• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Cracking the Socrates Case


I regret to report that Stone has very little patience with philosophy. “Stratospheric nonsense” is a sample comment, prompted by a passage that scholars like me write whole articles to explain. Very well. If Stone finds the inconclusive meanderings of philosophical argument a distraction from more urgent and more practical matters, so too do a number of Socrates’ interlocutors in the dialogues. In this and much else, Stone is at one with many of the Athenians he so passionately wishes to excuse. Let me therefore try an indirect approach.

I shall argue that one proper and useful way to extenuate the Athenians’ condemnation of Socrates is by examining the implications of his philosophy for traditional Athenian religion. For while Xenophon’s Socrates is no threat to anyone’s piety (as Xenophon is at pains to point out), Plato’s Socrates is a philosopher who wants a reasoned account of what piety is.

We begin by opening Plato’s Euthyphro, to which ancient editors gave the subtitle “On piety: a testing dialogue.” Euthyphro, whose ideas about piety Socrates will put to the test, is prosecuting his own father. On their farm on the island of Naxos a hired laborer killed one of the house slaves in a drunken brawl. Euthyphro’s father tied the man up, threw him into a ditch, and sent a messenger to Athens to ask the religious authorities what he ought to do. By the time the messenger returned, the laborer was dead from hunger and cold. Question: Does Euthyphro act piously in bringing a charge of homicide against his own father on behalf of the laborer?

The magistrate before whom Euthyphro has come to lay his charge is about to give a preliminary hearing to the charge against Socrates, who is accused, so he tells Euthyphro, of corrupting the young by making new gods and not believing in the old ones. Question: Is Socrates guilty of impiety?

Euthyphro is shocked that Socrates should be so accused: he has great respect for Socrates. Socrates is shocked that Euthyphro should so confidently accuse his father: he has little respect for Euthyphro. Stone is shocked by Socrates’ lack of compassion for the dead laborer in the ditch. For six magnificent pages he rips into Socrates for not seeing that only pity, not logic, will clear our vision to resolve the agony of Euthyphro’s conflict of obligations. But there he stops. He has no time for “the arid semantics of the Socratic interrogation” that follows. No time, that is, for the discussion of the question, well motivated in the dramatic context, “What are piety and impiety both in relation to murder and in relation to other things?” Yet this is a discussion in which Plato invites us to reflect at a philosophical level about conflicts of religious obligation and whether they can be resolved.

I share Stone’s view that there are conflicts of obligation that no amount of thinking will resolve. But lots of people, Socrates among them, disagree. It takes thought, not indignation, to defend the view that there are some questions that thought cannot resolve. Let us read on.

Euthyphro suggests that piety is what is pleasing to the gods. Now if by “definition” you mean what many modern philosophers mean by it, an analysis of the meaning of a word in ordinary discourse, then Euthyphro’s definition of piety is as good a definition as you will find in the Platonic corpus. Greek religion was much occupied with propitiating and pleasing gods. The snag was, how can humans know what gods want? Worse, different divinities often want different and incompatible things, as in the case of Euripides’ Hippolytus caught in the cross fire between the virgin goddess Artemis and Aphrodite, goddess of love. The conflict of religious obligations may be tragically unresolvable.

Just this is the point on which Socrates fastens. The gods quarrel and disagree—at least according to the stories that Euthyphro believes. Socrates has already said he is reluctant to accept the religious narratives of his community. But, given Euthyphro’s beliefs, Socrates is entitled to argue:

It would not be surprising if, in punishing your father as you are doing, your action is pleasing to Zeus [who tied up his father, Cronus, for eating his own children] but hateful to Cronus and Uranus [Zeus’s godfather, whom Cronus castrated], pleasing to Hephaestus but hateful to Hera, and similarly with respect to any other gods who may be concerned in the matter.

In short, the same thing may be both pious (because pleasing to some gods) and impious (because displeasing to others).

Euthyphro should have replied, “Yes, that’s life. Remember Hippolytus.” But he lets Socrates change the definition of piety so that it reads: what is pleasing to all the gods. This is fatal. Why have many gods if they think and act as one? Were this definition of piety to gain acceptance at Athens, it would destroy the community’s religion.

More is to follow. Socrates asks: Are the gods pleased by what is pious because it is pious, or is it pious because it pleases the gods? (Compare the question that exercised Christian theologians in later times: Does God command what is good because it is good, or is it good because God commands it?) A knotty, abstract, but enormously influential piece of reasoning forces Euthyphro to endorse the first alternative and reject the second—another blow to traditional religion. Piety becomes a moral quality independent of divine pleasure and displeasure. The gods not only think and act as one, they love virtue and hate vice. If you want to know how to please the gods, moral philosophy will tell you more than divination. Such gods would never have brought about the Trojan War. Indeed, with gods as rigorously moral as Socrates’, Greek culture would have been impossible and, in consequence, Western civilization would not be what it is today.

I conclude that a reasonably conscientious Athenian in 399 could have voted in good faith to find Socrates guilty of impiety and corrupting the young.


Once again, “could have” does not entail that anyone did. The minds of individual jurors on that fateful day are bound to remain opaque to us. So I am not proposing to jettison Stone’s political explanation for a religious one. In any case, contrasts between “political” and “religious” are not easy to apply to the ancient world, where (as Stone emphasizes himself) religion is woven so closely into the texture of public and private life. Rather, my proposal is to keep all the relevant considerations in play together. We will then be in a position to notice that, whatever may be true of the average Athenian, for Socrates himself religion and politics are one. Both are concerned with nothing but moral reform.

