Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial


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Philosophy on Trial, 1st Edition

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Cancel Forgot your password? James A Colaiaco. Print book : English View all editions and formats. Similar Items. Acknowledgements; 1. Introduction: A Tragic Confrontation; 2. The summons required Socrates to appear before the legal magistrate, or King Archon, in a colonnaded building in central Athens called the Royal Stoa to answer charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. The Archon determined--after listening to Socrates and Meletus and perhaps the other two accusers, Anytus and Lycon --that the lawsuit was permissible under Athenian law, set a date for the "preliminary hearing" anakrisis , and posted a public notice at the Royal Stoa.

The preliminary hearing before the magistrate at the Royal Stoa began with the reading of the written charge by Meletus. Socrates answered the charge. The magistrate questioned both Meletus and Socrates, then gave both the accuser and defendant an opportunity to question each other. Having found merit in the accusation against Socrates, the magistrate drew up formal charges. The document containing the charges against Socrates survived until at least the second century C. Diogenes Laertius reports the charges as recorded in the now-lost document:.

Guilt Phase of Trial. The trial began in the morning with the reading of the formal charges against Socrates by a herald. The prosecution presented its case first. The three accusers, Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon, had a total of three hours, measured by a water clock, to present from an elevated stage their argument for guilt. No record of the prosecution's argument against Socrates survives. Easily the best known and most influential of the three accusers, Anytus, is widely believed to have been the driving force behind the prosecution of Socrates.

Plato's Meno offers a possible clues as to the animosity between Anytus, a politician coming from a family of tanners, and Socrates. In the Meno , Plato reports that Socrates' argument that the great statesmen of Athenian history have nothing to offer in terms of an understanding of virtue enrages Anytus.

Plato quotes Anytus as warning Socrates: "Socrates, I think that you are too ready to speak evil of men: and, if you will take my advice, I would recommend you to be careful. Plato quotes Socrates as saying, "I had a brief association with the son of Anytus, and I found him not lacking in spirit.

Socrates against Athens : philosophy on trial

Anytus almost certainly disapproved of his son's relationship with Socrates. Adding to the displeasure of Anytus must have been the advice Socrates gave to his son. According to Xenophon, Socrates urged Anytus's son not to "continue in the servile occupation [tanning hides] that his father has provided for him. It is a matter of dispute among historians whether the accusers focused more attention on the alleged religious crimes, or the alleged political crimes, of Socrates.

Stone attaches far more significance to the political crimes, while other historians such as James A. Colaiaco, author of Socrates Against Athens , give more weight to the charge of impiety. Stone argues that "Athenians were accustomed to hearing the gods treated disrespectfully in both the comic and tragic theatre. It was the political, not the philosophical or theological, views of Socrates which finally got him into trouble. Important support for Stone's conclusion comes from the earliest surviving reference to the trial of Socrates that does not come from one of his disciples.

In B. James Colaiaco's conclusion that impiety received more prosecutorial attention than did political sins rests on Plato's Apology. Colaiaco sees Plato's famous account of the defense of Socrates as being--although far from a verbatim transcription of the words of Socrates--fairly representative of the major points of his defense.

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He notes that Plato wrote the Apology within a few years of the trial and must have expected many of his readers to have firsthand knowledge of the trial. Why, Colaiaco asks, would have Plato misrepresented the arguments of Socrates, or hid key elements of the prosecution's case, when his actions in doing so could so easily be exposed? Since the Apology seems to give great weight to the charge of impiety--and relatively little weight to the association of Socrates with the Thirty Tyrants--Colaiaco assumes this must have been a fair reflection of the trial. At the same time, Colaiaco recognizes that because of the association of Socrates with Critias "the prosecution could expect any Athenian jury to harbor hostile feelings toward the city's gadfly.

Piety had, for Athenians, a broad meaning. It included not just respect for the gods, but also for the dead and ancestors.

Apology (Plato) - Wikipedia

The impious individual was seen as a contaminant who, if not controlled or punished, might bring upon the city the wrath of the gods--Athena, Zeus, or Apollo--in the form of plague or sterility. The ritualistic religion of Athens included no scripture, church, or priesthood. Rather, it required--in addition to belief in the gods-- observance of rites, prayers, and the offering of sacrifices. Any number of words and actions of Socrates may have contributed to his impiety charge. Preoccupied with his moral instruction, he probably failed to attend important religious festivals.

