A Butterfly Effect?

This blog post will consider Barack Obama’s comments regarding a truth decay, or a crisis of fact, where the truth does not matter anymore, particularly regarding the Trial of Socrates. This post will focus on this case study and consider how it may apply to the modern world, and the warnings this case study brings with it.

A Butterfly Effect is a theory where small changes can lead to unpredictable variations in a system.[i] It is commonly described through a butterfly, flapping its wings, and elsewhere in the world causing a typhoon.[ii] The crisis of fact which we in the modern world are experiencing, according to former US President Barack Obama, could have knock-on effects lasting for centuries, something which could be seen in the Ancient World by the Trial of Socrates.

As mentioned in my previous post, the Trial of Socrates is seen by some to be a miscarriage of justice.[iii] In 399 BC the philosopher faced trial on two charges: impiety against the pantheon of Athens and corrupting the youth of the city.[iv] This blog post will focus on the latter charge. Socrates’ supposed corrupting of youth appears to stem from his questioning of his students regarding political systems. Socrates did appear to maintain some anti-democratic views; according to Xenophon,[v] Socrates believed that the opinion of the majority does not lead to correct policy, but that correct policy instead stems only from the opinions of a few, selected based on competence and knowledge.[vi] Socrates also seemingly openly criticised respected leaders of Athenian democracy, and praised Sparta and Crete, both of which being undemocratic city-states.[vii]

The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia by Nicolas-André Monsiau, circa 1800. Socrates supposedly did not limit his discussions, and interacted with individuals from a variety of classes and genders. The Aspasia this painting is said to depict is Aspasia of Miletus, the famous metic (foreign resident of Athens) and mistress of Pericles.

But why did this lead to Socrates’ death, and what relevance does this truly have for us today? Shortly before the Trial of Socrates was the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, an oligarchy ruling Athens under Sparta in 404-403 BC,[viii] where many opposed to the new government fled Athens.[ix] Before this, in 411 BC, was the coup of the Four Hundred, another oligarchic system which existed for only a short amount of time but did for this time succeed in overthrowing the democratic government of Athens. Once democracy was restored in 411BC, individuals supportive of this were fearful of the system being overthrown once again, and thus came about the Oath of Demophantos. This was a sacred oath which had to be sworn by all male Athenian citizens, and included the claim: “I shall kill by word and by deed and by vote and by my own hand, if I can, anyone who overthrows the democracy at Athens”.[x] By questioning his students on the positives and negatives of different political systems, and by his various associations with the Thirty Tyrants, Socrates was, in the eyes of some, questioning the power of democracy, and thus was sentenced to death. The Oath of Demophantos, problematic in itself, illustrates to the modern reader the power which was given to citizens to prevent the downfall of democracy. If another political system gave individuals such power to murder within the law, would this system millennia later be placed on the pedestal that individuals in the modern world appear to raise Athenian Democracy to?

During his trial, friends and students encouraged Socrates to escape Athens, but Socrates refused, staying, and drinking the hemlock.[xi] But why? There are several interpretations of this amongst scholars. Stone argues that Socrates wished to be sentenced to death in order to provide backing for his distaste of Athenian democracy,[xii] as is somewhat supported by Waterfield who considers Socrates’ death to be motivated by a higher purpose, healing some of the problems of the city through his pseudo-voluntary death.[xiii] If this is the case, Socrates is in a sense attempting to become a martyr of oligarchic rule, highlighting the flaws of Athenian democracy, a system which will not allow individuals to fully question and consider whether this way of political life is optimal for all citizens beneath it.

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787), supposedly depicting Socrates being visited by friends during his last night in prison.

Democracy in Athens had already begun to fracture before the Trial of Socrates, as can be seen from the coup of 411 BC and the Rule of the Thirty Tyrants, but the Trial of Socrates seems to me to have, at least in part, had a lasting impact on the legacy of Athenian Democracy. After the invasion of Rome, we in the modern world do not see the revival of Athenian Democracy until the French and American Revolutions, and even then, these democratic values appear much more invested in Roman ‘democracy’ than in Athenian, with Athenian democracy only truly idolised once more in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. We must therefore consider, was this long break for democracy due in part to the issues highlighted by Socrates, where an individual cannot question their political systems? Surely the ability to question your political system is, in itself, democratic, and it is undemocratic to say individuals cannot question the system of government they exist under?

