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I have stumbled upon I.F Stone's book "The Trial of Socrates" at a huge discount, and as someone who developed an interest in history and philosophy I took it. When I came home and read some reviews it appeared to me from the reviews of the book that he is not being completely honest to the ancient Greek sources, and he kind of distorting facts to prove his point, which is that the Athenians were more on the right side of this issue than is generally believed in our culture.

For those of you who are educated on this topic, how accurate is his book? When I bought the book, I genuinely believed it wasn't a controversial book, and if it is not accurate, can you recommend a good source on Socrates's trial and Greek history in general?

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    I will note that you can still get some good information from a biased book, if you know going in what you are dealing with.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 20, 2016 at 22:01
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    Primary sources were Plato and Xenophon. The former wrote "Apology of Socrates" and the latter "Apology of Socrates to the Jury".
    – Brasidas
    Jun 20, 2016 at 22:06
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    Is this the question we use to explore options for reference requests, or do we deal with the reference request according to the old rules.
    – MCW
    Jun 21, 2016 at 1:15
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    I hadn't heard of I.F. Stone's work on this subject, but I thought this interview was very interesting: law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/socrates/…
    – user2848
    Jun 22, 2016 at 0:14
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    Scan over his wikipedia page, and you might sympathize with the author. Socrates, whose life events are very shadowy, lived in a tulmutuous time and took sides.
    – John Dee
    Dec 1, 2017 at 4:47

3 Answers 3

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Short Opinionated Answer


The "truth" behind Socrates forced suicide though is not in the proceedings. The far reaching meaning is what Plato ascribes. Average People cannot be trusted with self governance. Democracies fail to protect minority's from the tyranny of the majority. It's why the founding fathers of the United States did not trust Democracies, and never intended to create one. That is why most countries today are Republics and not true Democracies. It's why in the United States we have an electoral college which has overturned 2 or our last 5 Presidential elections. Hell it's why in the original Constitutions people didn't even get to vote for their president or senators directly.

Longer more PC Answer


I would argue if you are invested in the blow by blow what happened, it's not very accurate at all. That's not a bad thing. Stone is not completely "honest" to the ancient Greek sources because the primary sources were not about honesty or a true account of the proceedings. They were both about framing the catastrophe and ascribing meaning to that catastrophe.

(*)What passes for primary sources about the history of the trial and execution of Socrates are: the Apology of Socrates to the Jury, by Xenophon; and the tetralogy of Socratic dialogues — Euthyphro, Crito, and Phaedo, by Plato. Xenophon was a young boy during the trial, and was away fighting in a Persian war during the execution. Plato says himself he was not present during Socrates execution. So they are both at best second or third hand sources who did not witness any or significant parts of the trial.

(*)I discount here Aristophanes and his comedy, Clouds, Birds and Frogs portray of Socrates teaching methods. Because while they may have been part of the trials they predate the trials and are of a genre of questionable merit when trying to view a accurate picture of what occurred.

Neither (Xenophon or Socrates) were interested in describing the trial from a historical point of view. They are more interested in imparting their own meaning behind the trial. Both concern themselves primarily with answering questions that arose after the trial than about the actual proceedings or charges. In particular, Xenophon and Plato are concerned with the failures of Socrates to defend himself. And of coarse they both disagree on what meaning to decree from this. Xenophon asserts that Socrates dealt with his prosecution in an exceedingly arrogant manner, or at least was perceived to have spoken arrogantly. Conversely, while not omitting it completely, Plato worked to temper that arrogance in his own Apology. Xenophon framed Socrates’ defense, which both men admit was not prepared at all, not as failure to effectively argue his side, but as striving for death even in the light of unconvincing charges. Gabriel Danzig, in his recent book "Apologizing for Socrates: How Plato and Xenophon Created Our Socrates" interprets it, persuading the jury to condemn him even on unconvincing charges would be a rhetorical challenge worthy of the great persuader. Xenophon uses this interpretation as justification for Socrates’ arrogant stance and conventional failure. By contrast, Plato does not go so far as to claim that Socrates actually desired death, but seems to argue that Socrates was attempting to demonstrate a higher moral standard and teach a lesson, although his defense failed by conventional standards. He lost, and had to drink poison. This places Socrates in a higher moral position than his prosecutors, a typical Platonic example of absolving "Socrates from blame in every conceivable way.

