Category: Works of Plato

Socrates’ Apology

The Apology belongs to Plato’s texts which are triggered by and devoted to the history of Socrates’ trial (such as the Euthyphro, the Crito and the Phaedo). It is regarded as an early work. There is no consensus regarding the historical basis of the work

Content-Structure of the dialogue

From a formal point of view, the Apology is a defense speech through which Socrates presents himself to his judges in order to remove the charges that had been pressed against him, according to which Socrates was

"Socrates transgresses the laws, because he corrupts the young, and does not believe in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other new divinities" 24b-c

The speaker, however, chooses to begin his defense by answering to what he himself describes as earlier accusations, which connect Socrates to the people who are later described as natural philosophers and sophists. This connection would be treated incriminating evidence, insofar as some members of the latter group (just as also Socrates in Aristophanes) had questioned the existence of the traditional gods. Without explicitly addressing this point, Socrates tries to differentiate his own attitude from that of the professional teachers of wisdom. What some people have regarded as teaching (and, hence also, as the court may judge, as corruption of the young) is connected to a practice that Socrates developed in the course of his attempt to decipher the oracle Pythia had given to Chaerephon, according to which no one surpassed Socrates in wisdom. By examining those who were regarded as wise, Socrates started to realize their inadequacy but also his own superiority since he, unlike them, was aware of his own limits as human as well as of his inferiority in relation to the god. Such invocations (although they never refer to any of the gods of traditional religion) may be considered as attempts to highlight Socrates’ piety.

Socrates starts to address the official accusation with a literary trick that allows the author of the speech to present the Socratic technique of elenchus, which Socrates practices on his accuser Meletus. Of particular interest is the point in which Socrates attributes to Meletus a slightly modified formulation of the charge, which combines the accusation concerning corruption with that concerning the introduction of new divinities (26b).

This modification allows Socrates to divert from the important question of the corruption of the young or to treat it as a consequence of the introduction of new divinities. In relation to the last point, Socrates’ argument seems rather inadequate, since it is limited to the idea that his belief in divinities, even in new ones, implies, insofar as divinities belong to the genus of gods, belief in gods.

The question of the corruption of the young is alluded to only in an indirect way, when Socrates argues that he was not a teacher of anyone (33a)

The limited persuasive power Socrates’ arguments have to counter the accusations against him has led readers of the text, already since antiquity, to the suggestion that the aim of his speech is not to achieve the acquittal of the accused but rather to accuse the judges for turning against a man like Socrates and to present his picture, by praising an important philosopher. Part of this picture is a different conception of piety, but also of the nature of the god to whom Socrates obeys. The latter is illustrated in Socrates’ statement that, even if the Athenians left him free on the condition that he would stop practicing philosophy he would be obliged to obey the god rather than the city. At this point he compares himself with a godsent gadfly which was attached to a horse that was “large and well bred but sluggish because of its size” (30e). Here possibly lies the most important contribution of the text: philosophical activity, as Socrates sees it, is the order of a god, a god, however, who differs dramatically from those that the Athenians observe. The last part of the speech begins after the verdict of condemnation has been announced (36a). According to the procedure, Socrates proposed an alternative penalty, that seems appropriate to him. He points to the benefits Athens enjoys from his presence and, turning on the ambiguity of the word τιμή (which, according to the context may refer to punishment or to honor) he at first introduces the provocatory proposal to receive free meals in the prytaneum, which was an honor the Athenians gave to the victors of the Olympic games; he then proposes a fine of thirty minas, an huge amount of money, which, however, his friends would be prepared to pay. But he warns, that in case that the Athenians asked him to leave the city and to stop talking he would refuse because “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” (38a)

Closing his speech (39e-42a), Socrates addresses the only judges that deserve their titles, who, according to the text, are those who voted in favor of his acquittal. With them he wishes to share his thoughts about death, saying that it is either a state in which one ceases to exist and thus to feel anything, or, according to tradition, to a migration to a place of true judgment, where Socrates has nothing to fear.

Historical basis of the text

Many scholars regard the Apology as a largely reliable version of the speech Socrates actually gave on his trial. Others, however, assume that Plato did not intend to report on what his teacher said but rather to turn on the story of his death in order to (a) present a portrait of Socrates; (b) to provoke the readers, making each of them think how they would vote if they were among the members of the jury (thus, indirectly, protesting against their deed); or (c) to experiment with a popular literary genre which will become the target of the criticism of dialogues that turn against those who practice professional logography according to the orders of their clients.

Intertextuality

Regardless of the interpretation we might adopt, we will have to take into account that Plato’s Apology is among a series of texts that were composed in the wake of Socrates’ trial, either as defense speeches or as speeches of indictment.

There is an important departure of the Platonic text from Xenophon’s Apology (both in terms of content but also in terms of the latter’s formal affinity to a defense speech).

Contemporary research has brought to light interesting similarities between Socrates Apology by Plato and the Defense of Palamedes by Gorgias. The assessment of these similarities of course turns on Plato’s criticism against Gorgias. Moreover, the Apology is considered as the model Isocrates used when he wrote his Antidosis, targeting his criticism against the Platonic conception of philosophy.

Author: Chloe Balla
  • Burnyeat, M.F. "The Impiety of Socrates." Ancient Philosophy 17 (1998)
  • Reeve, C.D.C. Socrates in the Apology. Indianapolis, 1989.
  • Slings, S.R., De Strycker, E. Plato’s Apology of Socrates. Leiden, 1994.
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