Socrates’ Athenian jury

Orestes and the Furies

Orestes and the Furies

Slowly, in this thread on Socrates and his surprising relevance to us today, we are leading up to his jury trial, the most famous in all of history. So a word is in order about Athenian juries.

I am skeptical of jury-systems, as I have hinted before and as I may eventually spell out more coherently. But that is neither here nor there today. Today I want to look at what juries meant to the Athenians, and how they worked.

Above, you see a strapping but unfortunate lad named Orestes being beset by the Furies. He is one of the main characters in the Oresteia, a famous trilogy of tragedies by Aeschylus, the oldest of the three great Greek playwrights (the others being Sophocles and Euripides). It is a heart-rending story about a truly haunted family that, generation after generation, goes from bad to worse until it ends …. in the world’s first jury trial!


Very quickly: Several generations of disastering downstream, a king (Agamemnon) continues the pattern by sacrificing his own daughter (!) so that he can take an army to Troy to get his brother’s wife (Helen) back. More than a decade later, he comes back–victorious, as it were. But his wife is humping another man and hates her husband for killing her daughter and takes revenge: she stabs him in the bath tub.

Now the disastering moves on to the next generation: The remaining children of Agamemnon and his wife, Orestes and Electra, must avenge …. well, whom exactly? Their sister, whom their father had murdered? Or their father, whom their mother had murdered? They settle for the latter, and Orestes kills his mother. The Furies are beside themselves and go to work on Orestes.

What could possibly happen next? It would seem that everybody has to keep slaughtering everybody forever, were it not for…

The Athenian Jury

Aeschylus now did something very cheeky. The Trojan War took place, if indeed it did, around 1250 BCE. It was already ancient mythology for the Athenians of the fifth century BCE. But Aeschylus modernized the story. He added a patriotic Athenian twist: They do not keep slaughtering one another. Instead, they settle things in an Athenian jury trial!

The jury, as it happened, was split. Half thought Orestes was in the wrong, the other half thought he had had no choice. So Athena herself had to join in to break the tie. She voted to acquit, thus setting the precedent for all subsequent Athenian trials that a tied vote meant acquittal.

And so the days of blood feuding were over. The scary Furies turned into something else: the benevolent and beautiful Eumenides (“kind ones”), whom the Athenians would revere among their gods. Civilization had begun. Athens had begun! She stood for freedom and justice.


A few other things are worth mentioning:

  1. The juries were huge, numbering about 500. Sitting on juries and in the assembly was all that Athenian citizens did (slaves and women did what we would call work).
  2. Anybody could bring an indictment.
  3. There were two rounds of voting: First, to decide whether the defendant was guilty or innocent of the charges; second, if guilty, to decide between the punishments proposed by the prosecution and defense.

But the most important point is the one you’re supposed to infer from Aeschylus: the Athenians loved their jury courts, their assembly, their free speech, their democracy. The worst thing that could happen would be for something to call these institutions into doubt. And that’s what happened when an Athenian jury put Socrates to death.
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Good & bad conversations: Recognize Eris


I ended the previous post, the first in this series on Socrates, by suggesting that we “count all the other ways in which Socrates, like Hannibal, is relevant to us, today.” So let’s start with perhaps the most important (if not the most famous) insight that Socrates gave us: the incredible importance of knowing good from bad conversations. And for that, I need to introduce you to that strange lady above, whose named is Eris.

We spend much of our lives, and indeed many of our happiest moments, conversing with others. I love that word, which means turning toward each other. Good conversations make us human and whole, make us feel connected to others and bring us closer to the truth of something (or at least further from a fallacy).

Unfortunately, we also spend at least as much time in bad conversations. You know them:

  • bickering between husbands and wives
  • political “debates” on Fox, or indeed almost anywhere else.
  • Cross-examinations in courtrooms,
  • and on and on and on

Those “conversations”, which are really a turning away from one another, do the opposite of what good conversations do: They leave us depleted, down, disconnected, alienated, sleazy, yucky.

