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Aug 26, 2013

Plato's Apology of Socrates - close reading and commentary

A close reading of Plato's Apology

Strange discourse (para. 1)

Socrates is on trial. His self defense begins like this:

How you, O Athenians, have been affected by my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that they almost made me forget who I was--so persuasively did they speak; and yet they have hardly uttered a word of truth. 

A couple themes announce themselves.  
 
1. Words have effects. Rhetoric (the skillful application of words to an audience) can be persuasive.
2. Rhetoric does not always square with the truth (whatever that is)

But of the many falsehoods told by them, there was one which quite amazed me;--I mean when they said that you should be upon your guard and not allow yourselves to be deceived by the force of my eloquence. To say this, when they were certain to be detected as soon as I opened my lips and proved myself to be anything but a great speaker, did indeed appear to me most shameless--unless by the force of eloquence they mean the force of truth; for is such is their meaning, I admit that I am eloquent. But in how different a way from theirs! 

Notice Socrates' opposition of eloquence to "the force of truth." Apparently, rhetoric has this amazing ability to dress up, to cover the truth. Socrates, though, is being falsely modest, isn't he? Is he not using rhetoric himself to understate his own eloquence? He needs to establish an opposition, to mark a space of difference from his accusers, though the tools used may be similar.

Well, as I was saying, they have scarcely spoken the truth at all; but from me you shall hear the whole truth: not, however, delivered after their manner in a set oration duly ornamented with words and phrases. No, by heaven! but I shall use the words and arguments which occur to me at the moment; for I am confident in the justice of my cause (Or, I am certain that I am right in taking this course.): at my time of life I ought not to be appearing before you, O men of Athens, in the character of a juvenile orator--let no one expect it of me. 

Socrates boasts that he has the whole truth on his side; moreover, that he can improv his way alongside the truth. How cocky! How can any human lay claim to the whole truth? Those are the sorts of people experience has taught me to be deeply suspicious of.  Note the continued association of rhetoric  (here, oration) to ornamentation, costuming, dressing up, pretending. Words and phrases as ornaments.

And I must beg of you to grant me a favour:--If I defend myself in my accustomed manner, and you hear me using the words which I have been in the habit of using in the agora, at the tables of the money-changers, or anywhere else, I would ask you not to be surprised, and not to interrupt me on this account. For I am more than seventy years of age, and appearing now for the first time in a court of law, I am quite a stranger to the language of the place; and therefore I would have you regard me as if I were really a stranger, whom you would excuse if he spoke in his native tongue, and after the fashion of his country:--Am I making an unfair request of you? 

Socrates is doing something quite interesting here. He is marking his rhetorical territory, telling his audience up front that he will refuse to participate in the discourse of legal argument and set orations, that he will stay true to his instincts, that he will not let context sway his own rhetorical style. To be outside a discourse is  to be estranged, to not know the language. The key is the paragraph's ultimate sentence: 

Never mind the manner, which may or may not be good; but think only of the truth of my words, and give heed to that: let the speaker speak truly and the judge decide justly.

He wants us to sever the manner of expression from its matter, the style from significance, the assumption being that truth can be independent from discourse. This is a HUGE assumption. It may be true, but it is not something that need be accepted on its face. Maybe he has a point, though. Consider the discourse of advertising. Millions of dollars go into producing finely tuned messages, artfully presented. They persuade, they move, they generate sales. But are they true? In many instances, not even close.


Another subtle theme mentioned in Socrates' first sentence is this idea of forgetting the self. When ornamented rhetoric distances you from the truth (pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!), you lose a grip on your identity, your true self. Socrates, by sticking to his own manner of speaking, by refusing to participate in the rhetorical game of trial speeches, is in a sense clinging to his self. There is an ethics of communication being sought for. One must find the words that square with truth and with one's nature.

Dangerous, inherited falsehoods (paras. 2 & 3)


The Apology is a well constructed argument, despite Socrates' claim to be improvising his way as the truth naturally moves him to speak. Paragraph two indicates the care with which he's going to lay out his case:

And first, I have to reply to the older charges and to my first accusers, and then I will go on to the later ones.

This business of Socrates being a threat to Athens is, in his accounting, nothing new:

For of old I have had many accusers, who have accused me falsely to you during many years; and I am more afraid of them than of Anytus and his associates, who are dangerous, too, in their own way. But far more dangerous are the others, who began when you were children, and took possession of your minds with their falsehoods, telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause.

It is as if Socrates is saying, "I'm not really bothered by these false accusations. I have heard them so many times before, save for these jokers: 

The disseminators of this tale are the accusers whom I dread; for their hearers are apt to fancy that such enquirers do not believe in the existence of the gods.

Very interesting point he's making, here. Those who speculate, who search, who in short, philosophize about causes and effects and the nature of things, they can be made out to be atheists. 

And they are many, and their charges against me are of ancient date, and they were made by them in the days when you were more impressible than you are now--in childhood, or it may have been in youth--and the cause when heard went by default, for there was none to answer. And hardest of all, I do not know and cannot tell the names of my accusers; unless in the chance case of a Comic poet.

The comic poet is Aristophanes. His play The Clouds (423 B.C.) contains the earliest extant reference to Socrates. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes Socrates' role in the play:
"Socrates heads a Think-o-Rama in which young men study the natural world, from insects to stars, and study slick argumentative techniques as well, lacking all respect for the Athenian sense of propriety....Socrates makes fun of the traditional gods of Athens...and give naturalistic explanations of phenomena  Athenians viewed as divinely directed.... Worst of all, he teaches dishonest techniques for avoiding repayment of debt and encourages young men to beat their parents into submission."
It would be worthwhile to take a detour at this point and examine The Cloudsin depth, as it reveals a vastly different portrait of Socrates than Plato has handed down to us. (I'll save that detour for another blog, maybe.) Perhaps Socrates was just another sophist among the sophists he loved to tear down. I guess we will never know the truth. Let's think about the implications of parody and satire, for a moment, though. A reputation can be built about a person that bears little to no relation to reality, yet the stigma holds in the public eyes and ears. And once that perception has been established, it haunts its victims. 

All who from envy and malice have persuaded you--some of them having first convinced themselves--all this class of men are most difficult to deal with; for I cannot have them up here, and cross-examine them, and therefore I must simply fight with shadows in my own defence, and argue when there is no one who answers. I will ask you then to assume with me, as I was saying, that my opponents are of two kinds; one recent, the other ancient: and I hope that you will see the propriety of my answering the latter first, for these accusations you heard long before the others, and much oftener.
Well, then, I must make my defence, and endeavour to clear away in a short time, a slander which has lasted a long time. May I succeed, if to succeed be for my good and yours, or likely to avail me in my cause! The task is not an easy one; I quite understand the nature of it. And so leaving the event with God, in obedience to the law I will now make my defence.

The shadows metaphor brings to mind the Allegory of the Cave from Book Seven of The Republic, how the enlightened man brought back into the cave is unable to see the shadows well, and his stories of the upper world are denigrated as silly falsehoods.

Socrates is thinking strategically here. First, he needs to disabuse his audience of the inherited prejudices against him (the older accusations) before taking up the newer charges. All quite logical and well thought out. 

The idea that Socrates is fighting against a nebulous cloud of falsehoods  brings to mind the first two verses of Bob Dylan's "Idiot Wind":

Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press
Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out but when they will I can only guess
They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me
I can’t help it if I’m lucky
People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts
Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at
I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that
Sweet lady

The speaker, not unlike Socrates, is being hounded by misrepresentations. How can one beat back slander? We are only three paragraphs into the Apology, and already it seems like a losing cause, because Socrates stubbornly refuses to play the rhetorical game by their rules and he's probably already convicted in the court of public opinion. Remember, he was about 46 when Aristophanes lampooned him in The Clouds. Now he's over 70; that's at least a quarter century of bad press to be undone.

Three Accusers

Let's take a break from the action to ask a historical question: who were the accusers of Socrates, and why did they go after him?  It's complicated, not altogether clear. 
We know that three men came forward, fingers pointing: Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon. Allow me to introduce our three stooges:

Meletus was a minor league tragic poet. Nobody remembers him for his poetry, only for accusing the most famous philosopher of all time. Ironically, Meletus like Socrates, was mentioned in Aristophanes' plays. He was probably thirty or forty years old at the time he came out publicly against Socrates. Plato hints in the Euthyphro that Meletus did this to make a name for himself. He might also have sought for revenge for the verbal beat-down Socrates gave him on prior occasions, or for Socrates' rather low opinion of poets in general, or because he was a religious nut. Who knows? Aristophanes and Plato make him out to be, according to A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology: Earinus-Nyx, "a bad, frigid, and licentious poet, and a worthless and profligate man, -- vain, silly, effminate, and grossly sensual." A skinny light weight. Meletus has the dubious distinction of being the one who laid the indictment before the Athenian court. That's about it. He is not thought to be the driving force behind the charge. One account says he was bribed by the other two to take part in the affair. I imagine a shitty, resentful putz who isn't that good of a poet, who sees an opportunity to make a splash on the public stage, so he goes along. 

