Feb 152021
 

On this date in 399 BCE, the profoundly influential philosopher Socrates was condemned to death by an Athenian jury. Not their proudest moment by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly one that confirms my low opinion of democracy (with which Socrates agreed, btw). The jury at his trial is conjectured to have been around 500 δικάστοί (male-citizen judges/jurors chosen by lot), and their verdict was based on a simple majority vote. They used shells or potsherds to record their votes, which in Greek are known as οστράκα (ostraca), giving us the word “ostracize” because the same method of voting was used to exile citizens. The trial was held to determine whether Socrates was guilty of two charges: ασέβεια  (impiety) against the pantheon of Athens, and corruption of the youth of the city-state. The accusers cited two impious acts by Socrates: “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities,” and also held that it was an illegal act to train his students to ask political questions. As you may suspect already, the accusers had ulterior motives. Politicians have never been happy with an electorate that knows how to think critically. Primary-source accounts of the trial and execution of Socrates are the Apology of Socrates by Plato and the Apology of Socrates to the Jury by Xenophon of Athens. The accuracy of these accounts has been the subject of debate for over two thousand years, as has been the ways in which they can be interpreted. Nonetheless, some broad strokes are generally agreed upon.

According to the portraits left by some of Socrates’ followers, Socrates seems to have openly espoused certain anti-democratic views, the most prominent perhaps being the view that it is not majority opinion that yields correct policy but rather genuine knowledge and professional competence, which is possessed by only a few. Plato also portrays him as being severely critical of some of the more prominent and well-respected leaders of the Athenian democracy, and even has him claim that the officials selected by the Athenian system of governance cannot credibly be regarded as benefactors. Also, Socrates was known as often praising the laws of the undemocratic regimes of Sparta and Crete. Plato, Socrates’ student, reinforced anti-democratic ideas in The Republic, advocating rule by elite, enlightened philosopher-kings.

At the time of the trial of Socrates, the city-state of Athens had recently endured the trials and tribulations of Spartan hegemony and the thirteen-month régime of the Thirty Tyrants, which had been imposed consequent to the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). At the request of Lysander, a Spartan admiral, the Thirty Tyrants, led by Critias and Theramenes, were to administer Athens and revise the city’s democratic laws, which were inscribed on a wall of the Stoa Basileios. Their actions were to facilitate the transition of the Athenian government from a democracy to an oligarchy in service to Sparta. Moreover, the Thirty Tyrants appointed a council of 500 men to perform the judicial functions that once had belonged to every Athenian citizen. In their brief régime, the Spartan oligarchs killed about 5% of the Athenian population, confiscated a great deal of property, and exiled democrats from the city. The fact that Critias had been a pupil of Socrates was held against him at trial.

Socrates was duly convicted and condemned to death. Both Xenophon and Plato agree that Socrates had an opportunity to escape, following his conviction because his followers were able to bribe the prison guards. There have been several suggestions offered as reasons why he chose to stay:

  1. He believed such a flight would indicate a fear of death, which he believed no true philosopher has.
  2. If he fled Athens his teaching would fare no better in another country, as he would continue questioning all he met and undoubtedly incur their displeasure.
  3. Having knowingly agreed to live under the city’s laws, he implicitly subjected himself to the possibility of being accused of crimes by its citizens and judged guilty by its jury. To do otherwise would have caused him to break his “social contract” with the state, and so harm the state, an unprincipled act.
  4. If he escaped at the instigation of his friends, then his friends would become liable in law.
  5. At 70 years old he was willing to die rather than decline into the sicknesses associated with old age.

The full reasoning behind his refusal to flee is the main subject of the Crito.

His mode of execution was drinking a potion laced with hemlock. I don’t think it would be suitable to give a recipe for a hemlock drink unless I was interested in decimating my readership, but hemlock is a member of a family that includes carrots, parsnips, fennel, and dill, so we have some alternatives.  Here are a couple of suggestions:

Dilled Carrots or Parsnips

Roasting carrots or parsnips is always a great option. Cut the tops off and either scrub them thoroughly or peel them.  Place them on a baking tray, drizzle them with olive oil to coat well, and bake in a very hot oven (500°F/260°C) for 15 minutes.  Carefully use tongs to rotate the vegetables, sprinkle with chopped fresh dill, and return to bake for another 15 minutes. Remove to a serving dish and sprinkle a little fresh dill over the vegetables.

Alternatively, poach the carrots or parsnips (or mix), which can be either whole or sliced, until they are barely al dente. Heat butter in a skillet, drain the vegetables well, and sauté them in the butter with some chopped fresh dill.