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A Possible Answer, not the only one
on 29 July 2012
This book by Robin Waterfield provides a good account of classical Athenian history as the background to the trial of Socrates and of the mechanics and course of the trial itself. After an introduction, he discusses how the Athenian courts worked, the prosecution and defence and how the jury voting system. Next, Waterfield gives a readable account of the Peloponnesian War and the effect it had on Athenian politics, promoting both extreme democracy or demagogy and brutal oligarchy. In this, the main figure is Alcibiades, handsome and wealthy and hungry for power, either fighting for Athenian democracy or plotting against it.
Socrates had a turbulent relationship with Alcibiades as his teacher and possibly lover, and many of Socrates's student followers were rich and opponents of the Athenian democracy, including Critias, violently anti-democratic and one of the main leaders of the oligarchic coups. Waterfield argues in a final section that, although by 399BC, Critias and Alcibiades were both dead, Socrates was tarnished by his association with them. The charges he faced, impiety, worshipping new gods and corrupting the young were motivated by political revenge rather than moral or religious concerns.
However, Waterfield argues that Socrates' death was caused by his own suicidal behaviour. The jury convicted him by only a narrow majority, after which, the prosecutor and Socrates each proposed a penalty. By not proposing a fine or exile instead of death, but dinners at public expense, he created outrage which ensured a big majority for the death penalty. This is an intriguing argument, but an alternative to Waterfield's view is that Socrates was so out of touch he really believed that his actions were more worthy of praise than condemnation.
Overall an interesting book, but only one of many theories about Socrates's trial and death. He idea that Socrates deliberately sought death is not really proved.