Socrates died because he was a philosopher, Christ because He was the founder of a new religion.
-- R. M. Wenley, Socrates and Christ (1889), p. 9
It is commonly recognized that the truth of a belief is in no way necessary for the courage and sanctity of sacrifice. Yet, we also seem to revere a few, Socrates chiefly, who die, not for beliefs, and not for truths, but just for Truth itself.
-- Michael Gelven, Truth and existence (1990), p. 38
If this subreddit is not open and free, then I honestly don't see the point.Did Socrates die a martyr for philosophy and truth? for atheism? for the Flying Spaghetti Monster?
Socrates died for this shit and we’re taking it too lightly.
-- MG-SOLID, www.reddit.com/r/atheism (June 2013)
This question can have an answer -- of a kind -- but not one that is simultaneously both complete and conclusive. That is: we can get a complete answer which is at least partly guesswork, or a very narrow answer which is more trustworthy. Take your pick.
This is because of the nature of the surviving evidence. We have no testimony from Socrates himself. What we have to work with is fan-fiction about the man, and a handful of satirical caricatures by others. There is only one piece of testimony about Socrates’ trial that is independent and intended seriously, and it’s more than fifty years later than the trial.
Socrates’ modern fans get their impressions of him mostly from the writings of his number one ancient fan, Plato. For the trial and execution in 399 BCE, nearly all modern opinions are based on Plato’s version of the defence speech, the Apology. The Platonic Socrates reports the charges against him in two different ways. Here’s the first (Apology 19b-c):
Look: what do my accusers actually charge me with? I need to read out the statement of the prosecution, in a fashion: ‘Socrates commits wrong and is a busybody, he investigates things beneath the earth and celestial things, he makes the worse argument too strong, and he teaches people all these things.’ Something like that. For that’s what you yourselves saw in Aristophanes’ comedy...This disingenuous statement doesn’t contain much truth, and it has caused some confusion. Even a few experienced critics have taken this as a serious statement of the charges. It is nothing of the kind. This is exactly how Socrates is depicted in Aristophanes’ Clouds; but we know perfectly well what the real charges were, and these are not they.
‘Things beneath the earth and things in the sky’Because of the confusion, maybe it’s worth devoting some time to clearing it up. What is actually going on in the Apology is that Plato’s Socrates is presenting a caricature of the charges. It’s a way of claiming, ‘It’s not even the real Socrates on trial here -- only a satirical depiction of me, the one from Aristophanes’ play!’ In other words: the charges relate to a purely fictional character. You’ve got the wrong man!
For that is indeed how Aristophanes’ Clouds (423 BCE) depicts Socrates. Investigating ‘things beneath the earth and in the sky’ and ‘making the worse argument too strong’ are jokes in the play. When Strepsiades, the main character, enters Socrates’ school he sees some students engaged in a curious-looking pursuit:
Strepsiades. But why in the world are they staring at the ground?Some students are bent over even further: it’s explained that they are investigating things even further below the earth, while their bottoms are taking astronomy lessons. Soon afterwards Socrates appears in person -- suspended overhead in a basket -- and, pompously declaring, ‘I walk on mist and contemplate the sun!’, clarifies that he ‘could never have discovered things in the sky’ if he kept his feet on the ground. ‘Things in the sky’, meteōra, becomes a running gag: philosophers are ‘things-in-the-sky quacks’, ‘things-in-the-sky sophists’ (333 meteōrophenakes, 360 meteōrosophistai); a typical clever suggestion is one that is about meteōra (489); an ignorant person is one who knows nothing about meteōra (1284).
Student. They’re investigating things beneath the earth.
Strepsiades. Ah, so they’re looking for truffles? ...
As for ‘making the worse argument too strong’: the entire reason Strepsiades is interested in Socrates’ school is so that he can learn how to obtain unjust decisions in lawsuits as a way of escaping his creditors (112-18):
Strepsiades. It’s said they have two arguments in their school,Later in the play the ‘Worse Argument’ and the ‘Stronger Argument’ appear as characters, and they get placed in a cage-fight -- literally (882-1104) -- where they have it out in a duel of words. Naturally, the Worse Argument wins. Hence, Aristophanes’ Socrates teaches how to make ‘the Worse Argument the Stronger’, or alternatively ‘too strong’.
the stronger -- whatever that is -- and the worse.
And of these two arguments, one, the worse,
can supposedly beat the other by saying unjust things.
