“The Socrates Appeal”

By Julian Bonello-Stauch

For the assignment on John Peters Humphrey this blog piece will cover the speech entitled “The Socrates Appeal”. In order to accurately contextualize the speech the five W-questions will be answered. The argument that will be put forward is that this speech is significant because of the lessons it teaches us about the importance of rights and the necessary components of a truly just trial system.


John Peters Humphrey delivered this speech to an unknown audience, though presumably one not familiar with the trial and execution of Socrates to the extent that Humphrey believed was necessary (perhaps they were law students of his?).


In 399 B.C. after a period of civil unrest Socrates ran afoul of the political establishment. Before diving into the details of the trial, some background information is necessary. In 411 B.C. Athens was defeated and its democracy replaced “by the four-month reign of the four hundred” (Humphrey, 1). In 404 B.C. a similar uprising overthrew Athenian democracy, this time for eight months, by a group known as the 30 tyrants (21). In 401 B.C. another attempt was put down before any actual resistance had begun.

The charges against Socrates had been brought by three accusers, one of whom was Anytus, and the trial was presided over by a jury of 500 citizens. This jury was selected by lot and tasked with determining Socrates’ guilt or innocence and, if guilty, the penalty (2). Unlike contemporary juries unanimity was not required and jurors were instructed only “to vote according to the laws where there are laws, and where there is not, to vote as justly as in us lies” (3).

Before the trial, individuals, analogous to modern lawyers, would help prepare the speeches of the two parties and would provide advice (Socrates rejected this legal aid). Once the trial started the prosecution would speak first and then the accused, Socrates, would offer a reply. The jury would then hold a public vote on their belief in the guilt or innocence of the accused. A conviction would require 50% + 1 guilty votes. If an individual was convicted, they and their accuser would both suggest a penalty which the jury would vote on (3).

The specific charges Socrates was accused of were “corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in deities of his own invention instead of the gods recognized by the state” (4). According to Humphrey, there was no specific law which prohibited this conduct. Furthermore, when referring to Stone, Humphrey notes that fourth-century B.C. cases employed the practice of citing the specific text of the law under which the accused was charged (4). This means that if there was a specific law that Socrates violated he had the legal right to know (5). However, Humphrey does not believe this to be the case and rather that Socrates was tasked with proving he was not impious and that he did not corrupt the youth (5).

Impiety was not considered atheism as understood today, it was not believing in the official Athenian religion/gods (5). The evidence of Socrates’ impiety as believed by Stone was in Socrates’ disrespect for the gods Hephaestus and Peitho (6). Humphrey takes issue with this sort of law as it criminalizes a person’s inherent beliefs, something he thinks is impossible to know and wrong to criminalize (7).

As for the charge of corrupting the youth this is a charge which, in Humphrey’s view, violates freedom of speech (7). This should not have been as freedom of speech was something enjoyed by citizens of Athens (9). As Humphrey argues “the nature of democratic… government is such that it will not survive in the absence of the relatively free circulation of information and the right of access of every citizen who is comprehended in the structure of government to speak directly with the governing officers of the state (10). While it is true that Socrates had much complained about democracy he had not been charged with acts of sedition against the state (11). Furthermore, those youth he had “corrupted” had willingly come to his side to hear him speak.

In the end the jury voted 280 to 220 to find Socrates guilty, and a bigger majority was had in the vote issuing him the death penalty. This was unwanted by the prosecutors as they apparently had only aimed to force Socrates to leave Athens (12).

Humphrey then turns to the structure of the trial itself and remarks how it is perhaps best not to compare it with modern criminal proceedings (14). This is seen in how the prosecutors are private citizens, there is no formal place for evidence or witnesses in the proceedings,  jurors are not expected to be impartial, there is no judge, the jury does not need reach consensus, and there is no principle of beyond reasonable doubt (15-16). There more similar parallel would be arbitration (16).

Humphrey concludes by asserting “the charges were brought and the conviction sustained because [Socrates] was seen as a continuing threat to the democratic power structure of Athens” (19). Socrates’ impiety cannot be proven and he had not corrupted the youth. The jury ruled the way they did because of biased and rumours about a fanatical teacher trying to challenge the political foundation of Athens. Thus, they did what they did to eliminate what they viewed as a public enemy. Something they thought to be necessary considering the recent tyrannies (20).


The exact date is not provided. However, references to The Trial of Socrates are provided, so one can conclude that this speech was given in between the publishing of The Trial of Socrates (1988) and Humphrey’s death (1995). During this period Humphrey was teaching part-time at McGill, which may support the musing of mine that this was a lecture given to students.


The location of this speech is not provided, but I believe at McGill.


I cannot offer a definite answer to this question as one is not provided, but I do have a possible explanation. I believe this speech is a lecture that Humphrey gave to a law class of his for the purpose of educating his students about Socrates, rights and judicial systems.

I think the lesson about rights is especially significant. Humphrey first raises the issues of freedom of belief and speech on page 7. On the charge of impiety Humphrey writes that this is a problematic charge as it is impossible to truly know what an individual believes or disbelieves. It is also wrong to prosecute them for such because beliefs by themselves are harmless and it is impossible to force someone to believe something. Humphrey also notes that the charge of corrupting the youth is a violation of Socrates’ freedom of expression. The problem with this, Humphrey tells us, is that freedom of speech is a necessary component of democracy. This is because “to inhibit any form of speech… is to threaten… the survival of the freedom of every citizen.”

Humphrey also makes some important comments about proper judicial proceedings. The first component which he talks about is the involvement of the state in criminal law. He also stresses the need for a system to incorporate evidence and witnesses in trials. Next, Humphrey identifies the biggest issue with this trial in how it departs from the ideal; this is the bias of the jury which is antithetical to the belief in impartial tribunals. Finally, an impartial and knowledgeable judge is needed to preside over trials and direct the jury in their duties.

If these rights are not protected or these components of proper judicial systems not had then this will result in miscarriages of justice such as the trial of Socrates.

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