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On Socrates and his Legacy, Part II: Stone, Socrates and Religion

This is the second in a series of posts regarding Socrates and his modern legacy that began with a discussion of the books and authors involved – The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone and Socrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson . We are also getting some direction from a foremost academic authority on Socrates and Plato, the late Gregory Vlastos in the form of  his last book,  Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher

The greatest divergence between Johnson and Stone is on the matter of Socrates and religion. This is is some importance because one of the charges leveled at Socrates by his accusers Anytus and Meletus was not believing in “the gods of city”and introducing new ones.

The sincerity of this specific charge is an interesting question. As both authors indicated, the century of pre-Socratic philosophers in Athens laid the cornerstone of empirical and rational thought about nature that were the forerunners of both materialism as well as science in the form of natural philosophy. This coincided with the rise of Athens to greatness and empire and a possible change in Athenian civic culture, not so much a secularization but an emphasis on humanism over mysticism in political affairs. This point Johnson was at pains to emphasize as the core nature of “the cultural revolution” wrought by “the Periclean regime” , where Protogoras was prominent sophist. Stone regards the transition to one where religion was “demoted…reduced to venerable fables and metaphorical personifications of natural forces and abstract ideas” which renders the religious question at Socrates’ trial a “distraction”.  The primitive awe in which the Greek gods were held during archaic times, gave way to a more ritualistic and cultural reverence in the classical period, or so this line of argument goes.

I am not certain this interpretation is correct to that exaggerated degree. It strikes me far more likely as a representation of the beliefs of  educated elite Athenians at the time than those of the middle classes or the thetes, or of Greeks from other cities. Pagan folk religion probably retained the same influence over public and private life in Athens as Christianity does in America in our own times. That is to say there were likely differences in religiosity between the aristocratic elite and the masses in democratic Athens and between political factions (democratic, moderate and extreme oligarchic).

Some contrasting examples: Nicias, whose political reputation with the Assembly was anchored in trust of his admirable piety, brought final disaster upon the Sicilian Expedition and himself with his obstinate, superstitious, deference to religious signs and soothsayers when the path of escape still remained open. Xenophon, in delicately rebuffing calls to accept rulership over the 10,000 in The Anabasis of Cyrus used pious arguments with the soldiers that he himself probably viewed with some degree of cynicism because they were an effective excuse to pass the leadership to a Spartan. Speaking of the Spartans, they were known in this time as “the craftsmen of war” not because of battle art but because of their zealous adherence to military religious ceremonials and divination of sacrificial animals to discern the will of the gods.

That does not sound much like a people for whom Zeus and Apollo were merely enjoyable campfire fables for children, figures of comic sport in the theater or convenient metaphors for chance or the weather.

Stone argued that Athenian religion had been “demoted” but did so for purposes of rebutting the claim of Socrates that decades of comic poets lampooning him in their plays (like The Clouds, by Aristophanes) had prejudiced the jury against him. Stone was also writing  The Trial of Socrates after the time when standards of  “traditional morality” had been challenged culturally and theologically during the sixties and seventies and were rejected by a significant part of the Baby Boom generation:

….As for not believing in gods, the Athenians were accustomed to hearing the gods treated disrespectfully in both the comic and the tragic theater. For two centuries before Socrates, the philosophers had been laying the foundations of natural science and metaphysical inquiry. Their gigantic pioneering in free thought still awes us as we pore over the fragments of these so-called pre-Socratics. Almost all the basic concepts of science and philosophy may be found there in embryo. They first spoke of evolution and conceived the atom. In the process the gods were not so much dethroned as demoted and bypassed. They were reduced to venerable fables or metaphorical personifications of natural forces and abstract ideas.

These philosophers were rationalists and rarely bothered with what we call “theology”. The very term was unknown to them. Indeed it does not appear in Greek until the century after Socrates. The word theologia – talk about gods – turns up for the first time in the Republic when Plato is explaining what the poets in utopia will not be allowed to say about the divine powers. In his ideal society a Socrates would have indeed been punishable for deviating from the state-sanctioned theologia, but not in Athens.

….Polytheism was, by it’s pluralistic nature, roomy and tolerant, open to new gods and new views of old ones. It’s mythology personified by natural forces and could be adapted easily, by allegory, to metaphysical concepts. These were the old gods in a new guise, and commanded a similar but fresh reverence.

