Critias stands condemned as the most bloody and vicious of this gang of terrorists. The terror was directed not only against democratic leaders but even against moderate oligarchs like Niceratus, son of Nicias, and wealthy metics such as Leon of Salamis. It was when the victims of this prosecution began to include even leading, if moderate, oligarchs, that Theramenes and other relatively mild conservatives began to suspect that all was not well. As often happens, political terror created a monster devouring its own children. Of these victims Theramenes is the most prominent. His characterization of Critias, in fact the whole speech given by Xenophon, is self-explanatory. "I agree with Critias, indeed, that whoever wishes to cut short your government, and strengthens those who conspire against you, deserves justly the severest punishment. But to whom does this charge best apply? To him, or to me? Look at the behavior of each of us, and then judge for yourselves. At first we were all agreed, so far as the condemnation of the known and obnoxious demagogues. But when Critias and his friends began to seize men of station and dignity, then it was that I began to oppose them. The man who gives you this advice, and gives it to you openly, is he a traitor-or is he not rather a genuine friend? It is you and your supporters, Critias, who by your murders and robberies strengthen the enemies of the government and betray your friends. Depend upon it, that Thrasybulus and Anytus are much better pleased with your policy than they would be with mine. You accuse me of having betrayed the Four Hundred; but I did not desert them until they were themselves on the point of betraying Athens to her enemies. You call me the 'Buskin,' as trying to fit both parties. But what am I to call you, who fit neither of them, who under the democracy were the most violent hater of the people-and who under the oligarchy have become equally violent as a hater of oligarchical merit? I am, and always have been, Critias, an enemy both to extreme democracy and to oligarchical tyranny. I desire to constitute our political community out of those who can serve it on horseback and with / 70 / heavy armor;-I have proposed this once, and I still stand to it. I side neither with democracy nor despots, to the exclusion of the dignified citizens. Prove that I am now, or ever have been, guilty of such crime, and I shall confess myself deserving of ignominious death." 23
Where was Socrates through all this? There can be little doubt that he was very intimate with the oligarchical leaders, many of whom he had instructed in the notion that only the good and the wise and the true should rule; that government was not an art that could be picked up at random by the "man in the street," but depended on "knowledge, knowledge of ultimate principles of the "good" and the "just,"-knowledge which could only be gained by study and a painful askesis. But it was not only on the theoretical plane that this intimacy existed. Two years earlier Socrates had shown himself willing to execute a practical political commission for his friends and his party. But now, in the moment of triumph and bloodshed and disgrace, the request came to him again. He was asked to constitute himself, with four others, a commission to arrest a prominent, wealthy metic, Leon of Salamis, and assist in the seizure of his property. This time he backed down. There can be no doubt that both intellectually and temperamentally he shrank from deeds of direct violence. It should be fairly certain that his sympathies at such a juncture were with the so-called moderates; with Theramenes and his sect, men who, in theory, were convinced oligarchs; who, in practice, were willing to intrigue with Sparta, overthrow the democracy, betray the state, destroy its fleet and, perhaps, regrettably enough, abandon hundreds of its finest sailors. But at the prospect of turning the terror against the wealthy and the prominent, these men drew back in horror. 23a Neither Socrates nor, for that matter, Plato made any at. tempt to conceal their criticisms of Athenian democracy, its de-/ 71 / pendence (as they thought) on the whim of the multitude and the caprice of the lot;" nor did they conceal their preference for Sparta's more aristocratic, oligarchic and servile organization of society." Moreover the essence of Socrates' teaching was, as we have seen, profoundly anti-democratic, striking at the very theoretical roots on which the democratic way of life (even in a slave-owning democracy) was founded. It is only when the logic of political struggle produces a Critias, that such men as Theramenes and Socrates draw back in virtuous horror. However much we may excuse Socrates from any responsibility or sanction of the actual violence committed, we must nevertheless realize that the instinct of the democracy was profoundly right when it saw in him the evil genius behind the scene; the fons et origo malorum; the intellectual center from which emanated the very heart and soul of anti-democratic beliefs. We must here reflect once again how closely philosophy was bound up with the factionalism of the Greek states; and we need only recall once again the names of Anaxagoras, Pythagoras and Aristotle.
Bearing this in mind, we are in a much better position to appreciate the feelings of the men who came back from the Piraeus with the experience of the terror fresh in their minds; and why, in restoring democratic power, they should have felt it necessary "to hew the head off and not hack the limbs."
