Socrates 2.1 – Apology

"Socrates," by Mitch Francis

"Socrates," by Mitch Francis
“Socrates,” by Mitch Francis

The Agora was a cultural center of Athens, housing fountains and statues, a number of other public buildings (including the mint), a market, and various temples. It was “the place to be,” whether to hang out, or to attend to civic, religious, or intellectual life.

Socrates left us neither books nor any other written record of his thought or life. Our primary sources of information about him are his disciple, Plato, and a couple of his contemporaries: the historian Xenophon and the playwright Aristophanes. The Apology, written by Plato in the wake of Socrates’ death, recounts the famous speech Socrates delivered to his fellow Athenians at his trial. Although it is not autobiography — it’s Plato’s writing, after all — it nevertheless conveys the spirit of Socrates’ own account of his life’s mission. The dialog is set in 399 BCE at the open air courthouse at the Agora. Socrates, well known and now 70 years old, is on trial… for his life.

In the text, Socrates distinguishes himself from “the sophists,” a fairly new class of intellectuals for hire. The sophists (from the Greek ‘sophos‘ for ‘wise’) were often employed to teach the children of the wealthy; as hired “court coaches,” they have been considered trail-blazers in the legal profession. In a system like that of Athens, in which citizens themselves provided their own prosecution and defense, the strategic maneuvers a sophist might recommend could tip the scales of victory.

Unlike these self-declared wise ones, Socrates tells us he has never charged a fee. He implicitly suggests that the commercial nature of sophists’ ventures raises suspicions about their “wisdom.” They, Socrates might tell us, use their intellectual powers in order to achieve goals; Socrates, however, uses his in the service of wisdom — which inherently aims at truth, beauty, and goodness. It is no mere tool in the service of whatever purposes one might have.

Despite his claim to “know nothing,” there are a few trademark doctrines he asserts in The Apology — and they are somewhat counter-intuitive:

What arguments in favor of these views does he provide? Can you make out what he means by them?

Finally, it is worth highlighting some of his best known words. As he faced the 501-member jury, this is what he had to say to those charged with deciding his innocence or guilt:

As long as I draw breath… I shall… exhort you… [A]re you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul? (G.M.A. Grube translation)

‘apology’ here is a misleading translation of the Greek, apologia, which means defense, not “I’m sorry.”

Indeed, The Apology contains no apology.

Thomas and Grace West provide helpful context:

In the Athenian democracy of this time prosecutions could be initiated by any citizen or group of citizens. The trial was conducted before a jury of probably five hundred citizens (called “judges”) selected by lot. There were officials to regulate the proceedings and to take care of documents, but no “judge” in our sense. The trial proceeded in two stages: determination of innocence or guilt, then determination of penalty in case of guilt. In the first stage the prosecutors or accusers (in this trial there were three) presented their arguments in separate speeches, after which the accused gave his defense speech (apologia). Socrates’ apologia concludes at 35d. The jury then voted on the defendant’s innocence or guilt; Socrates was voted guilty. There being no fixed penalty in Athenian law for Socrates’ crimes, each party had to propose a penalty for the jury to choose between. Socrates’ accuser proposed the death penalty; Socrates presents his counterproposal in the second speech of the Apology (35e38b). The jury voted to condemn him to death, probably by a larger margin than the vote for “guilty” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers II.42). Socrates had time to make a short third speech to the jurymen and bystanders while the officials were still busy with matters pertaining to the trial (38c – end), after which he was taken away to jail to await execution. (Plato and Aristophanes: Four Texts on Socrates. Trans. with notes by T. West and G. West. Cornell University Press, 1984, p. 63)

Here are some questions to bear in mind as you proceed.

Reading Questions:

  • Are Socrates’ claims about harm, death, disobedience, and duty correct?
  • Of what is he accused? by whom?
  • Does he confess to guilt?
  • What did the Oracle say of him?
  • What is his response?
  • How does his response affect the course of his life, and those around him?
  • Why do you think the jury gave the verdict it did?
  • Evaluate his response to the jury’s verdict.

The Scene and the Crime: Socrates’ First Speech

Socrates’ opening statement

Is Socrates being literal here, or ironic?

