Monday, December 17, 2007

The Trial of Socrates: Appellate Version

A couple of weeks ago, Melody forwarded me an email that said:




She asked if I wanted to go. Of course I did! Reading The Apology always renews my affection for philosophy. I wanted to see what lawyers would do with it. 

We showed up at the DC office of Steptoe & Johnson and were directed by a couple of young lawyers into an elevator that took us down to the basement. We followed the signs for the TRIAL OF SOCRATES/CONFERENCE CENTER and found a packed conference room. So many people showed up they had to open a room where people could view the trial remotely. 

A guy introduced as the architecture critic for the Washington Post made some confused opening remarks about the significance of the decision that we would make about the trial. He tried to make a kind of time-travel paradox by saying that voting to acquit Socrates seems the obvious decision to make, but that if we voted to acquit Socrates we might "ruin the Western tradition", so maybe we should think about maybe declaring him guilty.

The structure of the trial was to be as follows: two speakers would argue that the verdict should be overturned, one addressing the corruption of youth charge, and the other addressing the impiety charge, then two speakers would defend the court's original decision. We were disappointed that there weren't any snub-nosed actors in a Socrates costume. It turned out that the trial was structured not as a reenactment of the original trial, but as an appeal of the original court's decision to convict Socrates. So the arguments were all new.


The first argument for overturning the verdict was absurdly anachronistic. It was argued that Socrates should only be held guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens if the youth posed an "immanent danger" to the state directly as a result of Socrates's teachings. Melody called this the "lazy student" defense. As long as they didn't do anything, Socrates can't corrupt them.

The second argument, addressing the impiety charge, was a little better. The terms invoked by the accusers, "disbelief in gods", "worshipping gods of his own invention" are just too vague to be rigorously evaluated, and are likely being misapplied by those who have a grudge against Socrates.


The arguments for preserving the court's original decision were more interesting.

First it was argued that in Athens, "impiety was a national security issue", since it was believed that the gods directly intervened in the state's military affairs. (I wonder whether that's true.) Then it was claimed that the only evidence that we have of the trial proceedings are from Plato and Xenophon, who, as friends of Socrates, can't be counted on as unbiased reporters of what happened. Finally, the attorney asked, if Socrates was pious, why didn't he just accept the Delphic oracle's word as the word of god, instead of determining its truth for himself? (There was no suggestion that irony was involved in Socrates's behavior at any point.)

The final speaker who argued in favor of upholding the original verdict was a Greek lawyer whose biographical blurb says "He has authored the legal thriller 'The War of Art' under the pseudonym Philip Blackpeat". He argued that it was right to convict Socrates of corruption of the youth of Athens. First of all, he pointed out that Socrates's student Alciabiades was responsible for an unnecessary war, and that Socrates's associate Critias was one of the Thirty Tyrants. Furthermore, Socrates himself professed anti-democratic ideas. As an example of his anti-democratic beliefs, the lawyer produced the argument that if you want a ship built, you go to a shipwright, if you want a bridle made, you go to a bridle maker, and so on, and yet, when we want the state governed, we don't ask a specialist--we ask a bunch of people whose expertise is in other fields.

When the judge asked why such a large portion of Socrates's jury voted to acquit him, the final speaker said that it was because all of them were Socrates's aristocratic, anti-democratic friends.

With that remark, the appeal came to an end, and we cast our ballots. Melody was strongly in favor of not overturning the verdict. One serious problem with the ballots was that instead of having the options listed as "Overturn" and "Sustain", or something similar, the options were "Innocent" and "Guilty", which made it look like we were supposed to decide Socrates's guilt or innocence, not the status of the verdict. With that conflict in mind, I voted "Innocent".

It turned out that the result was very close: something like 48 votes for innocence/overturning the decision and 42 for guilt/sustaining the decision.

After the results, there was a big reception in the Steptoe and Johnson cafeteria. We talked to the architecture critic about the Lautner Motel and Richard Serra's Tilted Arc, and to a young lawyer about his idea to write an introductory logic textbook for lawyers.

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