Socrates was finally sentenced to death because his judges declared that he spoiled youth by his teachings and that he learned other Gods. But what precisely did he teach?

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    The common interpretation of "corrupting the youth" is that he taught people to question authority. His entire goal in dialectical discussion (what he does in all of Xenophon and Plato's dialogs) was to expose the authoritative and orthodoxy views of philosophers of the day as being wrong. He taught people, though conversation, how to question assumptions and specifically to question the views that he attacks in the dialogs. So the answer to "what precisely did he teach" is "all of the things he argues for in the various dialogs we have from Plato, Xenophon, and anyone else at the time." – Not_Here Jul 15 '17 at 21:06
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    Most of these accounts miss the fact that censorship was legal in all countries prior to modernity. That's what makes Liberalism important on the modern scene. Socrates was correctly condemned, according to the law. That's a great issue in the current legal world. Legal Positivism, simply the law, as over and against the quality of Socrates, phronesis, good sense. Socrates was not wise, but a phronimos. The attempt to drain the law, of judges especially, of good sense is center of legal debates in many quarters of the world. The destruction of the Common Law & the problem of Sovereignty. – user26700 Jul 16 '17 at 21:22
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    @Dwarf I don't see how that's very relevant, though. Even if we assume that ancient Greece did not have free speech as we understand it, we can be reasonably sure that most Greeks spoke, and even shared opinions. We can also be pretty sure that most of them were not put to death. So your point addresses why death may have been an acceptable penalty for certain teachings, but it doesn't address there question of why Socrates' teachings specifically warrented punishment, which I think it's the OP's real question. – yshavit Jul 17 '17 at 7:22

There is a non-philosophical component to this which I think the other answers touched on, but did not quite get to.

The years leading up to Socrates' trial were hard on Athens. Athens had just lost the Peloponnesian War against its long-time rival Sparta, and Sparta had installed the Thirty Tyrants. Though their rule only lasted 13 months, it was extremely brutal, and quite unpopular. According to the Wikipedia article I linked, they killed 5% of Athens' population. This government also ran counter to many of the values Athens held dear: they were (unsurprisingly) anti-democratic and pro-Sparta.

Socrates, with his skepticism of democracy, was associated with the Thirty; in fact, one of the main leaders of the Thirty had been a student of Socrates'. Keep in mind that the political theory of the day was largely a tussle between democrats and oligarchs. By critiquing democracy, Socrates was effectively supporting (or seen as supporting) oligarchy, a system of government supported by Sparta and the Thirty. That was what part of "corrupting the youth" probably included: "it was your teachings that helped get these monsters into power."

The Thirty were overthrown in 403 BCE; the Trial of Socrates was a mere four years later. The people of Athens were still reeling from the Thirty, and were looking for revenge. The specific charges may have been trumped up.

Put in that light, his joking response that he should be rewarded for his role would have been particularly ill received. To the extent that his trial was implicitly an accusation that he had a hand in the Thirty's rule, he not only refused to deny that accusation, but in fact suggested that it was a good thing.


The philosopher was charged on two accounts: impiety and corruption of the youth. The trial of Socrates occurred in 399 BCE with jury of about 500 men. Prosecutors argued that Socrates failed to acknowledge the Athenian Pantheon gods, and preached the youth about strange deities. Socrates, rejecting both charges, offered his own legal defense against the accusations of corruption and impiety, which was recorded in Plato’s Apology. Regarding the corruption charge, Socrates argued that he was a teacher to the Athenian youth, not a corrupter. Regarding the atheism charge, Socrates maintained that the charge was absurd since the accuser talked about a topic that the accuser had no knowledge of. Socrates however failed to acquit himself, as the majority jury decision was that Socrates was guilty as charged.

Since Socrates denied the charges, we must infer what the persecutors had in mind through Socrates' teaching. Regarding the impiety charge that Socrates introduced new gods, the persecutors must have meant the Good and the world of Ideas (or Forms). The fable of the cave, which occurs in Plato's Republic elucidates Socratic deities. Once upon a time there were a bunch of people, all chained, lived in a cave. They were able to see only flickering shadows on the wall, cast by the fire behind them. They thought the shadows were real. One day one guy managed to unshackle himself and climbed out of the cave. Voila! What did he see! The sun, the tree, the flower! He realized that the things he used to see in the cave were just shadows of these real things.