Now if you go and learn this unjust Argument,
all the debts I owe because of you
will never have to be repaid...
The same year that the Clouds came out, in 423 BCE, another satirical play also featured Socrates as a character: Ameipsias’ Konnos. Two years later another philosopher appeared in another comic play, Protagoras in Eupolis’ Flatterers, prattling on about ‘things in the sky’ (meteōra). There was nothing very unique about the Clouds; it’s just that Plato’s reference to it suggests it was much more popular than Ameipsias’ and Eupolis’ efforts.
The actual chargesNo one nowadays believes that the Clouds’ depiction of Socrates is accurate. But they do sometimes take seriously the snippet in the Apology, and believe Plato actually blamed Aristophanes for Socrates’ conviction. That isn't a necessary interpretation of the passage, but I guess we can leave that aside for now. I stated above that we know what the actual charges were. What were they?
The 3rd century CE biographer Diogenes Laertius claims to report the actual wording (Lives of the philosophers 2.40):
τάδε ἐγράψατο καὶ ἀντωμόσατο Μέλητος Μελήτου Πιτθεὺς Σωκράτει Σωφρονίσκου Ἀλωπεκῆθεν· ἀδικεῖ Σωκράτης, οὓς μὲν ἡ πόλις νομίζει θεοὺς οὐ νομίζων, ἕτερα δὲ καινὰ δαιμόνια εἰσηγούμενος· ἀδικεῖ δὲ καὶ τοὺς νέους διαφθείρων. τίμημα θάνατος.
Meletus son of Meletus, the Pitthean, brought the following charges and swore to them against Socrates son of Sophroniscus, the Alopekian: Socrates commits injustice by not recognising (nomisd-) the gods that the city recognises, and by introducing (eisēge-) new divinities (daimonia); and he also commits injustice by corrupting the young. Penalty: death.Diogenes is not usually a very reliable source, but here (1) he cites a source, Favorinus, and claims that Favorinus had access to authentic documentation; (2) we find very closely similar wording in Plato and Xenophon, and they were much closer to Socrates and to the documents of the Athenian legal system --
- Plato, Euthyphro 2c-3b: Socrates corrupted the young, and invented (poie-) new gods (theo-) and didn’t recognise (nomisd-) the old ones;
- Plato, Apology 24b-c: just a few pages after the joking report of the charges quoted above, we’re told that the charge was: corrupting the young, and believing not in the state gods but in new divinities (daimonia);
- Xenophon, Apology 10: Socrates did not recognise (nomisd-) the state gods but introduced new divinities (daimones), and corrupted the young.
Even assuming that Diogenes’ report of the charges is accurate, there are still two factors that are in the way of our interpreting it clearly.
- What, then, should we make of the one independent piece of testimony that we have about the reasons behind Socrates’ trial?
- What did ‘not recognising the gods’ and ‘introducing new divinities’ actually mean?
Independent testimonyThe only independent testimony, that is to say testimony that wasn’t written by or derived from Socrates’ fans, comes from a political speech made in the 340s BCE. This was about 55 years after Socrates’ death. The passage is Aeschines, Against Timarchus 173. Aeschines doesn’t purport to describe the actual charges, but he does have something important to say about the political context of the trial:
ἔπειθ’ ὑμεῖς, ὦ Ἀθηναῖοι, Σωκράτην μὲν τὸν σοφιστὴν ἀπεκτείνατε, ὅτι Κριτίαν ἐφάνη πεπαιδευκώς, ἕνα τῶν τριάκοντα τῶν τὸν δῆμον καταλυσάντων ...;
And then, o Athenians, did you put to death Socrates the sophist, because he was shown to have been the teacher of Critias, one of the Thirty who destroyed the populace...?In 404 BCE Athens, after being defeated in the Peloponnesian War, was under the rule of a council known as the Thirty Tyrants for a bit over a year. The Thirty massacred their political opponents, killed thousands of the citizen population, and stole their property. Critias was the most notorious of them.
This wasn’t the only skeleton in Socrates’ closet. He was also associated with Charmides, one of the ministers of the Thirty; previously, in 411, Critias and Charmides had been at the centre of a short-lived coup d’état that overthrew the democracy; in 415, Critias and Alcibiades (another student of Socrates, and an infamous traitor to the state) had been widely thought to be behind an act of religious sacrilege, the mutilation of the Herms, which was seen as an attempt to sabotage Athens’ military strategy; also in 415, Charmides had been convicted of profaning the secrets of the Eleusinian Mysteria cult.
