NOTES ON PLATO'S APOLOGY
By Dr. Dave Yount
Mesa Community College
I. Plato's Apology (The Greek word for “apology” (apologia) can also be translated “defense” as well and is more apt in this case, so do not think that Socrates will be showing sorrow anywhere in the Apology):
A. Setting the stage for the trial:
1. Trial procedure: 501 jurors (all men - property owners, no judge per se, and the jurors could either show up for the trial or not – Socrates’ trial was popular, so this was an unusually large jury). First phase: They judge whether or not the accused is guilty. Then, if guilty, the prosecution proposes a penalty, the defense proposes a penalty, and the jury decides what penalty the defendant will receive. There was a water clock, and each side had until the water ran out to make their case. Plato criticizes law courts for this practice elsewhere in other dialogues.
2. The Votes: There was a really close vote for Socrates' guilt [by 29 votes (30a): 263 for guilt to 234 for acquittal; 4 abstained], but the vote for putting him to death (after his second speech) was very lopsided (he voted to be put up by the state in a place reserved for distinguished war heroes) [340 for guilt to 160 for acquittal; 1 abstained].
3. Socrates’ “first accusers” (or older accusers) versus his “later accusers” (or new accusers) (18a). One of the numerous “first accusers” Socrates refers to at 18c-d is Aristophanes (he mentions him at 19c), a poet who wrote The Clouds. He has Socrates swinging from a basket, discussing silly things, and teaching his students to beat their parents (based on fallacious reasoning). This was probably most juror’s initial impressions of Socrates. The "New accusers" of Socrates: Meletus (poet), Lycon (orator), & Anytus (craftsman/politician). (23e) These new accusers are the plaintiffs of the trial.
B. Socrates' claims in the Apology:
1. The Excellent Judge: The excellence of a judge lies in concentrating his attention on whether what the plaintiff or defendant says is just or not (18a). He will criticize some of the jurors later for not being “real judges” (see below).
2. Socrates v. the First Accusers: Socrates says that people such as Aristophanes persuaded many of the jurors and accused him falsely, saying that “there is a man called Socrates, a wise man, a student of all things in the sky and below the earth, who makes the worse argument the stronger” (18b-c), and who “teaches these same things to others (19b). Socrates says that this is all false – let anyone tell me that I studied these things – I have not (paraphrasing 19d); I have not taught anyone for a fee, like Gorgias, Prodicus, and Hippias (Sophists – rhetoricians who got paid to make you look good in court or politics, not caring for the truth per se) (19d-e).
3. Who is the Ethics Expert? Socrates told Callias (a Sophist), There are experts in raising colts/calves - breeders/farmers. Who is the expert in human and social excellence (virtue)? (20a-b). Callias answered, Evenus of Paros, and Socrates says that he does not have that knowledge (20c). The implication here is that few, if any, know what virtue is, and his current prosecutors do not know what virtue is – so why are they bothering to bring him to court?
4. Delphic Oracle: Socrates says that he can use the Delphic Oracle (a priestess who reports what Apollo sees of the future) as a witness for why he has the reputation of being a wise man and what the nature of his wisdom is, if he has it (20e-21a). Socrates’ friend, Chairephon asked the oracle if there was anyone wiser in Greece than Socrates, and the answer was returned, “No one is wiser than Socrates” (21a). Socrates initially thought the oracle was mistaken (21b). He tries to find someone wiser than he is. But to no avail. After he would “examine,” that is, ask questions of others who would say that they know something, they came to dislike Socrates and others did as well (21d-e). "Neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know. So I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think what I do not know" (21d). Socrates realized that he was becoming unpopular, but he thought it was really important to disprove or prove the oracle’s claim (21e). He asked men of "high reputation" or politics (they were the most deficient in knowledge – 22a), poets (anyone on the street could explain their poems better than them – so the poets must be inspired and have no knowledge of what they write – 22b-c), tragedy writers, and craftspersons (22a-c). The craftspersons did know many fine things, but thought that because they were good at their craft, that they were experts at everything else (22d). Socrates was happy to be as he is, and not to be someone who thinks he knows something when he really does not (22c). Because of the oracle, Socrates says, “I do not have the leisure to engage in public affairs to any extent, nor indeed to look after my own, but I live in great poverty because of my service to the god” (23b).
