Greeks Bearing Rifts: Socrates Gets a Retrial

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Richard Termine / Onassis Foundation

The Onassis Foundation presents The Trial of Socrates at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse in New York, May 12, 2011.

Socrates, the famed Greek philosopher, made a rare public appearance on May 12, in the Ceremonial Courtroom of Manhattan's Federal Courthouse. In fact, he took the corporeal form of famed defense attorney Benjamin Brafman, currently representing embattled IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was highly animated in his defense against the millennia-old impiety and corruption charges levied against the Athenian. Fortunately, there was not a toga to be seen in the audience.

The court was in session on a brisk spring evening to reargue the case against Socrates, sentenced to death in 399 B.C. after a jury of 500 of his peers convicted him of failing to honor the city's gods and abetting in the corruption of Athens' youth. The accusation, submitted by Meletus and two other Athenians, claimed that Socrates held other Gods before those of the city of Athens, and by spreading his dissenting views in the agora, he was encouraging the youth to rebel against the city. But the charges against the philosopher strike a deeper chord, according to Dr. Alexander Nehamas, a Princeton University professor and Greek scholar. "Was it his politics? His arrogant ways? His rationalist ethics?" he asks. It's no surprise that the sentence handed down by the Athenian court 2,410 years ago has come under scrutiny from these scholars, who cite the narrow margin by which Socrates was sentenced to death, 280 to 220, as a marker of the jurors' uncertainty.

So the case went back to trial, to be heard by three steely New York judges who would evaluate the evidence with a modern perspective, at a hearing that fused historical discussion with sometimes comical theatrics. (The trial was presented by the Onassis Foundation, who will distribute a DVD of the event to schools and cultural institutions.) Yet no one knew how the proceedings would unfold — after all, how easy can it be to rehash a trial with only circumstantial evidence, produced decades after the fact by Socrates' admirers Plato and Xenophon? Would Socrates be sentenced to death again or would he be acquitted, albeit a few millennia too late?

5:26 p.m. "I plan on being a little bit over the top," announces Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, part of the prosecution team. The Assistant District Attorney of Manhattan — who joined a counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan after 9/11 and later served three tours in Iraq — is a force to be reckoned with.

5:33 p.m. "Welcome to Athens!" Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs proclaims. He explains the charges against Socrates from a legal perspective. In ancient Athens, turns out there's no presumption of innocence.

5:43 p.m. Anthony Papadimitriou (president of the Onassis Foundation) heads off the case for the prosecution. He's Greek. And his accent is really Greek. It adds a new level of credibility to his testimony.

5:45 p.m. Celebrity diversion! Tom Wolfe strolls into the courtroom, fashionably late and definitely fashionable, in one of his classic white suits. (He's friends with Socrates' counsel Eddie Hayes; Bonfire of the Vanities is dedicated to Hayes.)

5:48 p.m. Papadimitriou is getting heated. His historical memory is stunning, and he's slamming the philosopher hard, calling him a "liar," a "rebel," and accusing him of converting his students to "lovers of Sparta, the enemy." Corruption charge? Check.

5:55 p.m. Loretta Preska, Chief Judge of the Southern District of New York, counters the prosecution: "Athens embraced free speech as one of its most important traditions. Wasn't Socrates just speaking his opinion?" Papadimitriou responds with some legalese, explaining that the question of free speech doesn't relate to the charges of impiety and corruption. Indeed, speaking one's mind is a right; it doesn't prove that the philosopher has done anything wrong.

6:01 p.m. Col. Bogdanos, the second prosecutor, takes the stand. The history lesson is over; let the show begin! He proclaims that this trial is about the survival of democracy, which has come under fire in Athens after two government coups in the past decade. And who are the men behind these overthrows? Students of Socrates. "Let no golden-tongued orators with honey-sweet words tell you this trial is about anything else" but Socrates' attempt to destroy democracy, Bogdanos booms. Worse, Socrates was influential yet passive: standing in the agora all day, he took no part in city affairs, making him "good for nothing."

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