1.4 The Trial of Socrates


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • Why the Athenians put Socrates on trial.
  • How Socrates defended himself.

In 399 BC. Socrates was called to face his accusers, the citizens of Athens, at one of the most famous trials in history. The charges were twofold: corrupting the youth of Athens, and impiety or teaching of gods other than the traditional Greek pantheon.

The Apology of Socrates| Plato

Or watch the video here


Goodrich offers a picture of why Socrates eventually came to be tried.

“Socrates fell a victim to the spirit of bigotry, which has sacrificed so many persons, who were [ahead of their time]. The document containing the accusation against him was lodged in the Temple of Cybele, as late as the second century of the Christian era. The following is a translation of that document:

“Melitus, son of Melitus, accuses Socrates, son of Sophroniscus, of being guilty of denying the existence of the gods of the republic, making innovations in the religion of the Greeks, and of corrupting the Athenian youth. Penalty, —death.”

Melitus, who was a [tragedy] writer of a low order, was engaged as an accuser in this affair, by the wealthy and more powerful enemies of Socrates. Amongst them were Anytus and Lycon, the former a rich artisan and zealous democrat, who had rendered very important services to the republic, by aiding Thrasybulus in the expulsion of the thirty tyrants, and in establishing the liberty of his country. The latter was an orator, and therefore a political magistrate, to which office the Athenian orators were entitled, by virtue of the laws of Solon.

Socrates was seventy years of age when summoned to appear at the Areopagus. The news of this event did not excite much surprise, as the people had long expected it. Aristophanes, the celebrated comic poet of Athens, had previously undertaken, at the instigation of Melitus, to ridicule the venerable character of the philosopher; and when once he was calumniated and defamed, the fickle populace ceased to revere the man whom they had before looked upon as a being of a superior order.

The enemies of Socrates were of two classes, — one consisted of citizens who could not help admiring his genius and virtue, but who regarded him as a dangerous innovator and subverter of public order. They were ready, with him, to acknowledge that some reformation might be made in the tenets of Paganism; that the gods and goddesses were not patterns of virtue; and that the conduct of the sovereign of the skies, himself, was far from exemplary; but, said they, the thunders of Jupiter exercise a salutary influence over the minds of some, and the pains of Tartarus still operate as a bridle upon the passions of others. To bring in question the ancient faith, was at once to attack the institutions of the republic at their base and excite revolution. The philosophy of Socrates, even though true, must be suppressed; for the life of one man is not to be put in the balance with the repose of a whole people, —-with the safety of the country. It is better that Socrates should die, than Athens perish. Such was the reasoning of one portion.

The other class was composed of the superstitious and bigoted, —of the vicious and imbecile, —who were daily exposed to the censures and sarcasms of the philosopher; in fine, of that set of narrow, jealous-minded men, who looked upon the welfare and fame of their neighbors with envy and with malice. The race that had exiled Aristides, because he was great, was ready to condemn Socrates, because he was wise. The friends and disciples of the great philosopher saw the danger that menaced him, and with anxiety and fear they crowded around their master, supplicating him to fly, or to adopt some means of defense; but he would do neither. Lysias, one of the most celebrated orators of the day, composed a pathetic oration, which he wished his friend to pronounce, as his defense, in the presence of his judges. Socrates read it, praised its animated and eloquent style, but rejected it, as being neither manly nor expressive of fortitude. The anxiety and trouble of avoiding condemnation appeared to him of little moment, when compared to the performance of his duty in upholding to the last moment, the truth of his principles and the dignity of his character (Goodrich, op. cit.).

Plato, some years later, would narrate Socrates’ self-defense in the Dialogue Apology. This dialogue, considered by most scholars to be one of Plato’s earliest, is comprised of three parts:

A) Socrates’ defense against the charges,
B) His plea for sentencing when found guilty, and
C) His final remarks.


Ponder if you will…

Socrates is being accused of dangerous ideas here.

  • What would make an idea “dangerous”?
  • Can you think of some beliefs of others that make you feel threatened?
  • Have there been cases in the past when ideas have radically altered the world?
Excerpts from Plato’s Apology

In what follows, from part A, consider:

  • What kind of wisdom does Socrates claim for himself?
  • What story does he tell to explain the origins of his mission?
  • How did the God compel Socrates’s mission to the Athenians?