Atheism was little known and difficult for a pagan to grasp because he saw divinity all about him, not just on Olympus but in the hearth and boundary stone, which were also divinities though of a humbler sort…..

….It was the political, not the philosophical or theological views which finally got Socrates into trouble. The discussion of religious views diverts attention from the real issues. 

Stone develops this theme further in his explanation of how Socrates might have won acquittal, had the old philosopher not been determined to antagonize his jury:

The indictment’s two counts are equally vague. No specific acts against the city are alleged. The complaints are against the teaching and beliefs of Socrates. Neither in the indictment – nor at the trial – was there any mention of any overt act of sacrilege or disrespect to the city’s gods or any overt attempt or conspiracy against it’s democratic institutions. Socrates was prosecuted for what he said, not for anything he did.

In other words, the charges against Socrates were of a very different character than the ones which had been made during the Expedition to Syracuse against the close associate and student of  Socrates, the ambitious demagogue Alcibiades. The latter had been charged with sacrilege, specifically defaming and vandalizing the Eleusinian Mysteries, forcing his recall as joint strategos over the expedition and summoning him back to Athens for trial. This ill-fated and poorly timed indictment may or may not have been false, but it had certainly been politically motivated and was the catalyst for the subsequent treason of Alcibiades and the military disaster in Sicily, both so damaging to Athens. That charge, unlike the one against Socrates however, was based upon real acts that had taken place, whether Alcibiades had been the culprit or not.

….on the impiety charge, Socrates is as vague as the indictment. He never discusses the accusation that he did not respect or believe in – the Greek verb used, nomizein, has both meanings – the gods of the city. Instead, he traps the the rather dim-witted Meletus into accusing him of Atheism, a charge he easily refutes. But there was no law against atheism in ancient Athens either before or after the trial. Indeed, the only place we find such a law proposed is in Plato’s Laws. In this respect, Plato was the exception to the tolerance that paganism showed to diverse cults and philosophic speculation about the gods.

….it was monotheism that brought religious intolerance into the world. When the Jews and Christians denied divinity to any god but their own, they were attacked as atheos or “godless”. This explains how – to borrow Novalis’s characterization of Spinoza – a “God-intoxicated” Jew and Christian like St. Paul could be called an “atheist” by pious and indignant pagans.” 

We will see later that Johnson takes a normatively very different, but logically complementary view to Stone on “Socratic monotheism”, who concludes:

By trapping Meletus into calling him an atheist, Socrates evaded the actual charge in the indictment. It did not accuse him of disbelief in Zeus and the Olympian divinities, or in gods generally. It charged disbelief in ‘the gods of the city”.

This was in the ancient Greek sense, a political crime, a crime against the gods of the Athenian polis. This is a crucial point often overlooked.

In Athens, Democracy was itself deified and personified, at least to the extent of having it’s own ritual priest in the annual theater of Dionysus – and what was old Socrates in the view of Stone but the teacher of antidemocratic and antipolitical doctrines in a city where the Democracy had been overthrown by the Thirty?

End Part II.

5 Responses to “On Socrates and his Legacy, Part II: Stone, Socrates and Religion”

  1. L. C. Rees Says:

    Read a book length treatment of Socrates’ trial once. Don’t recall the title or author. It may have been Stone’s. Whichever book it was, it seemed to very subtly cast Socrates in the role of blacklistee Communist and his accusers as standins for Senator McCarthy and his committee. The Athenian poleis was condemned for killing Socrates, a proto-totalitarian of sorts in his Platonic ideal, because in so doing they exercised a strain of the same proto-totalitarianism their democracy claimed to uphold. Was that a subtext within Stone’s book that you encountered?

