The Trial of Socrates

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Area: History and Social Studies
Grade Level: High School & Beyond
Topics: authority, Civics, cultural relativism, democracy, Justice, objectivism, piety, power, Skepticism, Socrates
Estimated Time Necessary: 2-3 weeks

Lesson Plan

To engage students deeply in both the historical and philosophical themes and primary sources surrounding the story of Athens and the trial of Socrates
Through this activity based on the trial of Socrates, students will think together about many issues, including: the compatibility of religious piety with philosophical inquiry, the question whether morality is relative to cultural norms or objective and universal in nature, the tension between justice and power, the question whether ideas that directly challenge tradition and authority strengthen or threaten democracy, the nature and extent of civic obligation, and the emergence of the axial age in classical Athens and its conflict with older perennial beliefs.


In 399 BCE Socrates was tried by an Athenian jury on charges of (a) denying the existence of deities, (b) introducing new deities, and (c) corrupting the youth of Athens.  Socrates was found guilty and ultimately executed.  His trial and death have remained controversial until today.  This activity involves retrying Socrates, using as the sources of evidence relevant Platonic dialogues (Euthyphro, Republic, Apology), Aristophanes’ Clouds, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, and secondary sources such as Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. The lesson plan below outlines the trial activity and assessment that follow, and includes guiding essential questions for the trial. The supplemental materials at the end provide some study questions for various primary source readings.


Research:  Half the class is the prosecution team (PT) and the other half is the defense team (DT).  Each member of the team must assist in researching and preparing the case for trial.  Each student keeps a notebook containing relevant facts, potential witnesses, and proposed strategies for their team.  These notebooks are turned in as part of each student’s evaluation.

Burden of Proof: For all these charges, the burden of proof rests with the prosecution.  The prosecution must show by a preponderance of the evidence–not beyond a reasonable doubt but with evidence weightier than that presented by the defense–that the defendant (a) did those things of which he is accused and (b) did them with malicious intent or with a callous disregard for the safety of others.

Witnesses:  Each team “creates” four witnesses and prepares those witnesses for testimony.  Each team may prepare exhibits (e.g., timelines, graphs, charts, logs, letters, legal codes) as they see fit.  Exhibits to be presented must be primarily visual in nature; students are not allowed to introduce a book or a photocopy for the purpose of having a witness read it into the record.  Witnesses cannot lie or fabricate events.  They must testify to factual events, or to events that are reasonable inferences of factual events.  Under direct questioning, witnesses will be permitted to use notes but cannot be coached by other members of their team while on the stand. Although students are free to pick your own witnesses, here are some potential witnesses:

Some Potential Prosecution Team Witnesses:

  • Meletus: the man who pressed charges against Socrates
  • Anytus: prominent Athenian politician who threatened Socrates
  • Strepsiades: a character in the Clouds who takes lessons from Socrates with “tragic” consequences
  • Pheidippides: son of Strepsiades who learns to make the weak speech stronger
  • Euthyphro: character in a Socratic dialogue on the nature of piety or holiness
  • Aristophanes: playwright who won a competition for performance of his comedy, Clouds
  • Critias, Charmides: participants in Socratic dialogue who later supported the Thirty Tyrants
  • I.F. Stone: contemporary writer and critic of Socrates

 Some Potential Defense Team Witnesses:

  • Plato: philosopher who documents the trial in The Apology, represents Socratic method in his dialogues (e.g. Euthyphro), and honors Socrates in his “Allegory of the Cave” from the Republic
  • Crito and Charmides: pupils of Socrates
  • Alcibiades: Athenian general who can testify to Socrates’ military career and devotion to Athens
  • Socrates: the defendant
  • Don Nardo: contemporary historian and defender of Socrates
  • Pericles: leader of Athens during its “golden age” and early years of the Peloponnesian Wars

Disclosure:  By the end of the third day of work, each team must tell the other which witnesses they will call to testify.  Teams also must share sources of information used to prepare each witness for trial.  This is particularly important to help witnesses and attorneys prepare for cross-examination.

Roles:  Each team should have students performing the following roles:

Coordinator: The coordinator assigns responsibilities (see below) to individual team members, monitors the progress of the team in preparing its case, and troubleshoots when problems arise.  The coordinator ordinarily presents the closing argument.

Opening Statement: The opening statement introduces team members and describes their assigned roles; informs the court of witnesses that will be called; and explains how each witness will strengthen the team’s case. Students who make opening statements also are expected to assist their team as researchers retrieving or photocopying information as needed.

Direct Attorneys: Four attorneys are responsible for direct questioning of their team’s witnesses.

