The Trial & Execution of Socrates: Is Democracy A Tyranny?

Is there any escape for a just and honest man?


    How can one wise man resist the will of the multitude? 

    Socrates was the first distinguished man who was brought to court and convicted in a purely democratic setting. His accusers, primarily Meletus, pressed against him with the charges of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. However, neither Meletus nor other accusers were professional prosecutors. In a purely democratic setting of Athens, any citizen can bring charges against his contemporary and prosecute him. 

    Athens as a society was inhabited by cantankerous individuals who were proud hearted about honouring their Gods and Goddesses. If we turn to Socrates' personality, we find that he was a public man of the city who had a habit of dealing with matters of the day with crude reason.

    He was seen with a contemptuous eye because often he challenged the established ideas inherently prevalent in the city. His character represents an ideal antagonist in a purely democratic society. Democracy is in fact the rule of majority. In a small city as we see in the time of Socrates, the affairs were actually conducted by eldery citizens except slaves and women. Now, with the democratic evolution in widely inhabited nations, the democracy functions through the expansion of governing institutions. These institutions have some similarities with the governing system of ancient Athens. With more prerogative and hierarchical structure, the citizen stands always in the position of taking orders with fixed premises of freedom.

    Coming to Socrates' character in his last days, we see he has picked a slightly different nature of expression. He is not ironic in his tone, yet he is bold in his assertions. The old man is in a state of tranquility and having received the divine prophecy of his departure, he seems more relaxed and welcoming to his inevitable death. In his conversation with Crito, there is no concern about the judgement he faced at the hands of the law. As he considered himself a benefactor to the society, there is no possibility that he can think of doing harm to it. Plato has depicted his master as a savant who has reached the end of his journey and when the ship from Delos comes, he will bid goodbye and sail away into an unseen world. A world where he will be in the company of legends and heroes so death doesn't appear to him an infliction at all.

    The verdict was adjourned in a democratic setting according to the laws of the city. Socrates never held a favourable eye on Democracy, it is a system where few thrive while many suffer. Because of abundance of freedom and class dominance, those who are unfit to rule usually climb up to the top and the city degenerates into a state of tyranny. 

    In the case of Socrates, it was the body of 501 elderly citizens which gave the verdict without having any assistance from a constitutional body. Such a decision making process was actual democracy where society was governed by will of the majority in its purest form. Impiety was forbidden by law but the classification of the impious acts and the degree of charges were still undecided. It was flawed and ambiguous in terms of interpretation. 

    Regardless of the lawful conviction in a democratic setting which claims to deliver justice, the state does injustice to Socrates. Socrates' words "belief may turn out to be true or false but knowledge is always true" has become an actual scene. The pursuer and speaker of truth has been struck in the heart by a set of expert rhetoricians who knew how to make people believe what they did not know. A fine line of similarity can be drawn to our own democracies where law is designed to be impartial and rational but often the human passion when overpowered by ego, delivers it unjustly. 

    Socrates' fate was never in the hands of law but in the hands of interpreters of the law. "Law rules and everyone must abide" was a socially accepted custom of that time as it is of the present day. If the variations were defined and the fallacy of human interpretation were taken into account, we might have seen a just decision taking place in the case of Socrates. 

    Law is a sole ruler flawed democracy, it is the state's ultimate resting ground of all persecutions. It bears the justification of every action taken by the state against the citizens but without proposing any accountability. A religious or class based radicalized principal might become a ruling ideology and law will become an accomplisher of its unjust goals just as we see in the case of Socrates. 

    Socrates is a man of a distant past while we are part of an evolutionized society. In our age, the democratic setting is highly organized, more coercive and potently institutionalised. There are defined restrictions although freedom of expression is aligned to it, still we witness fanaticism of the majority taking the shield of law and trampling the moral codes. 

    Is there any escape for a just and honest man?

