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.
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.
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.
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.