I. F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates, Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXIII, No. 3 (Summer 1989), pp. 264-267

reviewed by Gordon Welty
Wright State University
Dayton, OH 45435 USA

[//264] I met I.F. Stone about two decades ago, when I was a young instructor at the American University in Washington, D.C. Stone was one of my heros -- as he had been for many college students of my generation -- a dedicated investigative journalist, a fighter against the oppression of the U.S. military-industrial complex. He had just then retired from publishing because of health concerns, and was commencing study of Socrates. I found this project especially interesting in light of my own iconoclastic views about Socrates and Plato. I have always considered these two as more proto-fascists than as the spiritual lights of Western civilization (as, incidentally, does Alban Winspear in his books on this pair). Stone and I had several very pleasant and, for me, incisive discussions. I found him a kindly man, rather grandfatherly, with a quick, penetrating intellect. He had a refreshingly critical view of Socrates. Then we went our ways. We renewed our acquaintance this year, since he has published The Trial of Socrates (1988). It is a good book, written with some sympathy for the Marxist standpoint, with some appreciation of the dialectic. Stone's position is neither that of Russell nor that of Popper. Both of these had harsh words for Plato, but Popper, especially, showed quite an infatuation with Socrates. Stone's understanding of Socrates cannot be reduced to a critique of Plato.

This book has two parts, with nine chapters in each part. The first part, entitled "Socrates and Athens," sets the stage for the trial. There are three major sources for our understanding of this context: the comic dramatist Aristophanes, and Socrates' students Plato and Xenophon. The first two of these are clearly literary rather than historical sources, and Xenophon must be identified as a partisan of the oligarchic party, which renders the search for the "historical Socrates" so difficult that Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy (Chapter 9), found it prudent to duck the issue. The vast literature on the Socrates-Question is listed in Andreas Patzer's Bibliographia Socratica (1985), in terms of Primary Sources (180 items) and Scholarly Literature (1800 items). Stone has done a good job of getting into this literature.

Stone argues that there were three basic "philosophical differences" between Socrates and the majority of Athenian citizens. In light of the dubious quality of Socrates' philosophizing, and the relative indifference of most Athenians to the philosophical endeavor, it might be more accurate to call these ideological differences -- indeed, that they were. The first of these differences is addressed in Chapters 1-3 and concerns the nature of the human commonality. Socrates saw humans as a sheep-like herd who needed a king to rule them. Most Athenians -- whether of the democratic party or even the oligarchic party -- viewed humans as capable of self-government. The second difference is discussed in Chapters 4-7 and addresses the role of definition in political and philosophical discourse. The multitude of particulars are reduced, by Socrates, not to an intersubjectively established unity, but to an absolute definition which is intuitively known. These definitions are tellingly intuited, not by the multitude (to plethos), but by the few (aristoi). The final difference is treated in Chapters 8-9, the nature of political participation and the good life. Stone understands the majority of Athenians as believing that participation in the affairs of the polis was a necessary ingredient of the good life, while Socrates rejected this.

Stone makes his points -- there were substantial differences between Socrates and the majority of Athenian citizens. Did these "Socratic divergences" constitute in any sense sufficient conditions for the trial of Socrates? Stone answers this in the negative: these "fell short as a case for criminal prosecution." Socrates wasn't [264/265] tried just because he was "different;" we must look deeper to find the reasons for his trial.

Part II of The Trial of Socrates, entitled "The Ordeal," addresses the trial itself. There again are, in effect, three sections. The first section, Chapters 10-12, discusses the immediate background of the trial. If sufficient conditions were not established in Part I, perhaps we will find the proximate cause of the trial -- the spark, if you please -- in this section. Chapter 10 points out that Socrates was seventy years old at the time of the trial, and ponders why his accusers waited until then. Chapter 11 provides an answer -- the trial in 399 BCE was in fact Athenian democracy's response to the oligarchic reactions of 411, 404, and 401. A half century after the trial, Aeschines the Rhetorician could take for granted a widespread understanding among Athenians that they had condemned Socrates to death because he was the teacher of Critias, a leader of The Thirty who sought to destroy the democracy in 404 (Against Timarchus, 173). But that suggests that Socrates was involved in the conspiracies against the democracy.