    When Crito tries to convince Socrates that the right decision in that situation was to escape the prison, he deems it dishonourable even though the stand he has taken in the apology says that it was an unjust conviction by his slanders and the judges. In his own opinion, Socrates was a true patriot and somewhat hit by a half rational judgement. A patriot must obey the laws of the state because the state has nurtured him from childhood to old age, gave him citizenship and allowed him to settle and live a public life, Socrates asserts.

    It is clearly evident that Socrates upheld the abidance of laws of the state far superior to any other mode of living. Had he been 30 years old instead of 70, we may have seen him resisting the unjust trial he was subjected to, a greater part of his attentiveness to the decision goes to the divine prophecy that his time has come and he must obey the divine order.

    Why did a man who regarded moral and just life as the supreme aim of life submitted his freedom to the immoral law? The same law which produces justice can be unjust and immoral if interpreted by a tyrant. Tyranny in democracy is almost undetectable because the whole system is depicted to be busy in the service and security of people but the proponents of it are taken for granted by the state. 

    It is certainly impossible to avert the will of the majority especially when it has adapted a tyrannical nature. The majority appears to possess the power and power of the strong demands obedience and service of the weak. From a higher moral ground and being a practitioner of virtues, Socrates is willing to submit because escaping the judgement may give birth to a new tradition which will make him an outlaw. 

    Even though Crito thinks that if he allows such a great friend and moral man to perish, it will incur great enmity on him for he could have saved the wise man if his arguments proved it is just to do evil for evil. On the other hand, Socrates, in urge to be an ideal citizen of the state, forbids the duty that he has towards his friends and family, and likewise thinks it's the opinion of the one wise man that matters more than that of many general ones.

    The question is whether it is just and honourable to escape or not! As in the Gorgias, we hear Socrates affirming that it is better to suffer than do wrong. Does he acknowledge that his half hearted truth fails to recognise that the whole proposition will force an individual to bend against his own free will and be submissive to an unjust authority. 

    Let's bring more clarity to this thought of Socrates by setting a parallel to our own world. On the day of calamity, Crito, desperate to save Socrates from death, tries to persuade him to escape from prison on the grounds that the state has done him evil and it is not a crime to escape an unjust punishment. He tells Crito that he agreed with him on "no man should do evil or return evil for evil" and Crito agrees, then he further asks him "Should these principles be retreated because my circumstances are altered?" 

    His morality won and the Athenian law had blood on its hands but what about justice that the democracy intended to offer. When the majority participates in an inglorious sin, what are the repercussions? Morality deteriorates collectively and a pandemic of injustice spreads out. 

    When the democratic setting becomes a machinery for carrying out the orders of the majority, the law becomes self righteous and begins to annihilate uncooperative voices. The case of Socrates proves that the law is neither infallible nor divine that an individual must submit himself to it. 

    We will never know why Socrates was radically inclined towards such a monstrous principle that clearly imposes a moral barrier on an individual's actions against the evilness he is subjected to. Most of us will say -in any corner of this world in a realistic situation- it will do more harm than good, and consequently the unjust will completely annihilate the good and the just in a matter of time. 

    "No man should do evil or return evil for evil" may be a guiding principle for a moral life but it absolves the immoral system from facing any kind of requital. Whether a citizen is right or wrong in escaping an unjust judgement is debatable on grounds of freedom that every individual is entitled to. The law can't rely on the rule of majority to make a decision based on a common perception. In a democracy as in the trial of Socrates, an individual is free to persuade the majority of his claims. As long as truth is ignored in a democratic society, the lie will have a free play and some men with adept rhetoric power will make people believe what is untrue.  

    The accusations against Socrates were undefined and incomplete, and there was no judicial body to look over it. It was free play for lie if it only had magnanimity and sentiments to persuade the majority. 

    Athenian democracy of that day seems to be run by a tyrant, not a visible one but a tyrant ideology that concealed the will of the majority in that city. Being a just man all his life, fulfilling the order of the divinity and equally valor was his patriotism, yet he was despised by the Athenians. The accusers of Socrates accused him of not believing in the Gods that the state believed, introducing new gods and corrupting the youth of Athens. 

