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The Defense of Socrates

Reading the Apology against its background

Stephen Broyles
Socrates. Fresco from ancient Ephesus.


The time was 399 b.c., the place ancient Athens. Socrates was about seventy years old, and he had been accused by three citizens with the following crimes: corrupting the city’s young people, and not believing in the state gods but believing in other new spiritual things instead.

The Apology

What Socrates had to say to the jury who tried him is presented in the Apology of Plato. The word “apology” has been taken directly from Greek, where to made an apologia is not to say you are sorry for a mistake, but to present a case in your defense.

The Apology falls into three parts. The first and longest part is Socrates’ defense before the court. Here he explains the source of old prejudices against him and through cross-examination of one of his accusers shows that the charges against him are baseless. The jury—usually said to consist of 500 or 501 men—finds him guilty by a narrow margin, thirty votes.

In the second part of the Apology, Socrates must propose an alternative penalty to the one his accusers are asking for. Since they are asking for his death, he has the opportunity to suggest an alternative that the jury might accept. At first he suggests free meals in the town hall, but in the end turns in the proposal for a fine of money.

Perhaps as much for his unrepentant attitude as for a concern for justice, the jury, by a much wider margin, votes that Socrates die. The third part of the Apology consists of Socrates’ remarks to the jurors after sentencing.


Reading any text requires a certain degree of literacy, and this is more noticeable when it is an ancient text. Efficiency requires getting the list of things you need to know from the piece you intend to read. So that means you jump into the Apology naked and unaided and find out what you need to bring with you next time. (Like they say about writing, maybe there is no good reading, only good rereading.)

Experience in the classroom with this text has shown me that it is a fine thing to bring two items of equipment with you. The first is some familiarity with the Sophists, who more or less set the standard for argument and presentation in the Athenian courts. The second is awareness that other people besides Plato held views of Socrates which account for the fact that the Athenians poisoned him.

The Sophists

In the mid fifth century b.c. there arose a class of men who, according to Xenephon, offered “wisdom for sale in return to all comers.” These men acquired the name Sophists, and their wisdom comprised politics, mathematics, and especially rhetoric and oratory. They maintained that worldly success could be achieved through the use of these skills, and they could impart the skills to anyone through teaching.

In Athens, advancement depended to a large degree on one’s ability to sway public opinion in the assembly of citizens. They were a difficult audience: poor speech or grammar so infuriated them that they made such a noise that the speaker had to step down. Therefore rhetoric became the chief subject of sophistic education, and very soon, perhaps from the beginning, it mattered less and less to arrive at truth than to achieve a victory.

A problem faced by Socrates and Plato therefore was the necessity of establishing faith in the power of reason, and examining the method of philosophic inquiry—that is, what kinds of argument are valid and what are not, what kinds are mere verbal tricks and spin-doctoring and what kinds really do lead us to truth, virtue, and justice.

The Apology presents Socrates with the undeviating conviction that his behavior has been just and that justice can be recognized by reasonable men. Indeed—and this is both the tragedy and the felicity of Socrates’ position—the state’s case is just, and his own case is just. Therefore he has no complaint about the jury’s decision.

The Clouds

A parody of Socrates appeared as a character in Aristophanes’ comic play The Clouds. Socrates mentions the play in the Apology as an example of the prejudices that have built up around him. The play makes fun of philosophers and presents them as sophists and high-brows. This is the sort of popular misrepresentation Socrates and Plato had to put up with.

In the play, Strepsiades, a country bumpkin, is being ruined financially by his city-born wife and his horse-racing son. To get out of paying his debts, he attends Socrates’ Brain Factory to learn the sort of logic that argues unjustly and prevails. Through the application of sophistic methods, the man does wiggle out of paying his bills. But his son makes use of the same methods to beat his father and justify it, and to threaten to beat his mother and justify that, too. In distress at his own foolishness, the man sets fire to the Brain Factory, crying out that the brainy ones are guilty of blaspheming the gods.

Socrates refers to the play as illustrating the kind of gossip that got him a bad name: “It is just what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes, 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.”

An excerpt from the play will show the kind of farcical, preadolescent humor some Athenians were ready, apparently, to accept as truth.

Reading the Apology

For a recent event at the Andreas Center, I prepared a version of the Apology for reading aloud, partly as a monologue, partly as a play. Working from the 1871 translation by Benjamin Jowett, I broke the piece into smaller divisions with descriptive headings, and lightly (and sporadically) edited the punctuation and paragraph division.

Those of us at the reading found—some anew and others for the first time—that the short retelling of Socrates’ appearance before the court contained humor, reason, and powerful emotions.

Here are links to two excerpts:

How Socrates Got His Reputation: The Oracle of Apollo

Socrates Benefits the City






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