The Scene and the Crime: Socrates’ First Speech
Socrates’ opening statement
Is Socrates being literal here, or ironic?
Consider the degree to which you think discourse in our country makes content and truth central, or or presentation and suggestion.
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.