[FOUNTAIN]Socrates and the mobWhen Xantippe said, “Dear, your death is not justified,” the 70-year-old Socrates responded, “You don’t wish my death to be justified.” The ancient Greek philosopher was determined to accept his unjust fate with dignity. He might have wanted to prove his innocence to his fellow citizens of Athens with his own death.
The trial of Socrates was the product of direct democracy that the ancient state of Athens had developed. In 399 B.C., the once-prosperous society was exhausted from the defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian Wars that lasted 30 years, and you could find no prosecutor or counsel in the court of Athens. The plaintiff and the defendant would assert their positions, and the jury made up of citizens of Athens would decide the defendant guilty or innocent. The plaintiff and the defendant would propose a sentence, and the jury would chose between the two. Any citizen could sue another, but when the plaintiff could not obtain support from at least 20 percent of the jury, he would be punished for making a false accusation.
When the complaint against Socrates was first filed, officials underestimated the importance of the case and put 500 Athenians on the jury. He was as accused of “corrupting the youth and blaspheming the gods. His aggressive speech offended many simple-minded Athenians; 280 members of the jury found him guilty while 220 said innocent.
Ironically, Socrates had a chance to persuade the jury with his proposal of a sentence. If the plaintiff demanded capital punishment, the person found guilty could suggest a lighter sentence. But Socrates continued to claim innocence and even demanded that the jury provide a banquet in recognition of his contributions to the state. As a result, 360 members of the jury voted for the death penalty.
Socrates brought death to himself and drank the poison when his friends urged him to escape. By accepting death, the philosopher who was confident of his life made a point of rebuking the evil of ochlocracy. Plato, his disciple and a witness who recorded the trial, declared that the ideal of direct democracy could become mob rule without proper leadership.
In Korea’s modern history, dictators have exploited national referendums, supposedly the symbol of direct democracy, to extend their rule. The lesson of Socrates versus the City of Athens still holds true after 24 centuries.
by Oh Byung-sang
The writer is London correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.