17a I do not know what effect my accusers have had upon you, gentlemen, but for my own part I was almost carried away by them — their arguments were so convincing. On the other hand, scarcely a word of what they said was true. I was especially astonished at one of their many misrepresentations; I mean when they told you that you must be careful not to let me deceive you — the implication being that I am a skillful speaker. I thought that it was peculiarly brazen of them to tell you this without a blush, since they must know that they will soon be effectively confuted, when it becomes obvious that I have not the slightest skill as a speaker — unless, of course, by a skillful speaker they mean one who speaks the truth. If that is what they mean, I would agree that I am an orator, though not after their pattern.

Consider the degree to which you think discourse in our country makes content and truth central, or or presentation and suggestion.

My accusers, then, as I maintain, have said little or nothing that is true, but from me you shall hear the whole truth — not, I can assure you, gentlemen, in flowery language like theirs, decked out with fine words and phrases. No, what you will hear [from me] will be a straightforward speech in the first words that occur to me, confident as I am in the justice of my cause, and I do not want any of you to expect anything different. It would hardly be suitable, gentlemen, for a man of my age to address you in the artificial language of a schoolboy orator. One thing, however, I do most earnestly beg and entreat of you. If you hear me defending myself in the same language which it has been my habit to use, both in the open spaces of this city — where many of you have heard me — and elsewhere, do not be surprised, and do not interrupt. Let me remind you of my position. This is my first appearance in a court of law, at the age of seventy, and so I am a complete stranger to the language of this place. Now if I were really from another country, you would naturally excuse me if I spoke in the manner and dialect in which I had been brought up, and so in the present case I make this request of you, which I think is only reasonable, to disregard the manner of my speech — it may be better or it may be worse — and to consider and concentrate your attention upon this one question, whether my claims are fair or not. That is the first duty of the juryman, just as it is the pleader’s duty to speak the truth.

The proper course for me, gentlemen of the jury, is to deal first with the earliest charges that have been falsely brought against me, and with my earliest 18b accusers, and then with the later ones. I make this distinction because I have already been accused in your hearing by a great many people for a great many years, though without a word of truth, and I am more afraid of those people than I am of Anytus and his colleagues, although they are formidable enough. But the others are still more formidable. I mean the people who took hold of so many of you when you were children and tried to fill your minds with untrue accusations against me, saying, There is a wise man called Socrates who has theories about the heavens and has investigated everything below the earth, and can make the weaker argument defeat the stronger.

* – Socrates here alludes to Aristophanes, whose comedy, The Clouds, caricatured Socrates.

It is these people, gentlemen, the disseminators of these rumors, who are my dangerous accusers, because those who hear them suppose that anyone who inquires into such matters must be an atheist. Besides, there are a great many of these accusers, and they have been accusing me now for a great many years. And what is more, they approached you at the most impressionable age, when some of you were children or adolescents, and they literally won their case by default, because there was no one to defend me. And the most fantastic thing of all is that it is impossible for me even to know and tell you theirs, unless one of them happens to be a playwright.* All these people, who have tried to set you against me out of envy and love of slander — and some too merely passing on what they have been told by others — all these are very difficult to deal with. It is impossible to bring them here for cross-examination; one simply has to conduct one’s defense and argue one’s case against an invisible opponent, because there is no one to answer. So I ask you to accept my statement that my critics fall into two classes, on the one hand my immediate accusers, and on the other those earlier ones whom I have mentioned, and you must suppose that I have first to defend myself against the latter. After all, you heard them abusing me longer ago and much more violently than these more recent accusers.

Very well, then, I must begin my defense, gentlemen, and I must try, in the short time that I have, to rid your minds of a false impression which is the work of many years. I should like this to be the result, gentlemen, assuming it to be for your advantage and my own; and I should like to be successful in my defense, but I think that it will be difficult, and I am quite aware of the nature of my task. However, let that turn out as God wills. I must obey the law and make my defense.

The earlier charges, those of faceless invisibles

Socrates calls for fact-checking.

Let us go back to the beginning and consider what the charge is that has made me so unpopular, and has encouraged Meletus to draw up this indictment. Very well, what did my critics say in attacking my character? I must read out their affidavit, so to speak, as though they were my legal accusers: Socrates is guilty of criminal meddling, in that he inquires into things below the earth and in the sky, and makes the weaker argument defeat the stronger, and teaches others to follow his example. It runs something like that. You have seen it for yourselves in the play by Aristophanes, where Socrates goes whirling round, proclaiming that he is walking on air, and uttering a great deal of other nonsense about things of which I know nothing whatsoever. I mean no disrespect for such knowledge, if anyone really is versed in it — I do not want any more lawsuits brought against me by Meletus — but the fact is, gentlemen, that I take no interest in it. What is more, I call upon the greater part of you as witnesses to my statement, and I appeal to all of you who have ever listened to me talking — and there are a great many to whom this applies — to clear your neighbors’ minds on this point. Tell one another whether any one of you has ever heard me discuss such questions briefly or at length, and then you will realize that the other popular reports about me are equally unreliable.

