Plato: Apology

Plato’s Apology

• Socrates asserts that his accusers slander him, and have not spoken a word of truth about him. Socrates claims that he almost forgot himself when listening to the accusers’ persuasive words. Socrates declares that he is not eloquent, unless to speak eloquently is to speak truthfully. He implores the jury to consider the justice of his cause rather than the rhetoric used by both him and his accusers. “Let the judge decide justly, and the speaker speak truly.”
• Socrates states that two types of accusers slander him – ancient and recent. The ancient is most insidious because they slandered Socrates when the jury members were young and impressionable. They maliciously insinuated that Socrates does not believe in the gods because he speculates about heaven above, searches in the Earth beneath, and makes the worse appear the better cause. Therefore, Socrates will address these accusations first, though none of these types of accusers are present at the trial.
• Socrates acknowledges that many of the jury members hold an opinion according to the lies told to them by Socrates’ ancient accusers. Nevertheless, Socrates resolves to defend himself, and leaves the outcome to be determined as God wills.
• Socrates summarizes the accusation of his ancient accusers, stating that he searches into heaven and earth, makes the worse appear better, and teaches this doctrine to others. Socrates references the comic playwright Aristophanes who lampoons Socrates as a man who claims that he can walk on air and of possessing knowledge about the physical world. Socrates claims that he knows very little about natural philosophy and rarely, if ever, discusses it. He requests those in the audience who know him well to tell their neighbors whether what he says is true. Socrates pauses, and the audience agrees that Socrates does not discuss natural philosophy.
• Socrates denies the accusation that he is a teacher who takes money for his services. Socrates tells an anecdote concerning his discussion with a man named Callias. Socrates tells Callias that a horseman can improve and perfect the virtue and excellence of a horse, but then he asks Callias whether there is anyone who understands human and political virtue that can improve and perfect the virtue and excellence of Callias’ two sons. Callias responds that there is a man named Evenus, and that he charges 5 minae. Socrates feigns surprise and exclaims, happy is Evenus if he really does possess this knowledge and charges such a moderate amount. Socrates claims that he would be very proud and conceited if he possessed this kind of knowledge, but he does not.
• Socrates imagines that many of the jury members would ask, “what is the origin of these accusations against you, Socrates? For you must have behaved strangely for these accusations to arise.” Though Socrates believes the jury may laugh at him, he decides to tell the story about how he came to be known as wise and evil, and what type of wisdom, if any, he possesses. He only has wisdom which is attainable by man, not the superhuman wisdom which some claim to possess. Socrates tells of his friend, Chearephon, who walked to Delphi and asked the Oracle who was the wisest man in the world. The oracle proclaimed that Socrates was the wisest man in the world.
• When Socrates heard the prophetess’ answer, he tried to interpret the riddle, for he knew that he did not possess any knowledge, but a goddess cannot lie, so why did the goddess proclaim that he was the wisest man in the world. He endeavored to test the veracity of the oracle by finding someone who was wiser than him. Socrates went to a man who had the reputation of wisdom – a politician – but when Socrates questioned him, Socrates could not help thinking that this man was not really wise. Socrates tried to explain to the man that although he thought he was wise, and many other people regarded him as intelligent, he was not really wise. In consequence, the man, and others who overheard the conversation, hated Socrates. Socrates left the man, saying to himself as he walked away, “although I do not suppose that either of us know anything really good or beautiful, I am better off than he because he knows nothing, but thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.”
• Socrates lamented and feared trying to refute the Oracle because he was aware of the enmity and malice he evoked in the persons with whom he came in contact, but he thought that the word of God ought to be considered first, and thus he pursued in his endeavor to find a man wiser than him. However, he found that the men most in repute of wisdom were all but the most foolish, and that some inferior men were really wise and better. He next went to the poets and asked them to explain some of the meaning of some of their most elaborate passages, but Socrates discovered that any member of the jury likely could interpret the passages better than the poet himself. Thus, Socrates concludes that the poets’ ability to write does not arise from wisdom, but from divine inspiration.
• Next, Socrates went to the artisans. The artisans knew many things of which Socrates was ignorant, but because they were good workman they erroneously concluded that they knew about other high matters of which they knew nothing. Therefore, Socrates considered whether the artisans who knew some things and erroneously believed to know other things were better than Socrates who neither possessed their knowledge or their ignorance. Socrates concluded that the artisans defect overshadowed their knowledge, and thus Socrates was better off than them.
• Socrates argues that only God is wise, and that the Oracle simply uses Socrates as a symbol to reveal that the wisdom of man is worth nothing. Socrates is in utter poverty because his life is devoted to following the word of god and proving its truth by questioning every man reputed to be wise and showing that he is not.
• Rich young men come to Socrates of their own accord and listen to him examine the pretenders. Then, the young men set about to the same task, questioning men who are reputed wise. The pretenders become angry at Socrates rather than themselves when the young men expose their ignorance, and declare that Socrates is a villainous misleader of youth (Falstaff?). The pretenders malign Socrates with loud and inveterate calumnies typically attributed to philosophers, such as teaching about things in heaven and earth, not believing in the gods, and making the worse appear better. Three men formally charge Socrates – Meletus on behalf of the poets, Anytus on behalf of the craftsmen, and Lycon on behalf of the rhetoricians.
• Socrates concludes his defense against these ancient accusers and proceeds to address the accusations of the recent charges. The new charges are that Socrates is a doer of evil, a corrupter of youth, does not believe in the gods of the state, and has other new divinities of his own. Socrates denies the accusations that he is a doer of evil and corrupter of youth, he places this very charge on Meletus, who charged Socrates with this. Socrates argues that Meletus feigns zeal and interest about matters in which he never had the smallest interest, and endeavors to prove this by questioning Meletus.
