In the Apology, Plato has provided posterity with one of the most memorable portraits of his teacher Socrates. In Plato’s view, Socrates was a paragon of virtue. Perhaps the essence of his virtue can be summarized in a single word—integrity. Socrates’ dedication to the truth was so total and so unswerving that the very thought of compromising that truth was repugnant to him.
One of the things that makes the Apology so effective a piece of literature is the fact that it is, at bottom, the account of a trial. By their very nature, trials tend to be dramatic and interesting affairs, especially when, as was the case with Socrates, the stakes are high. Yet what gives this particular trial—surely one of the most famous in the history of the world—a special twist is that, although Socrates was on trial for his life, he did not fight for his life. He fought for something that he regarded as immeasurably more important—the truth.
In the spring of 399 b.c.e., when Plato would have been in his late twenties, Socrates was accused by Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon of two criminal offenses: corrupting the youth of Athens and adopting an atheistic attitude toward the gods of the city. The trial was held before a large assemblage of people, very likely numbering in the thousands, but the verdict was to be decided by a corps of five hundred judges. Although the Apology is in dialogue form, it tends at times to be more of a monologue, with Socrates himself doing most of the talking. There were no lawyers in ancient Athens, and those who were accused of capital crimes were expected to defend themselves. By the same token, their accusers were obliged to face them in public, and the accused had the right to examine these accusers before the court.
Socrates begins by giving a general explanation of his philosophical way of life. Why does he behave the way that he does, roaming about the city and constantly questioning the citizens? He realizes that his manner of life is irksome to many people because he exposes their ignorance to public view. The whole business started, Socrates explains, when a friend of his brought back from the sacred shrine at Delphi the divine oracle that declared Socrates to be the wisest of men. This message baffled Socrates completely. On the one hand, he firmly believed that the gods do not lie; on the other hand, he was equally convinced that he was in fact not wise. What, then, could the oracle possibly mean? In attempting to answer that question, he made a practice of approaching people who had the reputation of being wise—politicians, poets, artists—with the purpose of trying to discover the nature of their wisdom. What he actually discovered, however, was that these people, despite their reputations, were not wise at all. Although in fact ignorant, they labored under the illusion that they were knowledgeable. Socrates found the clue to the meaning of the Delphic oracle in this discovery. Socrates himself was ignorant, but unlike all the supposedly wise people whom he had met, he admitted his ignorance. A wise man, he decided, is one who is ignorant and does not pretend that he is otherwise. Put another way, a wise man is simply one who is honest with himself.
When Socrates examines one of his accusers, Meletus, he makes short work of him, revealing the complete absurdity of the charges that had been leveled against him. This scene makes it evident that the real reason that Socrates is on trial is...
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to satisfy his enemies’ desire for revenge. That does not mean, however, that his execution, or even a lesser penalty such as being sent into exile, is inevitable. Socrates is astutely aware of the fact that if he were to “cooperate”—to abandon his principles—he could gain his freedom.
Yet Socrates also knows that his enemies are able to inflict upon him the supreme penalty. The possibility of death, however, does not intimidate him. In fact, he emphasizes the point that the fear of death is foolish, for death is not at all the worst thing that can happen to a human being. For a person to betray what he knows to be true is worse than death. Socrates would not abandon his commitment to philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, if he were to be set free. Furthermore, Socrates boldly informs his judges that if they were to execute him, they would be doing a great disservice to Athens. Painful though it might be at times, his pursuit of wisdom is, in the final analysis, a benefit to them. He is like a gadfly that is incessantly pestering the lethargic horse that is Athens, so as to prevent that horse from going astray. In other words, he is the conscience of the city.
The vote is taken, and Socrates is found guilty. At this point, the defendant has the right to propose to his judges what punishment he thinks is most fitting for him. After facetiously suggesting that he should be made a ward of the state, Socrates reviews the three alternatives to the death penalty: imprisonment, a heavy fine, and exile. He concludes that none is acceptable to him. If he were to agree to accept exile, for example, that would be almost the same as agreeing to death. In exile, he would not be able to live the inquiring life of a philosopher. The unexamined life, he tells his judges, the life of the nonphilosopher, is not worth living.
A second vote is taken. Socrates is condemned to death. He accepts the decision calmly, but not silently. He reiterates an attitude that he has maintained consistently throughout the trial; his concern is not to avoid death but rather to avoid unrighteousness, at all costs. Then, addressing himself directly to those who condemned him, he prophesies that they will live to regret their decision. For those who supported his cause, he has words of encouragement. He frankly admits that he does not know for certain what death involves, but that there are at least two possibilities to be considered. One is that after death, there is eternal, peaceful sleep. Socrates would gratefully welcome that. Another possibility is that life continues after death; in such a life, he could have exciting encounters with great men and women of the past, with whom he would talk philosophy. Socrates would most gratefully welcome that. Either way, Socrates concludes, death is good, and he cannot lose by accepting it.
The dialogue ends with Socrates having the last word: “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.”