That gadfly activism I spoke of earlier: it is not just Socrates’ gift to the city. It is a gift to the city from the god at Delphi, who so puzzled Socrates by pronouncing him (through the oracle) the wisest of men that Socrates went about the city interrogating all and sundry to find someone wiser than he. That was how he became the marketplace philosopher. Thus according to the Socrates of Plato’s Apology, the god at Delphi desires that the Athenians should build their lives—as individuals and as a political community—on the primacy of virtue and wisdom. To please this god means to become as good and wise as possible and to sting others into doing the same.

Who is this god, so zealous for moral reform? To the ordinary juror “the god at Delphi” signifies Apollo, but Socrates never mentions his name. The important references to divinity in the Apology are indeterminate references to “the god” or, once or twice, “the gods.”

To the ordinary juror Apollo is many things besides “the lord whose oracle is at Delphi,” whom the city consults before every important undertaking. He is, for example, god of the plague and of the lyre; music, disease, but also medicine, are among the fields in which he is active. In myth he is a rapist, killer of children, and the flayer of Marsyas. Most important, perhaps, is that each member of the jury can speak of “my Apollo Patroos”—an altar to Apollo that is central to the organization of his “fratry,” the group of families (subdivision of a tribe) through which he has his citizenship. Apollo, then, is not only one of the gods in whom the city believes. He presides over the basis of its social structure. Is it credible that he would fasten Socrates on the Athenians like a gadfly to make them rethink and reorganize all the values of private and political life? Is Socrates a plague or a cure?

Our juror could well be in doubt whether the rigorously moral divinity to which Plato’s Socrates keeps referring is the old Apollo he has known since childhood or a newly made god of Socrates’ own. What he will not be in doubt about is the political intent of Socrates’ religious message in the Apology:

Men of Athens, I am devoted to you and I love you, but I shall obey the god rather than you, and for so long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease from the practice of philosophy, exhorting and pointing out the truth to whichever of you I meet.

Men of Athens” is the orator’s standard vocative, used both for speeches in the Assembly and for speeches in court. Juridically, the audience in the Assembly and the jury at the trial are the city of Athens. In both cases the outcome of their voting is the decision of the city. It is the city of Athens, therefore, that Socrates in the Apology rebukes for its injustices and wrong values. It is the whole body politic to which he declares his love and presents his radically innovating picture of the divine will.


At the end of Stone’s lively, Provocative, and sometimes exasperating book comes an epilogue: “Was There a Witch-hunt in Ancient Athens?” 7 Recall that he is not trying to defend but to mitigate Athens’ most famous crime. The question arises, Was it a unique case? Was Athens as tolerant of free thought as we would wish her to have been, or were other intellectuals attacked for their teaching?

Stone argues that a number of dark tales about philosophers on trial in fifth-century Athens are historically untrustworthy. Good scholars have believed them, but the sources are late, their “information” often garnered by inference from a scene in a comic play. The issues are too technical to evaluate here, but as it happens, similar conclusions were reached some years ago in an important study by Sir Kenneth Dover.8 I take this as a tribute to Stone’s accomplishment as a classical scholar and an opportunity to consider one last question about the trial of Socrates.

Suppose that Stone and Dover are right, or even half right. There was no witch hunt, at most occasional eruptions of hostility toward the intellectuals who congregated from all corners of the Greek world to talk and teach at Athens. A fine record for a democracy that by 399 had endured a long war, a terrible plague, and sedition within the city. Then why 399? Why did the Athenians wait until Socrates was seventy?

Stone presses this question more forcefully than anyone has done before, and I think he is right to do so. There was nothing inevitable about the trial of Socrates. We can dismiss as unhistorical the notion that it exemplifies some pre-ordained tension between philosophy and civil society.9 The explanation must lie in the particular and contingent circumstances of the time: circumstances without any close parallel in the preceding fifty years and with no parallel at all in the following fifty, during which Plato, who really was a scathing critic of democracy, taught at Athens undisturbed. We have to reckon with three accusers and 281 of the 501 jurymen voting Socrates guilty, so it seems safe to assume that different considerations weighed differently in different minds. Beyond that, I have argued, it is hard to do more than make vivid to ourselves the various factors that could have counted.

Stone gives a marvelously vivid account of the political factors. I have put in a word for the religious ones. The debate about Socrates will go on, for historical understanding has an essential part to play in the defense of freedom of thought and inquiry. The Trial of Socrates is a splendid sequel to I.F. Stone’s Weekly. As I write this review, legislation is passing through the British Parliament that gives to Her Majesty’s secretary of state for education power to control the research and teaching of each individual university teacher in the country. An imposed curriculum will determine the content of the history taught in the state schools and will effectively exclude from their timetable all study of the classical languages. Eithe genoio, Mr. Stone. Would you were here.


I.F. Stone’s Socrates November 24, 1988

Cultural Philistine’ May 12, 1988

  1. 7

    Published in The New York Review, January 21, 1988.

  2. 8

    K.J. Dover, “The Freedom of the Intellectual in Greek Society,” Talanta 7 (1976), pp. 24–54.

  3. 9

    This notion, omnipresent in the writings of Leo Strauss, is duly trotted out by his disciple Allan Bloom in his review of Stone (The Washington Post Book World, February 14, 1988), pp. 1, 14.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print