By Nabila Rubaiyat

In the then Greek mechanical society of 2400 years ago, where homogeneity among the masses was its distinctive feature, any sort of deviation from the traditional or general norms would tantamount to the institution of a ‘crime’. Henceforth what the Greek philosopher Socrates preached was seen as a threat to the reigning authority of that time, and being irreligious and impious added more fuel to it.

He went on to address the intellectual bankruptcies of the people, failing to acknowledge the gods they worshipped, expressed his concerns regarding the maladies and inconsistencies of democracy in forms of satire and impiety against the pantheons, and in turn gaining a fresh stock of enemies every time he opened his mouth. This may be considered as a bar against the right to freedom of speech or expression in our present day contexture.

Trial of Socrates: a trip back to memory lane

Socrates was accused of conspiring with the Spartans, arch enemies of the Greek as he was known as often praising the laws of the undemocratic regimes of Sparta and Crete, [1] and of encouraging an uprising of the Thirty Tyrants, a group of oligarchs which included some of his pupils.[2] He was also an admirer of Alcibiades, the main proponent of the Sicilian Expedition during the Peloponnesian Wars where thousands of Athenian soldiers and non-combatants died. [3] Thus charges leveled at him were by chiefly Meletus, including Anytos and Lycon.

In a cross-examination by Metelus, he pointed out that Socrates considered the possibility of human souls living after death and of his own supernaturalism whereas the accepted idea around that time was that Gods and their children can only possess supernatural powers. This infuriated Meletus and made him declare Socrates’ wavering nature towards supernatural power. Socrates’ trial began with a reading of the formal charges: “Socrates is a doer of evil, and corrupter of the youth, and he does not believe in the gods of the state, and he believes in other new divinities of his own.”[4] Socrates also did make a claim of his being God’s gift to Athenians.[5]

The re-Trial of  Socrates: Igniting the age-old debate

In today’s age, Socrates is revered for the centuries-old wisdom he left behind. And so, as absurd as it sounds, Socrates who died from drinking the hemlock had been acquitted, almost 2500 years after his death through a re-run of the ancient trial held at the Onassis Foundation in May 2012. The panel consisted of 10 US and European Judges and his case was presented by top-notch lawyers, experts in Socratic literature from Greece, France, Switzerland, United States, Germany, and Britain. Half the judges found him guilty, and the other 5 decided conversely, which according to the ancient Greek legislation is taken for ‘not guilty’.

“Socrates comes before us feigning humility, yet demonstrating arrogance,” said Loretta Preska, a New York district judge who headed the trial trying to convict him. “He is a dangerous subversive,” she added, although Preska and rest of the opposition lawyers vouched for not deciding any penalty, and were not in favor of death penalty.

Socrates was sentenced to death in 399 BC in Athens over evil-doing, impiety and corrupting the minds of the youth by a jury of more than 500 Athenians. He defended himself in front of everyone, unrepentant of his doings, asking to be rewarded instead. He was given the choice of either death by hemlock or banishment from the polis. He chose the former gallantly.

French defense lawyer Patrick Simon exerted, “An opinion is not a crime. Socrates was searching for the truth.” and added, “My client has one fault: he likes to poke fun and is fiercely ironic. By acquitting him, you will show how solid and reliable democracy is.”

His disciple and friend, Plato said that if he had gained 30 more votes or so, he might not have been charged guilty.[6] A detailed account of the original trial had been documented by him. The top judges and lawyers of the Foundation were supplemented by his writings (Apology, Crito, Euthyphro, Phaedo), including Xenophon (Memorabilia) and Aristophanes (The Clouds) alongside the then Athenian law, but conducted the re-trial based on the existing legal framework.[7]

Socrates’ method of skeptical inquiry, preserved by his disciple Plato and other ancient authors, questioned conventional wisdom on sensitive notions of politics, religion, and morality and earned him powerful enemies.[8] He was identified as a threat to democracy and of committing treason by inspiring revolution against the Athenian republic.

Socrates left behind no written book except the dialogues compiled by Plato, but competitor intellectuals nonetheless resented Socrates’s elenctic examination method for intellectual inquiry, because its questions threatened their credibility as men of wisdom and virtue.[9]

The re-trial was initially enacted the previous year in New York and in the final verdict, 800 people were present physically, including thousands of viewers through web who could cast their votes online. The relevance of this reevaluation in the current status quo lies in global politics in terms of the reaffirming a grounded instance for upholding democracy and freedom of speech.

Uprisings and revolutions for social progression can only gain momentum if individuals are allowed to express themselves in moderation and form a public consensus to maintain equilibrium in the social and political sphere. Antony Papadimitriou, a lawyer and founder of the Onassis foundation cited the Arab Spring of 2011 as a relevant instance in this regard.

Subsequently, he has also been given acquittal in Australia on March 7, 2015, at the Hellenic Museum of Melbourne by prominent judges and lawyers of the country where around 300 jurors were also present. [10]

His contribution to shaping history’s greatest minds and influencing western ideologies found him innocent, collectively making the people of the globe heave a sigh of relief. His re-trial drew the attention of numerous writers, philosophers, and artists worldwide. One cannot help but wonder whether the world would have gained a lot more from him had he not taken the hemlock 2400 years ago. Despite various condemnations, Socrates was able to reveal the ignorance of men through his thought-provoking rhetoric and sophisticated wisdom.


[1] Plato, Crito 52e


[3] Waterfield, Robin. Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2009.


[5] Plato. Apology, 31a-b

[6] Commentary on the Aristotelian “Athenaion Politeia”, p. 729.

[7] Ibid

[8] Agence France Presse, May 12, 2015

[9]  Plato. Apology, 21d–e, 23a, 23e.