Scholars' Association News
Issue 19
August 2011


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The new trial of Socrates
By Leda Bouzali

In the spring of 399 B.C., Socrates confronted 500 Athenians, citizens, judges and jurors, in his trial initiated by the charges leveled at him by Meletus, Anytos and Lycon. The trial began with a reading of the formal charges: "Socrates is guilty of crime in refusing to recognise the gods acknowledged by the state, and importing strange divinities of his own; he is further guilty of corrupting the young.".

The two opposing sides were given equal time, measured by an hourglass, to present their argument. The prosecution spoke first, followed by the defence – based on accounts by Plato and Xenophon. After both parties presented their cases, a ballot was held with especially marked ballot disks: 280 jurors voted Socrates guilty and 220 voted him innocent. According to Athenian law, each side had to propose a suitable punishment. The prosecutors proposed the death penalty. Socrates initially stated that he had done nothing wrong and that he should not be punished, but then ultimately he proposed that he be fined. A new vote took place in which 360 jurors favoured the death penalty. So, Socrates was imprisoned. After one month, and having refused the opportunity to escape, he willingly drank the hemlock and died surrounded by his close friends and students.

On May 12th 2011, 2,410 years later, the trial of Socrates is repeated. This time not in Athens but in the USA at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse in New York, as an Onassis Foundation initiative. This time Socrates was acquitted in a historical trial which was not a re-enactment but a modern perspective based on current legal framework supplemented with ancient Greek elements and comical theatrics.

The Alexander S. Onassis Foundation found advocates for its venture, top American judges and lawyers, who all examined the trial material retrieved from ancient texts by Plato (Apology, Crito, Euthyphro, Phaedo), Xenophon (Memorabilia) and Aristophanes (The Clouds), as well as the corresponding Athenian law of that time.

The court was comprised of Honorable Dennis G. Jacobs, Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, presiding, Honorable Carol Bagley Amon, Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, and Honorable Loretta Α. Preska, Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The Counsel for the city of Athens was comprised of Mr. Anthony Papadimitriou, President of the Onassis Foundation, and Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, Assistant District Attorney in New York. The Counsel for Socrates was the distinguished lawyer Eddie Hayes, while acclaimed Benjamin Brafman portrayed Socrates.

Dr. Alexander Nehamas, Professor at Princeton University acted as Academic Advisor and Commentator of the trial, providing an academic viewpoint on Socrates’ trial before the verdict. The outcome of the trial was not predetermined. Two of the judges, Dennis G. Jacobs and Loretta A. Preska, voted in favour of the defendant’s acquittal, while Carol Bagley Amon, the third judge condemned him. The final verdict was left to the audience-jurors who voted as they exited the courtroom. The verdict of the audience was announced during a reception hosted at the Federal Court building at the end of the event. The ballot-box revealed that 185 jurors agreed with the judges’ verdict, 29 disagreed, while many others did not take part in the voting.

The Federal Court of New York and the American advocates enthusiastically embraced the Foundation’s initiative to repeat the trial of Socrates, as noted by Mr. Anthony Papadimitriou, President of the Onassis Foundation: "It proves that we have selected not only the most acclaimed but also the most appropriately educated to undertake this initiative. But I, for one, have also undertaken the role of the prosecutor as an active attorney and not in the capacity of the Foundation’s President. All contributors had studied the brief and each side presented its case. I consider my job to be easy in terms of argumentation, but difficult indeed as nowadays nobody wishes to condemn Socrates. My main concern was to defend the Athenian Democracy."

"This trial is about the survival of Democracy and not the right to free speech" proclaimed Col. Bogdanos. "The Athenian Democracy is a role model. We believe that many heads are better than one, whereaas Socrates claims that one is better than many. Hence, do not ask me to be modest when Democracy is at stake."

Eddie Hayes started his appeal with a humorous note: "Socrates is accused of having a big mouth! ... If they want to kill him for having a big mouth, what about my brother too?" "Socrates hurt no-one. All he did was speak and ask questions, without providing answers. We shouldn't prevent anyone from speaking, because we then stop even more people from listening, and thus from judging and deciding."

