Philosopher Socrates is Condemned to Death by Hemlock Part 2

About the history and biography of ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, put on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens, condemned to death by drinking the poision hemlock.


WHEN: 399 B.C.

His influence in his own time and on future ages was profound. His teaching, wrote Durant, with its "emphasis on conscience as above the law, became one of the cardinal tenets of Christianity. Through his pupils, the many suggestions of his thought became the substance of all the major philosophies of the next 2 centuries."

When Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, conservative Athenians sought a scapegoat. They had long resented Socrates for implanting among the young impiety as well as skepticism of traditional institutions and family importance. They determined to rid themselves of him. Since under Athenian law any citizen could accuse a neighbor of a crime and bring him to trial before the Court of Heliasts, 3 of Socrates' enemies determined to do this. His accusers were Meletus, Lycon, and Anytus, whose son was one of Socrates' pupils. The indictment read: "Socrates is guilty of not believing in the gods in which the city believes, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the young. The penalty proposed is death."

Socrates was tried by a jury of 501 male citizens, all over the age of 30. There were no lawyers. The accusers rose, one after the other, and addressed themselves to the jury in time limited by a water clock. Then, Socrates rose in his own defense. "At the age of more than 70 years, I am now for the 1st time appearing before a court of justice, so that I am an utter stranger to the manner of speaking here." As he went on, he said, "If I am corrupting some of the young men, and have corrupted others, surely some of those who are now grown up, and have come to know that when young they received bad advice from me, ought now to appear in court to accuse me and have me punished." M. I. Finley wrote that, on the whole, "Socrates gave a bumbling performance. He was no orator but an arguer and conversationalist."

At last, the jurors voted. Each one dropped his ballot into an urn. The final vote stood: Guilty--281, Not Guilty--220. Now the jury had to fix the punishment. Meletus repeated his demand for the death penalty. Socrates countered with the suggestion that as a penalty he be voted one of the highest honors in the gift of the state, namely, maintenance at public expense in the Prytaneum for the rest of his life. Infuriated by this mockery, the jury overwhelmingly voted the death penalty, 361-140. Socrates was sentenced to die a month later by drinking a cup of hemlock.

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