The trial of Socrates is an event which has captured the imagination of academics, writers and artists down the centuries. Condemned to drink poison as a punishment for corrupting the youth and for dishonouring the gods, he has represented for many the battle of a heroic individual against the state and the 'norms' of the time. Andrew Irvine, Professor of philosophy from the University of British Columbia, has written a play about the trial based on different Classical texts which tell us of the trial. Iris finds out a bit more about it:
What drew you to write a play about the trial of Socrates?
There’s something about Socrates’ story that people find interesting. I think it’s the idea that what you believe can be dangerous. Socrates was put on trial for corrupting the youth with his unusual ideas and for failing to honour the traditional gods of Athens. So the idea that there were limits on what people could say and think even in the birthplace of democracy is fascinating.
Can you tell us about the four texts your play is based upon?
Quite a few ancient authors wrote about Socrates and his trial. But the works of only three writers who knew Socrates personally have survived. These are the accounts given by the playwright Aristophanes, the philosopher Plato and the military general Xenophon. So it’s natural to begin by focusing on these authors.
Aristophanes’ slapstick comedy, Clouds, tells the story of a long-suffering father whose son is interested only in gambling and horses. Hoping that the educators of his day will straighten the boy out, he takes him to Socrates’ School of Thinkology. Unfortunately, instead of educating the young man, Socrates further corrupts him, much to his father’s dismay.
When he is eventually placed on trial, Socrates denies that he has ever run a school or corrupted the young. His defence speech is described by both Plato and Xenophon but, since Plato’s Apology is much more detailed than Xenophon’s, that’s the one I’ve emphasized.
The other two dialogues by Plato that I’ve relied on are the Crito and Phaedo. Together, they give an account of what happened after the trial, for example when Socrates’ friend Crito—who was one of the richest men of Athens—offered to bribe the guards to let Socrates escape, something Socrates refused to do.
Socrates is one of the most well known characters from ancient Greece. Why do you think he has become such an important figure for us?
I think we remember Socrates for several reasons. Partly it’s because of his trial: the idea that it’s important to stand up for what you believe, regardless of the consequences, is something that resonates with people everywhere and of all generations.
But partly it’s because of Socrates’ ideas. Socrates believed that having harm done to one’s body is not as significant as having harm done to one’s character. In other words, if you have to choose, it’s better to be treated unjustly than to commit an immoral act, since only the latter damages your character. He also believed that excellence and virtue are largely the same as knowledge, so it’s only out of ignorance that we do evil. Hence his famous comment that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Importantly, too, Socrates was the teacher of Plato, and Plato was the teacher of Aristotle. So it’s easy to see how influential Socrates has been for the development of all of Western culture.
How has he influenced society today?
Because we don’t have anything written by Socrates, and because we get our information about him from other authors, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish his ideas from the ideas of his chroniclers. Even so, in addition to the ideas mentioned above, there is a lot of debate about the extent to which Socrates may or may not have been an advocate of democracy.
Socrates lived during some very turbulent times. He served in Athens’ army during the Peloponnesian War and he tells us that there is no where other than Athens that he wanted to live. But because he criticized the democrats and the anti-democrats, both sides sometimes claim him as an ally.
Even so, in the Crito he tells us several times (for example, at 51b, 51c, and 52a) that in a democracy we are only asked to do two things: to obey the law, and to try to change it when it’s wrong. This is a very good summary of what it means to be a democrat. It also helps explain why Socrates thought it so important to examine things, and to criticise them when he thought they were wrong.
How was he viewed by the society of his time? How do you think he would be viewed today?
Socrates was an oddball. Ancient writers tell us that he wasn’t handsome. He had prominent eyes and a snub nose. But he was also physically strong and brave, and was a good soldier. He liked to dance. Plato tells us that he was fun to be around, especially at parties. Many of his days were spent hanging out in the Athenian agora (or town square) and the gymnasiums, talking to people about what they believed. Because of his constant questioning, some people found him annoying. We’re told that Critias and the anti-democrats passed a law forbidding him from speaking to any man under thirty.
I think people today would see him much the same way people saw him 2,400 years ago. It would be entertaining to watch him question someone else; but if he turned his attention to you and asked you to defend your views, it wouldn’t be so much fun.
What were his views on the religion of the time?
It seems likely that Socrates questioned people about their religious views just as he questioned them about everything else. In Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro, we see how Socrates suggested that the gods might not be very important, and that what’s right or wrong needs to be proved on grounds other than the simple say-so of a god. After all, even a god’s preference will be either right or wrong and, if so, the reason for it’s being right or wrong has to depend on something other than the preference itself.
