Socrates – The trial of reason

Dawn, The Review, in May 25-31, 2000

Every society carries two evils in its wake. The first is a desire for conformity. The second, arising out of it, is a vengeance against anyone who stands out as different. This is true of any society, irrespective of its form of government. Be it a monarchy or a dictatorship, people conform to the whim of the ruler, whatever it may be. In a democracy, individuals tend to conform to their own lowest common denominator.

Athens, 399 B.C.: Socrates opens his argument before the jury of 501 fellow citizens of the ancient republic: “How you felt, gentlemen of Athens, when you heard my accusers, I do not know; but I – well, I nearly forgot who I was, they were so persuasive!”

The chronicler does not tell us how the honest citizens responded, but they might have burst out in an uproar of disapproval as the old man began to indulge in his proverbial irreverent manner of speeches. Well, this one was going to be his last.

“There are two sets of my accusers,” he observed. “Some, who have been accusing me for a very long time and you who have been brought up on their words. I do not hope to dispel in such a short time the prejudice they have implanted in the minds of the generations. …” So much for the farce of justice and fair deal. For a court can be fair when deciding a property claim. But, how could humans have the arrogance to believe that they have the ability, let alone the right, of judging another person’s thoughts and ideas. “And there are some new accusers, who represent the stakes of the politicians, poets and craftsmen.” All were bent against him. “My first accusers have brought out the long standing accusation against me: Socrates is a criminal and a busybody, prying into things under the earth and up in the heavens, and making the weaker argument stronger, and teaching these same things to others. …”

The intention of the accusers was just the opposite of how they worded their thoughts. The Athenians wouldn’t have resented him so much if he had claimed to know more than others. They were angry at him because he claimed to know nothing. In a society, where logic was used to defend prejudice, and philosophy was no more than a set of conventions, Socrates had simply demanded that truth be given a chance to stand on its own feet, and that was a very unreasonable demand. Nobody had made such a demand since the birth of civilization. The best way to determine whether it was day or night was to ask the king, if it were a monarchy. Or cast a poll, if it were a democracy. To peer out of your window, and actually look at the sky was indeed a criminal activity, and could fit the charge of “prying into things under the earth and up on the heavens.” The argument that did not have the power of a tyrant or the tyranny of a majority on its side was obviously ‘weaker.’ To prove that it was ‘stronger’ by pure common sense was evil in the eyes of Greek society, just as it has remained evil to most societies since then.

The new accusers had a different charge. “Socrates is a criminal, who corrupts the young and does not believe in gods whom the state believes in, but other new spiritual things instead.” This was an interesting one. When Socrates cross-examined his main accuser, he said that in his opinion Socrates didn’t believe in any god at all. “Then, how can you accuse me of inventing new gods?” The accuser had no answer. He didn’t need one, in any case. He was not standing on the power of his logic, but on the trust he had in the herd’s eagerness to preserve their old order.

“So far from pleading for my own sake,” Socrates said, as one might expect, “I plead for your sakes, that you may not offend about God’s gift by condemning me. If you put me to death, you will not easily find another, really like something stuck on the state by the god, though it is rather laughable to say so. The state is like a big thoroughbred horse, so big that he is a bit slow and heavy, and wants a gadfly to wake him up. I think God put me on you something like that, to wake you up…!”

Some modern critics have argued that Socrates presented a weak defense when he tried to use the same words that had brought him to the trial in the first place. They argue that he should have pleaded to the spirit of democracy that Athens was so proud to represent. He should have asked for his right to say whatever he willed, just as his enemies had a right to say whatever so they desired. Socrates must have considered this option, because he preempted such apologists many centuries in advance: “You are wrong, my friend, if you think that a man with a spark of decency in him ought to calculate life or death. The only thing he ought to consider, if he does anything, is whether he does right or wrong, whether it is what a good man does or a bad man.”

He knew what it would imply if he said anything other than what he had been saying all his life. The most obvious implication would have been a denial of everything he had always stood for. He had claimed that nothing could be true, no matter how many people believe in it, unless it is proven true by logic. He was no altruist, and this was not a case for the freedom of speech, but a case for the freedom of thought. Both differ. People don’t mind what you speak as long as you think like the rest of them. “If you hear me using the words to defend myself that I have been using in the market place, please do not make an uproar on that count.” This was his last bow, and he had every reason to stand by any word he had ever said anywhere. When he ended his argument, he had stamped his entire life with an immortal seal. “And I know very well that these same things make me disliked. Which is another proof that I am speaking the truth… Whether you examine this now or afterwards, you will find it the same!”

Out of the 501 Athenians at the trial of Socrates, 281 voted against him. It is an amusing idea to question whether they passed a judgment on Socrates or on themselves. Or whether it was Socrates who passed a judgment on them for all times to come.

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