Viewed from this point of view we read the Apology of Socrates in a very different light. We are so used to thinking of the work as the high-minded apologia of the philosophic man, remote from mundane things, high above politics and political striving, that it is difficult to think of it as the extremely adroit and facile plea of a partisan.
The setting of the trial, to begin with, was extremely interesting. The democracy, having restored itself and balanced the rather precarious political position, felt it necessary to deal with the problem of Socrates. Three men came forward as his accusers: Meletus for the poets, Anytus for the craftsmen and political leaders, and Lycon for the rhetoricians. These three groups represent the intellectual as well as the practical leadership of the democracy. Sev- / 72 / eral facts about the trial are of great interest. There is no reason to think that Anytus-the central figure in the prosecution-was acting from any feeling of personal vindictiveness. We know that during the rule of the Thirty he had been forced to leave the city and that his property had been confiscated. Yet upon his return he distinguished himself by waiving any claims he might have made in the law courts. 26 As for the idea that the democrats were acting out of an irrational mania to pay back their enemies in kind, we have even the evidence of Plato to the contrary. 27 "Those who then came back conducted themselves very moderately." As a matter of fact the democracy was almost incredibly tolerant toward the men who attempted to destroy it. The only intelligible motive we can ascribe to the democrats arose out of a perfectly sober estimate of the danger both past and present represented by Socrates.
Fortunately we have two separate accounts of the indictment which check with each other admirably. Favorinus 28 quotes the actual charge as follows: "Socrates does wrong by not worshiping the gods which the city worships and introduces new deities. And lie corrupts the youth." Platos 29 version differs slightly but is substantially the same. "Socrates does wrong, in corrupting the youth" and disbelieving in the gods that the city believes in, but [introduces] other gods."
We can only regret that so little may be regarded as established, fact about the trial. It is even very doubtful whether Socrates made any defense at all. We are inclined to believe that Dr. H. Gomperz and Prof. W. A. Oldfather 30 have proved conclusively he did not. Their arguments briefly summarized are as follows: In the Gorgias, Callicles draws a merciless if imaginary portrait of Socrates' utter helplessness when he will, some day, be brought to trial for his life. Socrates responds (somewhat later) by picturing the helplessness of Callicles before the Judge of the Dead, fused and bewildered, standing at a loss for what to say. ' there, exactly as I here." 31 In, the Thaeatetus the same theme appears-the frustration and helplessness of the philosopher court. Again the words, "all helplessness" (pasan aporian)! 32 . Them by way of direct evidence, there is the explicit statement of Max- / 72 / imus of Tyre that Socrates gave no defense for himself, but that he "kept silence without faltering." To this Oldfather adds, "In the first place, there is an astonishing multiplicity of speeches ascribed to Socrates, or designed for Socrates, at the time of his trial, or composed in behalf of Socrates at some later date, by Plato, Xenophon [or pseudo-Xenophon], Lysias, Theodectes, Demetrius of Phalerum, Zeno of Sidon, Plutarch, Theo of Antioch, and even, seven hundred years too late, by Libanius." 33 The three speeches that have survived differ so widely both in content and manner that it is impossible to believe that they go back to one original. There are frequent references in Plato to the "ridiculous or pathetic figure which the philosopher cuts in the court room." 34
The picture in the Platonic Apology of Socrates completely in command of the situation, exercising a quiet but compulsive mastery; the aloof, detached philosopher, the aristo scornfully mastering the noisy impulses of the canaille, contrasts very vividly with Diogenes' picture: "Justus of Tiberias in his book entitled The Wreath says that in the course of the trial, Plato mounted the platform and began: 'Though I am the youngest, men of Athens, of all who ever rose to address you,'-whereupon the judges shouted out, 'Get down, get down." 35 "The fact that Justus was a Jew," says Oldfather, "may not be regarded as quite sufficient to discredit his authority with others as readily as it does with J. Geffcken." 36 And it is no wonder that discipleship through the ages has preferred not to linger on or credit so unpleasant a picture.
Moreover, Plato's picture of the serene objectivity with which Socrates and the jurors discussed the fitting penalty, is turned by Diogenes into something like a riotous scene. The prosecutor had demanded the death penalty: Socrates proposed a trivial fine -- 25 or 100 drachmas. The jury, a very large body in Athens, went wild. Whereupon Socrates said that such a man as he should be pensioned for life. It is no wonder that in reply to such an impertinence as this, the death sentence was immediately passed. Eighty additional jurors apparently felt that the old man was incorrigible.
