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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:

I have often wondered by what arguments those who drew up the indictment against Socrates persuaded the Athenians that he deserved to be put to death by the city.

But if, with Xenophon and many modern historians, we surmise that the prosecutors or individual jurymen were moved by political considerations that the amnesty forbade them to express, then every current of animosity from the tense years after the dictatorship is relevant. “Could have” is all that Stone should be asked to prove.


The third issue is Socrates’ side of the story. The dictatorship of 404 is just one of a number of occasions when Socrates, in Stone’s view, could and should have spoken out. Instead, he “preached and practiced withdrawal from the political life of the city.” Stone’s Socrates is a quietist who believes that everyone should concentrate on saving his own soul. It is not hard to find evidence that many Athenians would think this an accurate portrayal of the man. Would Socrates?

The answer, I believe, is “Yes and No.” There were quietists with whom Socrates could easily be confused.3 But in the Apology he denies that he has been a quietist. He calls himself an activist—an activist of a unique kind:

In my way of life I did not keep quiet. I did not indeed concern myself with the things that most men care about—money-making and property, becoming a general and a public speaker and holding office, joining the political clubs and factions that form in the city. I thought myself too honest to survive if I went in for those things. So I didn’t—I would have been of no use either to you or to myself. Instead, I went to each person individually to do him what I call the greatest of all good deeds. I tried to persuade each of you that none of your concerns should come before caring for yourself, to be as good and wise as possible, and that none of the city’s concerns should come before caring for the city itself [sc. that it too should be as good and wise as possible], and that you should care for everything else in the same manner as this.

I have italicized two portions of this text. The first is the one that interests Stone. He finds it significant that Socrates feels obliged to deny he ever joined a conspiratorial club. The second is the one that strikes me as important. For it shows that Socrates has a genuinely political goal. What keeps him away from the usual forms of political activity (democratic or oligarchic) is that he cannot achieve his goal by such means.

Socrates’ aim, for the city as for the citizen, is moral reform. He believes that the city’s first concern, like the citizen’s, should be to become as good and wise as possible. This does not rule out ordinary political goals like defense, welfare, and building the Parthenon. But it does imply a radical rethinking of the value of such goals, and severe constraints on the manner in which they may be pursued. For it implies that no political program should be launched without first ensuring that it will promote the virtue and wisdom of the city.4 So profound a reorientation of political life is not likely to come about by the usual kinds of constitutional reform (changing democratic institutions for oligarchic ones or the reverse). It is a reform that must take root in the minds of individual citizens. Hence it is to individual minds that Socrates’ political activism is addressed.

He goes around Athens like a gadfly, stinging people with his questions and arguments to think more and care more about virtue and wisdom than about their other concerns. In short, he is the marketplace philosopher. This makes him look like a quietist. But according to Socrates, his philosophizing with citizens one by one is a gift to the city. He goes so far as to say that no greater good has ever come to Athens.

This is an astonishing claim. You may call it woolly-minded, moralistic folly. I prefer to say it is an idealism as uncompromising in its own way as Stone’s, and that Socrates’ conduct in the affair of Leon of Salamis shows him at his most uncompromising. Of course he will philosophize with Critias and Charmides as individuals. Plato wrote a whole dialogue, the Charmides, in which Socrates cross-examines the two future dictators on the virtue of temperance. But the dialogue ends with Socrates saying that if Charmides ever turns to force at Critias’ command, he will not take counsel with him, nor offer opposition. Is this the voice of one who does not care? Or is it rather the intransigence of a man prepared to live, and if necessary to die, for his own special understanding of what it means to care for the city and for one’s fellow men?


Here I must pause for some reflections on method. In his New York Times Magazine article Stone considered the question “How can a newspaper man find something new to report about a trial that took place so long ago?” He replied:

You re-examine all the source material for yourself. You go back to the texts in the original language, so that you can evaluate every nuance. You search out internal contradictions and curious evasions. It’s not so different from digging the real truth out of a Pentagon or State Department document.

This describes exactly the method of the book, and the spirit in which it is applied. Sometimes it works as brilliantly as it did in I.F. Stone’s Weekly. The evidence from the speeches of Lysias I mentioned earlier is one example of success. Another is Stone’s noticing, what all too few scholars have noticed, that Socrates in the Apology never rebuts the charge that he does not believe in the gods in which the city believes. He shows that he believes in gods, i.e., that he is not an atheist; but he was not accused of atheism. About the gods of Athens he has, it seems, not a word to say. But having detected this evasion (if evasion it be), Stone looks for others in places where they are simply not to be found.