Anytus was the ringleader, apparently. He was a politician from the middle-class, a former general in the Pelopennesian War. He was accused of treason for losing Pylos to the Spartans and got off after bribing the jury. He was something of a democrat, and helped lead the revolt in 403 B.C. to overthrow the Thirty Tyrants. It is thought that his opposition to Socrates stems from the thought that Socrates' ideas threatened the democratic foundations of the Athenian state. An exchange between the two men in Plato's Meno offers clues to the animosity between them. Socrates maintained that political leaders can't teach us a thing about virtue. Anytus hit back with a veiled threat: "[Y]ou are too ready to speak evil of men: and, if you will take my advice, I would recommend you to be careful." (qtd. in Linder) Imagine this in a Tony Soprano voice, and you'll get where Anytus was coming from. Capiche? Oh, and to add fuel to Anytus' animosity, Socrates may have had a sexual relationship with his son. So there might be something of the Marquess of Queensberry in Anytus, as well. 

Lycon we don't know as much about. He was an orator, another profession Socrates didn't think much of. Diogenes Laertius referred to Lycon as a demagogue, a rouser of the rabble. Possible motives against Socrates would relate to a perceived threat to democracy, as well as the homosexual liason between his son Autolycus and a friend of Socrates'. 

Were these men villains or victims of bad press? Hard to say. We do know that Athens, having recently lost the Peloponnesian War and having endured the  Thirty Tyrants, was in political flux. It is possible that Socrates was seen as a destabilizing force at a time when stability was in short supply. Still, it  is difficult to see Socrates as anything more than an annoyance to these men, who come across as petty accusers indeed. They wanted to score some points against Socrates. Socrates pulled the ultimate inside-out maneuver on them (I'll make sure the court will have to convict me and put me to death -- that'll show 'em!)

Know Nothings (paras. 4-10)

After a prologue of sorts, Socrates gets down to business:

  I will begin at the beginning, and ask what is the accusation which has given rise to the slander of me, and in fact has encouraged Meletus to proof this charge against me. Well, what do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit: 'Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.' Such is the nature of the accusation: it is just what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes (Aristoph., Clouds.), who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he walks in air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little--not that I mean to speak disparagingly of any one who is a student of natural philosophy. 

Socrates will take on the accusations and attempt to refute them in idiosyncratic fashion (no ornate speechifying, just the man riffing like the dialectical jazzmaster he is).  What's wrong with him, say the accusers? 

1. He sticks his nose where it doesn't belong, inquiring into things under earth and in heaven. 
2. He twists causality into pretzel logic: making over worse causes into better ones. 

For these supposed errors, the philosopher is considered a freak and "evil doer." (One imagines George W. Bush nodding approvingly.) 

 I should be very sorry if Meletus could bring so grave a charge against me. But the simple truth is, O Athenians, that I have nothing to do with physical speculations. Very many of those here present are witnesses to the truth of this, and to them I appeal. Speak then, you who have heard me, and tell your neighbours whether any of you have ever known me hold forth in few words or in many upon such matters...You hear their answer. And from what they say of this part of the charge you will be able to judge of the truth of the rest.

Socrates tries to swipe away the first charge by appealing to facts: anyone who knows him knows he doesn't much speculate about the physical world. He's not a natural philosopher. Nor is he a professional teacher (para. 5). 

 As little foundation is there for the report that I am a teacher, and take money; this accusation has no more truth in it than the other. Although, if a man were really able to instruct mankind, to receive money for giving instruction would, in my opinion, be an honour to him. There is Gorgias of Leontium, and Prodicus of Ceos, and Hippias of Elis, who go the round of the cities, and are able to persuade the young men to leave their own citizens by whom they might be taught for nothing, and come to them whom they not only pay, but are thankful if they may be allowed to pay them. There is at this time a Parian philosopher residing in Athens, of whom I have heard; and I came to hear of him in this way:--I came across a man who has spent a world of money on the Sophists, Callias, the son of Hipponicus, and knowing that he had sons, I asked him: 'Callias,' I said, 'if your two sons were foals or calves, there would be no difficulty in finding some one to put over them; we should hire a trainer of horses, or a farmer probably, who would improve and perfect them in their own proper virtue and excellence; but as they are human beings, whom are you thinking of placing over them? Is there any one who understands human and political virtue? You must have thought about the matter, for you have sons; is there any one?' 'There is,' he said. 'Who is he?' said I; 'and of what country? and what does he charge?' 'Evenus the Parian,' he replied; 'he is the man, and his charge is five minae.' Happy is Evenus, I said to myself, if he really has this wisdom, and teaches at such a moderate charge. Had I the same, I should have been very proud and conceited; but the truth is that I have no knowledge of the kind.

So whence these strange accusations? Socrates now attempts to explain why he has attained this bad reputation. 

 I dare say, Athenians, that some one among you will reply, 'Yes, Socrates, but what is the origin of these accusations which are brought against you; there must have been something strange which you have been doing? All these rumours and this talk about you would never have arisen if you had been like other men: tell us, then, what is the cause of them, for we should be sorry to judge hastily of you.' Now I regard this as a fair challenge, and I will endeavour to explain to you the reason why I am called wise and have such an evil fame. Please to attend then. And although some of you may think that I am joking, I declare that I will tell you the entire truth. Men of Athens, this reputation of mine has come of a certain sort of wisdom which I possess. If you ask me what kind of wisdom, I reply, wisdom such as may perhaps be attained by man, for to that extent I am inclined to believe that I am wise; whereas the persons of whom I was speaking have a superhuman wisdom which I may fail to describe, because I have it not myself; and he who says that I have, speaks falsely, and is taking away my character. And here, O men of Athens, I must beg you not to interrupt me, even if I seem to say something extravagant. For the word which I will speak is not mine. I will refer you to a witness who is worthy of credit; that witness shall be the God of Delphi--he will tell you about my wisdom, if I have any, and of what sort it is. You must have known Chaerephon; he was early a friend of mine, and also a friend of yours, for he shared in the recent exile of the people, and returned with you. Well, Chaerephon, as you know, was very impetuous in all his doings, and he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether--as I was saying, I must beg you not to interrupt--he asked the oracle to tell him whether anyone was wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered, that there was no man wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself; but his brother, who is in court, will confirm the truth of what I am saying.

Before I delve into the anecdote, let me point out how Socrates keeps appealing to witnesses who have seen and heard him or who have known the people of whom he speaks. It seems a nod to the trial process. One calls witnesses or attests to facts that witnesses can corroborate. He is not simply saying, 'I have the truth on my side, so believe what I say.' Which brings us to the little story about Chaerephon's trip to Delphi. The oracle tells him there is no man wiser than Socrates. He's appealing to a religious authority as a character witness. 

 Why do I mention this? Because I am going to explain to you why I have such an evil name. When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of his riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What then can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god, and cannot lie; that would be against his nature. After long consideration, I thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, 'Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.' Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him--his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination--and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is,-- for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another who had still higher pretensions to wisdom, and my conclusion was exactly the same. Whereupon I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him.


Socrates, for the sake of argument, doesn't buy the oracle's testimony. He means to test it by going  around Athens, asking questions, looking for someone  wiser than himself. What he finds is ignorance, self-delusion. When you keep pointing that out to people, they begin to hate you. 

Then I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this: but necessity was laid upon me,--the word of God, I thought, ought to be considered first. And I said to myself, Go I must to all who appear to know, and find out the meaning of the oracle. And I swear to you, Athenians, by the dog I swear! --for I must tell you the truth--the result of my mission was just this: I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that others less esteemed were really wiser and better. 

That is a dramatic statement there. And damned subversive. Socrates is flying in the face of his accusers, daring them to condemn him. "The men most in repute" are the biggest fools! Status, reputation, fame do NOT correlate to wisdom. Now he hasn't proved this, he's just asserting it, but it's a real headline grabber. If this is true, then our leaders and greatest so-called intellects, not to mention our bestselling authors and the esteemed men and women of the cloth guiding our largest super-churches are not worthy of our respect. If it is true, then society is built upon a cracked foundation of lies. 

 I will tell you the tale of my wanderings and of the 'Herculean' labours, as I may call them, which I endured only to find at last the oracle irrefutable. After the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be instantly detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them--thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to confess the truth, but I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. Then I knew that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. The poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise. So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians.