None of this has a necessary bearing on what we ought to think of Socrates himself. His fans take pains to emphasise that he opposed the Thirty on one occasion (one). The data we have on his actual actions in 404 is very ... selective. For all we know he may have been a naïf innocent who got caught up in the politics of some truly appalling individuals completely unwittingly. But Athens had an internal war between democracy and oligarchy; and the company Socrates kept made him an arch-oligarch. He may for all we know have been a very fine ethicist (though if he was, he was at least a clueless one). But whatever the merits of the man himself, it’s very hard to imagine that none of the above points occurred to the prosecutor Meletus, or to the jurors at the trial.
Also, it’s not a simple case of ‘Democracy good, Socrates’ oligarchs bad.’ The Athenian democracy was responsible for some horrors too, notably the genocide of the island of Melos in 413. There are no heroes in this story.
There was a lot of bad blood between the people of Athens and Socrates’ followers. That wouldn’t have been enough by itself. But the murder of between 5% and 15% of the citizen population in 404 must have pushed things over the edge. Imagine if Osama bin Laden, Timothy McVeigh, and Saddam Hussein had all had the same person as their ethics teacher: would you be very surprised if that person got harsh treatment from a jury? And would you then call that person a martyr?
Atheism? New divinities?Atheism in antiquity is a real enough phenomenon that a book has come out on this exact subject recently, Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling the gods: atheism in the ancient world (2016). (He does discuss Socrates specifically, if you want to read a second opinion after this one.) If you don’t want to spend money on that, here’s a 2011 essay by the noted scholar of ancient religion Jan Bremmer.
Diagoras of Melos, another thinker charged under the Athenian law against asebeia, is often called an atheist in surviving sources. So is Critias. The usual word is atheos: though it usually means ‘ungodly’, or ‘godless’ in the sense of ‘hated by/hateful to the gods’, sometimes it’s perfectly accurate to interpret it as ‘atheist’.
Epicurus criticised people ‘who separate the divine world from that which exists’ (τοῖς τὸ [θεῖον ἐ]κ τῶν ὄντων [ἀναι]ροῦσιν), and gave Prodicus, Diagoras, and Critias as examples, according to Philodemus (On piety col. 19). A pseudo-Plutarchan text discusses thinkers who ‘outright deny that gods exist’ (καθόλου φασὶ μὴ εἶναι θεούς, Doctrines of the philosophers 880d-e) and goes on to mention Critias as an example.
We have examples of atheism in very public spaces, too, in Athenian tragedy. These passages are not always intended as philosophical arguments: sometimes a character in a play just gets upset with the universe and goes into a rant; sometimes characters are portrayed as arguing positions that no one is expected to seriously accept. In a fragment of Euripides’ lost Bellerophontes, for example, Bellerophon denies the existence of gods as follows (Eur. fr. 286 Nauck/Kannicht):
Does anyone say there are gods in heaven?Now, this may just be Euripides depicting someone with an extreme view: Euripides is like that. But even if it’s not a sincere view, it’s still atheism in a very public forum. Another tragic fragment, which is usually believed to come from a play by Critias himself (fr. 19 Snell), has a character telling a ‘just so’ story about how mortals invented the gods and religion in order to suppress morally undesirable behaviour.
There are none, there are none, if any mortal wants
to avoid being an idiot, following the old story.
Consider for yourselves, don’t be guided by my words
for your opinion.
But as you might expect, things aren’t so simple. Diagoras may have been an atheist by ancient Athenian standards. But consider the following fragments -- the only two that survive of his poetry (fr. 738 PMG) --
θεὸς θεὸς πρὸ παντὸς ἔργου βροτείου
νωμᾶι φρέν’ ὑπερτάταν,
αὐτοδαὴς δ’ ἀρετὰ βραχὺν οἶμον ἕρπειν
God, god guides the highest thoughtand
before every mortal deed:
but self-taught virtue crawls a short path
All things for mortals are accomplishedThis doesn’t sound like modern atheism at all. It’s quite possible -- likely, even -- that Socrates’ refusal to ‘recognise the gods that the city recognises’ was a similar kind of case.