5. The earlier accusers’ corruption of the youth Charge: Young men follow Socrates around of their own free will, having leisure, the sons of the very rich, and they take pleasure in hearing people questioned; they themselves imitate me and try to question others. They find many people who think they have knowledge when they do not. The people questioned get angry not with themselves, but with Socrates and say “That man Socrates is a pestilential fellow who corrupts the young” (23c-d). They cannot say what Socrates teaches, since they do not know, so they switch their charge to “philosophers discuss things in the sky and things below the earth,” and “not believing in the gods”, and “making the worse the stronger argument” (23d). It is from these people that Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon have charged me with these charges (23e). This is the end of Socrates’ defense against the earlier accusers (24b).
6. The (official) charges of the later accusers: “Corrupting the young, and not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other new divinities” (24b).
7. Socrates’ response against the charges in general: Meletus is guilty of dealing frivolously with serious matters, of irresponsibly bringing people into court, and of professing to be seriously concerned with things about none of which he has ever cared (24c). (There is an intended pun here in “mele,” the Greek word for ‘care.’)
8. Socrates’ arguments against the “corruption of the youth” charge:
ARG 1: Socrates and Meletus agree that it is of great importance that our young men be as good as possible (24d). Socrates asks who improves the young, and says that Meletus charges Socrates as the harm of the young. Meletus does not immediately answer (and Socrates asks if he is not ashamed for bringing him into court, showing that he really doesn’t care about these matters), but Meletus finally answers, “The laws” (24d-e). Socrates says the laws are not persons, and asks who has knowledge of the laws, and Meletus answers, “The jury” (24e). Meletus argues that every jury member, the Assembly, the Council, and the audience (and Socrates generalizes this to every Athenian and Meletus agrees) educates and improves the young (24e-25a). Socrates responds (paraphrasing): “Does this apply to horses? That is, do all men improve horses and one individual corrupts them? Or is it rather that one individual, the horsebreeder, improves them and the majority, corrupt them? It would be a very happy state of affairs if only one person corrupted the youth and many improved them (25b). Meletus does not answer, so Socrates concludes that Meletus has given no real thought to either the youth or the subjects relevant to the charges (25c).
ARG 2: Socrates then continues, is it better for a man to live among good or wicked fellow-citizens; do not the wicked do some harm to those who are ever closest to them, whereas good people benefit them? Meletus affirms this. Socrates then asks, “Does the man exist who would rather be harmed than benefited by his associates?” Meletus answers, “Of course not.” So you accuse me of corrupting the young and making them worse willingly or unwillingly? Meletus answers, “Willingly” (25c-d). Socrates responds, “Are you so much wiser at your age than I am at mine that you understand that wicked people always do some harm to their closest neighbours while good people do them good, but I have reached such a pitch of ignorance that I do not realize this, namely that if I make one of my associates wicked I run the risk of being harmed by him so that I do such a great evil deliberately …? … Either I do not corrupt the young or, if I do, it is unwillingly, and you are lying in either case. Now if I corrupt the young unwillingly, the law does not require you to bring people to court for such unwillingly wrongdoings, but to get hold of them privately, to instruct them and exhort them; for clearly, if I learn better, I shall cease to do what I am doing unwillingly” (25d-26a). [“No one errs willingly.” We all desire happiness, not unhappiness; when we err, we have false beliefs that make us think that an action is what will bring us happiness. So it is only ignorance that leads us away from happiness, and not our desire. If no one errs willingly, then Socrates isn't harming others willingly. If he is harming the youth, he is not consciously trying to do so. So someone who recognizes that Socrates is harming someone should just point out why he's harming others, and he'll stop. Socrates assumes that harming others harms one's soul (the harmer), and always will come back to oneself in one way or other.]
ARG 3: “I have never been anyone’s teacher.” If people want to listen to Socrates, he lets them do so, but he does not get paid. “And I cannot justly be held responsible for the good or bad conduct of these people, as I never promised to teach them anything and have not done so.” If anyone says that I am, he is lying (33a-b).