Cross Attorneys: Four more attorneys from each team are responsible for cross-examining the opposition’s witnesses.

Witnesses: Each team will call four witnesses. Students use the sources as well as their imaginations to identify the best witnesses for their cases. See above.

Closing Statements: Each team delivers a closing statement, preferably prepared and presented by the team coordinator. The closing statement should be a persuasive and detailed summary of all evidence presented by the team as well a last chance to respond aggressively to testimony or evidence provided by the opposition.

Judge: The teacher or an outside adult chosen by the teacher serves as the judge, who reaches the verdict on each of the three charges.

Organization:  Team organization during the first two days of preparation will likely determine both the quality and outcome of the trial. After choosing roles, coordinators should divide their teams into three “sets,” each one consisting of (a) a direct attorney, (b) a witness, and (c) a cross-examination attorney.

Trial Procedure:



(PT)  Prosecution Opening Statement

(DT) Defense Opening Statement

Case for Prosecution

P Direct Examination of Witness 1

D Cross-Examination of Witness 1

P Direct Examination of Witness 2

D Cross-Examination of Witness 2

P Direct Examination of Witness 3

D Cross-Examination of Witness 3

P Direct Examination of Witness 4

D Cross-Examination of Witness 4

Case for Defense

D Direct Examination of Witness 1

P  Cross-Examination of Witness 1

D Direct Examination of Witness 2

P  Cross-Examination of Witness 2

D Direct Examination of Witness 3

P  Cross-Examination of Witness 3

D Direct Examination of Witness 4

P  Cross-Examination of Witness 4

Closing Arguments

PT closing argument

DT closing argument


The judge will recognize properly presented objections.  If an attorney wishes to object that attorney must (a) rise, (b) and say, “I object to that question, Your Honor,” and (c) then wait for the judge to recognize the attorney.  When the judge recognizes the objection, the judge will ask the attorney for the basis of the objection.  The following are acceptable grounds for objections:

  1. Your Honor, that is a leading question.”

Attorneys on direct examination must ask open-ended questions and refrain from telegraphing the answer; on direct examination yes/no questions are not permitted;  on cross-examination leading questions are permitted.

  1. “Your Honor, there has been no basis established for the question…the question is irrelevant.”

Attorneys must sequence their questions so that the relevance of each question is established.

  1. “Your Honor, the witness has no basis for answering the question.”

Attorneys must establish the credibility of each witness before they can offer factual or opinion testimony.

  1. “Your Honor, the question has been asked and answered by the witness.”

Attorneys are not to testify on behalf of their witnesses, or to ask complex questions which include evidence and opinion.

Major Themes and Questions Surrounding the Trial of Socrates:

  1. In what way is Socrates’ story fundamentally a story of the conflict between perennial and axial age beliefs?
  2. How did the Peloponnesian War set the stage for the accusations against Socrates? (See Nardo)
  3. What exactly was Socrates accused of? (See Nardo and Plato’s Apology)
  4. How much merit was there in the charges leveled against Socrates? How did Socrates defend himself against the charges at his trial? (See Plato’s Apology)
  5. What was Aristophanes’ critique of Socrates? Does the critique have merit despite its exaggeration and caricature of Socrates? (See Aristophanes’ The Clouds)
  6. Why did Socrates not resist his death sentence? (See Plato’s Crito).
  7. How can Socrates be seen as a courageous seeker of truth and virtue who sacrificed his life for the good of Athens? (See Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Apology, and Crito)

Trial Evaluation

Students are evaluated for both the quality of their preparation and the quality of their arguments and counter-arguments during the trial.  Among the criteria guiding evaluation are contribution to team strategy, diligence, collaboration with team members, thoroughness of research, and command of relevant concepts and arguments.

Written Assessment

Students may choose either the formal essay or dialogue option below. The goal in this assignment is to demonstrate deep engagement with the profound issues raised by the Trial of Socrates. Students must include a bibliography for any sources found in the library as well sources provided in class.

  1. Dialogue:  Assume the following scenario. A recently discovered fragment reveals that the polling of juries was introduced by Socrates at his trial in 399 BCE. Having tried Socrates for crimes against the state religion and corruption of the youth, the jury, composed of 501 citizens, found him guilty. After noting that he would have been acquitted had thirty jurors voted the other way, Socrates asks the jurors to share their thoughts about his guilt or innocence. A debate among the jurors ensues. (Note: A model dialogue, titled “Socrates Revisited: The Jurors Speak,” by Steven Goldberg, can be found in Philosophy Now, Issue No. 19, Winter 1997/98.)

