For George Miller: friend, mentor, and who used to remind me, “If you haven’t read it three times, you haven’t read it.”
This essay will attempt to summarize Plato’s Apology and highlight some of the key points in the dialogue. It is one of my all-time favorite works of philosophy, and all my students read it out loud in class. For those looking to navigate the waters of philosophy, I recommend it as a first port of call.
In the preface of Bettany Hughes’s excellent biography on Socrates entitled The Hemlock Cup, she shares an amusing anecdote. Upon embarking on the project, a friend of Hughes’s told her the subject of her research was the hole in a doughnut. In other words, the best she could do was describe the doughnut. We do not know much about the historical Socrates. Our principal sources are the biographer of antiquity, Xenophon, and Plato. Some leading scholars are dismissive of Xenophon, which basically leaves us with Plato.
The Apology is a work by Plato. However, it is unique in the works of Plato due to its context. In the Apology, Plato is more or less acting as a court reporter or a journalist of sorts. The scene of this work is the trial of Socrates, and it features Socrates’s defense (apologia) against the spurious charges brought against him.
Yet, we can safely assume Plato was close in his description of the proceedings, because: (1) Plato knew Socrates; they were friends; (2) Plato was a juror at the trial and was in attendance; (3) Plato was a rather bright bulb and likely had a decent memory; and (4) many of the 501 jurors who were there that day would have read the Apology when it came out, and if Plato produced a fanciful account, it would have tarnished his reputation as a public intellectual.
So, for these reasons, we can make a strong, inductive inference that, although this is Plato’s writing, he probably at least captured the flavor of the hearing, along with Socrates’s personality. I also tend to believe, for what it’s worth, that it is peppered with verbatim wording that Socrates actually used — or tended to use.
Although this is Plato’s writing, he probably at least captured the flavor of the hearing, along with Socrates’s personality.
Plato positioned Socrates in many of his dialogues as a character, and supposedly we get a glimpse into Socrates’s personality and way of operating in what are considered the early dialogues – which include the Apology.
The Apology, as mentioned, is the trial of the accused Socrates. The setting is a large, open-air courtyard. The trial’s 501 Athenian jurors — chosen by lot — are gathered around the square’s perimeter. There is a water-clock to keep time. The year is 399 BC. Socrates has decided to forgo legal representation; all he has to do is speak the truth.
Athens is in a sour mood. First off, it just lost a long and nasty war with Sparta called the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the latter of whom subjected the Athenians to foreign control in the form of a client regime referred to as the “30 Tyrants.” Athens also suffered a plague during the war. And now this eccentric old man is going around embarrassing the best and the brightest of Athenian society.
I say “eccentric,” because by all accounts, for a start, Socrates is not much to look at: his hair is unkempt; he wears the same robe all the time, and it has not seen the dry cleaners in a long while; he doesn’t wear shoes; he’s got a rather large belly; and a bulbous misshapen nose. When one pictures the Ancient Greek ideal — young, sun-tanned boys throwing the discus and reciting poetry — Socrates cuts across that ideal.
By all accounts, for a start, Socrates is not much to look at.
It is pointed out by Socrates early in the Apology (beginning at 21a), his good and longtime friend Chaerephon consulted the Oracle at Delphi, at the temple built to Apollo. The oracle was the god Apollo, who it was believed lived in the mountain, speaking through an intermediary called the Pythia.
The Pythia was a priestess who received the word of Apollo; it has been concluded that the Pythia positioned her chair over a crack in the floor of the temple. And this crack vented hydrocarbon gas, which the Pythia was inhaling. Thus, the Pythia was usually smashed when she delivered the word of Apollo. Sometimes, a priest was on hand to interpret her intoxicated gibberish — and this was Apollo essentially speaking to you. Anyone could visit the oracle: politicians, farmers, newlyweds — anybody.
Chaerephon, during his visit, asked if there was anyone in Athens wiser than Socrates. Chaerephon was notified that Socrates was indeed the wisest man in all of Athens. The elites in Athens were not amused. Athens felt a special bond with Apollo, and donated a fair amount of cash to his temple. This Socrates business added insult to injury — and another straw to the camel’s back.
Socrates at first is puzzled:
“Whatever does the god [Apollo] mean? What is his riddle? I am very conscious that I am not wise at all; what then does he mean by saying that I am the wisest?” (21b)
So, Socrates sets to seeking out wiser folk: politicians, poets, writers, craftsmen. But, he cannot find any that are truly wise — knowledgable, sure, but not wise. The people who are deemed wise and smart, Socrates finds lacking:
“In my investigation [doing philosophy in the marketplace] in the service of the god I have found that those who had the highest reputation were nearly the most deficient, while those who were thought to be inferior were more knowledgable” (22a)
Therefore, Socrates concludes that Apollo has judged him the wisest in all of Athens, because, whereas the so-called “wisest” believe they are wise, he, Socrates, does not. So, this must make him the wisest: because he knows that he does not know.
Socrates therefore lived out the rest of his days doing philosophy, irritating shopkeepers in the marketplace, or agora, and questioning the so-called smart people if they knew what, for example, justice or beauty was. (They did not.)
Socrates is doing philosophy, and his interlocutors are themselves sophists or were trained by sophists. Sophists were itinerant scholars who would teach the children of the well-heeled rhetoric and public speaking, how to use big words and outwit their opponents. They essentially taught careerism. So, when they face off with Socrates, who is analytical and logically rigorous, they’re at a loss. They’re uneducated. They look like dolts. Socrates is embarrassing them along with puncturing the myth of how smart they are. This weird old man in the dirty robe is going to make Athens' best and brightest look foolish? And after a military defeat and a plague and that nonsense from Apollo? He’s got to go.