ARG 4: If I have corrupted the young, surely Meletus et al. could produce a witness who has been harmed. If not the person himself, how about the family members? There are lots of people here who regularly hear me argue (lists many present). There’s no witness to support this charge, so I’m innocent. In fact, these people are here to come to the help of their “corrupter”! (33d-34b)
9. Socrates’ argument against the “atheism/non-Athenian gods” charge:
ARG 1: At 26b, Socrates confirms the charge again, that he teaches the young “not to believe in the gods in whom the city believes but in other new divinities.” Socrates asks Meletus to clarify the charge, and Meletus says that it’s that Socrates does not believe in gods at all, and that this is what he teaches to others, and adds that Socrates believes that the sun is stone and the moon earth. Socrates asks Meletus if he thinks he is prosecuting Anaxagoras since that view of the planets is his. Socrates says Meletus is contradicting himself by saying that Socrates does not believe in gods and believes in gods (26c-27a). Socrates then goes on to ask if anyone believes in human affairs but not in humans, in equine affairs but not in horses, in flute music but not in flute players, and then asks if, similarly, any man believes in divine activities but not in divinities? Meletus is forced to answer by the jury and answers no. Socrates then reviews: Meletus has said in his deposition that Socrates believes in divine activities, and now he is saying that I do not believe in divinities at all (27b-d). He then says that he should not have to spend much more time on this defense to show that he is not guilty of the charges of Meletus, and that what he has said is sufficient, and then makes a prediction that Meletus and Anytus will not be his undoing, if he is undone, but the slanders and envy of many people (28a).
ARG 2 (right before he’s convicted): “I do believe in [the gods] as none of my accusers do” (35d).
10. Is Socrates not ashamed to be in court or be a philosopher? On the contrary! “Someone might say, ‘Are you not ashamed, Socrates, to have followed the kind of occupation that has led to your being now in danger of death?’ However, I should be right to reply to him: ‘You are wrong, sir, if you think that a man who is any good at all should take into account the risk of life or death; he should look to this only in his actions, whether he is acting like a good or a bad man.’ . . . This is the truth of the matter, gentlemen of the jury: wherever a man has taken a position that he believes to be best, or has been placed by his commander, there he must I think remain and face danger, without a thought for death or anything else, rather than disgrace.” (28b-d). We should fear dishonor or being a bad person more than we should fear death. A good soul is a just soul, and a just soul transcends the demands of the body (e.g., Socrates in war would withstand cold and not complain, according to the men with whom he served; it was also said that he could hold much alcohol without losing his ability to reason). So Socrates says that it would have been disgraceful if Socrates would have left his post in the war, or ceased practicing philosophy out of fear of death or anything else (28e-29a).
11. Fearing death is a kind of ignorance: “To fear death … is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils” (29a).
12. Socrates says he knows something! “I do know … that it is shameful and wicked to do wrong, to disobey one's superiors, be he god or man” (29b). He then says that he WILL fear what he knows is bad (i.e., dishonor), but not what he thinks may not be good (i.e., death).
13. Socrates defies the jury through his love of philosophy: If the jury would acquit Socrates, but only on the condition that he spends no more time on this investigation and does not practice philosophy, and if caught, he would be put to death, Socrates responds, “I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy” (29c-d). Compare 37e-38a: “someone might say: But Socrates, if you leave us [i.e., if you are exiled or banished from Athens] will you not be able to live quietly, without talking? … If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the god, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others …, you will believe me even less” (37e-38a).
14. Socrates’ exhortation to care for the soul: Socrates says that he will continue asking Athenians, “Are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom and truth, or the best possible state of your soul? … Be sure that this is what the god orders me to do, and I think there is no greater blessing for the city than my service to the god. For I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul…: ‘Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence brings about wealth and all other public and private blessings for men’” (29e-30b).
15. Socrates warns the jury that they will harm themselves more than him if they put him to death! “Be sure that if you kill the sort of man I say I am, you will not harm me more than yourselves. Neither Meletus nor Anytus can harm me in any way; he could not harm me, for I do not think it is permitted that a better man be harmed by a worse; certainly he might kill me, or perhaps banish or disenfranchise me, which he and maybe others think to be great harm, but I do not think so. I think he is doing himself much greater harm doing what he is doing now, attempting to have a man executed unjustly” (30c-d). This is the first place in which Socrates indirectly says that he believes he is innocent and being unjustly accused. The second comes later in the Apology, and the third comes in the Crito. He continues the warning: Socrates says he’s defending the jury instead of himself, “to prevent you from wrongdoing by mistreating the god’s gift to you by condemning me; for if you kill me you will not easily find another like me” (30d-e).
