeletusÆ accusation had merit, the magistrate drew up formal charges that accused Socrates of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, of introducing new divinities, and of corrupting the youth. The actual trial took nine hours; the jury consisted of 500 citizens over the age of thirty chosen by lot and there was no judge (Mahon).
It is not known whether the trial focused more on SocratesÆ impiety or his alleged political crimes. What appears certain is that SocratesÆ defense was decidedly unapologetic, and that he refused to make the appeal for mercy that was typically made to Athenian juries. When the trial came to an end, the jurors rendered their decision by putting ballot disks into one of two marked urns. Because there was no judge, there were no instructions to jurors on...