The corruption charge can be an entailment of the impiety charge due to his role as a teacher. Since Socrates taught his theory of the Good to youth, the persecutors could argue that Socrates corrupted the youth. Another way of looking at the corruption charge will be Socrates' theory of the Philosopher King: i.e., rulers must be a few wise individuals who have the knowledge of the truth. The theory is a natural extension of the cave fable. That is, the guy who was able to see the world of Ideas should rule. The reality of course was different. This guy hurried back to the cave to tell the people that what they were seeing was mere shadows and there was a real world out there. Sadly, no one believed him and thought he had gone mad. That guy in Plato's fable symbolizes Socrates.

Viewed in this light, the charges against Socrates can be viewed as being politically motivated. Socrates had been criticizing the Athenian democracy of his time. Socrates maintained that it is not the majority opinion, but genuine knowledge and professional competence, that yields a correct policy and a just verdict. Socrates believed that democracy is embedded with the vice of the many, and would eventually lead to tyranny since in democracy those without wisdom rule the nation. The people would be easily beguiled by a demagogue whose intent is to usurp the power to benefit himself.

Appendix: The Impact of "The Clouds" on jurors

'Yshavit' brings out a good point on the political circumstance. Another point that might have impacted negatively on the trial of Socrates should be Aristophanes' 'The Clouds,' a comedy play that lampooned Socrates. In fact, Socrates suspects the play could be the cause for the charge against him. In the comedy, after learning from the 'fictional' Socrates, a son argues for the right to beat his own father (the argument is quite persuasive!). The jurors were made up of old people (In 'The Wasps,' another comedy play by Aristophanes, the Athenian court was depicted as the pension plan for old people). The jurors should have watched 'The Clouds' and should have found the Socrates caricatured in the comedy abominable. Thus, more than majority could have voted against Socrates.

  • Are you suggesting that the forms were Socrates' innovation, and not Plato's? – Jon Kiparsky Jul 17 '17 at 15:26
  • (Treating myself lightly here) I guess I am, since I do not see the point of distinguishing Socrates's from Plato's theories, unlike distinguishing Plato's from Aristotle's. – Nanhee Byrnes PhD Jul 17 '17 at 16:10
  • Philosophically, that seems defensible, though we do have some basis for teasing out Socrates' views from Plato's (for example, Plato's views change over time, so we can see his ideas developing, but the earlier writings most likely reflect what Plato thought he understood of Socrates). For the purposes of this question, which asks specifically about Socrates' teachings, it seems it makes a big difference whether the idea was Plato's or Socrates', since the Athenians would hardly have put Socrates to death in 399 BC for Plato's writings of ~380 BC – Jon Kiparsky Jul 17 '17 at 16:15
  • Now I see what your criticism is. You are right of course on the chronological order. But given that the philosophy of Socrates is Plato's (interpretation of) Socrates (no work was authored by Socrates himself), we have to infer Socrates teaching from Plato's work. My above response was based on "Apology" and "Crito" among others. – Nanhee Byrnes PhD Jul 17 '17 at 16:29
  • The impiety charge may have related more to the rejection of the traditional presentation of the gods as being morally inferior (i.e., no real god would do the kind of things attributed to the gods in the classical literature, that the writers of such myths should be punished for defaming the gods). – Paul A. Clayton Jul 17 '17 at 16:40

One thing that should not be overlooked is that the Athenian justice system had the "ultimate plea deal": the accusers pleaded one penalty and the accused pleaded another and the final decision was to grant one of the pleadings.

Socrates pleaded to get a public feeding at the Athens market place (at that point of time this kind of food stamp handout was a very great honor bestowed only to very select exemplary people) for the rest of his life.

Had he pleaded for just going free rather than getting bestowed one of the largest (and expensive) honors Athens had in store, the outcome might well have been different.

Also if he had chosen to escape from prison (and Athens), almost everybody would have been prepared to look the other way. A number of people wanted him silenced, and a dishonorable exile and pending threat would have been pretty good for that.

Few people really expected him to embrace and celebrate his execution in the manner he did, embarrassing Athens even further.

So one should not overestimate the seriousness and defensibility of the charges brought against Socrates: they were trumped up and almost ridiculous. It was Socrates' demeanor and pleading that mostly led to the verdict, and his resolution that mandated its ultimate execution.


