Initially, it is important to understand two things about the Apology. First, it is Plato’s dramatic, eyewitness account of the apology of his friend and teacher. Second, this apology is not an expression of regret for an error but a defense of Socrates’ conduct and whole way of life.
Background to the Trial
In 399 b.c.e., a seventy-year-old Athenian citizen named Socrates went on trial for allegedly disrespecting the gods and corrupting the youth of Athens. It is clear from both the text of the Apology itself and from external evidence that Socrates’ real “crime” was severely embarrassing important people in the Greek city-state by his habit of questioning them in public places with respect to matters about which they claimed expertise, exposing their true ignorance, and providing amusement to the onlookers who gathered to see the supposed experts confounded. Socrates regularly insisted that he was merely an earnest philosophical inquirer after truth asking those who presumably knew. In this insistence he was only half sincere. He was pursuing the truth, but he knew that his shallow interlocutors would fall victim to his superior logical and rhetorical skill. He chose the questioning method as an effective way of developing and presenting his own philosophy—a method later adopted in written form by Plato.
Plato’s account, the first literary “courtroom drama,” purports to be a verbatim record of Socrates’ defense. Far from corrupting youth by promoting atheism or belief in strange gods (for his accusers have vacillated on this point), Socrates explains that he philosophizes in obedience to a divine command. Since he has carried out his divine mission in a quasi-public way, Socrates feels obliged to explain why he has never made an effort to serve the state as an adviser, since the state would seem to need all the wisdom it can find. Here, he raises an ethical issue with which many later thinkers have struggled, including, notably, Sir Thomas More in his Utopia (1516).
Socrates has proclaimed himself a loyal Athenian. Why should not a loyal citizen use his primary talent for the benefit of the state? He argues that if he had gone into political life he would have long since “perished.” The struggle for the right in his mind required “a private station and not a public one.” He once held the office of senator and discovered that his efforts at promoting justice were futile and in fact on one occasion nearly cost him his life. He did not fear death, he explains, but realized that neither he “nor any other man” could effectively fight for the right in a political position. He could do Athens the greatest good in a private effort to inquire into virtue and wisdom. The state would profit most from citizens schooled in this sort of inquiry. He closes his defense by leaving the decision to the jury and to God.
According to the rules of an Athenian trial, the jury of 501 men must decide his guilt or innocence by majority vote. His opponents have taken every advantage possible of the prevailing prejudice against Socrates as a “clever” intellectual skilled in “making the weaker case appear to stronger.” Such prejudice no doubt contributed substantially to what seems in retrospect a misguided verdict....
(The entire section is 1399 words.)