Monday, May 22, 2023
Doors Open: 6:30 PM
Trial Begins: 7:00 PM
312.334.7777, 205 East Randolph Drive, Chicago IL 60601
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At the National Hellenic Museum, nationally renowned judges and attorneys will once again take on the most famous case in history: The People vs.Socrates. Is Socrates guilty of impiety and corrupting the youth? Or is he merely encouraging them to think?
The Trial of Socrates has fascinated and troubled generations who have struggled to comprehend the death of one of history’s greatest philosophers at the hands of a lawful jury. Charged with impiety and corrupting the youth, Socrates’ pursuit of wisdom was seen as a threat to the survival of Athenian democracy. The Trial of Socrates invites us to consider anew the fragility of democracy, the limits of freedom, and the imperfection of human justice.
The NHM Trial Series highlights the enduring relevance and value of Greek philosophy and thought.
Socrates’ trial took place in 399 B.C.E. during the tumultuous period following the defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Over the course of the conflict, millions died in battle, from hunger, and from the great plague that gripped Athens in the midst of the war. Among the dead were some of Athens’ most prominent citizens, including Pericles, a prominent politician and general. The city’s material resources were depleted, and its empire, which once dominated the Eastern Mediterranean, was dismantled by the victorious Spartans. In the face of this significant loss, the city faced an existential crisis, forced to contemplate its identity and its future.
The worst blow by far was the loss of the city’s democracy–which not only assured Athenians a level of freedom virtually unheard of in the ancient world, but formed a core part of their identity. Following Athens’ surrender, a pro-Spartan oligarchy known as The Thirty Tyrants was established as the puppet government. While they only held power for eight-months, during that brief period, this dictatorship oversaw a reign of terror. They confiscated significant amounts of property, exiled supporters of democracy, and executed 5% of the population of Athens (approximately 7,500 people, at a rate of about 20 people per day). The leaders of the Thirty were two men, Critias and Theramenes, both students and friends of Socrates. Historians have speculated that other students of Socrates were likewise involved in undermining Athenian independence and traditional freedoms.
While Plato assures us that Socrates opposed the regime, this is far from clear. Unlike many dissenters, Socrates stayed in the city. Moreover, even Plato tells us that when Socrates was ordered to bring Leon of Salamis, a popular war hero and outspoken supporter of democracy, to the Thirty to be executed, Socrates refused, but he also did not warn the wrongly persecuted man who was later arrested and executed. This story, found in Plato’s Apology (an account of Socrates’ trial) tells us two things: First, Socrates’ activity turning the dictatorship was one of the motivations for his arrest and thus he felt the need to justify his behavior as part of his defense. Second, Socrates’ complicity, or at least tolerance, for the dictatorship was well known enough that he could not credibly claim to have opposed the Thirty Tyrants and thus had to resort to simply arguing that he did not cooperate with them.
After the fall of the Thirty, it was decided there would be a general amnesty for all but the Thirty Tyrants and their closest collaborators (in particular The Eleven a group of Athenian judges who provided legal cover to the tyrants). This was an effort to allow Athens to move on from this dark period in its history. However, in the years immediately following, it was not uncommon for collaborators and supporters of the Thirty Tyrants, officially covered by the amnesty agreement, to be charged with things similar to “corrupting the youth” and “impiety” (particularly if they persisted in their anti-democratic activity) as a way around the agreed amnesty that also allowed Athens to protect itself from those seeking to destroy the democracy from within.
Socrates had been teaching and “philosophizing” for decades when he was tried. It was only after the terror and oppression during the reign of the Thirty Tyrants that he was arrested. We know from the writings of his most famous students (including Plato and Xenophone) that Socrates was an opponent of democracy in many ways. Socrates’ trial marks a moment when Athens starts limiting freedom of speech as a way of protecting itself from those who would challenge its institutions. Remember: The “youth” Socrates had corrupted had not just smoked cigarettes and graffitied the Agora, they had conspired with Athens’s enemies and had overseen a totalitarian reign of terror. The “impiety” he had shown was not just towards Athens’ gods, but her most cherished civil values.
Of course, Socrates never did anything himself except teach things contrary to the popular and traditional beliefs of Athens. In theory, he merely encouraged his students to question Athens’ most fundamental values. Critical thinking as a cornerstone of education, and public debate as a fundamental civic activity, had long been hallmarks of Athenian education and culture. In fact, freedom of speech as we understand it today largely began to take shape in Classical Athens and was a source of pride for Athenians.
Thus, the trial of Socrates is much more than the single trial of an annoying gadfly or the persecution of a man who merely wanted to encourage others to think freely. It is a moment in history that calls us to question the fragility of democracy, the limits of freedom, and the imperfection of human justice.