This piece was originally posted in the British Young Mensa Newsletter in July, 2014.
The execution of Socrates, despite the fact that it happened about 2,500 years ago, is still a topic of academic discussion. It has also infiltrated our cultural heritage in more ways than one - Voltaire wrote a play about the event, and Andrew Irvine did the same as recently as 2008. Many people consider the situation an example of how Athens had declined since its foundation, but a substantial minority think that, at least to some extent, Socrates deserved his punishment, and that the accusations of 'corrupting the youth' and of 'impiety' were true. The question is, then, why was Socrates executed?
There are two major primary sources which can help us come to a decision. The first is the Apology, one of Plato's early dialogues, which mainly consists of Socrates' defence speech. We get a lot of key Socratic ideas here, especially the supposition that the wisest man is he who knows he is unwise. However, one must bear in mind that the Apology was written by one of Socrates' students. As a result, Socrates is clearly going to be portrayed in a positive light.
The second - Aristophanes' comedy Clouds - precedes the trial, but importantly it is directly referenced in Plato's Apology as being a reason behind Socrates' conviction. A glance at the plot reveals why. Socrates is portrayed as a bumbling sophist, who believes in false gods, trains his students to circumvent the law, and uses specious logic to get his way. Obviously it is to some extent satirical, but audiences may have known to what degree it was satirical, and it may well have influenced the perception of Socrates in Athens at the time.
Depending on who you believe, there are essentially two main explanations for Socrates' execution. Firstly, he may well have been guilty. Secondly, he may simply have been the victim of a smear campaign combined with a biased justice system.
There is a certain amount of evidence for the first viewpoint, even in what Plato says. Many people have commented that Socrates' philosophy is at its worst in the Apology, in that it relies on semantics and sophistry more than clear-cut logic. This is exactly what may have swung the jury, especially if Socrates' method here is a general depiction of what he did from day to day. (It is important to bear in mind that the genuine Socrates and Plato's Socrates are not always cognates, and they would often disagree.) Contemporary writers suggest that Socrates was emulated often by young Athenians, and it is understandable that jurors may have considered such a cynical and suspicious ethos in the young undesirable.
However, Socrates could equally have been the victim. If the Clouds is taken as representative of Athenian attitudes at the time, then prejudice could easily have become rife. Socrates' activities also created many political enemies who may were very influential in the court. And in Athens the jury numbered as many as 500 people, many of whom could have lacked knowledge on the case and thus simply may have voted based on hearsay and rumour.
Overall, the paucity of unbiased information makes it hard to come to any concrete conclusions. However, what seems to be most likely, at least in my opinion, is that most Athenians simply thought that Socrates' methods of philosophy had a malign influence on the young. Bearing in mind that at the time, Athens was only the size of modern Northampton, it seems just about possible that the effects were widespread enough to turn the city against him, which led to the slander and suchlike. This incorporates elements of both options; indeed, any conclusions can only be fairly vague.
To modern readers, the notion of a play influencing society so much as to have a man killed may seem preposterous, but it is still a worrying reality. The massive viewership of certain TV programmes, and the massive readership of some websites and newspapers, can result in the opinions of individuals being projected onto a sizeable proportion of the nation. Imagine if the Sun made negative comments about a celebrity, and just picture how quickly public opinion would change.