16. Socrates, the annoying gadfly: Socrates says the gods have attached him to Athens, and likens himself to a gadfly - as if Athens is a great and noble horse, and he tries to rouse and awake them from being sluggish or unreflective by means of persuasion and reproach (30e-31a). He’s a gift to Athens because “it does not seem like human nature for me to have neglected all my own affairs and to have tolerated this neglect now for so many years while I was always concerned with you, approaching each of you like a father or an elder brother to persuade you to care for virtue” (31a-b).
17. Socrates has a ‘divine sign’ from a god: “This began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but it never encourages me to do anything” (31d). He also mentions having dreams that enjoin him to examine others in the agora. He says that his divine sign “is what has prevented me from taking part in public affairs, and I think it was quite right to prevent me. Be sure … that if I had long attempted to take part in politics, I should have died long ago, and benefited neither you nor myself. …A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time” (31d-32a).
18. Socrates gives two examples of his not fearing death: “I will not yield to any man contrary to what is right, for fear of death, even if I should die at once for not yielding” (32a).
EX1: Socrates argued as a member of a Council that they should not do something that was illegal (and Athens recognized this later). He says, “The orators were ready to prosecute me and take me away … but I thought I should run any risk on the side of law and justice rather than to join you, for fear of prison or death, when you engaged in an unjust course” (32b-c).
EX2: The Thirty Tyrants (who temporarily ruled Athens for about 9 months in 404-403 before democracy was restored) ordered Socrates and four others to bring Leon from Salamis, who was to be executed. Socrates went home, because “death is something I couldn’t care less about, but that my whole concern is not to do anything unjust or impious” (32c-d). The government fell right after that, so that’s why Socrates was not executed for failing to retrieve Leon.
19. Socrates is not the typical defendant: The typical defendant begs and implores the jury with many tears, brings in his children and his many friends and family into court to arouse as much pity as he can (and they do this on minor charges), but I do none of these things, even though I run the ultimate risk (34c). You might be angry with me and cast your vote against me in anger. Let me tell you why I do not do what is customary: I do have three sons, one adolescent and two children, but I do not bring them here, not out of disrespect to you, or through arrogance. “It does not seem right to me to do these things, especially at my age and with my reputation. For it is generally believed, whether it be true or false, that in certain respects Socrates is superior to the majority of men” (34e-35a). So it would be a disgrace were Socrates to behave like that. In fact, you jurors should convict the man who does these “pitiful dramatic in court” in order to uphold Athens’ great reputation and not make Athens a laughingstock, rather than the man who keeps quiet (35a-b). A good person should not have to grovel in court in order to live, if he or she has done nothing wrong.
Second Phase (Socrates is found guilty as charged) (35e-38b):
1. Socrates proposes three punishments as the alternative to death:
First penalty: “Clearly it should be a penalty I deserve” (36b). He has deliberately “neglected what occupies most people: wealth, household affairs, the position of general or public orator or … the political clubs,” urged the Athenians to practice virtue and care for their soul more than their body, etc. (36b-c). “What do I deserve for being such man? Some good. … Nothing is more suitable … than for such a man to be fed in the Prytaneum, much more suitable for him than for any one of you who has won a victory at Olympia…. The Olympian victor make you think yourself happy; I make you happy. …. So if I must make a just assessment of what I deserve, I assess it at this: free meals in the Prytaneum” (36d-37a).
Second Penalty: Then later he says, “If I had any money, I would assess the penalty at the amount I could pay, for that would not hurt me, but I have none … perhaps I could pay you one mina of silver” (38b). One mina = 100 drachmas, and 1 drachma was the standard daily wage of a laborer; so one mina is a considerable sum!
Third Penalty: Then he says, “Plato here … and Crito and Critoboulus and Apollodorus bid me put the penalty at thirty minae, and they will stand surety for the money” (38b). This is his final assessment.
2. Socrates’ lack of time to defend himself and rejection of other assessments: Socrates says he’s not asking for meals out of arrogance, but that, “I am convinced that I never willingly wrong anyone, but I am not convincing you of this, for we have talked together but a short time” (37a). The trial only lasts a day. “Since I am convinced that I wrong no one, I am not likely to wrong myself, to say that I deserve some evil and to make some such assessment against myself” (37b). Why should he not choose imprisonment? “Why should I live in prison, always subjected to the ruling magistrates” (37c). “A fine, and imprisonment until I pay it? That would be the same thing for me, as I have no money” (37c). Socrates is probably being sarcastic when he says that he’d lead a “fine life at my age” being driven out of city after city, since the young and the citizens would probably react in much the same way as they did in Athens (37c-e).
