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Part of the series on:
The Dialogues of Plato
Early dialogues:
ApologyCharmidesCrito
EuthyphroFirst Alcibiades
Hippias MajorHippias Minor
IonLachesLysis
Transitional & middle dialogues:
CratylusEuthydemusGorgias
MenexenusMenoPhaedo
ProtagorasSymposium
Later middle dialogues:
The RepublicPhaedrus
ParmenidesTheaetetus
Late dialogues:
TimaeusCritias
The SophistThe Statesman
PhilebusLaws
Of doubtful authenticity:
ClitophonEpinomis
EpistlesHipparchus
MinosRival Lovers
Second AlcibiadesTheages

Plato's version of the speech given by Socrates as he defends himself against the charges of being a man "who corrupted the young, did not believe in the gods, and created new deities". Such a speech by the defendant was technically known as an "apology". It means to "give an account of" rather than to apologise in a modern sense of the word.

Introduction

Socrates begins by saying he does not know if the men of Athens (his jury) have been persuaded by his accusers. This first sentence is crucial to the theme of the entire speech. Plato often begins his Socratic dialogues with words which indicate the overall idea of the dialogue; in this case, "I do not know". Indeed, in the Apology Socrates will suggest that philosophy consists entirely of a sincere and humble admission of ignorance, and that wisdom is really nothing more than an acknowledgement of this ignorance.

Socrates begs the jury to judge him, not based on his oratory skills, in which his accusers will surely surpass him, but based on his ability to speak the truth. In fact, he will show that he is quite a skilled orator, and that the beauty of his oration is in the truth he speaks. The entire dialogue is filled with irony.

Socrates' accusers

Three men brought the charges against Socrates. They were:

  • Anytus, a prominent democrat and almost certainly the leader of the accusers, whom Socrates describes as speaking on behalf of politicians and professional men.
  • Meletus, the chief spokesperson of the accusers and the target of much of Socrates' attack, a fiery man with a beaked nose, and a representative of the poets.
  • Lycon, about whom little is known; he was according to Socrates a representative of the orators.

The groups mentioned here can be identified with those whom Socrates questioned, and upset, in the early stages of his quest to find people who possessed knowledge.

The charges against Socrates

Socrates summarises the formal charges against him as follows: "Socrates is guilty of corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in supernatural things of his own invention instead of the gods recognised by the State".

However, there was another set of 'charges' against him which Socrates recognised as being more important, and dangerous, because they stemmed from years of gossip and prejudice against him and hence were unanswerable. These so called 'informal charges' Socrates puts into a legalistic form — an 'affidavit' as he calls it: "Socrates is committing an injustice, in that he enquires into things below the earth and in the sky, and makes the weaker argument the stronger, and teaches others to follow his example". He says that these allegations stem from a certain comic poet, namely Aristophanes.

The charges against him were typical of the charges against the sophists. Socrates was wrongly associated with the sophists. It is noteworthy that a sophist is, literally, a "wise person". Socrates will never claim to be wise, but only to be able to love wisdom (Philosophy).

Part One

The Apology can be divided into three parts. The first part is Socrates's own defense of himself and includes the most famous parts of the text, namely his recounting of the Oracle at Delphi and his cross-examination of Meletus.

Socrates begins by repeating the charges against him, but simply contradicts them. He says he wishes he had the sort of wisdom the Sophists claim to have and praises them for being so generous in selling such great knowledge at such a humble cost (in fact, he says, his friend Callias had to pay only a year's worth of his income to have his son instructed in this sort of wisdom).

He then tells the story of Chaerephon, who went to the Oracle at Delphi, to ask if anyone in the land was wiser than Socrates. When Chaerephon reported to Socrates that the god told him there is none wiser, Socrates became disturbed. He then went on what he calls a "divine mission" to find someone wiser than he and prove the god wrong.

In the beginning, this pilgrimage involved questioning three main groups: politicians, poets and craftsmen. He found that the politicians knew little, that poets had a source of inspiration beyond themselves because others could explain their poems better than the author, and that while craftsmen possessed knowledge of their particular skill, they felt it gave them the right to claim knowledge in every other area as well.

