THE HEMLOCK AND THE CROSS: THE TRIALS OF SOCRATES AND CHRIST
April 1st, 2020
The man… has equipped himself with many things for his journey.
Franz Kafka, Before the Law
Does anything befall you? It is good. It is part of the great destiny of the universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web of the universe.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
History records that two men were executed almost exactly 400 years apart. Both stood trial, and were condemned to death by their respective states. Their crimes, or at least the crimes for which they were tried, were in many ways similar. Today, almost two and a half millennia from the death of the first, the words of both are still read and discussed. And something else links the two men, something which seems at first consideration to be a whimsical impulse, an act of stubborn resistance, but was in fact the playing out of two destinies in which the men fully believed. Both Socrates and Christ were offered the chance to escape their fate. It appears that neither had to die. But that appearance is deceptive; of all men, these two had no choice.
The two condemned men had much in common. They were both teachers, both taking to the public arena for their lectures and neither in receipt of any financial payment for the wisdom they imparted. Both were correspondingly poor, a circumstance likely to impinge more on Socrates, with his notoriously shrewish wife, Xanthippe, and three children to support, whereas Christ had no immediate family.
Both men taught humility, Christ of behaviour, Socrates of thought. Both are accused of worshipping, and importing, new gods. Christ, in fact, goes as far as to proclaim himself the son of God. They also make use of their trademark methods during their trials, Christ speaking using imagery (‘and the disciples came, and said unto him, why speakest thou unto them in parables?’ [Matthew 13:10]) when he speaks of raising the temple in three days should it be destroyed, which John interprets as Jesus ‘speaking about the temple of his body’(John 2:21). For his part, Socrates uses his signature dialectical method on his chief accuser Meletus, comparing the improver of youth to the trainer of horses.
Socrates was tried and executed in 399BC, and there are three factors concerning his determination to die. Firstly, two points must be made in relation to Plato scholarship.
Firstly, the niceties of whether or not Plato was present at the trial are irrelevant. Socrates points him out in the Apology (the Platonic text describing the trial of Socrates here under consideration), and Plato is suggested as one of the parties who may effectively raise bail for him. The ‘how much is Socrates and how much Plato’ theme so familiar to Platonic studies is here suspended.
Secondly, despite the disparity between Plato’s account and that of Xenophon, both are referred to here, again without appeal or deference to Platonic studies and scholarly disputes.
So, then. Socrates has, apparently, three ways to escape his fate. Firstly, as Xenophon writes in the Memorabilia, Socrates might have gained an acquittal from the dicasts (the ancient Athenian judicial role of both judge and juror) of the Senate had he ‘in any moderate degree… conciliated the favour of the dicasts’. Socrates also states that his divine sign or daimonion – which only ever dissuaded him from action – had been silent, and that he considered his whole life to have been a preparation for his death at that moment. In the famous death-cell scene of the Phaedo, Socrates pronounces philosophy a ‘preparation for death’. There is also a suggestion that Socrates’ friends could have had him released during a delay in his execution of 30 days while a sacred ship returned from Delos, an annual ritual pledged by the Athenians to thank the gods for the deliverance of some Athenian youths during a storm. Socrates, of course, would have heard of no such thing. The law had spoken.
Christ, on a more mundane note, could simply have avoided Gethsemane and, even more so, avoided Jerusalem altogether, forgoing his triumphal entry on the most modest form of transport. He must have known his life was in danger. A group of religious elders plotted against him ‘in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people”’ (Matthew 26: 4,5).
The task of the Sanhedrin trying Jesus is therefore fraught with more political risk than that of the Athenian Senate considering the case of Socrates. The latter do not face the threat of civil unrest as do the former should they be seen to be unjust in the event of a miscarriage of justice. At the most, they will have to contemplate the sadness of Socrates’ circle of friends, not seeing that they are sentencing to death their one hope of salvation.
In the end, then, neither defendant really defends, and there is a crucial reason for this. Christ unequivocally states that the law is God’s to dispense and not the state's. Socrates takes a more roundabout route to the same conclusion, making his acceptance of the laws of Athens paramount as sanctioned by God. Both men, then, are tried for blasphemy, and this is the greatest sleight-of-hand of the state; it is not we who are trying you, but God. But both return and refute this sly legerdemain; We are not yours to try, but God’s.
For both, there is no defence because there is no need to defend. Their fates are pre-ordained, part of their respective teachings and the bringing to fruition of a deeper magic than the shallow intricacies of men and their legal systems, Marcus’ ‘great web of the universe’. Jesus’ death was the fulfilment of a vital prophecy, the core of which is that he should suffer for all mankind, and thus his death is the completion of a cycle of virtuous behaviour guaranteed by his Father, an adherence to an unshakeable principle. This mirrors Socrates’ preparation for death as outlined in the death-cell scene in the Phaedo, divinely sanctioned not by virtue of Socrates being the son of God, but justified and instructed by him in the only way of life Socrates knows, a way of life he tells the senate they could not expect him to change even if they freed him because to live any other way is not virtuous and thus negates its purpose. It is not, ultimately, the Athenian dicasts or the Sanhedrin priests who desire the deaths of Socrates and Christ; it is the two men themselves.
These two world-historical figures share much, then, in the circumstances of their martyrdom. Why are they relevant to us, two and a half millennia after the death of the first and two after the second? The answer is simple; what they were saying was a danger to the state, and this is one of the greatest issues of the Western world.
Both Socrates and Christ were and are educators, and education is a dreadful danger to the repressive state, a fact known to Xenophon’s Socrates when he replies to Meletus that ‘I am prosecuted by you on a capital charge because there are people who think I am an expert at education, which is the greatest of human goods.’ (Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates).
We are no longer in the time of Athens nor of Roman rule of the Middle East, but just as the triangle had the same sum of internal degrees at the time of Socrates and of Christ, so too, it seems, that to speak truth to power is only permissible when that truth has been sanctioned by the state. To speak unsanctioned truth may not lead to hemlock or the cross, but there are social punishments available to the modern state which can act as a less fatal but still effective disincentive.
And the only true substantiation of this willingness to speak the truth, this unwillingness not to speak the truth, is what finally unites Socrates and Christ. They will die first. Indeed, they must die to defeat the state. Their deaths prove them, and the truths they represent, to be greater than the state, and to escape the hemlock and the cross would be to betray truth. ‘What is truth?’, Pilate famously asks. His answer he washes his hands of. Athens will rid itself of the Socratic ‘gadfly’, which spurs the beast of the state to action, and thus they too wash their hands of truth.
Christianity and Platonism have carried their kinship into the 21st century. Christianity is under attack from the Alt. Left in Europe and the USA, and Islam elsewhere in the world, one attack ideological and cultural, the other literal and very, very bloody.
Platonism is under siege in the guise of philosophy, all of which Bertrand Russell’s colleague Alfred North Whitehead described as ‘footnotes to Plato’. The Alt. Left are again the aggressors as they seek to ‘decolonise’ the curricula of universities.
Finally, the hemlock and the cross fail in their task to expunge truth, which is the ultimate aim of the authoritarian state. Socrates and Christ have a more powerful force with which to defeat untruth; as well as devoting their lives to the truth, they also devoted their deaths.
Mark Gullick is a philosophy PhD from London, England, who went on holiday to Costa Rica four years ago and forgot to go home. He now works there as a musician. He blogs at