• Socrates asks Meletus who the improver of youth is. Since Meletus can clearly discern who the corrupter is, he should equally be capable of identifying an improver. Meletus responds that the laws are the improver of youth. Socrates says that the laws are not people, he further asks Meletus who knows the laws. Meletus asserts that the judges know the laws. Socrates asks if all of the judges know the laws. Meletus replies affirmatively. Socrates asks if the audience and senators and citizens also improve the youth. Meletus says yes. Socrates concludes that every Athenian improves the youth except himself, Socrates is the lone corrupter. Meletus agrees.
• Socrates then asks everyone to consider if that also holds true for horses. Does one man harm them while the whole world does them harm? On the contrary, only the horseman does him good, while the other persons of the world do harm. Is not this true for other animals too? Yes. Socrates exclaims that the youth would be very fortunate to have only one corrupter and the rest of the world as improvers. Thus, Socrates concludes that Meletus has sufficiently displayed his ignorance and lack of interest concerning the corruption of youth. (Analyze this passage. The logic in this argument is flawed.)
• The good do their neighbors good, and the bad do them evil? Yes. Does anyone like to be injured? No. Do you allege that I corrupt the youth intentionally or unintentionally? Intentionally. Why would I intentionally corrupt an individual with whom I live if I am very likely to be harmed by them? Therefore, either Socrates does not corrupt the youth, or he corrupts them unintentionally. If unintentionally, then Meletus should have drawn Socrates aside and privately admonished him and urged him to change his ways, Meletus should not have publically indicted him in court which is not a place of instruction but of punishment.
• Thus, Socrates proves that Meletus had no interest in the corruption of the youth. However, Socrates wants to know in what way Meletus charges him with corrupting the youth. Socrates asks Meletus if he accuses Socrates of teaching the youth not to worship or acknowledge the gods of the state, but instead to worship new divinities created by Socrates. Meletus affirms this is what he accuses Socrates of doing. Socrates asks whether Meletus means that Socrates believes in some gods or whether he is a complete atheist. Meletus states that Socrates is a complete atheist, and does not believe in the godhead of the sun and moon which is the common creed of all men. Meletus maintains that Socrates believes the sun is a stone and the moon is the earth. Socrates answers that Meletus is confusing him with Anaxagoras, who has written those doctrines in his books. Furthermore, these doctrines are often exhibited in the theater. If Socrates claimed to be the originator of these theories, then people would laugh at him for being an obvious liar.
• Socrates argues that Meletus’ indictment is inconsistent. Socrates states that no man can believe in the existence of human things and not humans, believe in the existence of horsemanship and not horses, and believe in flute-playing but not in flutes. Then, he inquires of Meletus whether a man can believe in spiritual and divine agencies but not in spirits or demigods. Meletus answers no. Socrates exposes the contradiction in Meletus’ indictment – Meletus accuses Socrates of teaching and believing in divine or spiritual agencies but also not believing in them.
• Socrates concludes his defense against Meletus, but acknowledges that he has many detractors, and if he is destined to be destroyed, his many detractors will precipitate it. The envy and detraction of the whole world, which has been the death of many good men, and will probably be the death of many more, will destroy Socrates. There is no danger in him being the last man destroyed by envy.
• Socrates assumes that some members of the audience are inclined to inquire whether Socrates is ashamed to live a life likely to bring him to an untimely end. Socrates answers that one ought not to calculate the chances of living or dying; he ought to only consider whether what he is doing is right or wrong- the actions of a good man or bad man. Achilles despised danger and death in comparison with disgrace. When Achilles mother told him that if he avenged Patroclus’ death, then Fate would come for him next, Achilles despised death and feared to live in dishonor if he did not avenge his friend’s death. One should not think of death or danger, only of disgrace.
• Socrates conceives and imagines that God commands him to fulfill the philosopher’s mission, and hence he will persist in his wonted manner. Fear of death is a pretense of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being but the appearance of knowing the unknown. Death, which men fear as the greatest of evils, might be the greatest of goods. Socrates does not know what will happen after death, but he does know that to disobey the command of God is dishonorable, and Socrates will never avoid a possible good or evil to accept a known disgrace. Therefore, if the jury members determine to release Socrates upon condition that Socrates abjure philosophizing, Socrates will not abide by their decision. He will continue to philosophize and exhort Athenians to improve their life. He will ask Athenians why they care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money, honor, and reputation, and care so little for wisdom and truth and the improvement of the soul. Socrates will reproach those men who claim to be virtuous, but are not, and inform them that they undervalue the greater and overvalue the lesser. Socrates believes that he is the greatest gift Athens has ever received because he teaches all Athenians to not think about their persons or property, but firstly and chiefly to care about the improvement of their souls. Virtue is not given by money. From virtue comes wealth and every other good of man
• Socrates asserts that if the jury condemns him to death, they will injure themselves more than they will injure Socrates. A man deprive another of civil rights, drive him to exile, or even kill him, but Socrates does not agree that the wicked man does the innocent man any harm, for the evil of unjustly taking another man’s life is greater far. Socrates compares himself to a gadfly sent by God to arouse the steed which is Athens. Socrates exhorts Athens to regard virtue, and if Athens kills him, then they are doing themselves a great disservice. Socrates adduces his poverty as proof that he is given to Athens by god, for if he was not, then he would merely be concerned with his own affairs, but not even Socrates’ accusers claim that Socrates sought payment for his teachings. Socrates poverty is witness to this.