Poets and writers really have no concept of what they are doing. They work off inspiration, intuition, and imitation. They are brilliant and creative and insightful, but they cannot (and probably should not) analyze their own creations. Leave that to the critics. Also, don't you find it true that just because someone excels at one thing  like poetry or brick-laying or chess, they often assume they are entitled to be an expert on everything? 

 At last I went to the artisans. I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things; and here I was not mistaken, for they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets;--because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom; and therefore I asked myself on behalf of the oracle, whether I would like to be as I was, neither having their knowledge nor their ignorance, or like them in both; and I made answer to myself and to the oracle that I was better off as I was.

It is as if Socrates is deliberately goading the court to hate him even more. He is giving them the legal-equivalent of a hockey player face-wash. Smell the glove, Athenians! 

 This inquisition has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind, and has given occasion also to many calumnies. And I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name by way of illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. And so I go about the world, obedient to the god, and search and make enquiry into the wisdom of any one, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise; and my occupation quite absorbs me, and I have no time to give either to any public matter of interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god.

So this man's self-appointed job is to go around town exposing any man's fraudulence before the truth. Human wisdom is worthless because it isn't wise. Humans are limited, flawed, blind to truth. But people wish to be thought wise. They try mightily to make us think they are wise. None of this makes them the wiser. No wonder they hated Socrates It's an unbearable truth to be forced to see. Hey stupid! You think you know squat? Yo do not know squat! Yes, I'm talking to you, and you, and you. 

The only thing that makes Socrates relatively wiser is that he knows he isn't wise (or so he says). He's not conning himself, as the others do. The path to wisdom begins with this honest admission. Take heed. This is one of Socrates' most vital insights. Understand first of all that you do not know, that you are not wise. 

This begs the question: How do we know what wisdom is, how does Socrates know what wisdom is, if nobody has it? It is not a question Socrates has time to answer this late in the game. He and Plato have a theory on how that works, but you'll have to read it in other dialogues by Plato. 

Socrates imitators, guilt-by-association, and the hidden Critias connection (para. 11)

Socrates had his share of rich fan-boys:

 There is another thing:--young men of the richer classes, who have not much to do, come about me of their own accord; they like to hear the pretenders examined, and they often imitate me, and proceed to examine others; there are plenty of persons, as they quickly discover, who think that they know something, but really know little or nothing; and then those who are examined by them instead of being angry with themselves are angry with me: 

Imagine yourself a "know nothing" who thinks himself a "know something." It would be one thing to have Socrates cross-examine you and reduce your pretensions to shreds. It would be quite another to be shredded by so many Socrates-lite imitators.  

 This confounded Socrates, they say; this villainous misleader of youth!-- and then if somebody asks them, Why, what evil does he practise or teach? they do not know, and cannot tell; but in order that they may not appear to be at a loss, they repeat the ready-made charges which are used against all philosophers about teaching things up in the clouds and under the earth, and having no gods, and making the worse appear the better cause; for they do not like to confess that their pretence of knowledge has been detected-- which is the truth; and as they are numerous and ambitious and energetic, and are drawn up in battle array and have persuasive tongues, they have filled your ears with their loud and inveterate calumnies. And this is the reason why my three accusers, Meletus and Anytus and Lycon, have set upon me; Meletus, who has a quarrel with me on behalf of the poets; Anytus, on behalf of the craftsmen and politicians; Lycon, on behalf of the rhetoricians: and as I said at the beginning, I cannot expect to get rid of such a mass of calumny all in a moment. And this, O men of Athens, is the truth and the whole truth; I have concealed nothing, I have dissembled nothing. And yet, I know that my plainness of speech makes them hate me, and what is their hatred but a proof that I am speaking the truth?--Hence has arisen the prejudice against me; and this is the reason of it, as you will find out either in this or in any future enquiry.

I am not so sure I entirely buy Socrates on this point. His explanation for the prejudice against him sounds plausible enough, but he's making a huge oversight. There is a huge honking  elephant in the court that nobody is alluding to -- Critias, one of Socrates' friends -- who just happened to be one of the most violent oligarchs among the Thirty Tyrants. After Athens lost the Pelopponesian War to Sparta, the Thirty Tyrants were a sort of puppet elite government. Critias and Theramenes were their leaders. The Tyrants took away voting rights from all but the wealthiest Athenians. They restricted legal participation to an elite group of 500 people. They restricted the rights to possess weapons and receive a trial by jury. And they purged Athens of Democratic leaders, who were forced into exile or imprisoned. Hemlock was a popular beverage during their reign. Critias was the Joe McCarthy of Athens. He blacklisted citizens as enemies of the state  and confiscated their property. He was killed in a battle with Athenian exiles near Piraeus, triggering the end of the Thirty's rule. Critias was Plato's uncle. He appears as a character in two Platonic dialogues: Charmides and Protagoras, and possibly Timaeus and Critias (scholars are not in agreement on those two). A lot of people in Athens reviled him. He was a bad dude, not someone you wanted to be associated with, and Socrates was cozy with him. We are talking guilt-by-association, here. It is also worth bearing in mind that Socrates never left Athens during the reign of the Thirty Tyrants. At this point in history, he was on the wrong side.  

Were the Athenians seeking to settle old scores by going after anyone associated with Critias? Perhaps. Socrates, who by his own admission, was an irritating fellow, had few allies in town. 

In Socrates' defense, we should add that other associates of Socrates were executed during the Thirty's reign, so it would be hard to say Socrates took political sides in any meaningful way. According to Xenophon, Critias and Charicles (both of the Thirty) tried to strong-arm Socrates into not speaking to any men under thirty years old, a sign that even the oligarchs saw him as a threat. One legend says Socrates did attempt to intervene when a moderate member of the Thirty, Theramenes, was raising objections to the Thirty's excessive use of force, though this story is probably apocryphal. And when the Thirty ordered him to join a posse setting out to grab the democratic general Leon from Salamis, Socrates refused. This would have been grounds for execution, but soon thereafter, the democratic forces had toppled the oligarchs. So while nobody would confuse Socrates with being a pro-democracy advocate, it is equally as hard to tag him with a pro-oligarchy label. What is more likely the case  is the fact that Socrates really wasn't all that politically active. He was a philosopher caught up in a political maelstrom.  Maybe it's true. Everybody just hated the guy.  Payback was in the air, and Socrates was a convenient target.   

In any case, was Socrates really such a threat to Athens? This is a much deeper and more important philosophical and ethical question.

So ends Socrates' attack on the legacy of haters. Next he will turn to the specific charges levelled at him by Meletus. 

Socrates vs. Meletus

Socrates prepares to dismantle Meletus, who brought the public charges against him:
I have said enough in my defence against the first class of my accusers; I turn to the second class. They are headed by Meletus, that good man and true lover of his country, as he calls himself. Against these, too, I must try to make a defence:--Let their affidavit be read: it contains something of this kind: It says that Socrates is a doer of evil, who corrupts the youth; and who does not believe in the gods of the state, but has other new divinities of his own. Such is the charge; and now let us examine the particular counts. He says that I am a doer of evil, and corrupt the youth; but I say, O men of Athens, that Meletus is a doer of evil, in that he pretends to be in earnest when he is only in jest, and is so eager to bring men to trial from a pretended zeal and interest about matters in which he really never had the smallest interest. And the truth of this I will endeavour to prove to you.

We now see Socrates getting into "Socratic dialogue / Q&A mode" where he is most comfortable:
 Come hither, Meletus, and let me ask a question of you. You think a great deal about the improvement of youth?
Yes, I do.

Tell the judges, then, who is their improver; for you must know, as you have taken the pains to discover their corrupter, and are citing and accusing me before them. Speak, then, and tell the judges who their improver is.--Observe, Meletus, that you are silent, and have nothing to say. But is not this rather disgraceful, and a very considerable proof of what I was saying, that you have no interest in the matter? Speak up, friend, and tell us who their improver is.

The laws.

Socrates takes the charge that he is corrupting the youth of Athens. Notice how his first question to Meletus turns the charge around. The opposite of corruption is improvement. To know if someone is corrupting the youth, it would be wise to know who improves the youth. Meletus's answer -- the laws -- is insufficient for Socrates. He wants  to know who. But let me stop for a moment on the laws, because it calls forth the question -- can morality be legislated? 


In a news story the other day, I saw that the state of Missouri has enacted a law banning teacher / student communication over Facebook. That is an attempt to  prevent the corruption of the youth. Laws like this purport to codify our principles for attaining a good society, and to that extent can be seen as a reflection of society's moral and ethical priorities. Socrates refuses to accept "the laws" as an answer, because in his view, a law is nothing -- mere words on a page -- if it is not interpreted, executed, enforced by people. So who knows the laws? Watch the dominoes fall, kids! 



