The Trial of Socrates

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

The trial of Socrates is an event which has puzzled historical scholars through the ages, with the troubling spectacle it raises calling into question the most basic precepts of Athenian democracy. How could a society which placed so high a value on freedom of speech and thought have brought to trial—and then executed—a seventy-year-old man who was one of its foremost philosophers and teachers? Although Athens continued as an intellectual center of the ancient world and Socrates’ ideas and teaching methods live on into the present day in the works of his followers, his death marked the end of that period in Greek history often referred to as the Golden Age.

In The Trial of Socrates, journalist I. F. Stone sets out to investigate the complex causes underlying the trial and its verdict. For many years one of the country’s leading independent journalists as well as the publisher of the respected newspaper I. F. Stone’s Weekly, Stone retired from his lifelong profession (except for occasional return forays as a book reviewer and columnist) in 1971, with the plan of devoting his remaining years to a study of freedom of thought throughout history. His choice was not a surprising one; although he had worked as a journalist since the age of fourteen, his field of study in college was philosophy, and he has been an outspoken defender of civil liberties throughout his career. Summing up his own philosophy, Stone notes in the book’s preface, “This project has its roots in a belief that no society is good, whatever its intentions, whatever its utopian and liberationist claims, if the men and women who live in it are not free to speak their minds.”

Stone began his research with the English revolutions of the seventeenth century, a project which led him back to the Protestant Reformation, then to the Middle Ages, the twelfth century rediscovery in Europe of the works of Aristotle, and, finally, from Aristotle to Greece itself. His readings into the workings of Greek—and particularly Athenian—society inspired him to comment, “There, like so many before me, I fell in love with the ancient Greeks.” Yet Stone’s admiration for the openness and freedom which flowered in Athens in ancient times was marred by that crucial event in the city-state’s history—the trial and execution of Socrates—and his quest for answers which might reconcile Athenian beliefs with Athenian actions provoked the inquiry that produced The Trial of Socrates.

Stone approached his research by bringing to bear all the skills of an investigative journalist. Lacking witnesses to interview (the curse of an investigation undertaken centuries after the fact), he sifted through volumes of written material, only to find that no true understanding of the extant writings of the period would be possible without a working knowledge of the Greek language. Determined to rely on his own reading and not on a translator’s interpretation of the subtleties of a particular word or phrase, Stone taught himself to read Greek before proceeding in his study—a level of dedication which offers eloquent proof of his thoroughness.

The Trial of Socrates is divided into two parts: “Socrates and Athens” and “The Ordeal.” Although the actual charge against Socrates involved disrespect for the city’s gods and corruption of its youth, what Stone found in his research—and what he chronicles in part 1—is a longstanding schism between Socrates’ political beliefs and those of the city of Athens. At the heart of the Athenians’ sense of identity was their position as members of a democracy. The concept of a government of the people, with officials chosen by the people and each citizen free to speak his mind on the issues of the day, was for them a point of fierce honor and pride.

Drawing on the Apomnmoneumata (c. 381-355; Memorabilia of Socrates, 1712) of Socrates’ student Xenophon, Stone outlines the philosopher’s ideas of the ideal government, ideas which would shape the structure of his disciple Plato’s Politeia (388-368 b.c.e.; Republic). Socrates insists that a ruler should not be a hereditary heir or a tyrant who seizes power by force—or a leader chosen by the people themselves. For Socrates, the lot of ruler should fall to “those who know how to rule”—a description which prefigures Plato’s concept of the philosopher-king. In a country headed by such a leader, according to Socrates, “it is the business of the ruler to give orders and of the ruled to obey”—a premise which struck at the core of the Athenian belief in the innate ability of each man to participate in the government which controlled his...

(The entire section is 1940 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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Booklist. LXXXIV, February 1, 1988, p. 891.

Commentary. LXXXV, March, 1988, p. 72.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, December 15, 1987, p. 1723.

Library Journal. CXII, December, 1987, p. 116.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 14, 1988, p. 2.

The Nation. CCXLVI, February 27, 1988, p. 274.

The New Republic. CXCVIII, March 28, 1988, p. 37.

The New York Review of Books. XXXV, March 31, 1988, p. 12.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, February 7, 1988, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, December 4, 1987, p. 60.

Time. CXXXI, January 25, 1988, p. 66.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 7, 1988, p. 1104.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, February 14, 1988, p. 1.