Suffice it to say the primary works don't put much effort into relaying what actually occurred, both are more about attributing the greater meaning and motivations, and both disagree on what those meanings were.

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The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece by Josiah Ober, and his essay on the trial (incl. reference to I.F. Stone) here. Josiah Ober is professor of political science and classics at Stanford University.

The vilest hypocrites, urged on by that same fury which they call zeal for God’s law, have everywhere prosecuted men whose blameless character and distinguished qualities have excited the hostility of the masses, publicly denouncing their beliefs and inflaming the savage crowd’s anger against them. And this shameless license, sheltering under the cloak of religion, is not easy to suppress.

—Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise

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  • Have we not learnt anything from Socrates? 2,415 years after his passing, we are still asking about the accuracy of the last days Socrates? How do we know the book is true? What is 'true'? This is too darn funny!!!
    – J Asia
    Jul 18, 2017 at 16:29
  • If your itch is insufferable, your 'truth' is here - not from me, but a fellow contributor at SE.
    – J Asia
    Jul 18, 2017 at 16:37
  • I believe in The Simple Truth.
    – kubanczyk
    Jul 19, 2017 at 18:20
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Probably less accurate and potentially misleading than many other rigorous takes on the most famous trial in history. An earlier comment by user2848 provides a link to Stone's self-interview published before the book came out and highlights many prejudices and politically motivated presuppositions in his thought. I have just ordered the book and will read it soon. Not because I expect accuracy, but I expect to find examples of how we reinterpret history for our own (possibly unconscious) motives in the here and now.

For accuracy, please refer to peer-reviewed articles on (1) philosophies of Socrates, Plato & Aristotle (Here is an extensive review article by a scholar) and (2) ancient Greek history of 2500 years ago (Here is the chronology of major historical facts to get started on study of the relevant history. Google search will provide much more.

It is helpful to keep in mind that in most of what we read, including the primary sources like Plato, there is a lot more literary imagination (and beauty) as well as aspirations towards a better and fairer world than an attempt towards recording of facts. Given that, one might suggest, works of "fiction" can also help guide us towards truth if not pure facts.

Barefoot in Athens by Maxwell Anderson, a play that contains a translation of the defense, is another take on the imagined reality of the trial. The extensive introduction to the play does a decent job of summarizing what we know as well as pointing out that many, including even Plato, misrepresented the "facts" to some degree. Plato, we can imagine, was deeply traumatized by what his beloved mentor and teacher suffered in the hands of a "democratic" populace. In his attempts to recover from his PTSD, he reached for a higher goal. His Republic, written many years later, expounds on Plato's political thought, not necessarily that of Socrates. Socrates is after all famous with his simple claim that he knew that he didn't know and therefore stated few judgements if at all. Socrates argued successfully that at the root of our seeming problems lies those judgements where we fancy that we know even though we don't know. We don't know how we are ignorant, or simply repress our own awareness of our own ignorance for position or political power. Socrates instead asked questions to uncover the pretense. Do we know democracy is the best form of governance? Churchill thought so, yet qualified his thought: it is a bad form of governance. But, we don't know yet of anything that's better.

In the play, we are also introduced Socrates' wife and three young sons. Their reactions to the whole affair and to the counterintuitive response of their closest relation (husband or father) are very human and telling (of the truth and likely facts of the times) as well. The movie adaption of the play is available online. It is therefore not unjustified to suspect that the "fiction" of the play may even be more accurate than the "research" based conclusions the journalist Stone has written soon after the play. There are great investigative journalists who help bring out facts. Yet, what Stone is doing is most likely nothing of the sort. Stone, in his self-interview, concludes: "Plato hated democracy." A sentiment taken too far beyond the reality or facts of the thought of the founding father of Western Philosophy. Democracy was in its infancy. Who hates babies? :-) Popper was more nuanced when he argued, more like the proper and considered philosopher he is, despite his own trauma of the Holocaust that Plato's writings do point to totalitarian tendencies in his thought and Aristotle, thankfully, geared the early direction of philosophy and science more towards observation and experimentation as opposed to ideal forms (of government and more).

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