But that, my good sir, is not my meaning. I want to know who the person is, who, in the first place, knows the laws.
The judges, Socrates, who are present in court.
What, do you mean to say, Meletus, that they are able to instruct and improve youth?
Certainly they are.
What, all of them, or some only and not others?
All of them.
By the goddess Here, that is good news! There are plenty of improvers, then. And what do you say of the audience,--do they improve them?
Yes, they do.
And the senators?
Yes, the senators improve them.
But perhaps the members of the assembly corrupt them?--or do they too improve them?
They improve them.
Then every Athenian improves and elevates them; all with the exception of myself; and I alone am their corrupter? Is that what you affirm?
That is what I stoutly affirm.

The judges, the audience, the senators, the members of the assembly, everyone in Athens....except Socrates. The trap has been laid.


I am very unfortunate if you are right. But suppose I ask you a question: How about horses? Does one man do them harm and all the world good? Is not the exact opposite the truth? One man is able to do them good, or at least not many;--the trainer of horses, that is to say, does them good, and others who have to do with them rather injure them? Is not that true, Meletus, of horses, or of any other animals? Most assuredly it is; whether you and Anytus say yes or no. Happy indeed would be the condition of youth if they had one corrupter only, and all the rest of the world were their improvers. But you, Meletus, have sufficiently shown that you never had a thought about the young: your carelessness is seen in your not caring about the very things which you bring against me.


Socrates shows the ridiculousness of the accusation by analogy. Horse trainers improve horses. Dog trainers improve dogs. Is everyone in the world an improver of horses, of dogs, except for one corrupter? Why is Socrates  being singled out as a corrupter, when it would be absurd to claim that everyone else in society is an improver?  Round One goes to Socrates. He isn't done yet....


And now, Meletus, I will ask you another question--by Zeus I will: Which is better, to live among bad citizens, or among good ones? Answer, friend, I say; the question is one which may be easily answered. Do not the good do their neighbours good, and the bad do them evil?
Certainly.
And is there anyone who would rather be injured than benefited by those who live with him? Answer, my good friend, the law requires you to answer-- does any one like to be injured?
Certainly not.
And when you accuse me of corrupting and deteriorating the youth, do you allege that I corrupt them intentionally or unintentionally?
Intentionally, I say.
But you have just admitted that the good do their neighbours good, and the evil do them evil. Now, is that a truth which your superior wisdom has recognized thus early in life, and am I, at my age, in such darkness and ignorance as not to know that if a man with whom I have to live is corrupted by me, I am very likely to be harmed by him; and yet I corrupt him, and intentionally, too--so you say, although neither I nor any other human being is ever likely to be convinced by you. But either I do not corrupt them, or I corrupt them unintentionally; and on either view of the case you lie. If my offence is unintentional, the law has no cognizance of unintentional offences: you ought to have taken me privately, and warned and admonished me; for if I had been better advised, I should have left off doing what I only did unintentionally--no doubt I should; but you would have nothing to say to me and refused to teach me. And now you bring me up in this court, which is a place not of instruction, but of punishment. 

The logic is convoluted but makes sense if you think about it long enough. If I intentionally corrupt the youth, and they become bad neighbors, bad citizens, then they will do harm to me. There would be blow-back. Why would anyone intentionally bring that upon themselves? 

Next, Socrates turns to the manner of corruption he is supposed to be having on the youth:


It will be very clear to you, Athenians, as I was saying, that Meletus has no care at all, great or small, about the matter. But still I should like to know, Meletus, in what I am affirmed to corrupt the young. I suppose you mean, as I infer from your indictment, that I teach them not to acknowledge the gods which the state acknowledges, but some other new divinities or spiritual agencies in their stead. These are the lessons by which I corrupt the youth, as you say.
Yes, that I say emphatically.

So it's a question of Socrates casting doubt on the official divinities. Is he some kind of atheist?

Then, by the gods, Meletus, of whom we are speaking, tell me and the court, in somewhat plainer terms, what you mean! for I do not as yet understand whether you affirm that I teach other men to acknowledge some gods, and therefore that I do believe in gods, and am not an entire atheist--this you do not lay to my charge,--but only you say that they are not the same gods which the city recognizes--the charge is that they are different gods. Or, do you mean that I am an atheist simply, and a teacher of atheism?
I mean the latter--that you are a complete atheist.
What an extraordinary statement! Why do you think so, Meletus? Do you mean that I do not believe in the godhead of the sun or moon, like other men?
I assure you, judges, that he does not: for he says that the sun is stone, and the moon earth.

Meletus seems to be accusing Socrates of being a materialist, a proto-atomist like Anaxagoras. 

Friend Meletus, you think that you are accusing Anaxagoras: and you have but a bad opinion of the judges, if you fancy them illiterate to such a degree as not to know that these doctrines are found in the books of Anaxagoras the Clazomenian, which are full of them. And so, forsooth, the youth are said to be taught them by Socrates, when there are not unfrequently exhibitions of them at the theatre

(Probably in allusion to Aristophanes who caricatured, and to Euripides who borrowed the notions of Anaxagoras, as well as to other dramatic poets.)  

and they might pay their money, and laugh at Socrates if he pretends to father these extraordinary views. And so, Meletus, you really think that I do not believe in any god?

I swear by Zeus that you believe absolutely in none at all.
Nobody will believe you, Meletus, and I am pretty sure that you do not believe yourself. I cannot help thinking, men of Athens, that Meletus is reckless and impudent, and that he has written this indictment in a spirit of mere wantonness and youthful bravado. Has he not compounded a riddle, thinking to try me? He said to himself:--I shall see whether the wise Socrates will discover my facetious contradiction, or whether I shall be able to deceive him and the rest of them. For he certainly does appear to me to contradict himself in the indictment as much as if he said that Socrates is guilty of not believing in the gods, and yet of believing in them--but this is not like a person who is in earnest.
I should like you, O men of Athens, to join me in examining what I conceive to be his inconsistency; and do you, Meletus, answer. And I must remind the audience of my request that they would not make a disturbance if I speak in my accustomed manner:

How do you convince someone that you are not an atheist without simply affirming it? 

Did ever man, Meletus, believe in the existence of human things, and not of human beings?...I wish, men of Athens, that he would answer, and not be always trying to get up an interruption. Did ever any man believe in horsemanship, and not in horses? or in flute-playing, and not in flute- players? No, my friend; I will answer to you and to the court, as you refuse to answer for yourself. There is no man who ever did. But now please to answer the next question: Can a man believe in spiritual and divine agencies, and not in spirits or demigods?
He cannot.
How lucky I am to have extracted that answer, by the assistance of the court! But then you swear in the indictment that I teach and believe in divine or spiritual agencies (new or old, no matter for that); at any rate, I believe in spiritual agencies,--so you say and swear in the affidavit; and yet if I believe in divine beings, how can I help believing in spirits or demigods;--must I not? To be sure I must; and therefore I may assume that your silence gives consent. Now what are spirits or demigods? Are they not either gods or the sons of gods?
Certainly they are.

The affadavit referred to is not extant, unfortunately, so we are at a loss to interpret or even evaluate with conviction Socrates' argument on this point. If Socrates is accurately portraying it, then Meletus has been caught in an inconsistency, which supports Socrates' argument that Meletus' charges are frivolous. 

But this is what I call the facetious riddle invented by you: the demigods or spirits are gods, and you say first that I do not believe in gods, and then again that I do believe in gods; that is, if I believe in demigods. For if the demigods are the illegitimate sons of gods, whether by the nymphs or by any other mothers, of whom they are said to be the sons--what human being will ever believe that there are no gods if they are the sons of gods? You might as well affirm the existence of mules, and deny that of horses and asses. Such nonsense, Meletus, could only have been intended by you to make trial of me. You have put this into the indictment because you had nothing real of which to accuse me. But no one who has a particle of understanding will ever be convinced by you that the same men can believe in divine and superhuman things, and yet not believe that there are gods and demigods and heroes.

I have said enough in answer to the charge of Meletus: any elaborate defence is unnecessary, but I know only too well how many are the enmities which I have incurred, and this is what will be my destruction if I am destroyed;--not Meletus, nor yet Anytus, but the envy and detraction of the world, which has been the death of many good men, and will probably be the death of many more; there is no danger of my being the last of them.

So much for Meletus. I like the way he wraps up this portion of his defense. He's  saying in effect, these accusers are puppets, and their charges are a pretense, and the whole trial is just a charade. What's really at work? It is simple. Socrates, a good (and irritating) man, is being taken down by jealous detractors, the haters. In the same way that ornamented, rhetorically baroque speeches occlude the truth, so these trumped up charges paper-over the true motives at work. The real dangerous types are not the Socrates's here and to come, but the frauds who lead our nations and indict the good under false pretenses.