He may have stirred additional resentment by offering arguments against the collective, ritualistic view of religion shared by most Athenians or by contending that gods could not, as Athenians believed, behave immorally or whimsically.


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Xenophon indicates that the impiety charge stemmed primarily from the contention of Socrates that he received divine communications a "voice" or a "sign" directing him to avoid politics and concentrate on his philosophic mission. A vague charge such as impiety invited jurors to project their many and varied grievances against Socrates. Dozens of accounts of the three-hour speech apologia by Socrates in his defense existed at one time. Only Plato's and Xenophon's accounts survive. The two accounts agree on a key point. Socrates gave a defiant--decidedly un apologetic--speech.

He seemed to invite condemnation and death. Plato's apology describes Socrates questioning his accuser, Meletus, about the impiety charge. Meletus accuses Socrates of believing the sun and moon not to be gods, but merely masses of stone. Socrates responds not by specifically denying the charge of atheism, but by attacking Meletus for inconsistency: the charge against him accused him of believing in other gods, not in believing in no gods.

If Plato's account is accurate, Socrates could have been seen by jurors offering a smokescreen rather than a refutation of the charge of impiety. Plato's Socrates provocatively tells his jury that he is a hero. He reminds them of his exemplary service as a hoplite in three battles. More importantly, he contends, he has battled for decades to save the souls of Athenians--pointing them in the direction of an examined, ethical life.

He reportedly says to his jurors if his teaching about the nature of virtue "corrupts the youth, I am a mischievous person. Stone is right, the most damaging accusation against Socrates concerned his association with Critias, the cruel leader of the Thirty Tyrants. Socrates, in Plato's account, points to his refusal to comply with the Tyrants' order that he bring in Leon of Salamis for summary execution. He argues this act of disobedience--which might have led to his own execution, had not the Tyrants fallen from power--demonstrates his service as a good citizen of Athens.

Stone notes, however, that a good citizen might have done more than simply go home to bed--he might have warned Leon of Salamis. In Stone's critical view, the central fact remained that in the city's darkest hour, Socrates "never shed a tear for Athens. He argues that he never presumed to be a teacher, just a figure who roamed Athens answering the questions that were put to him. He points to his pupils in the crowd and observes that none of them accused him.

Moreover, Socrates suggests to the jury, if Critias really understood his words, he never would have gone on the bloody rampage that he did in Hannah Arendt notes that Critias apparently concluded, from the message of Socrates that piety cannot be defined, that it is permissible to be impious--"pretty much the opposite of what Socrates had hoped to achieve by talking about piety. What is strikingly absent from the defense of Socrates, if Plato's and Xenophon's accounts are to be believed, is the plea for mercy typically made to Athenian juries.

It was common practice to appeal to the sympathies of jurors by introducing wives and children. Socrates, however, did no more than remind the jury that he had a family. Neither his wife Xanthippe nor any of his three sons made a personal appearance. On the contrary, Socrates--according to Plato--contends that the unmanly and pathetic practice of pleading for clemency disgraces the justice system of Athens.

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When the three-hour defense of Socrates came to an end, the court herald asked the jurors to render their decision by putting their ballot disks in one of two marked urns, one for guilty votes and one for votes for acquittal. With no judge to offer them instructions as to how to interpret the charges or the law, each juror struggled for himself to come to an understanding of the case and the guilt or innocence of Socrates. When the ballots were counted, jurors had voted to find Socrates guilty, jurors for acquittal.

Penalty Phase of Trial. After the conviction of Socrates by a relatively close vote, the trial entered its penalty phase. Each side, the accusers and the defendant, was given an opportunity to propose a punishment. After listening to arguments, the jurors would choose which of the two proposed punishments to adopt. The accusers of Socrates proposed the punishment of death.

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In proposing death, the accusers might well have expected to counter with a proposal for exile--a punishment that probably would have satisfied both them and the jury. Instead, Socrates audaciously proposes to the jury that he be rewarded, not punished. According to Plato, Socrates asks the jury for free meals in the Prytaneum, a public dining hall in the center of Athens. Socrates must have known that his proposed "punishment" would infuriate the jury.

Stone noted that "Socrates acts more like a picador trying to enrage a bull than a defendant trying to mollify a jury.

Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial
Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial
Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial
Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial
Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial
Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial

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