Around the figure of Socrates a veritable literary warfare devel- / 74 / oped. His friends and supporters poured forth a flood of argument, rhetoric, direct and indirect defense. As part of this systematic campaign, we can certainly include the Gorgias of Plato, the Meno of Plato, the Apology of Lysias, the Memorabilia of Xenophon, the Apology of Xenophon (or pseudo-Xenophon) as well as the famous Platonic Apology. Nor were his opponents silent; in the year 393 or shortly after, the sophist and pamphleteer Polycrates published an attack on Socrates which purported to convey the case for the prosecution at the trial. 37 The belief grew up in some quarters that this was the actual speech delivered by Anytus, but Favorinus pointed out, even in antiquity, that the mention of the walls built by Conon made this chronologically impossible. 38 The fact, however, that this particular identification breaks down does not invalidate the view that the pamphlet of Polycrates embodies substantially the actual case of the prosecution.
Socrates, then, within the space of a few years from the trial, had become a symbol around which the co-related intellectual and political battle of Athenian and Greek factions was raging. We are irresistibly reminded of the parallel with another philosopher who became embroiled deeply in the political life of a period of crisis-Cato Uticensis. As with Socrates, the battle of words and pamphlets raged as merrily around the memory of the dead Cato as ever the war of weapons had raged in his lifetime. But the attempt to build a cultus around Cato was not as markedly successful; perhaps because it faced the political as well as the literary opposition of Julius Caesar.
It is important to notice that the whole effort of the conservative,. faction was to lift Socrates above the struggle of contending factions and make him a symbol of certain eternal and absolute moral. and religious ideas. The aim of the democrats, on the other hand, was to keep the argument on a strictly political level. 39 The conservatives were eager to take their philosopher from earth to heaven; the democrats were equally eager to pin him down mother earth. In this way two distinct conceptions of Socrates developed. Out of the one evolved the figure of the symbolic Socrates-the mouthpiece of the eternal, the prophet who enun- 75 / ciates ideas of absolute and universal validity, principles of morality and justice which arc to be regarded as always and everywhere true, without reference to time and space; out of the other, the lost Socrates, an historical personality, the intellectual leader of an Athenian faction, the man who more than any other was responsible, in an intellectual and moral sense, for the counterrevolution, and even (his opponents thought) for the excesses of the Thirty. And it is important to see that for the conservative intellectual position as Plato developed it, with its emphasis on the eternal idea, the claim of the state to autonomy and absolute obedience, the repudiation of the distinction between "nature" and "convention," the insistence that human law is the very incarnation of the eternal principle, the concept of the ethical and political ideal as unity and harmony, the submission of the passions to reason, the subordination of the governed to the governor, the "agreement" between classes that only the "guardians" must rule, for all this the figure of the symbolic Socrates was essential. Hence the eagerness of the Socratics to pitch the argument on an ethical, moral, religious and absolutist plane, to divorce Socrates from the struggle of factions and to make him a figure antipathetic to both sides. Xenophon, for example, does his best to make it appear that Critias and Socrates were at odds. He represents the decree passed by the Thirty against the sophists, forbidding men "to teach the art of words," 40 as a direct personal insult to Socrates himself. This is distinctly improbable, and it is a view which Xenophon himself refutes when he discloses the fact that in spite of the decree Socrates continued to teach the technique of interlocution. 41, The Thirty were not the kind of people to pass such a measure without intending its enforcement. 42
This is not intended to deny the possibility that there may have been divergences of interest between the conservatives themselves. That there were such divergences is, clear from the fate of Theramenes. Both factions, however, appealed to the concept of oligarchical merit.' When the right wing was for a short time in / 76 / power these divergences broke out very violently and it is not at all impossible that the sympathies of Socrates were with Theramenes and the moderates rather than Critias and the extremists. That this is probable is shown by the critical language which even so convinced a right winger as Xenophon uses about Critias.
We cannot believe that the uncompromising terrorists, who were responsible for something like fifteen hundred political murders including that of Theramenes, would have hesitated to put the dissident philosopher out of the way.
Back to Previous Section
On to Next Section
Table of Contents