Calculated Risks


Now, we are really getting into what the Apology is all about. It is not about the trial of Socrates, which is a fait d’accompli. Socrates is certain that he will be convicted and executed. The question is, was this pursuit of philosophy, knowing where it would lead, worthwhile? 

Some one will say: And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong--acting the part of a good man or of a bad. Whereas, upon your view, the heroes who fell at Troy were not good for much, and the son of Thetis above all, who altogether despised danger in comparison with disgrace; and when he was so eager to slay Hector, his goddess mother said to him, that if he avenged his companion Patroclus, and slew Hector, he would die himself--'Fate,' she said, in these or the like words, 'waits for you next after Hector;' he, receiving this warning, utterly despised danger and death, and instead of fearing them, feared rather to live in dishonour, and not to avenge his friend. 'Let me die forthwith,' he replies, 'and be avenged of my enemy, rather than abide here by the beaked ships, a laughing-stock and a burden of the earth.' Had Achilles any thought of death and danger? For wherever a man's place is, whether the place which he has chosen or that in which he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remain in the hour of danger; he should not think of death or of anything but of disgrace. And this, O men of Athens, is a true saying.

To calculate the risk of acting based on your chances of living and dying is the wrong way to go about life. You must weigh actions on their rightness or wrongness, and nothing more. Where the road takes you  is external, irrelevant to the modus operandi.  Case in point: Achilles. He’d been sulking on the side longs through most of the Iliad until Hector slew his bosom buddy Patroclus. He went to avenge that death, knowing he could be mortally wounded, and he did it anyway, because it was the right thing to do.  For Socrates to not go down with the philosophical ship at this point in his career would be a disgrace to his whole philosophy. 

Remember how at the beginning of the Apology, Socrates tried to dispense with ornamented rhetoric, thereby making a distinction between rhetoric and wisdom? He’s taking a similar tack at this point in the argument. He  is making a distinction between the calculated, scripted life (I’ll stick around for as long as I can and adjust my sails accordingly) and the honorable path of staying true to your character, your course.

Consistency and the fear of death


In his argument that consistency is the more honorable way to go, Socrates sneaks in the fact that he has served Athens before, put his life at risk like other veterans.  

Strange, indeed, would be my conduct, O men of Athens, if I who, when I was ordered by the generals whom you chose to command me at Potidaea and Amphipolis and Delium, remained where they placed me, like any other man, facing death--if now, when, as I conceive and imagine, God orders me to fulfil the philosopher's mission of searching into myself and other men, I were to desert my post through fear of death, or any other fear; that would indeed be strange, and I might justly be arraigned in court for denying the existence of the gods, if I disobeyed the oracle because I was afraid of death, fancying that I was wise when I was not wise. 

That last sentence is long and cluttered by three “if” clauses. I gloss it something like this: Since Athens ordered me to serve the military, facing death, and I didn’t desert, it would be most strange (since God compels me to philosophize) if I were to change my pursuit of truth to avoid death; moreover, your accusations of atheism would have merit, if I had disobeyed the oracle because I was afraid of death. 

Then he gets into the fear of death:

For the fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being a pretence of knowing the unknown; and no one knows whether death, which men in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good. Is not this ignorance of a disgraceful sort, the ignorance which is the conceit that a man knows what he does not know? 

It is a brilliant move by Socrates. A fear of something presumes a knowledge of that something. Fear of death pretends to know what death is. But nobody truly knows that death is “the greatest evil.” They think they know, but they don’t. Notice how Socrates keeps looping back to his ignorance/knowledge theme. A man who thinks he knows what he doesn’t know is a walking paradox, living the lie. 

And in this respect only I believe myself to differ from men in general, and may perhaps claim to be wiser than they are:--that whereas I know but little of the world below, I do not suppose that I know: but I do know that injustice and disobedience to a better, whether God or man, is evil and dishonourable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil. 

Socrates is different. He doesn’t pretend to know. What DOES he know, beyond that paradoxical truth of knowing that he doesn’t know? Well, he claims that he knows that it is evil to disobey a better. 

So what would Socrates say to those who might let him go free on the condition that he cease all that annoying philosophizing?

And therefore if you let me go now, and are not convinced by Anytus, who said that since I had been prosecuted I must be put to death; (or if not that I ought never to have been prosecuted at all); and that if I escape now, your sons will all be utterly ruined by listening to my words--if you say to me, Socrates, this time we will not mind Anytus, and you shall be let off, but upon one condition, that you are not to enquire and speculate in this way any more, and that if you are caught doing so again you shall die;--if this was the condition on which you let me go, I should reply: Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one whom I meet and saying to him after my manner: You, my friend,--a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens,--are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? And if the person with whom I am arguing, says: Yes, but I do care; then I do not leave him or let him go at once; but I proceed to interrogate and examine and cross-examine him, and if I think that he has no virtue in him, but only says that he has, I reproach him with undervaluing the greater, and overvaluing the less. 


Clearly Socrates has no plans to budge. Nothing, nobody will make him change his ways. Now he makes a remarkable, even an outlandish claim:

And I shall repeat the same words to every one whom I meet, young and old, citizen and alien, but especially to the citizens, inasmuch as they are my brethren. For know that this is the command of God; and I believe that no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God. 

Huh? I thought Socrates was all humble about knowing that he doesn’t know? Now he claims he’s God’s gift to Athens? What is he getting at? 

For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, I am a mischievous person. But if any one says that this is not my teaching, he is speaking an untruth. Wherefore, O men of Athens, I say to you, do as Anytus bids or not as Anytus bids, and either acquit me or not; but whichever you do, understand that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times.

Yes, the man had a gigantic ego. He says, ‘I am the guy whom God has assigned to go out there insisting that you get your priorities right, that you work on improving your souls.’ Or as the Animals put it:

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood

One imagines a sweep of the jury box would find many eyes rolling, many arms folded.

Socrates wants them to be utterly clear about whom and what they are convicting. He is sacrificing his life for the sake of philosophy. Philosophy is not the frivolous mental wanking of treacherous windbags. It is a serious, honorable profession. 

The natives are restless


The natives are getting restless. Socrates has been flouting their pretentious mock trial, seeing through the charade. Evidently, a ruckus was raised. 

Men of Athens, do not interrupt, but hear me; there was an understanding between us that you should hear me to the end: I have something more to say, at which you may be inclined to cry out; but I believe that to hear me will be good for you, and therefore I beg that you will not cry out. I would have you know, that if you kill such an one as I am, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me. Nothing will injure me, not Meletus nor yet Anytus--they cannot, for a bad man is not permitted to injure a better than himself. I do not deny that Anytus may, perhaps, kill him, or drive him into exile, or deprive him of civil rights; and he may imagine, and others may imagine, that he is inflicting a great injury upon him: but there I do not agree. For the evil of doing as he is doing--the evil of unjustly taking away the life of another--is greater far.

Notice how Socrates keeps resetting the moral compass. Morality should not be defined democratically. Just because the consensus says something is right or wrong does not make it so. If the tyranny of the majority thinks they can injure him by taking away his life, they  will be disappointed. He’s also inverting the argument, saying that Athens is hurting itself more than it could ever hurt him. And now we come to the classic “gadfly” metaphor:

And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God by condemning me, who am his gift to you. For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me. 

They should spare Socrates’ life, not for his own sake, but for the sake of the state. The philosopher,  in Socrates’ conception, keeps the state honest. We need critics, skeptics, questioners of authority. A society is better off when it makes a home, even welcomes such criticism. The seeds of press freedoms are contained in this idea. A free press should play a similar role in modern society. Unfortunately, it all too often functions as an arm of the ideological state apparatus (cf. Althusser). By the state, I mean not only the government, but the entire power matrix that rules over society (the business class, the state bureaucracy, the educational, cultural, and religious mainstream). We need those critics. Where are those public intellectuals in our society? The likes of Socrates do not come around so often.  

I dare say that you may feel out of temper (like a person who is suddenly awakened from sleep), and you think that you might easily strike me dead as Anytus advises, and then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you sent you another gadfly. When I say that I am given to you by God, the proof of my mission is this:--if I had been like other men, I should not have neglected all my own concerns or patiently seen the neglect of them during all these years, and have been doing yours, coming to you individually like a father or elder brother, exhorting you to regard virtue; such conduct, I say, would be unlike human nature. If I had gained anything, or if my exhortations had been paid, there would have been some sense in my doing so; but now, as you will perceive, not even the impudence of my accusers dares to say that I have ever exacted or sought pay of any one; of that they have no witness. And I have a sufficient witness to the truth of what I say--my poverty.

This is a nice statement of Socrates’ purity of motives. He did not make money  from his philosophical way of life. He didn’t gain any kind of social advantage, really. He has sacrificed his well being for the good of the state. He forsook the beach house in the Hamptons and the yearly vacations and the awards dinners, the junkets, the talk-show guest spots, the Italian suits, three martini lunches, the sports cars, the season tickets, and all the rest that fame and fortune might have given him. 