  2. zen Says:

    Hi LC,
    Stone gives a very unsympathetic portrait of Socrates, thought at times he allows the worst excesses flow from Plato’s imaginary version of Socrates in the later dialogues. Socrates is not the subversive questioner of truth but an arch-reactionary subverter of the Democracy whose trial was justifiable and execution (and even conviction) was avoidable, perversely engineered by Socrates himself because he wanted to die and force the radical democrats to betray their ideals in the process. In many details Stone seems right while appearing over the top in the larger picture, or at least too inclined to believe the Platonified Socrates was the real Socrates the man. Vlastos, indicates there are numerous things in Plato’s depiction of Socrates that are profoundly anti-Socratic or post-Socratic in their origin

  3. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:


    Even if the trial as depicted by Plato presented a purified, martyr-worthy Socrates different from the real Socrates — and I doubt that the portrayal was very false — and even if the motives detractors imagine for Socrates truly describe his reasons for doing what he did during the trial, nonetheless the trial, as written, seems very unique and original considering the time it was written.  There had been martyrs before, and valiant heroes refusing to submit to authority, and so forth; but philosopher-heroes, ideologue-heroes?  Even if instances of these can be found prior to Socrates, the combination of Socrates’ situation and Plato’s artistic depiction, in toto, were something new I think, and so well done that the result has withstood the test of time and altered much that came after.

    I also think that Socrates’ age at the time of his trial should be considered, when considering his motives.


    Socrates was prosecuted for what he said, not for anything he did.”

    This ties in rather well with Nietzsche’s ideas concerning the origin of morality and mores.  In short (and put crudely), the powerful and the polity en masse require a common adherence to ideas about morality, use mores in order to regulate and be sure of their neighbors; anyone who rejects a common morality and does not live by the common mores rejects the very fabric of a society and threatens it with chaos and dissolution, and can’t be depended upon.    I was just reading over passages where N. discusses this, a day or two ago, but don’t remember at the moment which of his books contained it.    [Incidentally, this ties in with something discussed in one of Charles’s posts days ago re: shame.] 

  4. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Addendum & expansion:


     “the gods of the city” are, basically, foils for the city’s system of regulating behavior: morality/mores and traditions used to reinforce existing power structures.  Naturally, these gods may be utilized by the ruling class as a feint for hiding their own ambitions and desire for power and influence.  They might as well have accused Socrates for undermining their own power, rather than accusing him of impiety; but by accusing him of impiety, they can mask their own ambition.  (Additionally, I suppose that referencing the gods transfers the threat to the polity who, themselves, might feel a connection to those gods—and who have built their own social connections, and positions in society, by publicly observing those gods, and who might respond, “Hey, we’ve been playing the game, all these decades; and now Socrates is telling people they can succeed or advance without having to play that game?” —Thus is the purpose of invocation of gods, when the invocation is public.)

    What I find a little perverse is the idea that noting Socrates’ awareness of the power of words and actions might be somehow a new revelation about him—words are actions; actions are words; and, what, Socrates knew this?  Of course he did.  The attempt to describe him as being in the process of acting against the ruling class seems oddly contrasted against….what?  That Socrates was merely a self-interested ascetic attempting to save his own soul by not bending on his principles?  That last seems a bit of a too-modern perspective of the “holy man,” particularly of the type of Christian martyr that would appear centuries later.  Maybe Stone believes that modern interpretations of Socrates have for too long been skewed by such a modern image of the holy martyr?   I think we can see in what follows, when Socrates was in his cell, that a consideration of his own virtue was not absent from his decision-making process; but I think it’s relatively silly to assume that Socrates didn’t know at the time of his trial that his words were actions and his accuser’s actions would become words.  (Perhaps he hoped more for the latter, given the fact that he would not have known how Plato would abet the former.)

    You can almost see the way that Socrates used jujitsu, “because he wanted to die and force the radical democrats to betray their ideals in the process.”  Having seen through the thin veil of his accusers’ “gods of the city” performativity — their facile use of words-as-actions — he offered up some of his own, knowing that their actions, as words, would reinforce a paradox in their performances.  

  5. zen Says:

    Hi Curtis,
    Regarding morals, Socrates diverged in a number of respects from his fellows. First, was his claim of following his daemon, which we understand intuitively due to our history of Christianity as conscience ( or, perhaps, as Jiminy Cricket) but was something fellow Greeks did not and saw as a hubristic claim of prophecy or a special relationship with the gods. Secondly, was his negative dialectic in questioning the casual social reasons for actions in line with public morality to discern which course of action was the more virtuous. In short, which course of action was in line with moral reasoning rather than ritual or social reasoning.
    This is a gross generalization of course. There are times when the moral reasoning of Socrates is tortured by Plato in order to conform with Patonic ideas of ideal outcomes and also Socratic beliefs on duties to the polis as a citizen that trumped moral reasoning , his suicidal embrace of his execution when escape would have been easy ( and welcomed by many)

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