The Defense of Socrates
Reading the Apology against its background
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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