What is the difference between the good and the bad conversations? Socrates told us, by giving us two new words:

  • dialectic (=good), and
  • eristic (=bad)

Meet Eris, the Ur-Bitch

So now it’s time for a story. It’s the most famous of the many stories about Eris, whose Roman name was Discordia.

Eris was the goddess of strife. Nobody liked her, so when the future parents of Achilles had their wedding, everybody was invited except Eris. Eris fumed.

She knew what she was good at, and did it: She left a golden apple lying around the wedding party. It said “To the most beautiful”. How cunning, how feminine.

Three extremely beautiful goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, immediately started bickering about who had rights to the apple. It was decided to appoint a judge, somebody sufficiently hapless, naive and male to be easily manipulated. They settled on Paris, a prince of Troy.

“Paris,” whispered Athena, “don’t you think I’m the most beautiful? I’m the goddess of wisdom, as you know, and I could be persuaded to make you the wisest man alive.”

“Choose me,” said Hera, “I’m the wife of Zeus and can make you the most powerful man in the whole world.”

“Oh, Paris,” cooed Aphrodite with a tiny bat of her languorous eyelids. “You know who I am, don’t you? We all know that the apple is mine. Say so, and I will give you the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Paris, with the priorities of the average teenager, chose Aphrodite. Athena and Hera were fuming. Hatred descended on the wedding party. And everybody knew that Paris was now to get Helen, the most beautiful of the mortal women.

The only problem: Helen was already married, to a Spartan who was the brother of the great king Agamemnon. Agamemnon and his Greeks would have to come after Paris and his Trojans to get Helen back. Ten years of bloody war followed. Eris had outdone herself.

Eristic conversation

So Socrates chooses to call bad conversations eristic. They are full of strife, because–and this is the key–they are conversations in which each side wants above all to win. Where there is a winner, there is usually a loser, so these conversations separate us.

The opposite was dialectic, whence our word dialogue, the Greek form of the Latin conversation (ie, turning toward). When you turn toward another, you are not trying to win, you are trying to find the truth. That is your motivation, and it is one you share with your conversation partner (as opposed to opponent). Everybody wins, as long as you climb higher through your conversing, toward more understanding or more communion.

We today

I mentioned in the previous post a series of serendipitous events recently. The first was an email from Cheri Block Sabraw, a writing teacher and reader of The Hannibal Blog, that pointed me to this essay, “Notes on Dialogue”, by a great intellect named Stringfellow Barr.

Written in 1968, it might as well have been penned today, as Barr describes eristic and dialectic conversation in our own world:

There is a pathos in television dialogue: the rapid exchange of monologues that fail to find the issue, like ships passing in the night; the reiterated preface, “I think that . . .,” as if it mattered who held which opinion rather than which opinion is worth holding; the impressive personal vanity that prevents each “discussant” from really listening to another speaker and that compels him to use this God-given pause to compose his own next monologue…

Expressing the Socratic ideal, Barr says that

We yearn, not always consciously, to commune with other persons, to learn with them by joint search,

and that

the most relevant sort of dialogue, though perhaps the most difficult, for twentieth century men to achieve and especially for Americans to achieve is the Socratic….

What makes good (Socratic) conversations good? They have a completely different dynamic than bad conversations. They tend to be

  • poor in long-winded declarations and rich in short, pithy back-and-forth,
  • egalitarian in that it does not matter who says what but what is said (even though this does not mean “equal time” for any nonsense)
  • spontaneous, in that they follow wherever the argument leads, even and especially to surprising destinations,
  • playful, and indeed humorous, for that is what makes “serious” investigation possible and sublime.

In short, this sort of conversation is what The Hannibal Blog is about, with the amazing input by all of you in the comments that make each topic come alive. If The Hannibal Blog is against anything, it is Eris and her spawn.

And so I leave you with just one famous instance when two fakers were called to account and toldĀ  just what sort of “conversation” they dealt in:

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