Chapter 12 presents the reflections of Socrates' students -- Xenophon and Plato -- on the several reactionary coups. Xenophon tried hard to convince the reader that Socrates was not a supporter of Critias and The Thirty. Plato's Socrates did deny membership in an oligarchic secret society (synomosia; cf. Apology, 36 b); even were this the truth, Socrates' aristocratic cronyism would evidence to the average Athenian his membership in one of the aristocratic political clubs (hetaireiai). And those clubs supported Critias and The Thirty. Plato, for his part, refers but once to the reactionaries -- in the possibly spurious Seventh Letter (325 b). Otherwise his presentation of the vile Critias, Charmides, et al in his dialogues is adulatory.

The second section, Chapters 13-14, presents the protagonists. Anytus, the principal accuser, is presented in Chapter 13, and "Antagonistic Socrates," in Chapter 14. Let us first consider the accusations against Socrates, then turn to his "defense." Interestingly enough, Plato presents the charges put forward by one Meletus who represented the poets, not those of Anytus who represented the political interests. Meletus' indictment against Socrates charged that

(1) He was an evildoer;
(2) He corrupted the youth;
(3) He did not believe in the Athenian gods, but raised up new divinities (Apology, 24 b).

All of this may have been of interest to the poets, but what about politics? Plato is silent here. Fortunately, we can also take into account the charges against Socrates attributed to Polycrates, that

(4) He taught contempt of the Constitution, esp. the selection of officials by lot;
(5) These teachings made the young aristocrats violent;
(6) These aristocrats included Critias and Alcibiades (Xenophon, Memorabilia, I, 2:9-12).
(7) He often quoted Homer against the demos: "It is not good for the multitude to rule" (Iliad, II:203-5).

Meletus' charges appear to be fully compatible with those attributed to Polycrates; the two sets represent different points of view, the one perhaps "poetic," the other clearly political. Charge 4, a political charge, can be subsumed under Charge 3 (cf. p. 201). Charges 5 and 6 can be subsumed under charge 2, and Charge 7 clearly suggests that Socrates was anti-democratic. Thus there seems to be a profound political element in the indictments against Socrates, one which is masked in Plato's [265/266] account. The charges should therefore not be reduced to free-thinking, other impieties, immorality, etc.

When faced with these charges, Socrates -- on all accounts -- responded very antagonistically towards his accusers, which may be understandable. But he also acted antagonistically towards the assembled Athenians. And that is less understandable, perhaps even suicidal. For instance, when Plato's Socrates posed the rhetorical question to the Athenians -- would he, Socrates, be willing to cease his objectionable "philosophizing" -- he replied that he would rather die (Apologia, 29 c-d). This passage is frequently cited to prove that Socrates was a principled man; it certainly does attest to his arrogance in the face of those who would judge him. As far as principle is concerned, we should recall that Xenophon's Socrates was summoned before Critias, Charicles and The Thirty and ordered to cease his "philosophizing" (Memor. I, 2:33 ff). When confronted with an actual occasion to demonstrate that he was principled, that he would rather die than to cease "philosophizing" -- there seems to have been no evidence forthcoming. And the "principled" passage in the Apology is also embarrassing when its appeal to higher purpose is juxtaposed to the banal legal positivism of the Crito (49 a-b).

The final section, chapters 15-18, gives a well-rounded account of Stone's civil libertarianism. Chapter 15 indicates that, in Stone's conception, Socrates might have won an acquittal -- "had he conducted his defense as a free speech case." In Chapter 16, Stone sketches such a free speech defense as Socrates might have used. Of course, the question can be raised -- is not all of this severely anachronistic, reading the past in light of a Bill of Rights which it took two millenia to develop? And there are a number of places where Stone is irritatingly ahistorica1 in this book: "Critias was the first Robespierre," "Plato provides Leninist dictatorships with a precedent," etc.