• Why doesn’t Socrates become a politician and advise the whole state of Athens rather than coming to each person individually? Socrates answers that if he had engaged in politics, then he would have perished long ago and would not have done good to either Athens or himself. Socrates believes that any man who goes to war with the multitude, and honestly struggles against the commission of injustice will ultimately not be capable of saving his life. He must have a private station, not a public one, if he wishes to do some good and oppose injustice.
• Socrates cites examples in his life that prove he never partook in injustice from fear of danger or death. He tells of how he was the only man who opposed the proposal to try generals together instead of separately, generals who had refused to take up the bodies of the slain after a battle. The orators threatened to impeach and imprison Socrates, but Socrates decided to run the risk because he knew that he had justice on his side. This occurred during the days of democracy. In the days of the Thirty, the oligarchy asked him and four other men to bring Leon of Salamis before them so that they could execute him. While the four other men retrieved Leon, Socrates walked quietly home. Socrates would certainly have been killed for disobeying the Thirty had they not lost their power soon afterwards. The oppressive arm of the Thirty did not frighten him into doing an injustice.
• From these examples, Socrates concludes that he could not have possibly survived these many years if he had remained a public figure because he always supports the right and just, who are often unjustly persecuted. Any man may come to hear Socrates while he is pursuing his philosophical mission – young and old, rich and poor, good and bad. He never seeks payment. Whether a man who has listened to Socrates is good or bad should not be laid to Socrates’ charge because Socrates does not teach anything.
• Why do people delight in conversing and listening to Socrates? Socrates answers that there is great amusement in listening to him examine the pretenders to wisdom. And this is a duty which god has imposed upon him, evidenced by the oracle, visions, and all other means of signifying the will of a divine being. None of the supposed corrupted youths, or their family members testify on behalf of the accusers. They rather support Socrates, the accused corrupter. Wouldn’t they or their family members take revenge on Socrates if Socrates really did corrupt them?
• Socrates supposes that some members of the jury might wonder why Socrates does not cry or bring his three sons into the court to plead upon his behalf and appeal to the sympathies of the jury. Socrates criticizes this behavior, stating that it is shameful and portrays Athens as a city of women. Socrates has seen men who have been condemned behave in the strangest manner; seeming to fancy that they would suffer something dreadful if they died, and that only if the jury would allow them to live, then they would be immortal. This is dishonorable both to the man and the state of Athens. The jury ought not to be moved by such spectacles, but rather discourage the shameful behavior by condemning those who employ such tactics.
• The jury’s duty is not to make a present of justice, but to give judgment according to the laws, and not according to his own pleasure. Socrates concludes his defense, and the jury finds him guilty.
• Socrates is not grieved at the vote of condemnation. He is surprised that the vote was as close as it was.
• Socrates’ accusers propose death as a penalty. Socrates proposes maintenance in the Pyrtaneam so that he can continue to instruct Athenians to look to themselves, and seek wisdom and virtue before private interests. The winners of the chariot races were often rewarded maintenance at the Pyrtaneam, but whereas those racers only give Athenians the appearance of happiness, Socrates gives them the reality of happiness.
• Socrates is convinced that he has done no wrong, and thus he will not do himself wrong by proposing a certain punishment.
• Socrates rejects exile because he believes that god has imposed a duty upon him to exhort others to examine their lives and search for wisdom and truth and to perfect their souls. Socrates believes that the greatest good of man is to daily converse about virtue because the unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates proposes a fine of 30 minae, but the jury condemns him to death.
• Socrates reproaches the jury and warns them that many other men will reproach them in the future. He explains that they could have avoided future enmity if they had only waited a little longer because Socrates is old and near death. Socrates reiterates that a man ought not to use every means available to escape death. The difficulty is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness. His accusers have not escaped unrighteousness.
• Socrates determines to prophesy to those who condemnd him because at the hour of death, men are often blessed with prophetic power. Socrates predicts that a far heavier punishment will light upon his murderers than the punishment of death laid upon him. If his accusers believe that they can escape censure of their lives by killing Socrates and others like him, then they are wrong. The easiest and noblest way to escape censure is not by crushing others, but by improving yourself.
• Socrates tells his friends that the oracle inside of him, which opposes him whenever he is about to do something wrong, was silent throughout the entire day. Therefore, Socrates concludes that death is actually a good because the customary sign would certainly have opposed him if he was going to evil and not good.
• There is two reasons to hope that death is a good – wither death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. If you suppose there is no consciousness, then death is an unspeakable gain because it is similar to a peaceful night of sleep undisturbed by dreams. Eternity therefore is but one night. Alternatively, if death is a journey to another, then it is the greatest possible good. A man is delivered from the professors of justice in this world to the true judges who give judgment there. Man would give anything to converse with great men of the past such as Homer, Orpheus, Achilles, etc. What an infinite delight would be found in conversing and questioning the great people of the past.
• No evil can happen to a good man in life or after death. The gods do not neglect them.
• When my children grow older, if they seem to care more about riches and believe themselves to be something when they are nothing, then reprove them for not caring about that which they ought to care, and exhort them to pursue wisdom and truth and improve their souls.
• Socrates leaves his friends, stating, “We go our separate ways – I to die and you to live – which is better, only god knows.”