3. The unexamined life is not worth living for humans (38a). What is an unexamined life? A life during which you never raise questions about what you're doing and why - unreflective life of habit. What is an examined life? Reflective life - one asks questions about what one is doing and why - we examine actions on the basis of values and morality and an examination of those values. (39c "giving an account of your life.") What does the whole phrase mean? An unexamined life is one in which a human's full potential is not fulfilled or realized.
Third Phase (Socrates is sentenced to death) (38c-42a):
To the jurors who voted for the conviction of Socrates:
1. Socrates’ prediction and prophesy: The prediction: “…you will acquire the reputation and the guilt, in the eyes of those who want to denigrate the city, of having killed Socrates, a wise man, for they who want to revile you will say that I am wise even if I am not” (38d). Athens still regrets putting Socrates to death to this day. Much of the whole world knows that they put Socrates to death on what today might be called “trumped up” charges.
The prophesy: “Vengeance will come upon you immediately after my death, a vengeance much harder to bear than that which you took in killing me. You did this in the belief that you would avoid giving an account of your life, but I maintain that quite the opposite will happen to you” (39c). Many people, probably young, will question the Athenians and upset them even more than Socrates. He concludes this point: “it is best and easiest not to discredit others but to prepare oneself to be as good as possible” (39d).
2. I would have died soon anyway, if you had waited a little while (38d).
3. Socrates does not regret his defense: Perhaps you think that I regret not crying and bringing my family in to appeal to pity. Socrates says that he does not “now regret the nature of my defense. I would much rather die after this kind of defense than live after making the other kind. Neither I nor any other man should, on trial or in war, contrive to avoid death at any cost” (38e-39a). “It is not difficult to avoid death … it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death” (39a-b). “I leave you now, condemned to death by you, but they are condemned by truth to wickedness and injustice” (39b).
To the jurors who voted for the acquittal of Socrates:
4. “You I would rightly call judges.” (40a) “… gentlemen, stay with me awhile, for nothing prevents us from talking to each other while it is allowed” (39e-40a).
5. Socrates: My divine sign did not oppose me through my defense. “At all previous times my usual mantic sign frequently opposed me, even in small matters, when I was about to do something wrong, but now that, as you can see for yourselves, I was faced with what one might think, and what is generally thought to be, the worst of evils, my divine sign has not opposed me, either when I left home at dawn, or when I came into court, or at any time that I was about to say something during my speech” (40a-b). Why? See the next point:
6. Death might be a blessing: “What has happened to me may well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be an evil are certainly mistaken. … there is good hope that death is a blessing, for it is one of two things: either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or it is, as we are told, a change and a relocating for the soul from here to another place. If it is complete lack of perception, like a dreamless sleep, then death would be a great advantage. …If death is like this I say it is an advantage, for all eternity would then seem to be no more than a single night” (40b-d). A night of dreamless sleep is great! Socrates considers the other option: “If, on the other hand, death is a change from here to another place, and what we are told is true and all who have died are there, what greater blessing could there be, gentleman of the jury? … what would one of you give to keep company with Orpheus and Musaeus, Hesiod and Homer? I am willing to die many times if that is true” (40e-41a). He continues to say how pleasant it would be to examine souls in the afterlife (41b-c).
7. Proof that Socrates thinks he’s innocent (Part II (Part I is in the first Phase of the Trial (#15 above), Part III appears in the Crito)? I would love to examine Palamedes and Ajax, son of Telamon, “and any other of the men of old who died through an unjust conviction, to compare my experience with theirs.” (41b).
8. A good man cannot be harmed: “You too must be of good hope as regards death … and keep this one truth in mind, that a good man cannot be harmed either in life or in death, and that his affairs are not neglected by the gods” (44a-b).
9. Socrates’ last request of the jurors: “when my sons grow up, avenge yourselves by causing them the same kind of grief that I caused you, if you think they care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue, or if they think they are somebody when they are nobody. Reproach them as I reproach you, that they do not care for the right things and think they are worthy when they are not worthy of anything. If you do this, I shall have been treated justly treated by you, and my sons also” (41e-42a).
10. Socrates’ last words at the trial: Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the god (42a).
© 2013 by Dave Yount. All Rights Reserved.