This task of questioning, known as the "Socratic Method", made Socrates unpopular, especially as the young men of Athens began to mimic him. This was compounded by the general view that Socrates was playing stupid by pretending not to know the answers when in fact he did. Socrates interpreted his pilgrimage as showing that true wisdom belongs to the gods — that of humans has no or little value. The actions of young men who followed Socrates, Plato being one of them, questioned the established people of Athens and led to one of the charges against Socrates.

Socrates has a three-pronged attack against this charge that he was corrupting the young.

He asks Meletus whether the youth are corrupted or made better by various classes of Athenian society. Meletus states that every faction improves the youth with the solitary exception of Socrates, which is an obvious absurdity. Socrates then suggests that since Meletus does not have enough interest in the young to find out how they might be improved, he should not have brought such a charge against Socrates.

He argues that if he set out to corrupt the young men around him, he would be one of the first to suffer harm at their hands. What sane person would do this? He would be setting up a bad community instead of the good one Meletus admits everyone would prefer.

If he did this intentionally, Socrates argues, he could be rightfully accused of acting in an ignorant way. This leaves one possibility, if someone has been corrupted. This is that Socrates acted unintentionally; in which case he should be taken aside by the judges and shown the error of his ways.

Socrates then proceeds to deal with the second charge, that he is an atheist who believes in strange spiritual things. He continues to question Meletus on this matter.

Socrates begins his defence by backing Meletus into a corner. Meletus argues that Socrates is actually an atheist: he believes in no gods at all. In doing so Meletus, as Socrates points out, contradicts the wording of the charge.

This allows Socrates greater room to attack Meletus. All he has to do is prove he believes in one divine being at least, and the revised charge will be disproved. He does this through analogy. Does anyone, he asks, believe in human activities without believing in humans? In equine matters without believing in horses? In musical activities but not in musicians? Similarly, no one believes in divine activities without believing in divine beings. Obviously, if Socrates is being accused of believing and teaching supernatural things, he must believe in supernatural beings, and not be an atheist. Also, while he does not mention it, Socrates is referring to his daimon, a negative or checking impulse which bars him from certain courses of action. This, treated with suspicion, is linked by Socrates to Apollo.

Socrates repeats his claim that it will not be the formal charges which will destroy him, but rather the gossip and slander. He is not afraid of death, because he is more concerned about whether he is acting rightly or wrongly. Further, Socrates argues, those who fear death are showing their ignorance: death may be a great blessing, but many people fear it as an evil when they cannot possibly know it to be such. Again Socrates points out that his wisdom lies in the fact that he is aware that he does not know.

Socrates states clearly that a lawful superior, whether human or divine, should be obeyed. If there is a clash between the two, however, divine authority should take precedence. "Gentlemen, I am your grateful and devoted servant, but I owe a greater obedience to God that to you; and as long as I draw breath and have my faculties I shall never stop practising philosophy". Since Socrates has interpreted the Delphic Oracle as singling him out to spur his fellow Athenians to a greater awareness of moral goodness and truth, he will not stop questioning and arguing should the people forbid him to do so, even if they were to withdraw the charges. Nor will he stop questioning his fellow citizens. "Are you now ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honour, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul?"

In an highly inflammatory section of the Apology, Socrates claims that no greater good has happened to Athens than his concern for his fellow citizens, that wealth is a consequence of goodness (and not the other way round), that God does not permit a better man to be harmed by a worse, and that, in the strongest statement he gives of his task, he is a stinging fly and the state a lazy horse, "and all day long I will never cease to settle here, there and everywhere, rousing, persuading and reproving every one of you."

As further evidence of his task, Socrates reminds the court of his daimon which he sees as a supernatural experience. He recognises this as partly behind the charge of believing in invented beings. Again Socrates makes no concession to his situation. He would have been well aware that many if not most in the courtroom would have viewed this with utmost suspicion.

Socrates claims to never have been a teacher, in the sense of imparting knowledge to others. He cannot therefore be held responsible if any citizen turns bad. If he has corrupted anyone, why have they not come forward to be witnesses? Or if they do not realise that they have been corrupted, why have their relatives not stepped forward on their behalf? Many relatives of the young men associated with him, Socrates points out, are presently in the courtroom to support him.

Socrates concludes this part of the Apology by reminding the jurors that he will not resort to the usual emotive tricks and arguments. He will not break down in tears, nor will he produce his three sons in the hope of swaying the jurors. He does not fear death; nor will he act in a way contrary to his religious duty. He will rely solely on sound argument and the truth to present his case.