The voice


I get the sense that Socrates wants people to be in tune with their “natures,” for lack of a better word. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. This conscience has a quasi-mystical timbre. He employs a sort of numinous language — that of oracles, signs, a voice — to convey his refusal of official public service, instead opting for private interactions.

Some one may wonder why I go about in private giving advice and busying myself with the concerns of others, but do not venture to come forward in public and advise the state. I will tell you why. You have heard me speak at sundry times and in divers places of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign, which is a kind of voice, first began to come to me when I was a child; it always forbids but never commands me to do anything which I am going to do. This is what deters me from being a politician. And rightly, as I think. For I am certain, O men of Athens, that if I had engaged in politics, I should have perished long ago, and done no good either to you or to myself. And do not be offended at my telling you the truth: for the truth is, that no man who goes to war with you or any other multitude, honestly striving against the many lawless and unrighteous deeds which are done in a state, will save his life; he who will fight for the right, if he would live even for a brief space, must have a private station and not a public one.

So the best way to take on the state is through private, oblique tactics, not overt, showy, public displays of resistance. He offers a case in point:

I can give you convincing evidence of what I say, not words only, but what you value far more--actions. Let me relate to you a passage of my own life which will prove to you that I should never have yielded to injustice from any fear of death, and that 'as I should have refused to yield' I must have died at once. I will tell you a tale of the courts, not very interesting perhaps, but nevertheless true. The only office of state which I ever held, O men of Athens, was that of senator: the tribe Antiochis, which is my tribe, had the presidency at the trial of the generals who had not taken up the bodies of the slain after the battle of Arginusae; and you proposed to try them in a body, contrary to law, as you all thought afterwards; but at the time I was the only one of the Prytanes who was opposed to the illegality, and I gave my vote against you; and when the orators threatened to impeach and arrest me, and you called and shouted, I made up my mind that I would run the risk, having law and justice with me, rather than take part in your injustice because I feared imprisonment and death. This happened in the days of the democracy. But when the oligarchy of the Thirty was in power, they sent for me and four others into the rotunda, and bade us bring Leon the Salaminian from Salamis, as they wanted to put him to death. This was a specimen of the sort of commands which they were always giving with the view of implicating as many as possible in their crimes; and then I showed, not in word only but in deed, that, if I may be allowed to use such an expression, I cared not a straw for death, and that my great and only care was lest I should do an unrighteous or unholy thing. For the strong arm of that oppressive power did not frighten me into doing wrong; and when we came out of the rotunda the other four went to Salamis and fetched Leon, but I went quietly home. For which I might have lost my life, had not the power of the Thirty shortly afterwards come to an end. And many will witness to my words.

So two cases are cited. In the first, during the democracy, Socrates resisted the illegal trial (and execution) by group of generals after the battle of Arginusae. Then, when the oligarchs ruled, he resisted their attempts to force him to participate in the unjust arrest and execution of Leon of Salamis. In both cases, he opposed the reigning powers. He kept his distance, his integrity intact. He seems adamant about retaining political independence.

Now do you really imagine that I could have survived all these years, if I had led a public life, supposing that like a good man I had always maintained the right and had made justice, as I ought, the first thing? No indeed, men of Athens, neither I nor any other man. But I have been always the same in all my actions, public as well as private, and never have I yielded any base compliance to those who are slanderously termed my disciples, or to any other. Not that I have any regular disciples. But if any one likes to come and hear me while I am pursuing my mission, whether he be young or old, he is not excluded. Nor do I converse only with those who pay; but any one, whether he be rich or poor, may ask and answer me and listen to my words; and whether he turns out to be a bad man or a good one, neither result can be justly imputed to me; for I never taught or professed to teach him anything. And if any one says that he has ever learned or heard anything from me in private which all the world has not heard, let me tell you that he is lying.

Socrates is an equal opportunity philosopher. Poor and rich, young and old, good and bad, are welcome to discourse  with him. In this respect, he was quite democratic. He is also consistent. 

The translation “never have I yielded any base compliance to those who are slanderously termed my disciples” is rather puzzling. I guess he means he doesn’t want to be convicted of guilt by association. He can’t be judged by the deeds of his “followers.”  He rejects the notion that he has a school. Socrates would have us believe that his philosophical project was independent and consistent. He had no political axes to grind, no profit motive, no mission to indoctrinate followers. There would be no Socrates dot com website. No Socrates DVD lectures. No Socrates political action committees. He would never find the need to hire a lobbyist. 

The picture may not be as simple as he would like to paint it, though. The question of influence and the responsibility for your words is one that continues to provoke vigorous debate. One could make the argument that Socrates’ refusal to be more active in public life was a subversion of his civic duty, and his disabusing of any responsibility for the actions of his followers a cavalier avoidance of social responsibility. The sense that his philosophy was in fact subversive is in some respects enhanced by his own defense. Not that subversion is necessarily a bad thing. Subversion of nasty governments can be just what society needs. 


Where are the witnesses?


Socrates asks his accusers, if he has indeed corrupted the youth, why is it that none of them have come forward to accuse him, nor any of their relatives? Why no witnesses for the prosecution?

But I shall be asked, Why do people delight in continually conversing with you? I have told you already, Athenians, the whole truth about this matter: they like to hear the cross-examination of the pretenders to wisdom; there is amusement in it. Now this duty of cross-examining other men has been imposed upon me by God; and has been signified to me by oracles, visions, and in every way in which the will of divine power was ever intimated to any one. This is true, O Athenians, or, if not true, would be soon refuted. If I am or have been corrupting the youth, those of them who are now grown up and have become sensible that I gave them bad advice in the days of their youth should come forward as accusers, and take their revenge; or if they do not like to come themselves, some of their relatives, fathers, brothers, or other kinsmen, should say what evil their families have suffered at my hands. Now is their time. Many of them I see in the court. There is Crito, who is of the same age and of the same deme with myself, and there is Critobulus his son, whom I also see. Then again there is Lysanias of Sphettus, who is the father of Aeschines--he is present; and also there is Antiphon of Cephisus, who is the father of Epigenes; and there are the brothers of several who have associated with me. There is Nicostratus the son of Theosdotides, and the brother of Theodotus (now Theodotus himself is dead, and therefore he, at any rate, will not seek to stop him); and there is Paralus the son of Demodocus, who had a brother Theages; and Adeimantus the son of Ariston, whose brother Plato is present; and Aeantodorus, who is the brother of Apollodorus, whom I also see. I might mention a great many others, some of whom Meletus should have produced as witnesses in the course of his speech; and let him still produce them, if he has forgotten--I will make way for him. And let him say, if he has any testimony of the sort which he can produce. Nay, Athenians, the very opposite is the truth. For all these are ready to witness on behalf of the corrupter, of the injurer of their kindred, as Meletus and Anytus call me; not the corrupted youth only--there might have been a motive for that--but their uncorrupted elder relatives. Why should they too support me with their testimony? Why, indeed, except for the sake of truth and justice, and because they know that I am speaking the truth, and that Meletus is a liar.

What he is exposing here is the shallowness of the charges against him. If there is any merit in the charges it is this: Socrates was generally subversive of the state in his philosophical method (though hardly in any conspiratorial way), and he sowed seeds of doubt as to the legitimacy of rulers who pretended to know more than they actually did. If he corrupted anyone, it was unintentional, and Socrates should not be held accountable for the independent actions of grown men. I don’t see this coming close to meeting the burden of proof needed to convict him. And yet, that is just what they did. Why? Political pay-back? “Sending a message” to other would-be vigilante philosophers? The need for a scapegoat? Socrates has done an excellent job at persuading us that (1) he’s innocent of the charges  (2) the charges are silly (3) he is steadfast  in his approach to philosophical inquiry (4) nobody can force him to change.

Maybe it comes down to the idea of power. Power cannot tolerate any refutation of its force. If Socrates will not bend to their will, he must be nullified.

Closing argument

Socrates is just about done…but wait, there’s more!

Well, Athenians, this and the like of this is all the defence which I have to offer. Yet a word more. Perhaps there may be some one who is offended at me, when he calls to mind how he himself on a similar, or even a less serious occasion, prayed and entreated the judges with many tears, and how he produced his children in court, which was a moving spectacle, together with a host of relations and friends; whereas I, who am probably in danger of my life, will do none of these things. The contrast may occur to his mind, and he may be set against me, and vote in anger because he is displeased at me on this account. 

He is now considering what in rhetoric is the style called “pathos” — the argument or appeal based on emotion. Why not pour on the tears, play the pity card? Seems like the audience is expecting it. Socrates, surprise surprise, will not play along….

