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Why Law Students Should Learn About Socrates

By Professor Chris Gus Kanios

Most of us know Socrates as the famous Greek philosopher sentenced to death in ancient Athens who bravely drank a fatal cup of hemlock with a clear conscience. We know that American law schools have adopted what is commonly called “the Socratic Method” of classroom instruction based on his fearless and incessant questioning of assumptions. Why have people been fascinated with his life and his philosophy for over two thousand years? And why should law students and lawyers care about a trial in ancient Athens of a long-dead icon of Western philosophy or wonder about the dangerous qualities of a particular strain of hemlock? 

In his famous essay, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King, Jr. unexpectedly referenced Socrates several times. King admired how Socrates sought to push his society toward justice by challenging the norms of the day. King also credited Socrates with practice of academic freedom. If such a prophetic voice found inspiration in Socrates, perhaps there truly is something of deep value for the rest of us, including those of us in the legal profession, not just stuffy bow-tied professors of classics. So, some twenty years ago, without a background in philosophy, I began my “search for Socrates”. This quest has proved to be the most rewarding academic work of my career that continues to bring insights and challenges.

As a lawyer and a law professor, I was especially interested in the ancient Athenian legal system and how it would compare to our current system of justice. Were there lawyers and judges presiding at this trial? Were there opening statements and cross-examinations of witnesses? Did the jury vote in secret? How was it possible that such a prominent citizen would be sentenced to death on that fateful day in the ancient Athenian Agora in a society that prided itself on democratic principles? Was it a case of political persecution or personal payback? Did his philosophizing truly corrupt the youth of Athens or did he disrespect the gods as the indictment claimed? Afterall, this was the man who believed one should never commit an injustice and should strive to nurture one’s soul. This is the man who was admired by Plato, who believed in living a good and just life, and who fought for Athens against the Spartans. How did their legal system allow this to occur? How is it that our own legal system can allow an injustice to occur?

This inquiry led me to develop a course for law students: The Trial of Socrates: Modern Lessons from an Ancient Trial. The course studies ancient Athenian democracy, its legal system, the moral philosophy attributed to Socrates, and the specifics of the actual trial that condemned him. We seek to learn more about timeless concepts of justice, democracy, the value of intellectual inquiry, the power of individual conscience, and the search for the good life. Law students are intrigued to learn about a trial that took place in 399 BCE in front of a jury of 500 citizens that convicted the famous 70-year-old philosopher and sentenced him to death.

In many ways, Socrates embodies and reflects the ideals and contradictions of modern societies. In a society that depended on a slave economy, Socrates neither owned slaves nor sought wealth. He condemned those who placed the accumulation of wealth above the pursuit of a just life, yet he seems to have fully enjoyed his status as a male citizen while not objecting to the systemic enslavement or disenfranchisement of others. He was not convinced that democracy was the best system of governance but had no interest in leaving his city to which he was fiercely loyal. As someone who has been studied for centuries for his intellect and philosophy and has been the subject of literally millions of pages of scholarly research, he never authored a book, an essay, or even a letter.

There are lessons to be learned from this trial that was held in one of the first known societies struggling to organize a large segment of its population on democratic principles. How did the idea of democracy emerge and why does it continue to hold such universal appeal? How does a society reconcile its commitment to freedom and democracy with its disenfranchisement of so many of its members? What are the risks of democratic rule when the majority seeks unjust actions or when a powerful minority seeks control? How is civil disobedience compatible with the importance of the rule of law? How do we create fair systems of justice? And importantly for us who intend to participate within the halls of the legal profession: Can we act with integrity, nurture our souls, and seek truth and justice as we zealously advocate for our clients within a deeply flawed system? How can we create a legal system that promotes justice and fairness for all and not simply an arena where the most powerful are rewarded?

Throughout the course, we carefully study Plato’s famous Apology, his dramatized account of the trial which he personally witnessed, and several of his other dramatizations that reveal the tenets of Socratic thought. We also study the writings of other ancient voices such as Aristophanes, Euripides, and Xenophon. Modern assessments of the value of Socratic inquiry from contemporary scholars of the classics to civil rights activists are also included. We challenge students to present their own defense of Socrates using modern notions of due process and individual rights along with procedural or evidentiary objections (and question whether their headstrong client would allow them to present such arguments).