Students should single-space lines spoken by a single character but double space when you shift from one speaker to another. Dialogues should not imitate normal colloquial conversation or use short one or two-line statements. Students can use any characters they wish (e.g., the jurors, family members at the dinner table, your classmates), but you need to analyze the issues in depth. They shouldn’t sacrifice depth of analysis for cleverness or literary flair. Dialogues should be roughly three to four pages in length. Standard margins and 12 point Times Roman font.

  1. Essay:  Did the trial of Socrates represent a betrayal of Athens’ values, or did Socrates pose a genuine threat to the Athenian city-state that justified his trial and execution? Represent both sides of the argument and defend your thesis. You should show your command of ALL the primary sources Aristophanes’ The Clouds, Plato’s Euthyphro, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Plato’s Apology, and Plato’s Crito) by analyzing relevant ideas and arguments in depth; and you should draw upon selected secondary sources (e.g., I.F. Stone, Nardo) that were assigned or that you used in your research for the trial.

The essay should address each of the following: Athenian politics, religious tradition, recent history (e.g., Peloponnesian Wars), the role of drama in shaping attitudes toward Socrates, Socrates’ philosophy as represented by Plato, and the conduct of the  trial. Students also might want to draw from biographical information contained in the Apology and other sources. The essay should consider whether the city’s criticism of Socrates was justified, even if you disagree with the verdict or the harshness of the sentence. Please note that, unlike a closing statement, the essay or dialogue should show the complexity of the issue and represent competing points of view. The essay should be double-spaced with standard margins and a 12 point Times Roman font. The essay should include a clear thesis in the introduction and a clear topic sentence for each paragraph that reinforces or develops the argument. Your essay should be roughly three to five pages in length.


The combination of the trial format and use of primary sources as evidence challenges students to exercise and stretch their intellectual skills. Students synthesize complex ideas from historical (Thucydides), dramatic (Aristophanes), and philosophical (Plato) texts. Working both independently and collaboratively, they analyze and craft arguments and counter-arguments grounded in both historical evidence and philosophical reasoning. And students must follow Socrates’ own example by presenting their ideas in an effort to persuade their peers. A second and perhaps even more important reason for the trial is that it both brings to life for students the historical crisis of Athens over two thousand years ago and motivates timeless fundamental philosophical questions that were brilliantly examined then and that continue to vex us today.

A word of advice to fellow teachers. The trial roles call for specialization and run the risk of giving students only a piecemeal understanding of both history and philosophy. This risk can be mitigated by (a) introducing the relevant texts to the entire class, (b) instructing students to research collaboratively as a team before assigning trial roles (typically only once they have picked their witnesses), and (c) assigning a culminating essay or dialogue that requires students to move beyond their trial role and show command of the larger questions and themes surrounding the trial.

Supplemental Materials:

Guiding Questions on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:

  1. What do you think is symbolized by the cave and by the world outside?
  2. Who are the prisoners and why are they chained?
  3. What are the shadows? What are they meant to symbolize?
  4. Who is the one prisoner released from his chains? Did Plato have someone in mind?
  5. Why is he reluctant to leave the cave? Why is he reluctant to return?
  6. Why do the other prisoners regard the one who has returned to guide them as mad?
  7. What does the Allegory of the Cave suggest about education, how humans learn, and the nature of knowledge?
  8. What does the allegory suggest about who ought to rule the state and why? Speculate: Do you think Spartans would be sympathetic to Plato’s critique? Is Plato’s critique anti-democratic?
  9. Do you think the Allegory of the Cave relies upon a grim or pessimistic view of human nature?
  10. Do you think the Allegory of the Cave offers an axial age model of the seeker that embodies the best possibilities in humans?

Guiding Questions on The Apology:

  1. What kind of speech does Socrates say he will give? How does his speech differ from speeches normally made in court? (17a-18a)
  2. Who are Socrates’ first accusers?  How does he defend himself against them? (18b-20b
  3. What is Socrates’ mission? What is his explanation for why he seeks someone wiser than himself? What is the implication for the accusation that Socrates is an atheist? How does Socrates account for growing hostility from Athenians? (20c-23e)
  4. How does Socrates try to show that Meletus has contradicted himself or made illogical charges on impiety and corruption of the young? Does he make good arguments? Do you think Socrates directly addresses the charges or that he is evasive? (24b-29a)
  5. Why does Socrates refer to his war record? How does Socrates defend not just himself but his mission to philosophize? How does he argue that as a “gadfly” he actually benefits and improves Athens through his philosophizing? How does Socrates argue that he has put the welfare of Athens ahead of himself? (29a-33c)
  6. Why does Socrates choose not to seek mercy from the court? What does he see as his purpose in defending himself before the jury?  (34c-35d)
  7. What does Socrates propose as a counter-penalty? What is his defense of this proposal? Is it reasonable, and why? (35e-38b)
  8. What is Socrates’ judgment of Athens after he is sentenced with death? Is the sentence just? Why? (38c-42a)