    The defence of Socrates and the counter accusation that he expresses in a nobly manner also tells a great deal about what really controls a society. During the trial of Socrates, there was unanimous consent of the majority which appears to be the most sophisticated and rational way to do justice. But what really moulds the opinion of the majority and should these opinions be waved off without having them measured on grounds of morality?

    The opinion of many basically represents a striving ideology which has the purpose of running a city or nation by its own laws. By the force of its dominance, the view held by the majority becomes an unwritten law that gradually becomes potent and inescapable. A just and honest man is most susceptible to these forces, the whole society becomes a menace and the just man a noble prisoner.  

    Athens in that day was a politically motivated city with spread out nationalistic sentiments. Statesmen and generals of the past generations were celebrated heroes. Socrates, at times, argued that those statesmen were not really  good men but only pretenders of virtue and knowledge, and sort of demagogues who knew how to whip passion of the crowd. 

    We must accept the fact that logical consistency of Socrates' arguments was always accurate to the point and he equally demanded the same logical consistency from the individuals he conversed with. For them, it was a big trouble to invite because they never seriously analysed their own claims, and seeing their reputation of being knowledgeable and expert was in threat, they often quarrelled with Socrates. 

    By the unconquerable flow of his arguments, he made people reveal and admit the fact that they were unknowingly pretentious about their claims. Perhaps, that moulded the general public perception that Socrates was not an amiable person, and perhaps an impious person who is disloyal to his city.

    When he was trialed in the court, his accusers were successful in persuading the judges present in the court that Socrates was an impious person and corrupter of the youths. Such  an unjust trail could never have proceeded without public protest if Socrates was a publicly appreciated and accepted man.

    Certainly, the youths were fond of his conversations but how much share they had in the public decision to prosecute Socrates is unknown to us. There is another contemplating point to make here: Athenian democracy was already deteriorating in terms of judicial arrangement in that age. Every eldery citizen was allowed to be part of the decision making body and there is no evidence of an infallible system where human passion didn't take higher ground than the rational law. 

    The populist democracy had to take guard against the progressive thoughts taking place in the Agora of Athens. The matters of moral, virtue, justice and temperance bring rationality to the discussion and in a populist democracy, it is perceived as a threat to already established religious and cultural practices. 

    In the present day, we might see Athenian democracy from an enlightening point of view, but at the core, it was structured to be unjust. The public eye could see a moral man being perished because it was devoid of reason. During the days of Socrates, it was few men who had the power to make worse appear the better cause. The ignorant man is a readymade believer of what arouses his passion. The majority is formed not firmly but by ideological consensus, when individuals align themselves or partake in the practices of ideological principles. 

    A flawed democracy has institutions that do the job of making people adhere to established principles that are yet untested on the grounds of morality and justice. It is either done by force or by oration, those who don't join the mass are presented as ideological opponents of national interest.

    The message the democracy speaks at the trial of Socrates is that criticism is a necessary function of an evolving democracy. Although being wrongly convicted on the basis of a law that was yet undefined in terms of clearness, he tells Crito that law is superior and he must abide by it. That speaks a great deal about the character of Socrates which rejects doing evil when being devoured by an evil, but equally dark and unforgiving is the irrational will of the majority which devours an opposing voice under the protection of law.

    If we consider it as one of our points of view, the will of the majority seems to contradict everything that a democracy intends to offer. Plato asserts that the mind should govern the body, the mind represents the soul as it is free from sensual perception, it is better suited to govern the body, also it has reason and rationality. On a similar principle, the democratic body should be governed by a wise man only if his character represents the Republic's king. 

    The trial and death of Socrates ridicules and mocks Athenian democracy. Democracy was an unfinished concept and Socrates was way ahead with his intellectual liberty. He thinks of justice first and foremost, and it was unjust to do evil for evil. After all, he is a sufferer and not a doer of evil.