Part A: The Defense

SOCRATES: I dare say, Athenians, that someone among you will reply, “Why is this, Socrates, and what is the origin of these accusations of you: for there must have been something strange which you have been doing? All this great fame and talk about you would never have arisen if you had been like other men: tell us, then, why this is, as we should be sorry to judge hastily of you.” Now I regard this as a fair challenge, and I will endeavor to explain to you the origin of this name of “wise,” and of this evil fame. Please do attend then. And although some of you may think I am joking; I declare that I will tell you the entire truth. Men of Athens, this reputation of mine has come of a certain sort of wisdom which I possess. If you ask me what kind of wisdom, I reply, such wisdom as is attainable by man, for to that extent I am inclined to believe that I am wise; whereas the persons of whom I was speaking have superhuman wisdom, which I may fail to describe, because I have it not myself; and he who says that I have, speaks falsely, and is taking away my character. And here, O men of Athens, I must beg you not to interrupt me, even if I seem to say something extravagant. For the word which I will speak is not mine. I will refer you to a witness who is worthy of credit and will tell you about my wisdom – whether I have any, and of what sort – and that witness shall be the god of Delphi. You must have known Chaerephon; he was early a friend of mine, and also a friend of yours, for he shared in the exile of the people, and returned with you. Well, Chaerephon, as you know, was very impetuous in all his doings, and he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether – as I was saying, I must beg you not to interrupt – he asked the oracle to tell him whether there was anyone wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered that there was no man wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself, but his brother, who is in court, will confirm the truth of this story.

Why do I mention this? Because I am going to explain to you why I have such an evil name. When I heard the answer, I said to myself, “What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle?” for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god and cannot lie; that would be against his nature. After long consideration, I at last thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, “Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.” Accordingly, I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him – his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination – and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise, and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him.

After this I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this: but necessity was laid upon me – the word of God, I thought, ought to be considered first. And I said to myself, Go I must to all who appear to know and find out the meaning of the oracle. And I swear to you, Athenians, by the dog I swear! – for I must tell you the truth – the result of my mission was just this: I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that some inferior men were really wiser and better. (Jowett, Plato, Apology)

Note that next Socrates recalls the origins of the Chaerephon story from the preface of this textbook. Socrates relates this account to give his mission a divine stamp of approval.


SOCRATES: This investigation has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind and has given occasion also to many calumnies, and I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle, he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. And so I go my way, obedient to the god, and make inquisition into the wisdom of anyone, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise; and this occupation quite absorbs me, and I have no time to give either to any public matter of interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god.

When this defense of his mission fails, the Athenians vote to find Socrates guilty of the charges against him. Socrates is then given an opportunity to suggest a proper punishment for himself.

Consider in this next section, from part B:

  • Why does Socrates feel he should be rewarded rather than punished?
  • What is Socrates doing by ironically suggesting he should be supported by the Prytaneum (the public dining hall of Athens)? What was he trying to say about what he was owed by Athenians?


Part B: His Plea after Sentencing

SOCRATES:  There are many reasons why I am not grieved, O men of Athens, at the vote of condemnation. I expected it and am only surprised that the votes are so nearly equal; for I had thought that the majority against me would have been far larger; but now, had thirty votes gone over to the other side, I should have been acquitted. … And what shall I propose [as a sentence] on my part, O men of Athens? Clearly, that which is my due. And what is my due? What return shall be made to the man who has never had the wit to be idle during his whole life; but has been careless of what the many care for—wealth, family interests, military offices, speaking in the assembly, and magistracies, and plots, and parties. Reflecting that I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live, I did not go where I could do no good to you or to myself; but where I could do the greatest good privately to every one of you, thither I went, and sought to persuade every man among you that he must look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests, and look to the state before he looks to the interests of the state; and that this should be the order which he observes in all his actions. What shall be done to such a one? Doubtless some good thing, O men of Athens, if he has his reward; and the good should be of a kind suitable to him. What would be a reward suitable to a poor man who is your benefactor, and who desires leisure that he may instruct you? There can be no reward so fitting as maintenance in the Prytaneum, O men of Athens, a reward which he deserves far more than the citizen who has won the prize at Olympia in the horse or chariot race, whether the chariots were drawn by two horses or by many. For I am in want, and he has enough, and he only gives you the appearance of happiness, and I give you the reality. And if I am to estimate the penalty fairly, I should say that maintenance in the Prytaneum is the just return.

Finally, Socrates is condemned to death. Now his discourse turns very confrontational.

In this excerpt, from part C of the dialogue, consider:

  • What does Socrates believe about the afterlife?
  • What does he say about justice in the life to come?
  • Why does he say that a good man cannot be harmed by others?

Part C: His Final Remarks

SOCRATES: Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good; for one of two things—either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain. … Now if death be of such a nature, I say that to die is gain; for eternity is then only a single night…

But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead abide, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this? If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, he is delivered from the professors of justice in this world and finds the true judges who are said to give judgment there, Minos and Rhadamanthus and Aeacus and Triptolemus, and other sons of God who were righteous in their own life, that pilgrimage will be worth making. … What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions! In another world they do not put a man to death for asking questions: assuredly not. For besides being happier than we are, they will be immortal, if what is said is true…

Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death and know this of a truth – that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death. He and his are not neglected by the gods; nor has my own approaching end happened by mere chance. But I see clearly that to die and be released was better for me; and therefore, the oracle gave no sign. For which reason also, I am not angry with my accusers, or my condemners; they have done me no harm, although neither of them meant to do me any good; and for this, I may gently blame them.


Works Cited 

Let’s Talk Philosophy, director. The Apology Of Socrates | Plato. YouTube, YouTube, 31 Oct. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igkvfrXAUJ0. Accessed 29 Mar. 2022.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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