Now if there be such a person among you,--mind, I do not say that there is,--to him I may fairly reply: My friend, I am a man, and like other men, a creature of flesh and blood, and not 'of wood or stone,' as Homer says; and I have a family, yes, and sons, O Athenians, three in number, one almost a man, and two others who are still young; and yet I will not bring any of them hither in order to petition you for an acquittal. 

He’s not going to trot out the wife and kids like a phoney baloney politician. There will be no PR firm hired to manage impressions. 

And why not? Not from any self-assertion or want of respect for you. Whether I am or am not afraid of death is another question, of which I will not now speak. But, having regard to public opinion, I feel that such conduct would be discreditable to myself, and to you, and to the whole state. One who has reached my years, and who has a name for wisdom, ought not to demean himself. Whether this opinion of me be deserved or not, at any rate the world has decided that Socrates is in some way superior to other men. And if those among you who are said to be superior in wisdom and courage, and any other virtue, demean themselves in this way, how shameful is their conduct! I have seen men of reputation, when they have been condemned, behaving in the strangest manner: they seemed to fancy that they were going to suffer something dreadful if they died, and that they could be immortal if you only allowed them to live; and I think that such are a dishonour to the state, and that any stranger coming in would have said of them that the most eminent men of Athens, to whom the Athenians themselves give honour and command, are no better than women. And I say that these things ought not to be done by those of us who have a reputation; and if they are done, you ought not to permit them; you ought rather to show that you are far more disposed to condemn the man who gets up a doleful scene and makes the city ridiculous, than him who holds his peace.

Socrates puts on his “big boys don’t cry” face. To shoot for pathos would discredit his own honor. OK, we get that. But it would also discredit the state? How so? If the “most eminent” citizens are not better than women (ouch!), outsiders will look down on Athens. Frankly, this is not a persuasive argument to me. Why all of a sudden this concern about what others would think? Socrates is employing some quasi-sophistical reverse argumentation here. Notice how he has virtually included the family by way of irony (I’m not going to trot out my wife and kids, who by the way, will be left fatherless, hint hint). Mainly, I think he is taking one last opportunity to set himself apart from the mass. He’s kind of saying, I’m not a pussy like you cowards. Another sign that he has absolutely no interest in being acquitted. He’s spitting in the face of the entire judicial process. Again.

One last reason for not going the pity route. It is not a valid form of argument:

But, setting aside the question of public opinion, there seems to be something wrong in asking a favour of a judge, and thus procuring an acquittal, instead of informing and convincing him. For his duty is, not to make a present of justice, but to give judgment; and he has sworn that he will judge according to the laws, and not according to his own good pleasure; and we ought not to encourage you, nor should you allow yourselves to be encouraged, in this habit of perjury--there can be no piety in that. Do not then require me to do what I consider dishonourable and impious and wrong, especially now, when I am being tried for impiety on the indictment of Meletus. For if, O men of Athens, by force of persuasion and entreaty I could overpower your oaths, then I should be teaching you to believe that there are no gods, and in defending should simply convict myself of the charge of not believing in them. But that is not so--far otherwise. For I do believe that there are gods, and in a sense higher than that in which any of my accusers believe in them. 

Pathos-driven argument is dishonorable, impious, and wrong. Justice should be based on reason, not emotion. I like how he wraps this up:

And to you and to God I commit my cause, to be determined by you as is best for you and me.

He asks them to render justice based on what is best not only for him, but for them (for society, the state). That is an interesting way to think about justice. You can’t just look at the accusations in a vacuum. You need to take into account the context, the big picture. Any judicial decision tells you as much about the giver as the receiver. 

Thus ends Socrates’ defense. What we will see next is his reaction to their verdict.

Guilty

And the verdict is…

There are many reasons why I am not grieved, O men of Athens, at the vote of condemnation. I expected it, and am only surprised that the votes are so nearly equal; for I had thought that the majority against me would have been far larger; but now, had thirty votes gone over to the other side, I should have been acquitted. And I may say, I think, that I have escaped Meletus. I may say more; for without the assistance of Anytus and Lycon, any one may see that he would not have had a fifth part of the votes, as the law requires, in which case he would have incurred a fine of a thousand drachmae.

You expected it, Socrates? Damn, you practically begged them to condemn you. He got exactly what he wanted. Expectation is an understatement. He made sure. He doubled-down on the bet. Knowing he was likely to be convicted, he deliberately shoved his philosophical jabs in the face of Athens, so they had little choice. He wanted them to remember this day, to regret it. The fact that the vote was close (280 to 220) is a sign that they were already doubting themselves. At this point in the Apology, we turn to the chilling sentence phase. Athens isn’t going to slap him on the wrist and let him go. The death sentence is proposed. Socrates offers a counter-proposal. 

And so he proposes death as the penalty. And what shall I propose on my part, O men of Athens? Clearly that which is my due. And what is my due? What return shall be made to the man who has never had the wit to be idle during his whole life; but has been careless of what the many care for-- wealth, and family interests, and military offices, and speaking in the assembly, and magistracies, and plots, and parties. Reflecting that I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live, I did not go where I could do no good to you or to myself; but where I could do the greatest good privately to every one of you, thither I went, and sought to persuade every man among you that he must look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests, and look to the state before he looks to the interests of the state; and that this should be the order which he observes in all his actions. What shall be done to such an one? Doubtless some good thing, O men of Athens, if he has his reward; and the good should be of a kind suitable to him. What would be a reward suitable to a poor man who is your benefactor, and who desires leisure that he may instruct you? There can be no reward so fitting as maintenance in the Prytaneum, O men of Athens, a reward which he deserves far more than the citizen who has won the prize at Olympia in the horse or chariot race, whether the chariots were drawn by two horses or by many. For I am in want, and he has enough; and he only gives you the appearance of happiness, and I give you the reality. And if I am to estimate the penalty fairly, I should say that maintenance in the Prytaneum is the just return.

The Prytaneum refers, literally, to the “home fires.” Each Greek community had a sacred hearth enclosed in a building called the prytaneum, which served as a kind of community dining hall. Socrates says he belongs  right  there, at the heart of the city, keeping the philosophical fires safely burning. This isn’t exactly a punishment, is it. In fact, he’s saying this to piss them off even more. Xenophon reports that they insisted on a more serious counter-proposal from him, to which he suggested paying a small fine. What they were probably expecting was a repentant convict who prefer to be exiled. Socrates has no plans to leave.

Perhaps you think that I am braving you in what I am saying now, as in what I said before about the tears and prayers. But this is not so. I speak rather because I am convinced that I never intentionally wronged any one, although I cannot convince you--the time has been too short; if there were a law at Athens, as there is in other cities, that a capital cause should not be decided in one day, then I believe that I should have convinced you. But I cannot in a moment refute great slanders; and, as I am convinced that I never wronged another, I will assuredly not wrong myself. I will not say of myself that I deserve any evil, or propose any penalty. Why should I? because I am afraid of the penalty of death which Meletus proposes? When I do not know whether death is a good or an evil, why should I propose a penalty which would certainly be an evil? Shall I say imprisonment? And why should I live in prison, and be the slave of the magistrates of the year--of the Eleven? Or shall the penalty be a fine, and imprisonment until the fine is paid? There is the same objection. I should have to lie in prison, for money I have none, and cannot pay. And if I say exile (and this may possibly be the penalty which you will affix), I must indeed be blinded by the love of life, if I am so irrational as to expect that when you, who are my own citizens, cannot endure my discourses and words, and have found them so grievous and odious that you will have no more of them, others are likely to endure me. No indeed, men of Athens, that is not very likely. And what a life should I lead, at my age, wandering from city to city, ever changing my place of exile, and always being driven out! For I am quite sure that wherever I go, there, as here, the young men will flock to me; and if I drive them away, their elders will drive me out at their request; and if I let them come, their fathers and friends will drive me out for their sakes.

This is bigger than Athens. Athens is the microcosm for the world. Socrates-like figures who stay true to their calling will never be acceptable in any community. Here’s an idea: what if he just kept  his mouth shut? 

Some one will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me. 

Big sentence there. Let’s parse the last half of it. In the Socratic view, the greatest good  of man  (a gigantic claim) is discourse about  virtue (and other things) — we’ll label it philosophy for short.  This includes self-examination and critical examination of everything and everybody through discourse. And that this examination of life is what makes live worth living. So much is packed into that idea, a seed for theories of education, critical thinking, psychoanalysis, the life of contemplation vs. material accumulation and consumption, and more. 

It begs the question: IS the unexamined life not worth living? Are we better off not knowing, not looking for, keeping our blinders safely affixed, letting others do the thinking for us? It is a question that continues to vex. If we want to impress our educated friends, we shake our heads “no” in self-congratulation about how wise we all are. But Socrates  wants us to really think about the stakes, because if you are totally serious about  philosophy as a way of life, and you are convinced about its worthiness, then you risk poverty, suspicion, alienation, imprisonment, and death. 
  
