Activity Twentytwo

Read the following extracts from a short student essay called 'Why was Socrates put on trial?' Note how it presents two opposing versions for the reasons for Socrates' trial, the 'official' version, and the writer's alternative version.

Why was Socrates put on trial?

The official charges on which Socrates was tried were impiety and corrupting the youth. Meletus, his chief accuser, claimed that Socrates was subversive, undermining the authority of the state and its Gods with his unorthodox philosophizing. Furthermore, he encouraged other young citizens to follow his example with disrespectful questioning of established truths and figures.

However, as Socrates states in his defence, it is not logically possible for him to be impious. He cannot believe in divine actions and not believe in divinities; this is a contradiction. He frequently refers to his own 'God' [and . . .] Socrates always participated in the city's religious ceremonies. Also it is not sensible to accuse Socrates of knowingly corrupting the youth. This is based on the assumption that no intelligent person would ever wish to corrupt those around them because, among other things, they would be causing themselves harm. Either he does not corrupt them at all or he does so unwittingly.

Socrates clearly was not put on trial for these reasons alone. The motives of those responsible for the trial of Socrates were not documented in the official charges. It was rather the controversy that Socrates aroused and the instability that this threatened that caused his trial. Athens having just recovered from the prolonged war with Sparta, in which they were defeated, was a very delicate democracy. A man with as much influence as Socrates was too dangerous to keep within a community that was struggling to rebuild itself.

The reasons for Socrates' trial therefore cannot be confined to any acts of civil disobedience that he may or may not have been guilty of, but rather the convincing way in which his philosophical attacks (which he considered to be innocent) destabilized an already fragile society, fearful of further disintegration and unrest.

The essay sets up one line of argument and then shows how this is opposed by another, which the writer goes on to argue is the 'correct' view.

You could imagine this writing being based on a dialogue, as if the reader is involved at each point, almost at each sentence. It is as if the writer is anticipating and encouraging the reader to question the first argument. The writing proceeds in a series of 'moves' that act as if to include the reader in the exploration and construction of the argument, by allowing them to comment and ask questions. Below, after each section, we have inserted what we imagine a reader could have said in response; the writer then writes as if anticipating these responses.

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