"You are afraid of me because I know that you do not know," declared Socrates-Benjamin Brafman in his defence. "I question the mighty, the poets, the politicians. I challenge them and reveal they have no answers for what they profess. I am not afraid to die but think of how you would feel if you put me to death for speaking my mind."

Anthony Papadimitriou deemed worthy of mention the fact that one of the three judges found Socrates guilty and that 20% of the people in the audience agreed; also the fact that the rationale behind the second judge’s acquittal revealed certain doubts.

The President of the Foundation commented "The trial of Socrates proved that positive biases are as difficult to overcome as negative ones. Nowadays, Socrates is almost sanctified by means of a strange alliance of forces. On the one hand, since the era of the Roman Empire, all intellectuals wanting to defend all and any authoritarian regimes and harm democracy have presented Socrates to be a victim of democracy, proving that democracies are faulty as they can condemn and kill even Socrates. On the other hand, Plato’s philosophy was adopted and constituted the base of Christian philosophy. The daimon talking to Socrates constituted the concept of soul, or in simpler terms, the guardian angel of a young child. Socrates’ teachings that one should not pursue material wealth and an easy life, but instead seek to save one’s soul, can only sound as a herald of Christ’s words. The reality, however, is completely different. Historical sources, even those politically in favour of Socrates, depict reality. Socrates was a supporter of Sparta and a spiritual leader for the tyrants Critias and Charmides. But, above all, Socrates and Plato were both advocates of a somewhat odd oligarchic (or authoritarian, we would say today) regime.

When he proclaims that the best system of governance will be achieved when philosophers are in power, he means exactly this: that the people are incapable of making any kind of decision and that only governors who have received special education can steer the ship of the State; that only a specially trained captain can sail the ship and the rest must be left to row... Of course, those who think that they belong to this "aristocracy of spirit" are fond of the idea, but this does not have to be the case for the rest."

Consequently, although historical evidence illustrates the trial of Socrates as a political trial which allowed an Athenian democracy, weakened by Sparta, to get rid of its tyrants’ mentor in order to avoid their resurgence, the public opinion has received a different feeling. It has elevated Socrates to the pedestal of the defender of the freedom of speech and thought, which after all he was not.This is why many acclaimed modern researchers, such as I.F. Stone and Paul Cartledge, view Socrates’ conviction as fair. "For history’s sake, if Socrates was to be convicted by the court’s magistrates, I would definitely not recommend the death penalty but a temporary exile" concludes Anthony Papadimitriou.

Professor Alexander Nehamas based his speech to the audience on the Apology of Socrates describing the historical context of the trial and commenting on key points, while the three judges convened in order to reach their verdict, As he mentioned, despite the fact that Xenophon and Plato were contemporaries of Socrates, their accounts of his apology that have survived differ significantly. This leads to the conclusion that each one of them attributed to Socrates the speech that they thought was the most fitting.

"This practice was rather common in classical Greece" stated Mr. Nehamas. "It is also evident in Thucydides in his famous Pericle’s Funeral Oration. Therefore, it is impossible to know exactly what Socrates words were during his trial. Nevertheless, Plato’s Apology is so irresistibly gripping – even though we cannot ignore Xenophon’s account – that we can hardly distinguish between the image we have created of Socrates and his Platonic illustration or Socrates’ Platonic illustration and reality".

Alexander Nehamas continued by saying that "Socrates as portrayed by Xenophon is much more conventional than the barefoot irritating individual that hears ‘divine voices’ advising him as he wanders around the city surrounded by the finest of young men and challenges the most acclaimed of politicians, poets, teachers and artists of Athens, unleashing a relentless assault of questions. The divine voices – the daemons – were one of the reasons that he was indicted. The second reason was the degree of his influence, since Socrates’ questioning aimed to manifest that, despite their reputation, none of the citizens he addressed knew neither what the nature of virtue was nor how to lead a good and happy life. Furthermore as his students were eager to imitate his eccentric behaviour, he was accused of undermining their respect for elders and the traditional values of the city of Athens, in particular those of a democratic state."

The proceedings of the trial were filmed and will be available on DVD for US Universities. Also, the audio document of the event has already been posted on the website of the affiliated Onassis Foundation.

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