The verdict

Socrates is found guilty: 280 jurymen voted against him, 221 voted for him.

Part Two

In this section of the Apology, Socrates antagonises the court even further. It was the tradition that the defendant could speak again before the jury decides on a suitable punishment.

He points out that the vote was comparatively close: had only 30 more voted for him, he would have been found innocent. He engages in some dark humour by suggesting that Meletus be fined for not meeting the statutory one-fifth of the votes (in order to avoid frivolous cases coming to court, plaintiffs were fined heavily if the jurors' votes did not reach this number in a case where the defendant won). Since there were 501 jurymen, the prosecution had to gain at least 100 of the jurors' votes. Taken by itself however Meletus' vote (as representing one-third of the prosecution case) numbered only 93 or 94. Regardless of the number of plaintiffs, it was their case that had to reach the requisite one-fifth. Not only that, the prosecutors had won.

Socrates's alternative punishment did not make him any more popular. He first proposes, as a benefactor to Athens, free meals in the Prytaneum, one of the important buildings which housed members of the Council. This was an honour reserved for athletes and other prominent citizens.

Socrates considers imprisonment and banishment before settling on a fine of 100 drachmae, presumably on the basis that money meant nothing to him. This was a small sum when weighed against the punishment proposed by the prosecutors and gave the jury little choice but to vote for the death penalty. Socrates' supporters immediately increased the amount to 3,000 drachmae, but in the eyes of the jury was not an alternative.

The jury, however, decided on the sentence of death.

Part Three

Socrates' punishment speech angered the jurors. 360 voted for the death penalty; only 141 voted for a fine of 3,000 drachmae. Now Socrates has to respond to the verdict. He first addresses those who voted for death.

He claims that it is not a lack of arguments that has resulted in his condemnation, but rather his unwillingness to stoop to the usual emotive appeals expected of any defendant facing death. Again he insists that the prospect of death does not absolve one from following the path of goodness and truth.

Socrates prophesises that younger and harsher critics will follow him and submit them to an even more telling examination of their lives.

To those who voted for his acquittal, Socrates gives them encouragement: He says that his daimon did not stop him from conducting his defence in the way that he did as a sign that it was the right thing to do. As a consequence, death must be a blessing. Either it is an annihilation or a migration to another place to meet souls of famous people such as as Hesiod and Homer and heroes like Odysseus. With these, Socrates can continue his task of questioning.

Socrates concludes his Apology with the claim that he bears no grudge against those who accused and condemned him, and in a remarkable show of trust asks them to look after his three sons as they grow up, ensuring that they put goodness before selfish interests.

Modes of interpretation

Three different methods for interpreting the Apology have been suggested. The first, that it was meant to be solely a piece or art, is not widely held, in spite of Plato's reputation as an artist.

A second possibility is that the Apology is a historical recounting of the actual defence made by Socrates in 399 BC. This seems to be the oldest opinion. Its proponents maintain that, as one of Plato's earliest works, it would not have been fitting to embelish and fictionalise the memory of his master, especially while so many who remember him are still living.

In 1741, Brucker was the first to suggest that Plato not be trusted as a source about Socrates. Since that time more evidence has been brought to light supporting the theory that the Apology is not a historical account but a philosophical theory. Apparent inconsistencies back this notion (For example, it would have been absurd to ask the Oracle of Delphi if anyone is wiser than Socrates if Socrates had previously not dealt in philosophical matters — contrary to Socrates' own story).

Luis Noussan-Lettry has proposed important existential and phenomenological frameworks for interpreting the philosophy of the Apology. Concerning all the early works of Plato, especially Apology and Crito, he has said it is best to first establish the theme of the piece and then interpret every passage in light of that theme. Echoing Kant, he calls this progression from the historical (and inadequate) interpretations to the thematic interpretation a "Copernican Revolution".

For Noussan-Lettry the Apology is important because, if read correctly, it brings the reader directly into the Socratic Method and makes the Platonic Themes immediately comprehensible without recourse to pedagogy. To read the Apology is to take part in a dialogue.

See also

Trial of Socrates

Apology of Socrates by Xenophon

Other texts of Plato's first Tetralogy:

Text : The Apology

Greek Text of the Apology

The Apology

Preceded by: Euthyphro

Followed by: Crito

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