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Cracking the Socrates Case

The Trial of Socrates

by I.F. Stone
Little, Brown, 282 pp., $18.95


When one legend writes about another, the result is bound to be explosive. One could read I.F. Stone’s book as the most intemperate attack on Socrates since he was tried and found guilty in 399 BC. Some already have read the book that way, calling Stone a “cultural philistine.”1 A grave mistake.

The attack on Socrates does not spring from intemperance, but from Stone’s devotion to ancient Athens, cradle of freedom, democracy, and the love of justice and truth. These are the values for which Stone has fought, on behalf of us all, in the contemporary world. The book begins with a cry of pain:

How could the trial of Socrates have happened in so free a society? How could Athens have been so untrue to itself?

The pain is not resolved:

I could not defend the verdict when I started and I cannot defend it now. But I wanted to find out what Plato does not tell us, to give the Athenian side of the story, to mitigate the city’s crime and thereby remove some of the stigma the trial left on democracy and on Athens.

The rest of the book is a battle between one uncompromising idealist and another.

The battle between Stone and Socrates was first joined in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, April 8, 1979, but, according to Stone’s own account, the story really begins in 1971 when he was forced by ill health to close his famous one-man publication, I.F. Stone’s Weekly. After a lifetime’s practical involvement in campaigns for civil liberties, he retired from full-time journalism and decided to write a study of freedom of thought in human history. He was then sixty-three.

He began with Milton and the English revolutions of the seventeenth century. That took him back to the Protestant Reformation, that in turn through the Middle Ages to the origins of it all in ancient Athens. “There, like so many before me, I fell in love with the ancient Greeks.”

He learned Greek. A footnote in the book records with justifiable pride the hard work he put into reading the three plays of Aeschylus’ Oresteia in the original: twelve weeks, five to six hours a day, seven days a week. I well remember an evening in a Soho restaurant—my one meeting with him. Whether we discussed Pindar or Thucydides, Sophocles or Plato, his admiration and enthusiasm were exceeded only by his curiosity and desire to know more. Most of the questions he plied me with I could not answer. Not long afterward he “went public” in The New York Times Magazine. The heading of his piece read:

I.F. STONE BREAKS THE SOCRATES STORY. An old muckraker sheds fresh light on the 2,500-year-old mystery and reveals some Athenian political realities that Plato did his best to hide.


At that stage Stone had two main points to urge against Socrates on behalf of the Athenians. The first was that Socrates’ teaching was antidemocratic, the second that he remained in the city, silent and inactive, throughout the bloody dictatorship of the Thirty Tyrants in 404 BC. Conclusion: although the charge on which Socrates was tried spoke of impiety and corrupting the young, the real case against him was political. He had been undermining the faith of the young in democratic institutions.

This conclusion was not new to historians. The first point in Stone’s indictment was not new either, although some of the arguments for it were novel. The second point was new. Stone put it in italics to show that in his judgment it carried the greater weight. As he said, few historians have explained, or even mentioned, the fact that Socrates remained in the city throughout the dictatorship. The question was: Did it need to be mentioned or explained? Was Stone right to suggest that “that single fact must have accounted more than any other for the prejudice against Socrates when the democracy was restored”?

The academic world was puzzled. Stone had envisaged the classical scholars lying in wait with knives sharpened against this muckraking interloper who presumed to have found something they had all overlooked. But to my knowledge the only reaction was a short comment that Gregory Vlastos published in Political Theory, November 1979. Vlastos agreed that Socrates had been critical of democratic institutions2 and was tarnished by the fact that two of the dictators, Critias and Charmides, had at one time been his associates; all this would have helped to swing the verdict against him, as historians have often said. But why the fuss about Socrates staying in Athens in 404? The democratic activists left, to be sure, and many were driven into exile by the Thirty; a number of wealthy citizens had good reason to flee to avoid being murdered for their property. But several thousand Athenians remained. Vlastos wrote:

All we can learn from the fact that this elderly man of modest means chose to remain in Athens with his family (which included a young child), instead of joining the embattled democrats at Phyle, is that his sentiment for democracy fell considerably short of self-sacrificing devotion to it. This would hardly go to show he was its enemy.