On the other hand, Socrates tells the jury that he was an ordinary man who did his best to honour the gods of the city. His last words before he died were to remind Crito to make an offering to Asclepius, the god of medicine. Whether this was because he actually thought it important to honour Asclepius, or because wanted to remind his critics that he had always honoured the city’s conventions and so wasn’t a corrupting influence on the young is difficult to know. Mark McPherran’s book, The Religion of Socrates, is very informative and discusses many of these themes.
The trial is one of the most famous trials of all time. What form did the trial take?
In many respects, Socrates’ trial was much like a trial today. It was held in public. The charges were read aloud so everyone could hear them. A speech was given by the prosecution explaining why the accused should be found guilty. Then the accused would explain why he should be found innocent. A water clock was used to time both speeches so neither side had an advantage. Then the jury voted.
There were also some differences. In Athens, juries could range in size from a few hundred to several thousand citizens. Such large numbers made it harder for jurors to be bribed. The exact size of the jury used as Socrates’ trial is not known, although similar trials sometimes appear to have used 500 jurors.
When the time came to vote, jurors were given two bronze disks (called psephoi) one with a solid axle through its centre, the other with a hollow axle through its centre. The disk with the hollow axle was used to vote for conviction. The disk with the solid axle was used for acquittal. After all the votes had been cast, they were displayed on a sort of pegboard, with each hollow disk put beside a solid disk, until it was clear that there were more of one type of vote than the other. In this way, even people who were illiterate and who couldn’t count could see which side had won.
The choice of punishment—forced suicide from drinking poison—seems a surprising choice. Can you tell us why this punishment was chosen?
During Socrates’ day, prisoners weren’t usually kept in jail for more than a few days. It was just too expensive. So most crimes were punished by fines, or by ostracism or banishment, or by execution.
Given the large number of jurors, different jurors likely had different reasons for supporting conviction. Some jurors may have wanted Socrates to be convicted for impiety. Others may have been convinced that he had been a corrosive influence on the young—not so much because of his impiety but simply because he had spent so much time challenging the moral and intellectual complacency of his fellow citizens. Others may have believed that his questions had encouraged some of Athens’ worst traitors to defect to Sparta during the war. Yet others appear to have been put off by the confrontational manner in which he delivered his defence speech. Still others may simply have been willing to go along with the crowd. In any event, it appears that Socrates treated the whole affair with good-natured contempt, telling the jurors why he was innocent, but also teasing the people who had charged him about how silly their charges were.
Following the conviction, both sides were required to propose penalties. The fact that the jury was required to choose from between the two proposals was meant to sever as an incentive for both sides to make reasonable suggestions. But instead of making a moderate proposal such as banishment or a fine, the prosecution proposed the death penalty and Socrates suggested that he should be given free meals for life at the Prytaneum (Athens’ equivalent of a City Hall)! This was something done only for Athens’ most distinguished war heroes, Olympians and public benefactors. Hearing the uproar, Crito convinced Socrates to propose a fine instead. But by then the damage had been done. The jury felt that Socrates wasn’t taking the trial seriously, and many jurors likely felt insulted. So they sentenced him to death.
Does your play focus on any particular aspect of the trial you were interested in exploring?
The play begins with Aristophanes’ comedy, and the trouble Socrates gets into at his School of Thinkology, and continues through the trial. It ends with Socrates’ death scene. By the end, I think that audiences have quite a good understanding of the main events of Socrates’ life and why his story is so compelling. It’s also a lot of fun, since at the end of the second act, audience members get to play the role of jurors and vote for or against Socrates’ innocence!
Were there challenges writing a play about these events?
Almost the reverse. What was amazing was just how easy the story was the write. I think the reason is that the Greeks were such modern thinkers. They struggled with exactly the same kinds of problems we struggle with today— What makes a good education? What’s the role of government? How democratic should our institutions be? Should we have to pay extra taxes to support the Olympics? Should any loudmouth be free to say what he wants in public? Or should there be restrictions on unpopular political speech? When does public speech become dangerous?
Because they thought about so many of the same issues we think about, the Greeks seem very familiar to us. They come across as very modern thinkers.
How many productions of the play have there been? Which have been your favourites and why?
It’s been produced in both Canada and the United States, mostly at high schools and on university campuses, I think. Of the productions I’ve seen I’ve enjoyed them all. Every group makes the performance its own. Video from one of the productions can be seen online at nitinat.library.ubc.ca/socrates.
Do you have any further plans for this play?
I think it’s likely that the play will be translated into French. And of course it would be wonderful if one day it were to be performed in Athens!
You can see a video recording of a performance of this play here:
Socrates on Trial: A play based on Aristophanes’ Clouds and Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Phaedo adapted for modern performance
Andrew D. Irvine
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008
ISBN 978-0-8020-9783-5 (cloth)
ISBN 978-0-8020-9538-1 (paper)