Socrates was not tried for being annoying…

According to The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us, by Douglas Linder, a professor at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law.

My dim memory of Classical history was that Socrates was put on trial for asking annoying questions and making people uncomfortable.

Linder’s view, however, is that Socrates was primarily prosecuted for his hostility to democracy and support for Alcibiades and the Thirty Tyrants. Supporters of the tyrants couldn’t be prosecuted for their support per se due to an amnesty, so Athenians went after Socrates on other charges. From the course notes:

Athenians considered the teachings of Socrates—especially his disdain for the established constitution—partially responsible for the death and suffering during those two awful periods. Thugs with daggers and whips roamed the streets, murdering opponents. Many of Athens’s leading citizens went into exile, where they organized a resistance movement. It is no coincidence that Anytus, the likely instigator of the prosecution of Socrates, was among the exiles.

Socrates, unbowed by the revolts and their aftermaths, resumed his teachings. Once again, it appears, he began attracting a band of youthful followers. The final straw may well have been another antidemocratic uprising—this one unsuccessful—in 401. Athenians finally had had enough of their know-it-all busybody. It was time to send a message that the city would do whatever it took to defend its precious democracy.

Anytus, on the other hand, was a well-known politician, highly influential, and the driving force behind the prosecution. Anytus had a number of reasons to be upset with Socrates, including Socrates’s (likely sexual) relationship with Anytus’s son and the philosopher’s antidemocratic political message.

The professor also points out that the Salem Witch Trials conveniently often pitted low-wealth accusers against high-wealth defendants, whose property often ended up in the hands of the accusers after the inevitable hanging. Also, something I hadn’t heard before: accusers and defendants were generally those who’d been on opposite sides of a schism in the local church.

The lecture on the Trials of Oscar Wilde was also interesting.

An 1885 law criminalized acts of “gross indecency,” which had been interpreted to apply to any form of sexual activity between members of the same sex. Interestingly, the 1885 law was widely seen at the time of its passage as progressive legislation. Prior to 1885, sexual assaults on boys over the age of 13 that fell short of rape were not crimes at all. The law was passed to protect boys from preying adults, not to punish consenting adults.

Prior to Wilde’s trials, prosecutions for consensual homosexuality in England were about as rare as they were in the United States at the end of the 20th century. What offended Victorian society about Wilde’s conduct was not so much that it involved sex with other males, but that Wilde had sex with a large number of young male prostitutes. Wilde was not prosecuted because he was the lover of a social equal who happened to be male; he was prosecuted for his participation in a somewhat indiscreet prostitution ring

This guy is a great lecturer. If you’re looking for inspiration to go to law school (at the University of Missouri at least), look no further!

3 thoughts on “Socrates was not tried for being annoying…

  1. > he was prosecuted for his participation in a somewhat indiscreet prostitution ring

    Surely Prof. Linder includes the preceding libel case, unwisely brought by Wilde and which disastrously rebounded against him? That was one of the famous cases in which Sir Edward Carson made his name, another being the Archer-Shee case.

    Wilde would likely be amused that he has become something of a martyr while his nemesis Sir Edward has not fared so well.

  2. Professor Linder’s account of the reason Socrates was sentenced to death is not in accord with Plato’s account, and Plato, unlike Linder, was a contemporary. Anyway, seems unlikely that there could be much certainty as to the reason or reasons given the paucity of the historical record.

  3. For all of Socrates’ anti-democratic sentiment, he chose to drink hemlock and die an Athenian, rather than foment against Athenian democracy in exile, as Alciabedes did.

    Socrates’ speech of self-defense, according to Plato’s Apology, is a tidy synopsis of the philosophic muse, withstanding whatever pragmatical politics might have provoked it.

    Xenophon’s account of Socrates’ Apology is likely where the good professor gets his information on Anytus and his son:

    “Once, for a brief space, I associated with the son of Anytus, and he seemed to me not lacking in strength of soul; and what I say is, he will not adhere long to the slavish employment which his father has prepared for him, but, in the absence of any earnest friend and guardian, he is like to be led into some base passion and go to great lengths in depravity.”

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