Socrates drinking the Hemlock, from MacGregor’s The Story of Greece and Rome, originally published in 1914.

Truthfully, the downfall of Athenian democracy was through many different causes coming together, however if we in the modern world wish to maintain our democracies for what we see them as today, it is crucial to consider these causes and attempt to apply solutions to them in the modern world. Whether Socrates was the sole butterfly flapping its wings causing the typhoon of the crashing down of Athenian Democracy is unlikely, but it is certainly an interesting consideration, as throughout Socrates’ trial there is, as recorded by Plato, an interesting discussion around truth, where both sides claim to be using facts and factual analysis and yet each maintain that the other is lying.[xiv] This brings us back to the comments by Barack Obama around the crisis of fact that we face today. When speaking in court under oath, it is a crime to lie, but should we take this a step further and take this across to politics, and attempt to have some kind of constant fact-checking, or legal consequences for lying while in government? Or would this be far too difficult to measure and maintain? Yet perhaps more importantly, do some people in the modern world care if they are being lied to, or would individuals rather just hear whatever supports their point of view and not have anyone challenge these ideas with facts? This is something which will be explored in my next blog post.

The power of persuasion regardless of the truth was, I believe, a factor in the deterioration of Athenian democracy, as individuals would often vote in favour of whoever persuaded them more, and then turn on that individual alone when things went wrong, taking no responsibility for their own contribution through voting. The trial of Socrates may have been an argument against the reestablishment of democracy throughout the following centuries, yet we cannot allow issues within individual democracies to prevent individuals from having the power to vote for their futures for further millennia.

It is vital that we, in the modern world, look at the lack of truth and true accountability in politics today, and consider what can be changed, before persuasion is truly all that matters anymore once again.

General information about this blog

Hello! I’m Katharine, and I am a Masters Student at the University of Warwick. You can find out more about me on the ‘About’ page! I created this blog to consider the similarities between Ancient Athenian Democracy and modern politics, and the lessons we can learn from it. I undertook this research through the Undergraduate Research Support Scheme in the Summer of 2021, following my final year at Undergraduate level.

Please feel free to comment on my blog posts, I would love to know your thoughts! Comments will be moderated, and I will attempt to reply to and engage with comments in a blog in around every fifth / sixth blog post. My posts will be released around every six weeks, so sign up to our email list to be notified whenever a new post is released!

[i] Lorenz, E. (Originally presented 1972, published here 2000) ‘The Butterfly Effect’ in The Chaos Avant-garde: Memories of the Early Days of Chaos Theory.

[ii] Dooley, K. (2009) ‘The Butterfly Effect of the “Butterfly Effect”’ in Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, Vol. 13, No. 3.

[iii] Cartledge, P. (2016) 118 Democracy, a Life., Dunne (2005) 43 Democracy, A History.

[iv] Plato, Apology, 18 b-d.

[v] Xenophon was a friend and student of Socrates, as well as a military leader. He recorded several Socratic dialogues.

[vi] Xenophon, Memorabilia, 1.2.9, Plato, Critico, 47c-d.

[vii] Morrison, J. (1955) ‘Socrates and Antiphon’ in The Classical Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, p.11., Vlastos, G. (1983) ‘The Historical Socrates and Athenian Democracy’ in Political Theory, Vol. 11, No. 4.

[viii] Whitehead, D. (1982/1983) ‘Sparta and the Thirty Tyrants’ in Ancient Society vol 13/14.

[ix] Waterfield, R. (2009) Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths, 183.

[x] Oath of Demophantos, original lost but copy preserved through Andokides’ On the Mysteries.

[xi] Colaiaco, J. (2001) Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial, p.25.

[xii] Stone, I. (1988) The Trial of Socrates

[xiii] Waterfield, R. (2009) Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths, 204.

[xiv] Cartledge, P. (2016) 129 Democracy, a Life., Plato Apology 17a-b.

2 thoughts on “A Butterfly Effect?

  1. Aristotle believed that what separated man from animals was our rationality. This may be true but our irrationality is still what makes us human and therefore is it not true that irrationality will always be a part of democracy. This irrationality will lead to rhetoric and persuasion being greater parts of the democratic process than perhaps we may like. Should we just accept that this may be a flaw in democracy?


  2. Thank you for this blog!! I loved reading it, very excited to read what you write next, I am learning!


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