At the time I agreed with Vlastos’s comment. Now, nine years later, I see things differently. The great achievement of Stone’s book is its vivid and detailed portrayal of Athenian political experience in the troubled period leading up to the trial of Socrates. The appalling regime of the Thirty was imposed by the Spartans, victorious and vindictive at the end of a long-drawn-out war. But already in 411 Athens had endured an oligarchic revolution, with gangs of bully boys bringing terror to the streets. These bully boys—the phrase is Stone’s, designed to evoke the death squads used by the military in Argentina, El Salvador, and Chile in our time—came from the same aristocratic circles as many of the young men who flocked around Socrates. Their secret conspiratorial clubs did not cease to meet when democracy returned. Even after the Thirty were overthrown, when the restored democracy, in an extraordinary and much-praised spirit of reconciliation, declared an amnesty that made it illegal to prosecute anyone for the crimes of the recent past, even then the oligarchic menace did not go away. A new attack from nearby Eleusis was quelled in 401, just two years before the trial of Socrates.

Stone’s account of these events is marvelously and movingly written. The reader is left with a strong sense that these were times when it would have been pardonable to think, “He that is not with us is against us.” Especially about someone who was intimately associated with a number of people who patently were against us.

Of course, this would be guilt by association. But that is precisely the question. Was Socrates charged and found guilty because, or partly because, he was associated in the minds of many Athenians with right-wing terrorism? Fifty-four years later an Athenian orator could speak as if this was both true and proper, a salutary precedent for the case in hand:

Men of Athens, you put to death Socrates the sophist because he was shown to have been the teacher of Critias, one of the Thirty who overthrew the democracy.

But fifty-four years is a long time (how much accurate knowledge would a present-day jury have about a famous trial in the Thirties?) and Socrates is blackened here for having been the teacher of Critias, not for inactivity during his tyrannical regime. Stone is well aware of the difference, and it is the evidence for his novel thesis about Socrates’ inactivity in 404 that I chiefly want to discuss. If we suppose it is correct to think that Socrates was associated with right-wing terrorism, is it also plausible to think that the prejudice against him was intensified by his remaining in the city, silent and inactive, while the killings and the confiscations went on?


I propose that we should distinguish rather firmly three separate issues. The first is Stone’s own judgment of Socrates:

Socrates, during these fateful conflicts and their humane resolution, did not take his stand with the aristocrats, or his own middle class, or the poor. The most talkative man in Athens fell silent when his voice was most needed. One possible reason is, simply, that he did not care enough.

Stone’s voice did not fall silent when it was needed. Most surely, the right to pass judgment on Socrates is a right that he has earned. The question I shall want to return to is whether his judgment has helped him in understanding what Socrates is about, or hindered. But even if, as I shall in fact suggest, it has hindered his understanding of Socrates, it may nonetheless have helped him to a sympathetic understanding of the ordinary, politically involved Athenian citizen’s reaction to Socrates. This is the second issue I want to distinguish.

Take the incident, well known to readers of Plato’s Apology, when the Thirty instructed Socrates, along with four others, to arrest Leon of Salamis and bring him in for execution. They did this with a view to implicating as many people as possible in their crimes. Socrates refused, on the grounds that the action was unjust and impious. But what Stone chooses to emphasize is the manner of his refusal. According to the Apology, he did not speak out but simply went home, while the other four set off to arrest Leon. Stone comments:

Socrates did not—like his accuser, Anytus—leave the city and join the exiles who were already planning the overthrow of the dictators. He would have been a welcome and inspiring recruit. He “simply went home.” Was that fulfilling his civic duty aginst injustice? Or was he merely avoiding personal complicity and, as he expressed it, saving his soul?

Stone’s own attitude is clear. But is he right to think that many Athenians would have agreed with him?

Stone’s evidence on this second issue is extremely interesting. It was not of course a crime to have remained in the city during the dictatorship, and even if it had been, the amnesty forbade prosecution. But there was a definite prejudice against those who remained. A number of passages in the speeches that survive from later court cases in the corpus of the orator Lysias show the speaker exploiting the prejudice, or guarding against it. One Lysianic speech, of which only a fragment survives, bore the title “In Defense of Eryximachus, Who Remained in the City.” It seems fair to congratulate Stone for identifying an animosity that could have influenced some of the jurors at the trial of Socrates.

Naturally, “could have” does not entail “did.” No one knows what factors did influence the 501 Athenians who sat on the jury in 399 BC. The first sentence of Xenophon’s Memorabilia says:

  1. 1

    Sidney Hook in The Wall Street Journal, January 20, 1988.

  2. 2

    Vlastos would now say that Socrates had appeared to be critical of democratic institutions; see note 6 below.

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