through divinity (daimona) and chance
The source for these two Diagoras fragments is a tract by the 1st century BCE philosopher Philodemus, found among the charred remains of a library in Herculaneum, called On piety. Just before quoting Diagoras, Philodemus describes how some thinkers
do not regard (the gods) as shaped like humans, but things of mist and gusts and aether; so that I for one would be so bold as to say that it was these things that were of much greater interest to Diagoras.This has neat parallels in other texts associated with late 5th century beliefs about the gods. First, the satirical: Aristophanes’ Clouds and Frogs both cast contemporary thinkers as interpreting gods as natural phenomena and abstract concepts. Socrates prays as follows (Clouds 263-6):
Let the old man keep a holy silence and listen to the prayer!Similar jokes crop up throughout the play. In a similar vein, when a freethinking satire of Euripides prays, his gods are a ‘new coinage’, κόμμα καινόν (Frogs 889-94, 405 BCE):
O lord and master, immeasurable Mist, you who hold the earth up in the sky!
Bright Aether, and Clouds, revered goddesses and thunder-and-lightning-senders!
Arise, Ladies, and appear in the sky to your thinker!
Euripides. I have other gods that I pray to.And lastly, a serious religious tract known as the Derveni papyrus. This is a late 5th century treatise which includes an allegorical interpretation of a poem attributed to Orpheus. The poem itself was a traditional mythological one, but the interpretation is a mystical blend of metaphysics and 5th century theology. It is often difficult to follow. However, column 17 of the papyrus should convey my point clearly enough:
Dionysus. What are your private ones? A new coinage?
Dionysus. Go on then, pray to these private gods.
Euripides. O Aether, my sustenance! O Pivot of my tongue!
O Comprehension, and keen-scented Nostrils! ...
For ‘Mist’ existed before the solidification of the present universe, and will always exist; that is to say, it did not come into being, but (always) existed. Above we outlined why it was named ‘Mist’. It was imagined that it came into being, because it was named ‘Zeus’ -- as though it had not existed previously. And (Orpheus) says that it will be ‘last’, for it was named ‘Zeus’ and this name will persist in existing for it until the present universe solidifies into the same form in which it was previously suspended. (Orpheus) shows that this is why the universe became the way it now is ...Again, similar themes crop up all through the treatise. Zeus is equated with ‘Mist’ -- which, we are told in column 18, is also a ‘wind’ (τῶι ἀέρ̣ι̣ [πνε]ῦμα ἐόν; compare Philodemus’ words about Diagoras’ beliefs) -- but he is also equated with ‘Will’. Olympus is equated with ‘Time’, and hence also with Zeus’ mythical father Kronos (reinterpreted as chronos, ‘time’), but Kronos is also reinterpreted as ‘the Mind that Collides’ (krou- + no-), the cosmic principle that formed the cosmos into its present state.
Aristophanes’ jokes are not just jokes: a number of thinkers, including Diagoras and Anaxagoras, and probably others like Protagoras and Prodicus, took these ideas about the gods very seriously. When Diagoras gets called an ‘atheist’, as Philodemus tells us, it is because these are the gods he believed in.
Or, perhaps, ‘invented’ would be the better word: for it looks very much as if all these figures, both satirical and real, were could be charged with ‘not recognising the gods that the city recognises, and introducing new divinities’. And as it happens, we know one of them actually was charged with this -- Diagoras.
We can’t be sure that it was the same in Socrates’ case. Plato and Xenophon can’t be trusted to give an accurate picture of the real Socrates’ beliefs about the gods. In Plato’s Apology he firmly rejects the charge of being a true atheist. He may have had conventional beliefs about the gods; or he may have been an atheist in the same sense that Diagoras was.
Equally, we’ll never know whether Socrates was really implicated in the crimes of the Thirty Tyrants; we’ll never know whether he did in fact ‘introduce new divinities’ in the sense that Diagoras did. But he was certainly no martyr for atheism, at least not in anything like the modern sense of the word. He may possibly have been a martyr for freethinking. Personally, I find the the surviving fragments of Critias’ writings about atheism to be as least as dogmatic as any theism. But Plato is much less dogmatic; who in the 21st century is to say which of them is the closer reflection of their teacher?
- Janko, Richard 2006. ‘Socrates the freethinker.’ In: S. Ahbel-Rappe and R. Kamtekar (eds.) A companion to Socrates (Blackwell), 48-62.
- Whitmarsh, Tim 2015. Battling the gods: atheism in the ancient world (Random House), esp. ch. 9.