Yet I say what is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you. Also, I have never been accustomed to think that I deserve to suffer any harm. Had I money I might have estimated the offence at what I was able to pay, and not have been much the worse. But I have none, and therefore I must ask you to proportion the fine to my means. Well, perhaps I could afford a mina, and therefore I propose that penalty: Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Apollodorus, my friends here, bid me say thirty minae, and they will be the sureties. Let thirty minae be the penalty; for which sum they will be ample security to you.

The vote to execute (360 to 140), by the way, was more lopsided than the vote to convict. Socrates is toast. Next, we will see his response to the news. 


My way

They voted to kill him:

Not much time will be gained, O Athenians, in return for the evil name which you will get from the detractors of the city, who will say that you killed Socrates, a wise man; for they will call me wise, even although I am not wise, when they want to reproach you. If you had waited a little while, your desire would have been fulfilled in the course of nature. For I am far advanced in years, as you may perceive, and not far from death. 

Pretty shameful to send a septuagenarian to the hemlock stand. What does Socrates have to say to the finger pointers?

I am speaking now not to all of you, but only to those who have condemned me to death. And I have another thing to say to them: you think that I was convicted because I had no words of the sort which would have procured my acquittal--I mean, if I had thought fit to leave nothing undone or unsaid. Not so; the deficiency which led to my conviction was not of words-- certainly not. But I had not the boldness or impudence or inclination to address you as you would have liked me to do, weeping and wailing and lamenting, and saying and doing many things which you have been accustomed to hear from others, and which, as I maintain, are unworthy of me. 

We have seen him sing this tune at many points in the Apology. Socrates will not bend to the will of the majority at the expense of his character. Cue the Frank Sinatra “My Way” soundtrack:

I thought at the time that I ought not to do anything common or mean when in danger: nor do I now repent of the style of my defence; I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live. For neither in war nor yet at law ought I or any man to use every way of escaping death. Often in battle there can be no doubt that if a man will throw away his arms, and fall on his knees before his pursuers, he may escape death; and in other dangers there are other ways of escaping death, if a man is willing to say and do anything. 

Do you want to live like a coward or a hero?

The difficulty, my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death. I am old and move slowly, and the slower runner has overtaken me, and my accusers are keen and quick, and the faster runner, who is unrighteousness, has overtaken them. And now I depart hence condemned by you to suffer the penalty of death,--they too go their ways condemned by the truth to suffer the penalty of villainy and wrong; and I must abide by my award--let them abide by theirs. I suppose that these things may be regarded as fated,--and I think that they are well.

Intriguing running metaphor there. Unrighteousness is fastest. Death comes in second. Both Socrates and the Athenians have been passed. Both will suffer for their deeds. In Socrates’ estimations, the penalty is far worse for them than him. 

Socrates now waxes prophetic:

And now, O men who have condemned me, I would fain prophesy to you; for I am about to die, and in the hour of death men are gifted with prophetic power. And I prophesy to you who are my murderers, that immediately after my departure punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you. Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give an account of your lives. But that will not be as you suppose: far otherwise. For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as they are younger they will be more inconsiderate with you, and you will be more offended at them. 

It is hard to see exactly what Socrates means. Does he see a contagion of young turk philosophers who will REALLY offend the sensibilities of Athens? Obviously, the judgment of history will not treat them kindly.  I love this next sentence:

If you think that by killing men you can prevent some one from censuring your evil lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honourable; the easiest and the noblest way is not to be disabling others, but to be improving yourselves. This is the prophecy which I utter before my departure to the judges who have condemned me.

Socrates really believes in the power of truth, and the vital necessity that individuals must get in tune with it. 

Stay a little while

One imagines the friends and followers of Socrates were distraught at what they had witnessed. Socrates asks them to stay awhile. He can explain the significance of it all:

Friends, who would have acquitted me, I would like also to talk with you about the thing which has come to pass, while the magistrates are busy, and before I go to the place at which I must die. Stay then a little, for we may as well talk with one another while there is time. You are my friends, and I should like to show you the meaning of this event which has happened to me. O my judges--for you I may truly call judges--I should like to tell you of a wonderful circumstance. Hitherto the divine faculty of which the internal oracle is the source has constantly been in the habit of opposing me even about trifles, if I was going to make a slip or error in any matter; and now as you see there has come upon me that which may be thought, and is generally believed to be, the last and worst evil. But the oracle made no sign of opposition, either when I was leaving my house in the morning, or when I was on my way to the court, or while I was speaking, at anything which I was going to say; and yet I have often been stopped in the middle of a speech, but now in nothing I either said or did touching the matter in hand has the oracle opposed me. What do I take to be the explanation of this silence? I will tell you. It is an intimation that what has happened to me is a good, and that those of us who think that death is an evil are in error. For the customary sign would surely have opposed me had I been going to evil and not to good.

We like to think of philosophy in terms of reason, critical  thinking, etc. But it is difficult to ignore the role that intuition plays in Socrates’ mind. He keeps coming back to this inner daemon — call it conscience, instinct, intuition, the voice of God, guardian angel — that has guided him throughout life. Ironically, in this moment of utter depravation  (condemnation, death), the inner censor has not spoken, has not held his tongue from speaking. Socrates interprets this as a sign of the ultimate goodness in this turn of events. Talk about looking on the bright side!

The existential excrement is about to hit the fan. And Socrates has much to say on the subject of death’s meaning. 

Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good; for one of two things--either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. 

Two possibilities: 

1. Death nullifies you (vacuums you into nothing), a never ending sleep.
2. Death carries your soul from here to another place.

Maybe death is like the best night of sleep you ever had (except you don’t wake up):

Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain. For if a person were to select the night in which his sleep was undisturbed even by dreams, and were to compare with this the other days and nights of his life, and then were to tell us how many days and nights he had passed in the course of his life better and more pleasantly than this one, I think that any man, I will not say a private man, but even the great king will not find many such days or nights, when compared with the others. Now if death be of such a nature, I say that to die is gain; for eternity is then only a single night. 

What of death as migration to some address in the afterlife? Think of the company you will keep!

But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead abide, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this? If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, he is delivered from the professors of justice in this world, and finds the true judges who are said to give judgment there, Minos and Rhadamanthus and Aeacus and Triptolemus, and other sons of God who were righteous in their own life, that pilgrimage will be worth making. What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again. I myself, too, shall have a wonderful interest in there meeting and conversing with Palamedes, and Ajax the son of Telamon, and any other ancient hero who has suffered death through an unjust judgment; and there will be no small pleasure, as I think, in comparing my own sufferings with theirs. 

The point here is that consciousness would persist, and Socrates can keep doing the thing he loves best: discoursing in pursuit of truth. Death will bring him more interesting interlocutors. More opportunities to learn and get closer to real knowledge. Another win. 

Above all, I shall then be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in the next; and I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too! What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions! In another world they do not put a man to death for asking questions: assuredly not. For besides being happier than we are, they will be immortal, if what is said is true.

Socrates values truth  and knowledge above his life. It’s pretty much that simple. It can seem an elaborate con job performed upon oneself, yet there are advantages. For one, you won’t cower in the face of death. Your soul cannot be wounded, burned or shamed in the face of evil. 

Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death, and know of a certainty, that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death. He and his are not neglected by the gods; nor has my own approaching end happened by mere chance. But I see clearly that the time had arrived when it was better for me to die and be released from trouble; wherefore the oracle gave no sign. For which reason, also, I am not angry with my condemners, or with my accusers; they have done me no harm, although they did not mean to do me any good; and for this I may gently blame them.

Death is seen here as  an escape from our troubles. To those he leaves behind, Socrates asks them to guide his sons properly:

Still I have a favour to ask of them. When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to punish them; and I would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything, more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing,--then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing. And if you do this, both I and my sons will have received justice at your hands.

The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways--I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.

A memorable conclusion, wondrously open-ended. Humans don’t know whether it is better to die for one’s principles or to go on living in a world of compromise and capitulation. Socrates reminds us that, although the knowledge may be uncertain, the choice is yours to make. 

So ends the Apology. I hope you enjoyed the play-by-play commentary. In upcoming blog posts I may be adding further comments or essays on aspects and implications of the text. I might also include perspectives from other philosophers, historians, and writers who have thought about the significance of the Apology. 




Works Cited


Nails, Debra. "Socrates." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (7 Nov. 2009). Edward N. Zalta (ed.).Web.

Smith, Sir William, ed. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology: Earinus-Nyx. Google eBook. London: J. Murray, 1880. Web.

Linder, Douglas. "The Three Accusers of Socrates." Trial of Socrates. (2002). University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. Web.