Trial of Socrates
In Athens, the jury system was introduced simultaneously with Athenian democracy in 590 BC. A council called Areopagus consisting of elected aristocrats, ran both the government as well as the court.
Pericles and his predecessor Aphialtes, had accomplished one of the greatest reforms in the judicial system that of .transference of the judicial powers from this council of aristocrats, to the heliaea, a law council consisting of 6000 jurors, annually drawn by lots from the citizen's register. Only male citizens over thirty years of age were permitted to volunteer for jury duty. Women and slaves as well as alien residents were not permitted. These 6000 jurors were divided into 10 panels of roughly 500 jurors each. Jury duty was voluntary and each juror served for a year at a time. Pericles also began the practice of a fee of three obols for a day of jury duty. Athens employed panels ranging from 500 to as many as 1500 jurors, depending on the nature of the case. Using a large number of jurors prevented bribery and the panel before which a case was to be tried was decided by lot at the last minute to reduce corruption. All jurors swore an oath by the gods Zeus, Apollo and Demeter:
"I will cast my vote in consonance with the laws and decrees passed by the Assembly and by the council, but, if there is no law, in consonance with my sense of what is most just, without favour or enmity. I will vote only on the matters raised in the charge, and I will listen impartially to the accusers and defenders alike."
During the time of Socrates there was no public prosecutor; the citizens could accuse offenders in a public place and issue summons to appear in court before the legal magistrate. Melitus delivered an oral summons to Socrates in the presence of witnesses, which required him to appear before the legal magistrate in the Royal Stoa, a building in the city center.
The charge made by Melitus against Socrates was that of impiety and corruption of youth. After hearing both parties, the magistrate determined whether this charge was permissible under Athenian law. He then set a date for the preliminary hearing, which was made public so that citizens of Athens, if interested, could be present for the hearing.
The hearing took place in the Royal Stoa. It can be divided into two phases the guilt phase in which the guilt is either established or the defendant is acquitted. It commenced with the reading of the formal charges being read out by a herald after which the prosecution consisting of Melitus, Anytus and Lycon got three hours measured by a water clock to make their arguments to prove Socrates guilty of corrupting the youth and impeity.
Following the prosecutions case, Socrates received three hours to answer their charges. After he had spoken, the herald asked the jurors to decide and announce their decision. Jurors had to decide their verdict of guilt or non-guilt on the spot, by their own discretion and interpretation of the law, without any dialogue or influence of co-jurors. They voted through a ballot system, in which a majority vote was necessary for conviction. In the case of Socrates, 280 jurors found him guilty and 220 declared him innocent a relatively close vote.
The second phase is one, in which, in case the defendant is found guilty, his punishment is evaluated. Both the defendant and the accuser propose punishment, which they deem fit for the crime committed and the jurors decide between the two options. Punishments can range from loss of civil rights, fines, forfeit of property, exile, imprisonment and death. In case of Socrates, the accusers proposed the death penalty by hemlock
poisoning and Socrates suggested, instead of a punishment, a reward of free meals at the city center or at the most, a token fine of one mina of silver. This time however 360 jurors voted for the death penalty and 180 voted against it a larger margin voted against Socrates than while convicting him as guilty.
It appears that they found his suggestion for his proposed punishment insulting and therefore turned against him. Also, it was a practice in those days for the wife and children to plead before the jurors, but Socrates forbade such emotional display. Their presence might have helped to endear him to the jurors.
It seems rather intriguing that a state such as Athens, so fiercely democratic and champion of liberty and freedom should deem it fit to execute a seventy-year-old philosopher. Let us look at the picture from both the points of view. Socratic philosophy gave a higher place to knowledge than opinion. For example when one wants a pair of shoes, one goes to a shoemaker who has the expertise and the knowledge of making shoes. Similarly, if one wants good governance for the state one should entrust those who have the intelligence and the knowledge required to carry out such a task. Socrates, therefore, recommended that governance should be carried out by enlightened leaders since they had the knowledge for such a task and disapproved of the existing democratic system of governance in which lots are drawn from the register of citizens and rulers are chosen not by their ability but by chance instead. As Socrates says in Xenophon's Memorabilia, "It is absurd to choose magistrates by lot where no one would dream of drawing lots for a pilot, a mason, a flute-player, or any craftsman at all, though the shortcomings of such men are far less harmful than those that disorder our government." It is obvious that the citizens of Athens felt resentful of Socrates' view, as it would rob them of their rights to rule the state. And we will see how future events in Athens conspired to further fuel their resentment towards Socrates on this account.
Having recommended that enlightened leaders were fit to rule, the two examples of such a rule that Athens witnessed were so horrifying that one can understand the disapproval of the Athenians towards the teachings of Socrates. The fact that Alcibiades, who overthrew the democracy of Athens and established the dictatorship of the Four Hundred in 411 BC and earlier had turned traitor to Athens by siding with Sparta and Critias, the leader of the Thirty Tyrants who wreaked havoc on Athenians and went on a killing binge in 404 BC, were his erstwhile pupils, inflamed the already resentful citizens of Athens further against Socrates and put the final stamp of conviction that his teachings were, indeed, a bad influence upon the youth of Athens.
It "was also held against him that when Critias asked Socrates to bring before him Leon of Salamis so that he could be executed, although Socrates declined to carry out such a task as it was against his duty towards Athens, he neither tried to stop o the violence nor did he warn Leon of the impending danger. He simply returned home. This behavior of Socrates seems to have been taken as indifference on the part of Socrates towards his fellow Athenians.
Socrates often spoke of an inner spirit that guided him and commanded him to devote himself to the discovery of True Knowledge. In fact, he would often go' into a trance. When asked about the gods, he only had one answer, and that was that one knows nothing of the gods, but he further clarified that one should worship the gods according to the law of one's country. In fact he himself referred to the oracle at Delphi, and often recommended others to take the advice given by it. However, he believed and was vocal about his belief that apart from the existence of the gods, there existed a faculty in man as well - his intelligence - that was capable of perceiving True Knowledge and the ideas of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Religion, as existed in those times was largely limited to dogmas and prescriptions, which did not easily permit or encourage a free enquiry by people, and consequently, everything was
referred to the gods, without the use of the individual intelligence to arrive at conclusions with regard to matters of morality and ethics. There is a dialogue calledEuthypro by Plato in which Socrates argues that the good is not good because the gods approve of it, but that the gods approve of it because it is good. It is obvious that the orthodox would find him a threat because, as Will Durant says in the Life of Greece, Socrates dared 'to subject every rule to the scrutiny of reason' and encouraged people to determine for themselves, individually, matters relating to ethics and morality, which hitherto had been restricted to the domain of the gods and men simply followed the doctrines without question. And hence, came the accusation of impiety against him.
The opinion of fellowmen often tends to be myopic, as was the case of the Athenians with regard to Socrates and his beliefs and teachings. But, to be fair to them, they were influenced by what appeared to be the immediate consequences of Socratic thought and were not around to see his philosophy stand the test of time. Whatever may have been the view of his fellowmen, the passage of two thousand years has widened the vision of people and their view has become more holistic, capable of seeing the history of mankind and its intellectual development from that point forward to where it stands today. And that curve suggests that Western philosophy took birth with Socrates and his reasoning which, therefore, could not have been detrimental to the youth of those days.