NLJ: Political poison

Geoffrey Bindman QC reflects on the trial of Socrates & the power of politics to defeat human rights

Politicians who disparage human rights sometimes give the impression they are dealing with an ill-considered invention of modern left-wing ideologues. 

In truth, the struggle for human rights goes back at least to the 5th century BC, when Socrates dispensed his philosophical wisdom in the city-state of Athens.

Yet, remarkably, in 399 BC the 70-year-old philosopher was put on trial in the birthplace of democracy for what we would regard as human rights violations. There were two charges. The first was that he refused to ‘do reverence to the gods recognised by the city, and introduced new divinities’. The second was that he corrupted his youthful pupils. Following conviction, he accepted the consequence: death. Famously, he ended his life by drinking the prescribed Athenian poison: hemlock.

His second offence is not to be understood in the modern paedophilic sense—paedophilia was not a crime in ancient Athens. Rather, it was his pedagogic activities which got him into trouble. The accusation was that he encouraged his pupils to doubt the existence of the gods referred to in the first charge.

Free speech

The American investigative journalist I.F. Stone had been a classical scholar in his own youth. When he retired from the editorship of his popular periodical I. F. Stone’s Weekly at the age of 70, he decided to devote his remaining years to the study of Greek history. He had always found the trial of Socrates a puzzle. How could it happen that in the very crucible of democracy, its greatest citizen could be convicted and sentenced to death for merely exercising his constitutional right to free speech? He hoped to find the answer—‘one last scoop’, as he put it.

Stone examined closely the surviving contemporary accounts of the case. The procedure was not so different from that which prevailed in our system until recently. At a preliminary hearing a magistrate decided whether to allow the case to go forward to a trial by a jury of randomly chosen citizens. Evidently this happened to Socrates, though details are scanty. We do not even know what laws he was accused of violating.

The jury trial is described in Plato’s dialogues though we learn little of the advocates or their arguments. It is said that Socrates declined to speak in his own defence. The historian Xenophon also wrote about what must have been the most sensational trial of its time. Plato’s description suggests that Socrates was the victim of an ignorant vicious mob of jurors, but Stone finds this hard to accept. Other evidence indicates that Athens was an enlightened and cultured society at the time. Contemporary theatre and popular literature were liberal and supportive of democratic ideals.

Martyr to the cause?

Why then was Socrates prosecuted—and so late in his life? The clue Stone found was in the identity of some of Socrates’ pupils. Among them was Critias, who later emerged as the leader of a movement which challenged the egalitarian ethic that was the hallmark of Athenian democracy. In the year 411 BC, this group of young aristocrats, who became known as the ‘Thirty Tyrants’, carried out a coup. They terrorised the city for about eight months until the democratic forces regained control.

The mere fact that Critias had been his pupil does not mean that Socrates supported the tyrants, but there is other evidence that suggests he was sympathetic to the anti-democratic position. For example, Socrates remained in Athens, apparently undisturbed, during the rule of the Thirty Tyrants. In Plato’s dialogues, he is also recorded as arguing not for democracy but for a form of aristocratic rule. Resentment against him may well have remained after the resumption of democratic government.

It is easy to see how charges of renouncing the gods of the democrats and encouraging his pupils to do the same could reflect a political disagreement between Socrates and his rulers. But two questions remain. Why wait so long after the coup before taking action against Socrates? And how can one reconcile such charges with the high respect for freedom of expression for which Athens was famous?

The answer to the first question seems to be that Socrates was unrepentant and persisted in his opposition to the democratic ethos. Others shared his views and the authorities decided they had to take action. Nor was the outcome of the trial a foregone conclusion. The jury was divided on whether to convict and did so only by a narrow majority.

As to the second question, I. F. Stone concludes that Socrates should have been acquitted. He failed to defend himself even though he had a strong defence on the basis of the acknowledged right to freedom of expression. To some degree he invited martyrdom.

Human rights

Of course one must be cautious in reaching any conclusions about something that happened so long ago in a very different world. Yet there are features of the story which resonate today. The most striking of these is the power of politics to defeat human rights. Socrates’ right to express his opinions freely in the very birthplace of democracy could not withstand the political aims even of the most celebrated democratic government. The struggle for human rights never ends.

Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, NLJ columnist & consultant, Bindmans LLP