What precisely did Socrates teach? Oddly this is a difficult question to answer in that our written record of Socrates comes primarily from Plato (and some Xenophon and Aristophanes) So, whereas we can say with some confidence what Plato taught, it is not so easy to say what Socrates taught.

The standard position is that Plato's early dialogues, those written prior to The Republic, probably represent a good deal of what Socrates thought - and presumably taught - and that the middle and later dialogues of Plato probably represent Plato's break from Socratic thought. (fodder for many a dissertation)

If this is correct, Plato's early dialogues primarily focus on trying to say what justice, beauty, and virtue are. What the dialogues more typically do is say what they are not. In the dialogues, Plato uses a method called the elenchus in which, through questioning, Socrates and his interlocutor come to find that the proposed definition of say virtue leads to a contradiction and thus is not a good definition of virtue.

In our time, we probably think that this sort of teaching doesn't really warrant a death sentence. I am no historian, but I usually guess that old Socrates was on the wrong side of the political fence. (and maybe Plato is not above a little rhetoric himself.)

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    Please don't use abbrevations for names. – John Am Jul 16 '17 at 9:12

Socrates was finally sentenced to death because his judges declared that he spoiled youth by his teachings and that he learned other Gods. But what precisely did he teach?

Socrates refuted one of the accusers, who claimed he was an atheist, by a simple argument. One can read of this both in Xenophon and Plato. The daemon of Socrates, an "other God", can be characterized as a spirit that warns Socrates against going wrong, it is opposed by his conception of Eros, laid down in the Symposium. Eros leads up, according to Socrates, to the Good, the Socratic deamon defends him against going wrong, against shaky thinking. Basically, Socrates sets up that relentless inquiry, in which one can attack any traditional thing, and measure it against one's opinion of the Good. At least according to what we find in Plato. One might keep in mind that the Socrates of Aristophanes is equally valid (perhaps more so since Plato was much younger). And that in his youth Socrates was not what he was in the prime of his philosophizing, or investigating by speech, as imagined or reported in the Platonic works and elsewhere.

I will just make a general sketch. The issue is absolutely not capable of exhaustion.

At the lowest level one could say that he offended the big men of the city, for instance the youth Anytus who was one of his accusers, by showing them up as fools in front of the Polis. Who stood on watching, with much amusement, as they were shown not to know the things they claimed to know. When the men who said they were best suited to run the country, the Polis, could not show that they had knowledge of the right way to do things, of the Good, they were discredited. On the other hand, in a very simple way, the gods were shown to be a bad example. For example, Zeus committed the most heinous of impieties, patricide. In one of Xenophon's dialogues Socrates manages to corrupt a simple man, with that argument, almost at once.

On the higher level one can state it this way: In making man aware of the limits of tradition, Socrates did not replace the tradition with anything solid. He undermined, but did not establish anything. For brining in questioning, the life of the philosopher, Socrates deserved execution. But, on the other hand, afterwards, many of the Athenians regretted his death. I believe Hegel took this view, while, since he held that ultimately, the questioning led to certainty, one could speak here of a clash of values, leading dialectically, to the Hegelian Fenster, or window, on the absolute. However, if one looks at it form a Nietzschean view, Socrates, the first “theoretical man”, led the Athenians astray. Socrates defined man thusly: The unquestioning life, is no human life. Whereas Nietzsche taught, surge forward with that resolute Yes!. I.e., give up the search for Truth.

So, one may think of the comment Henry Kissinger is so fond of remembering, the word of Chiang Kai-shek, who when asked whether the French Revolution was a success, replied: It’s too early to know. Perhaps the profundity of Socrates' contribution to the Western world forbids one to pass judgment on the matter.

Athens was an illiberal society, like all societies before the modern age. Censorship by the State, against the citizens, “power vertical”, was in place even during the time when Socrates was at large. That he lasted so long was a sign of the relative liberality. In Plato’s Laws, one sees the illiberal neighbor country, the Laconian Polis of Crete. Therefore, if one reads Laws, where only the old men were permitted to challenge the laws, and have dialogic conversation about them, and compares it to the rest of the Platonic corpus, one can get an idea of the situation.


I think in general one of the problems Socrates' contemporaries may have had with him was not so much what he taught but how he taught. Perhaps Socrates' method of philosophy was characterised more by testing propositions through questioning, than any strict concern with formulating a set of propositions on any one subject.

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