Guiding Questions on Aristophanes’ The Clouds:

Questions about the Plot:

  1. How does the play show that Socrates denies the existence of Zeus, introduce novel Cloud-goddesses into Athens, and teaches a young man that incest and father-beating are permissible?
  2. Why does Strepsiades go to Socrates’ “thinkery?” Why does his son, Pheidippides, refuse?
  3. How does Strepsiades quickly discovery that the Socratic course of instruction goes far beyond training in courtroom oratory?
  4. After Pheidippides turns out to be a star pupil and drives away his father’s creditors, they get into a heated argument. What is the nature of the argument?
  5. How does Pheidippides then justify beating his father? What is Strepsiades’
  6. How does the Socrates of The Clouds (a) differ from the sophists and (b) resemble the philosopher described by Plato?
  7. How does the Socrates of The Clouds differ sharply from Aristophanes’ Socrates? (For example, does Plato’s Socrates teach people how to “make the weak speech stronger?”)
  8. How does the Socrates of The Clouds demonstrate the nonexistence of Zeus? Does he see the Clouds as Zeus-like deities, or do they represent the denial of gods and traditional religion (e.g., mere mist, air)?
  9. Do you see a connection between the view of clouds as governed by natural laws (“necessity” as opposed to the will or choice of gods) and Pheidippides appeal to what is “natural” in challenging traditional family values (e.g., defense of beating one’s mother and committing incest)?
  10. Does the Socrates of The Clouds show any interest in questions of piety and justice, themes that are important to Plato’s Socrates?
  11. How is Just Speech, the spokesman for the old-fashioned, traditional way of life in Athens, defeated by Unjust Speech, who shamelessly celebrates decadent self-indulgence?
  12. Do you think Unjust Speech is a spokesman for Aristophanes’ Socrates, or do you see decisive differences between them?
  13. Does either Just Speech or Unjust Speech go beyond received opinion or convention? Does either pursue knowledge of nature by learning?

Guiding Questions On Aristophanes’ Criticism of Socrates:

  1. How does Aristophanes make a serious argument that Socrates is ignorant of, or indifferent to, the fundamental requirements of political life? (Think about what we mean when we say that someone’s head is in the clouds…)
  2. How does Aristophanes make a serious argument that Socrates is ignorant of the human soul (e.g., (a) overestimating the ability of men to think rationally, as shown by his willingness to reveal his secret teachings to the ignoramus Strepsiades; (b) forgetting the power of human love of family) and man’s need for sacred gods—as opposed to empty air?
  3. How does Aristophanes make a serious argument Socrates is ignorant about the truth of the gods? Note that although Socrates wants to know the truth about the nature of things, for Aristophanes philosophical speech is like Socrates’ Clouds themselves: pure puffery, mist, smoke that teaches us nothing real, valuable, or sustaining. Perhaps the philosopher’s chief error is to believe that rational speech can guide us to ultimate truths and provide an adequate guide to life.

Guiding Questions on Plato’s Euthyphro

  1. What is the setting for the dialogue? Why are both Socrates and Euthyphro at court?
  2. How does Socrates try to restrain Euthyphro from prosecuting his father? Compare to Aristophanes’ Clouds where Socratic influence leads Pheidippides to beat his own father?
  3. Why motivates the effort of Socrates and Euthyphro to define piety?
  4. What is Euthyphro’s first definition of piety? How and why does it fail?
  5. What is Euthyphro’s revised definition? How and why does it fail?
  6. What is Euthyphro’s third definition? Explain the central dilemma posed by Socrates’ question to Euthyphro: Is something loved by the gods because it is pious, or is something because it is loved by the gods? What is the significance of this question for the trial?
  7. Note that Socrates shifts emphasis from an essential property of an object to a new model of explanation: relation of part (piety) to whole (justice).
  8. How does Euthyphro’s attempt to apply this model result in the same confusion as before? How has Euthyphro moved in a circle? Is this due to Euthyphro’s failings or to Socrates’ shortcomings? Explain.
  9. How does the dialogue end?


This lesson plan was created for PLATO by: Steven Goldberg.

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