(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

The Work

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.

Socrates’ Defense

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.

Socrates’ Response

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....

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The word “apology,” the title of this famous dialogue, means “a defense,” not a request for forgiveness. In meeting the accusation that he had corrupted the youth of Athens, Socrates did not for a moment assume an apologetic air, but with courageous faith in the worth of philosophy set forth the principles by which he governed his life.

The dialogue—the creation of Plato, who knew Socrates and had grown to love him both as a teacher and as a man—assumes the worth of Socrates’ life and the rightness of his acts, especially of those acts of criticism that aroused the enmity of Socrates’ accusers. Apology is one of three dialogues describing the final days of perhaps the greatest hero in the history of philosophy, one who took philosophy seriously enough to die for it. Here Plato reports the trial and condemnation of Socrates. Kritn (early period, 399-390 b.c.e.; Crito, 1804) reports his reasons for refusing to escape from prison, and Phaedn (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Phaedo, 1675) his last conversations and death. To read the dialogues in that order is to gain some understanding of the significance of Socrates’ identification of wisdom with virtue, and some conception of the nobility of his character.

The Charges

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

As Apology opens, the prosecution, for which Meletus is the spokesperson, has already stated its case. Meletus was probably merely the spokesperson for the chief instigator of the trial, Anytus, respected leader of the restored democracy; the third accuser, Lycon, is barely mentioned in the dialogue. Meletus speaks only a few words, and the other accusers none, but Socrates repeats the charges made against him. He begins by pointing out that almost everything they have said is false, especially their warning to the court implying that Socrates is a persuasive speaker, unless they mean by that one who speaks truth. His words will be unpremeditated but spoken with confidence in the justice of his cause; it is to truth that the jury should attend, just as it is the speaker’s duty to state only the truth. There are actually two sets of charges against him, Socrates says: the present ones of impiety and corruption of the young and some ancient ones his audience heard as children and that should now be refuted.

The latter were made by accusers largely unknown, except for Greek dramatist Aristophanes in his burlesque of Socrates in the comedy Nephelai (423 b.c.e.; The Clouds, 1708), which was written in fun rather than ill will. These accusations were that Socrates had theories about and conducted investigations into the heavens and things below the earth (that is, pursued physical sciences), and that he could make weaker arguments appear to overcome the stronger and taught others to do the same (that is, he was a Sophist). Such accusations are dangerous, Socrates argues, because uncritical listeners assume that such inquirers must be atheists. However, the accusations are false, for Socrates has no knowledge of physics, not from disdain but from lack of interest. Socrates asks whether anyone present ever heard him discussing these matters. As to the charge that he has taught others professionally for fees, this, too, is false. Socrates professes (ironically) to admire Sophists such as Gorgias, Prodicus, and Hippias, who are able to convince youths to forsake their usual company—which is free—and...

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The Real Complaint

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

It must be remembered that the prosecution could not afford to present its real complaint against Socrates. The pretext of “corruption of the young” concerned his supposed influence, discouraging unquestioning loyalty to the democracy, on former associates (Alcibiades, Critias, Charmides, and others) who had opposed the state. The charge of “irreligion” was probably related to the mutilation, in 415 b.c.e., of all the Athenian statues of Hermes on the night before Alcibiades led the military expedition to Sicily, for which Alcibiades was blamed, probably falsely. However, these matters were excluded from the jurisdiction of the present court by the Act of Oblivion that Anytus had sponsored. According to this act, offenses occurring under the old democracy had received general amnesty. During the year of Socrates’ trial, 399 b.c.e., Anytus defended another person against charges of irreligion, so it is unlikely that he actually held such a grievance against Socrates. It is likely that Anytus regarded Socrates’ influence as dangerous to the restored democracy and, consequently, as something that needed to be destroyed. Hence the trumped-up charges, the use of Meletus as mouthpiece, and the prosecution’s unwillingness and inability to explain or substantiate the accusations made in public.

Consequently, on trial, Socrates exercises his argumentative abilities with humor and irony to show how ridiculous the prosecution’s case is. He turns specifically to the charges of Meletus, stating them as follows: “Socrates is guilty of corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in deities of his own invention instead of the gods recognized by the State.” This passage has been interpreted as meaning that Socrates did not worship the official gods rather than that he did not believe in them, and that he practiced unfamiliar rites.

The Defense

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Socrates now takes the line that Meletus must be joking about a serious matter in which he really has no interest. Who, he queries, exercises the best influence on the young? By a series of questions he leads Meletus to say that it is the whole Athenian citizenry—except Socrates. However, this is very odd; in fact, it is exactly opposite to the case of training horses, in which the many are incompetent and only a few expert trainers improve the animals.

Furthermore, because Meletus must admit that evil people harm their associates, he must also admit that Socrates would be unbelievably stupid not to know that by corrupting his young acquaintances, he would only be brewing trouble for himself. Thus, either Socrates has...

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The Verdict and Punishment

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

When the verdict is brought in, it is guilty, though obtained by a small margin, about 280 to 220. Meletus proposes the death penalty (although scholars believe Socrates’ accusers did not wish to kill him but only to silence or banish him because according to the prevalent practices several alternatives of escape were open to the philosopher). It is customary for the convicted defendant to propose an alternate penalty and for the jury to choose which one would be enacted. However, Socrates will not admit guilt. Because he has not cared for money, a comfortable home, high rank, or secret societies—all the things having popular appeal—and has instead devoted himself to his mission to Athens, Socrates says it would therefore be...

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.

Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.

Friedlander, Paul....

(The entire section is 492 words.)