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Putting Socrates on Trial

The Greek philosopher Socrates was a pretty amazing example of a person living the search for wisdom. He himself did not leave any writings. He did his philosophizing orally, in the company of other people — and not always in the company of people who were enjoying the journey with him. As he went about Athens questioning reputedly wise people on topics of importance and finding them not so wise after all, he insisted on pointing this fact out to them. And this proclivity, as you can well imagine, did not lead to widespread popularity.

Many of the young people in Athens were impressed with Socrates' razor-sharp intellect and often followed him about, imitating his probing style of conversation and offending even more people. In fact, by the age of 70, Socrates and his followers had angered so many prominent citizens in Athens that he was accused and tried on the two trumped-up charges of corrupting the youth and of not believing in the gods of the city but following other gods instead.

Plato provides a riveting account Socrates' trial. His fate was in the hands of a crowd of 501 citizen-jurists, who were to weigh the evidence and decide his fate by vote. The evidence seems clear that if Socrates had just promised to stop philosophizing in public and stirring up trouble, he'd most likely have been freed. In his speech to the jurists, he considered this possibility and said that, if the offer were made, his response would be simple. His words ring through the centuries. He said that his reply would be as follows:

"Gentlemen of the jury, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall never cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you and in my usual way to point out to any of you whom I happen to meet: 'Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?' . . . For I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul, but I say to you: 'Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence brings about wealth and all other public and private blessings for men.'"

The verdict rendered after this speech was guilty. The penalty that the prosecutor proposed was an extreme one: death. By trial procedures in that day, the accused could propose an alternative punishment. If it was reasonable at all, the jury would almost certainly have preferred it over this maximal sentence.

Asked what he thought he deserved for what he had done, Socrates pondered it a bit and replied that he deserved free housing and free food of the best kind, like what the Olympic athletes received, for life.

He was given poison instead.

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