But Stone thinks his is not an anachronistic interpretation, and in Chapter 17 he examines the climate of tolerance in fifth- and fourth-century Athens, in terms of "The Four Words" which were the cultural coinage of free expression: isegoria, isologia, eleutherostomos, and parrhesia (all synonyms for freedom of speech). Of course the "Socratic method" should not be confused with this freedom of speech. Only someone as uncritical as Karl Popper could take Socrates' contrived monologues, reflecting a corrosive negativism -- which promoted, by the way, precisely the sense of "strain" which seems to have obsessed Popper -- as having any consequences other than boredom, frustration, or despair among the unfortunate Athenians who strayed into Socrates' audience.

Of course Socrates did not employ such a free speech defense as Stone sketches. Chapter 18 argues that Socrates could not have invoked that defense without compromising his own political principles. Stone holds that Socrates, Plato and Xenophon were all such confirmed enemies of democracy that they couldn't take democratic rights seriously. He had already suggested that Socrates instead chose a form of suicide. Thus Stone's civil libertarianism shines through at its brightest, defending even those who would deny the freedom of speech to others. And he concludes that Athens' inability to secure civil liberties even unto Socrates "left a stain forever on democracy. That remains Athens' tragic crime."

But Stone's civil libertarian interpretation is ultimately unsatisfying. Consider its structure in its simplest form: (a) if Athens were true to herself, and (b) if Socrates was simply expressing himself, then (c) the trial would never have occurred. It is to his credit that Stone acknowledges that the content of (b) -- Socrates' self-expression -- might well have been philosophically worthless and insufferable as well. His is straightforwardly a free speech interpretation. But there are loose ends, all of which depend upon whether Socrates was a harmless idiosyncratic or a seditious conspirator, protected by the amnesty of 403 BCE.

Since (c) is historically false, either (a) or (b), or both, are false as well. Stone holds that (a) is false, that Athens was untrue to herself. But he fails to consider [266/267] the other possibility, that (b) is false. As a good investigative journalist, he knows that he must examine both possibilities. Perhaps Socrates was not simply expressing himself while "philosophizing," but was engaging in seditious activities instead, seeking to bring about another oligarchic coup. This possibility would require that we pay particular attention to the political biases of the principal sources. Both Plato and Xenophon were strongly motivated to represent Socrates as anything other than as a failed oligarchic conspirator. But it was Socrates who compared himself to the failed oligarchic conspirators, Aristogeiton and Harmodius, those who sought to overthrow the popular rule of Hippias in 514 BCE. That tantalizing allusion to anti-democratic forces is but one of the loose ends which the civil libertarian interpretation leaves behind. Perhaps it is time to build on the work of Stone, Wood and Wood (Class Ideology and Ancient Political Theory), Winspear, and others -- and seriously consider this alternative interpretation. [267//]


Patzer, Andreas (1985)Bibliographia Socratica Freiburg: Verlag Karl Alber

Popper, Karl (1962) The Open Society and Its Enemies Princeton: Princeton University Press, vol. I.

Raaflaub,Kurt (1983) "Democracy, Oligarchy and the Concept of the 'Free Citizen' in late Fifth-Century Athens" Political Theory, Vol. 11:517-544.

Raaflaub, Kurt (1985) Die Entdeckung der Freiheit Munich: Vestigia, Vol. 37

Russell, Bertrand (1945) History of Western Philosophy NY: Simon and Schuster

Stone, I.F. (1988)The Trial of Socrates Boston: Little, Brown and Company [$ 18.95]

Winspear, Alban and T. Silverberg (1939) Who Was Socrates? NY: Cordon Co.

Winspear, Alban (1956) The Genesis of Plato's Thought NY: Russell and Russell

Wood, Ellen M. and Neal Wood (1978) Class Ideology and Ancient Political Theory NY: Oxford University Press