Socrates is arrested, brought up on charges, and is looking down the barrel of capital punishment. Plato is there. Many there know Socrates.
As Socrates is quick to point out:
As a result of this investigation, men of Athens [members of the jury], I acquired much unpopularity… (22e-23a)
This unpopularity led to what we can call the “old charges.” As Socrates cultivated this unpopularity, his fellow Athenians began making accusations. The “slanders” go something like this:
“Socrates is guilty of wrongdoing in that he busies himself studying things in the sky and below the earth; he makes the worse into the stronger argument.” (19b)
The assertion is that Socrates speaks about subjects he does not understand and that he twists logic and arguments into a pretzel. He’s basically a know-it-all and a charlatan.
But, there are the “new charges” he now has to contend with, charges leveled at him by his accusers: Anytus (a politician), Meletus (a poet), and Lycon (an orator).
Socrates cites the deposition:
“Socrates is guilty of corrupting the young and of not believing in the gods in whom the city believes.” (24b)
So, Socrates is filling the heads of Athens' youth with fancy notions, in the same way that universities today indoctrinate their students to think like liberals and become gay.
Socrates is guilty of corrupting the young and of not believing in the gods in whom the city believes.
The second charge is basically a heresy charge. The guy who has dedicated the rest of his life to working in the service of Apollo somehow does not believe in the gods. Socrates handily discusses these absurdities directly with Meletus (24d-27d).
It’s important to bear in mind that throughout the Apology, Socrates is on the job. He is doing what he did in the agora. And he reminds his accusers and the jury that it is to his advantage “to be as I am.” (22e) His accusers are not impressed. Is Socrates making a joke of the Athenian justice system?
Nothing of the sort—his accusers would disagree. He intends on:
… persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body and your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible condition of your soul. As I say to you: Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively (30a-b)
Socrates is not apologizing. Not even close. In a number of instances, he refers to himself as “no greater blessing for the city” (30a), and “god’s gift to you.” (30e) One can just picture the accusers' faces and probably more than a few faces in the jury.
Socrates adopts the mantle of the “gadfly.” (30e) He is the large fly that bites the horse and wakes it up. This is what Socrates is doing for Athens. He is rousing the city from its “doze.” (31a) He is waking it up, educating it, encouraging it to think more critically — to do philosophy.
Socrates lets his accuser know that this trial is a sham. At one point (33d-34a), Socrates explicitly names a number of people in the jury. He makes the point that if what his accusers are saying is true, then he must have done these families harm. If he was pouring poison in the ears of all these young boys for all these years, he must have done some damage. In which case, members of the jury should be lined up, ready to testify as to this damage. However, all they hear is crickets. No one is coming up to testify:
“… they know Meletus is lying and that I am telling the truth.” (34b)
As for his feelings about the Athenian justice system, he takes the position that it is the court that has made a mockery of itself. Socrates points out to the jury and his accusers that he will not engage in appeal to pity (34b-35c). He will not bring out his wife and kids and tell a tale of woe. He will not engage in these “pitiful dramatics.” (35b)
Socrates knows he could probably get himself out of this; he need only engage in a bit of theater, and they would probably let him off with a warning. But, no. This kind of behavior has nothing to do with justice; and he has seen it in this court before. No, he’s going to play it straight — right to the bitter end. He thinks too highly of the Athenian justice system to have his accusers make “the city a laughingstock.” (35b)
Socrates knows he could probably get himself out of this; he need only engage in a bit of theater, and they would let him off with a warning.
The jury votes, and the vote comes to roughly 220 to 280 (35d-e). It was close. Socrates feels vindicated:
As it is, a switch of only thirty votes would have acquitted me. I think myself that I have been cleared of Meletus' charges. (36a)
For my money, the pièce de résistance of the Apology is 36d-37a. In this passage, Socrates decides what his punishment should be:
What do I deserve for being such a man? Some good, men of Athens, if I must truly make an assessment according to my deserts, and something suitable. What is suitable for a poor benefactor who needs leisure to exhort you? Nothing is more suitable, gentlemen, than for such a man to be fed in the Prytaneum, much more suitable for him than for any one of you who has won a victory at Olympia with a pair or a team of horses. The Olympian victor makes you think yourself happy; I make you be happy. Besides, he does not need food, but I do. So if I must make a just assessment of what I deserve, I assess it as this: free meals in the Prytaneum. (36d-37a)
Yes, you read that right. Socrates is saying that he should live at public expense and take his meals in the magistrate’s hall where Olympian celebrities were fêted. In other words, free food. Can you imagine his accusers' faces now?
The jury sentences Socrates to death. He doesn’t care.
He is making another crucial point: we live in a highly distracted culture. I remind my students that Socrates is talking to you as well; there is a reason we are reading this 2,500 years later. It reaches across the centuries. These themes are universal. A distracted culture or society is in danger of itself. It is an uneducated society, which can be manipulated by power—very easily. An educated society has more control. It is in possession of the state. A distracted society is at the mercy of the whims of those in power. A distracted society is weak.
Socrates poses a threat. This is why he’s on trial in the first place. This was never going to end well. And it doesn’t. The jury sentences Socrates to death. He doesn’t care. He goes to his grave, head held high. The jury goes to live out their lives in shame.
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Gregory Harms is the author of No Politics, No Religion? How America's Code of Conduct Conceals Our Unity. Amazon affiliate link. If you buy through this link, Daily Philosophy will get a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks!
Gregory Harms is a scholar specializing in US foreign policy and the Middle East. He teaches philosophy with a focus on moral and political philosophy, gives public lectures, keeps a blog, and publishes articles on CounterPunch, Truthout, Mondoweiss, and Juan Cole’s blog, Informed Comment. Harms has traveled throughout Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and has been interviewed on BBC Radio.