“I found that the men most in repute of wisdom were all but the most foolish; and that some inferior men were really wiser and better.”

“Is there anyone who understands human and political virtue that can improve and perfect the virtue and excellence of the human soul?”

“O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?”

“Fearing death is a pretense of wisdom, for what happens after death is unknown. Man fears death as if it were the greatest evil, when it might be the greatest good.”

“No man who goes to war with you or any other multitude, honestly struggling against the commission of unrighteousness and wrong in the state, will save his life; he who will really fight for the right, if he would live even for a little while, must have a private station and not a public one.”

“The greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue; the unexamined life is not worth living.”

“The difficulty is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness.”

“Either death is nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.”

“The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways – I to die, and you to live – which is better, only God knows.”

The Apology is Plato’s account of the Trial of Socrates, which was held in 399 BC. Socrates was placed on trial for allegedly corrupting the youth and not believing in the deities of the city. He was convicted and allowed himself to be condemned to death rather than grovel before the judges for a less severe sentence. His resolve to die for the sake of Truth has inspired innumerable people throughout history.

Socrates demonstrates the divine nature that humanity can attain when it searches for wisdom and when it strives to improve the soul. According to Plato, humans are capable of transforming into divine beings after death, but only if they pursue virtue during their earthly life. They ought not to value riches and other personal interests, but ought only to regard the virtue and excellence of the soul.

Perhaps the most profound question the Apology poses to the reader is the following: “who knows about human and political virtue that can teach us how to improve and perfect our souls?” Although Plato does not provide a definitive answer, Socrates does state that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue. Through this systematic practice, one can improve and perfect his soul despite the possibility that acquiring actual wisdom and truth is impossible in this life.

The Great Books of the Western World provide fantastic discussions about virtue. Modern man, by virtue of the Internet, has access to the greatest thinkers of the world. One would indeed be foolish if he did not read and examine these discourses on virtue, and contemplate the things that constitute a good life.

I will end this post as Socrates ends the Apology by commenting upon death. To fear death is a pretense of wisdom because it is the appearance of knowing the unknown. Men fear death as the greatest of evils when death might be the greatest of goods. Socrates is optimistic about the fate of the soul after death. Either death is absolute nothingness – utter unconsciousness – or there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. If the first case is true, then death is a great good, similar to a peaceful slumber undisturbed by dreams. If the second case is true, then death is a great good because we will be able to converse with and question the great men of the past. We will be able to seek knowledge and truth unhindered by the burdens of the body. We will be delivered from the professors of justice in this world into the hands of the true judges.

Complete Works of Plato


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