A good test of this approach is Plato’s Charmides, to which I have just appealed to fill out Socrates’ side of the story he tells in the Apology. The discussion in the Charmides is set in the year 432, when Charmides was in the bloom of youth. Stone complains that he and Critias are seen as glamorous figures surrounded by a golden haze, with no mention made—either here or in any other Platonic dialogue—of the horrors they wrought in 404. This is perfectly true. Within the dramatic context of the dialogue, the closing words about force and opposition are lovers’ banter. The only force in the offing is sexual: Socrates will not resist a beautiful youth. But the dialogue was written by Plato years after the dictatorship, for an audience that knew very well how much temperance Charmides and Critias turned out to have. The interplay between dramatic time and real time gives an irony, a moral resonance, to those closing words that one does not find in documents from the Pentagon or the State Department. In a document issued by Plato no ancient reader would miss it.

The point is not just that both the Charmides and the Apology are works of literature and must be read as such. Equally important is that they are literature written for an audience that did not need to have explained to them much that is hidden from us. Much is hidden from us, not because Plato did his best to hide it,5 but because 2,500 years is a long time and it is mainly from the few surviving works of literature that we know anything about these events at all. We use the Socratic writings of Plato and Xenophon as our chief “sources” for the life and doings of Socrates, but it is by historical accident, not by their authors’ design, that they have acquired this role. Plato and Xenophon did not set out to give press conferences for posterity. They were not even the only two authors writing about Socrates at the time. By Aristotle’s day, “Socratic discussion” was the name of an established literary genre, as “detective story” or “historical romance” is for us. Accordingly, when Plato and Xenophon contradict each other, as they often do, it is considerably more like Homer and Sophocles giving different portrayals of Odysseus than it is like two press officers who between them give away the ghastly secret that both are trying to conceal.

Item: Xenophon’s Socrates is a social snob, Plato’s shows concern for the virtue of slaves. Item: Xenophon’s Socrates is rude about democratic institutions, Plato’s about famous democratic politicians. Item: Plato’s Socrates thinks that the first requirement in a statesman is that he should be able to formulate and defend a philosophically rigorous definition of virtue, Xenophon’s that he should know about diplomacy and public finance. One more item, with a twist at the end: Plato’s Socrates praises Spartan law-abidingness (not, as Stone and other scholars report, Sparta’s oligarchic laws); Xenophon’s Socrates does the same, but in a work written in his own voice, The Constitution of the Lacedaemonians (itself indebted to a similarly titled work by Critias), Xenophon lauds Spartan institutions with the fervor of a convert.

This list of differences between the two Socrateses could be extended. Some of the differences are subtle, some gross. To the question “How do they all add up?” the only responsible answer in my view is that they don’t.6 You cannot treat the different emphases of Plato and Xenophon as complementary revelations of “the real truth” about Socrates. Stone combines Xenophon’s snobbery and oligarchic prejudices with Plato’s insistence on abstract argument and rigorous definition. The result is a fearsome portrait of a Socrates who derides the common man as an ignorant boor, and questions his right to participate in the government of his own life and city, simply because he fails tests in logic and cannot answer deep philosophical questions that even Kant could not settle with finality. Stone’s defense of the common man against this monster is splendid. But the monster is the offspring of Stone’s method: a case where the inquisitorial approach has led him astray.

I do not mean to suggest that a defense of the common man against Socrates is superfluous, only that two distinct defenses are needed. One to deal with Xenophon’s Socrates, another with Plato’s: the first short and easy, the second a sterner challenge. For it is not so much “the common man” as all men who stand indicted by the Socrates of Plato’s Apology. Scholar and journalist, politician, poet and shoemaker—we are all accused of lacking the knowledge we need to govern our lives and to conduct the city’s affairs. But to rebut this charge, we must first understand it. And that means engaging with Socrates’ philosophy.


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. 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.

  3. 3

    A useful recent study is L.B. Carter, The Quiet Athenian (Oxford University Press, 1986).

  4. 4

    For a philosophical elucidation of the theory of choice implied by Socrates’ insistence on the priority of virtue, consult Gregory Vlastos, “Happiness and Virtue in Socrates’ Moral Theory,” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society N.S. 30 (1984), pp. 181–213.

  5. 5

    The name of Senator Joseph McCarthy has not been mentioned in the text of this review. I am not hiding anything, simply taking it for granted that readers will know why and where he is relevant.

  6. 6

    For further argument and a careful analysis of the differences, see Gregory Vlastos, “The Historical Socrates and Athenian Democracy,” Political Theory 11 (1983), pp. 495–516. The main contention of this important paper is that, while Socrates certainly appeared to be a critic of Athenian democratic institutions, and was disadvantaged at his trial by this, in fact he preferred them to all the alternatives he knew about. The fire of his criticism was directed at the men—both leaders and followers—who used those institutions for unjust purposes.

  7. 7

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

  8. 8

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

  9. 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.

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