To understand the trial of Socrates, it is useful to situate it in its political context. Half a century earlier, Athens was a powerful republic in which every adult male citizen had the right to vote. Women and the numerous slaves in the city did not have the same right. Athens had become powerful in creating an empire that the city governed in a tyrannical manner. It is nonetheless the custom to consider Athens the first republic and the first attempt to create a democratic government.
THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR (CA. 431-404 BC)
The golden age of Athens occurred while the city was governed by Pericles. The republic was extremely rich, and it attracted a number of particularly important artists and brilliant thinkers. The beginning of its decadence also occurred during this epoch. The royal city of Sparta and her allies decided to support the revolt of those kingdoms previously conquered by Athens. This unleashed the interminable Peloponnesian War that ended with victory for Sparta. The royalists created a government composed of thirty members of the old Athenian aristocracy. This government of thirty oligarchsâ persecuted the republicans. Greatly unpopular, they were toppled within a few months by the republicans, who then persecuted those who had supported the oligarchy. Socrates’s trial is one of the last and most well-known reprisals carried out by the citizens of Athens.
SOCRATES, PLATO, AND THE OLIGARCHS
Plato’s parents were from some illustrious Athenian families. Certain branches of the family were close to the oligarchs, and other branches had supported Pericles. Pericles and Plato’s father had died not long after Plato’s birth.
In The Symposium, Plato shows us Socrates about to carry out a philosophical discussion with Athenian personalities close to the oligarchs, especially Alcibiades. This dignitary had been a brilliant Athenian politician. Having led the Athenian army in a disastrous campaign, he had gone over to the enemy and given the Spartans precious information that helped them capture the port of Athens. This dialogue, redacted after Socrates’s trial, demonstrates that Socrates and Plato were members of an intelligentsiaâ relatively indifferent to the interests of the republic.
Socrates was, at that time, the head of a renowned school that educated the golden youth of Athens. Among the students were many sons of families who had close ties to the oligarchy. The school had a questionable reputation because it seemed to be, in the eyes of some (like Aristophanes), what we would today call a sect: It is a Thinkery for intellectual souls. That’s where people live who try to prove that the sky is like a baking-pot all round us, and we’re the charcoal inside it. And if you pay them well, they can teach you how to win a case whether you’re right or notâ48 (Aristophanes, 2002, The Clouds, p. 78).
The Socrates of Plato’s first dialogues can sometimes be perceived as a master who exercises a kind of gentle but insidious hammering that finally leaves the other confused and without a voice. Even today, one finds authors for whom Plato’s early dialogues show a Socrates backed up by yes-men and opposed by the philosophically naive who are doomed to confusionâ (Gaskin, 1993, p. xxiii).