The fact is that there is nothing in any of these charges, and if you have heard anyone say that I try to educate people and charge a fee, there is no truth in that either. I wish that there were, because I think that it is a fine thing if a man is qualified to teach, as in the case of Gorgias of Leontini and Prodicus of Ceos and Hippias of Elis. Each one of these is perfectly capable of going into any city and actually persuading the young men to leave the company of their fellow citizens, with any of whom they can associate for nothing, and attach themselves to him, and pay money for the privilege, and be grateful into the bargain.

There is another expert too from Paros who I discovered was here on a visit; I happened to meet a man who has paid more in Sophists’ fees than all the rest put together — I mean Callias, the son of Hipponicus. So I asked him — he has two sons, you see — Callias, I said, if your sons had been colts or calves, we should have had no difficulty in finding and engaging a trainer to perfect their natural qualities, and this trainer would have been some sort of horse dealer or agriculturalist. But seeing that they are human beings, whom do you intend to get as their instructor? Who is the expert in perfecting the human and social qualities? I assume from the fact of your having sons that you must have considered the question. Is there such a person or not?

Certainly, said he.

Who is he, and where does he come from? said I. And what does he charge?

Evenus of Paros, Socrates, said he, 20c and his fee is five minas.

I felt that Evenus was to be congratulated if he really was a master of this art and taught it at such a moderate fee. I should certainly plume myself and give myself airs if I understood these things, but in fact, gentlemen, I do not.

Here perhaps one of you might interrupt me and say, But what is it that you do, Socrates? How is it that you have been misrepresented like this? Surely all this talk and gossip about you would never have arisen if you had confined yourself to ordinary activities, but only if your behavior was abnormal. Tell us the explanation, if you do not want us to invent it for ourselves.

This seems to me to be a reasonable request, and I will try to explain to you what it is that has given me this false notoriety. So please give me your attention. Perhaps some of you will think that I am not being serious, but I assure you that I am going to tell you the whole truth.

The deep background: The Delphic Oracle

“The god at Delphi” is Apollo, introduced in the last reading as the god over the entrance to whose temple is inscribed, “Gnothi seauton,” or “Know thyself.” The peculiarity associated with this temple is telling: Apollo is said to leave annually on divine business — during which his half-brother, Dionysus, another divinity with whom Socrates allied himself, enjoyed a festival in his honor. Dionysus — the dancing god of wine and ecstasy, harvest and fertility — is so dynamic, so intimately connected to change and Becoming, he even dies and is reborn cyclically. Representing liberation from anxiety and embrace of the possibilities inherent in chaos, his spirit is perhaps more closely associated with the work of Jimi Hendrix, while the rational illumination of Apollo is perhaps a spiritual influence in the work of Vivaldi.

I have gained this reputation, gentlemen, from nothing more or less than a kind of wisdom. What kind of wisdom do I mean? Human wisdom, I suppose. It seems that I really am wise in this limited sense. Presumably the geniuses whom I mentioned just now are wise in a wisdom that is more than human. I do not know how else to account for it. I certainly have no knowledge of such wisdom, and anyone who says that I have is a liar and willful slanderer. Now, gentlemen, please do not interrupt me if I seem to make an extravagant claim, for what I am going to tell you is not my own opinion. I am going to refer you to an unimpeachable authority. I shall call as witness to my wisdom, such as it is, the god at Delphi.

You know Chaerephon, of course. He was a friend of mine from boyhood, and a good democrat who played his part with the rest of you in the recent expulsion and restoration. And you know what he was like, how enthusiastic he was over anything that he had once undertaken. Well, one day he actually went to Delphi and asked this question of the god — as I said before, gentlemen, please do not interrupt — he asked whether there was anyone wiser than myself. The priestess replied that there was no one. As Chaerephon is dead, the evidence for my statement will be supplied by his brother, who is here in court.

Please consider my object in telling you this. I want to explain to you how the attack upon my reputation first started. When I heard about the oracle’s answer, I said to myself, What does the god mean? Why does he not use plain language? I am only too conscious that I have no claim to wisdom, great or small. So what can he mean by asserting that I am the wisest man in the world? He cannot be telling a lie; that would not be right for him.