Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Background for the Trial of Socrates

Steve Muhlberger
Socrates lived and taught in Athens during the Peloponnesian War.    During his lifetime he was a controversial character:   some people thought him the wisest man and the best teacher alive; others that he was eccentric, a bad influence, even subversive of the democratic regime.

In 399 B.C., Socrates was prosecuted for sacrilege and corrupting the youth of Athens.   Behind these charges was the fact that some of Socrates' most famous students had been involved in the bloody regime of the Thirty Tyrants.   He was convicted and sentenced to death.

Socrates wrote nothing, so we do not have any direct evidence of his philosophy or political views.   While he was still alive, the playwright Aristophanes made Socrates a chief character in one of his satiric comedies, The Clouds.   Aristophanes' Socrates is an impractical eccentric and a figure of fun. 

After Socrates' death, two of his students wrote apologias or justifications of his life.   One, Xenophon, was an aristocratic politician and general, and his account is the more straightforward.   The other student, the famous philosopher Plato, wrote, besides an apologia,  many dialogues in which Socrates is the main character, discussing philosophical problems with various Athenians.   A great deal is known about Plato's Socrates -- but how much is this literary character like the real man who inspired Plato?

Socrates, controversial in his lifetime, has remained controversial ever since, both in historical and philosophical circles.    In the January 5th class, you will hear some of the contemporary debate about him.   A more sympathetic view, overall, can be seen in the filmed play Barefoot in Athens by Maxwell Anderson, available in the NU Audio/Visual collection (VT 857).   It is excellent and I highly recommend it.

In preparation for the January 5th class, besides the assignment in your source reader, you may want to look at the following sites:
The Last Days of Socrates, posted by the Philosophy Department of Clarke College.   It provides Plato's accounts and links to other materials, such as W. K. C. Guthrie's 1950 article, "The Reaction Towards Humanism" and Garth Kemerling's brief biography.

Aristophanes' The Clouds is online at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Perseus Project has posted the Loeb Classical Library translation of Xenophon's Apology.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.