Reflections upon Any Trial for Impiety Not Only of Socrates but Also of Us

George Anastaplo

                  An elderly Socrates, we recall, was charged in Athens with doing “injustice by not believing in the gods in whom the city believes…”

But we must wonder, of course, whether Socrates rejected any more than we have the gods that his polis (like other poleis of the day) may have naturally had to depend upon publicly for its well-being, if not for its very existence.

Thus, would not any condemnation of Socrates on an impiety charge (contrary to the judgment of almost half of the Athenians there and of almost all informed observers for more than two millennia thereafter) seem to condemn ourselves as well?

After all, can we reasonably expect to know on our own anything more about the divine than thoughtful Athenians (including Socrates) could ever have known?

Indeed, would there not be something demeaning, if not even suicidal, about any condemnation by us of any “Socrates” in our far more comfortable circumstances?

And the typical suicide (or self-murder) has always been discouraged by any purportedly divine guidance properly respected either by the Classical Greeks or by us.

Such then, we venture to suggest, is the authoritative understanding of the proper relation to the divine that should discipline both one’s obligations as a conscientious citizen and one’s career as a prudent human being (even as we recall that Socrates himself may never have questioned publicly the right, if not even the duty, of the polis to be concerned about the piety of its citizens, whatever reservations he may properly have had about conventional accounts in his day of the divine).


[Remarks prepared by George Anastaplo (of the Loyola School of Law) as one of a dozen “jurors” during a reenactment of the Trial of Socrates presented at the Palmer House in Chicago, Illinois, January 31, 2013, by the National Hellenic Museum.

[The Judges on this occasion were Richard A. Posner of the United States Court of Appeals (presiding), William J. Bauer of the United States Court of Appeals, and Anna H. Demacopoulos of the Circuit Court of Cook County. The Attorneys were four Chicago lawyers: Robert A. Clifford, Patrick M. Collins, Patrick J. Fitzgerald and Dan K. Webb. The Academic Advisor for this occasion was S. Sara Monoson of Northwestern University.

[See, on the Trial of Socrates, George Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1975).]

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One Response to Reflections upon Any Trial for Impiety Not Only of Socrates but Also of Us

  1. John P. Brady says:

    Mr. Anastaplo,
    In catching up on my late mail, I note in “The University of Chicago Magazine”, Nov-Dec issue, you wrote a letter to the editor titled “Mink remembered.” In your letter you mentioned the seisure of the Greek Government by the colonels in 1967. That brought many interesting memories back to me.

    On March 4, 1967 I wed Jeanne’ and we left on a 3 month honeymoon in Greece. I had chartered a small (41 foot) sailboat, to sail from Athens to Venice. We spent all nights sleeping on board, with the one exception, that being Itea. I had wanted Jeanne’ to experience Delphi after all of the daytime tourists had left, and to see Delphi by moonlight. So we travelled by bus from Itea and spent two nights in Delphi. We awoke after our second night to the sound of martial music on the radio in the cafe. It was April 21! Of the three months of sailing, to have spent the only overnight on land to heve included April 21, 1967 was truely a timing miracle. We have the colonels to thank for that.

    Jeanne’ and I were due back in Itea that morning to resume our sailing. But we were told in Delphi that traveling had been forbidden by the colonels. So we were prisoners in Delphi. (Not a bad location to be held if movement were forbidden.) But our captain was expecting us to return that morning. So I was very concerned.

    The travel ban was lifted that afternoon, so we were able to return to Itea and found our captain unconcerned by our late return. It had not occured to me that the captain would be held to the travel ban as we had. So nothing had been lost.

    But thanks to the colonels, we had an experience that few modern tourists have had: to be held prisoners in Delphi!

    John Brady

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