Art Credit: Morgan Blair, http://www.morganblair.com/seinfelds.html
-What is it?-
The Apology is a Socratic Dialogue, written by Plato, and one of the most famous accounts of Western Philosophy in history. In The Apology—whose name stems from the Latin apologia, a translation of the Greek ἀπολογία, meaning, “speaking in defense,”—Socrates faces the court of Athens and his three primary accusers, the Judges Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon. He has been brought to trial on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, and proceeds to give a complex defense of his actions to the court.
There are several key points of Socrates’ defense. They are as follows:
Socrates begins by explaining the motivation for his actions which could have been framed by the three accusers as impious. He says that his life’s purpose is to find a man wiser than himself—this has been a quest of sorts ever since a friend of his visited the Oracle at Delphi, one of the most famous messengers of the Gods in Ancient Greece. Socrates’ friend asked the Oracle who the wisest man was, and the Oracle responded that, “there is none wiser than Socrates.” Socrates did not believe this, and set out to find a man wiser than himself.
In doing so, he came across many different types of people and ended up offending most of them. He says that he visited politicians, who were held to be wise by themselves and the public opinion; poets, who praised their own poetry more than even their most devoted fans, but could not adequately explain their own imagery and pieces; and artisans, who believed because they were skilled workmen, they understood most other things.
With each example, Socrates points out that these men, and many like them, have been blinded by their own professions and the dogmatism that results from their experience within them, and comments that while these may be knowledgeable, at times to a great extent, in their own work, they know little about anything else. But instead of acknowledging this fact, they instead insist, or at least appear to believe, that their hyper-specific knowledge of their own fields of study or practice is translatable to a larger understanding of most everything else. This is where Socrates draws a line between himself and these supposed men of wisdom, and it’s the source of a famous quote of his: “What I know, is that I know nothing.” He says that because he at least understands that he knows little, or nothing—or, in one way or another, it’s an incredible possibility that he knows nothing at all—he has a slight advantage over the men who know nothing, but believe instead that they know everything. This is, in his own conception, what makes him wise. He is not tied to an orthodoxy or dogma relating specifically to one field or another—rather, because of his admission of ignorance, he is free to examine and interrogate the ideas of many men without having to pay tribute or limit himself to any one specific school of thought, profession, or practice.
-Cross-Examination of Meletus-
Meletus is one of the main accusers of Socrates, and though he isn’t the source of the accusation, he is arguably the most prominent and vocal, and is the only one other than Socrates to have any kind of dialogue in The Apology.
The charges Meletus has laid on Socrates are that he engages in impious action and corrupts the youth. Meletus elaborates these accusations by, after being questioned by Socrates, that he believes the old man to be nothing more than an atheist, and the sole corrupter of the youth of Athens.
Socrates easily obliterates these charges by pointing out that he cannot be an atheist, firstly because he sees himself on a divine mission inspired by the Oracle at Delphi. If he was a true atheist, he wouldn’t have believed the Oracle in the first place, and he wouldn’t even be in the court to begin with. And secondly, he does believe in gods—he just believes in other demi-gods and spirits alongside the original gods, which can’t exist without the original gods in the first place. A belief in one implies a belief in the other. And these demonstrated beliefs do not at all match with Meletus’ primary charge that he is an atheist.
As for the charge of corrupting the youth, Socrates says that it’s better to live among good neighbors than bad ones, and Meletus agrees. And Socrates says then that a man will not willingly seek out self-injury, and Meletus agrees. Socrates points out that corrupting his own neighbors would do nothing but bring him injury, and therefore, he can’t have been corrupting people because he would not willingly seek out his own self-injury. What’s more, the youth have influences other than Socrates—when Meletus makes the point that his teachings lead the youth to think differently about the gods and the Athenian relation to them, Socrates points out that kids can go watch plays and speeches at the local theater that do the exact same thing.
In presenting the case as such, Socrates makes the point that Meletus has convened this court in haste and poor judgment, which proves, quite ironically, he is more of a potential corrupter of the youth than Socrates, because he does not take the time to adequately prepare serious charges. Simply put, he makes the whole trial, and the legal system, look like a joke, exercised not in the capacity of justice, but of personal vendetta.
-Statement of Purpose-
One of the last parts of Socrates’ defense before the jury convenes to discuss his sentence is his his explanation as to how he views himself, and his function in relation to the state and its people, in the present day.
The old man says, simply, that he sees himself as the “gadfly of Athens,” meaning that he believes it’s his responsibility to perform actions that, while they may make the Court of Athens and other higher members of society uncomfortable, are necessary to stir the great and lumbering beast of the polis back into action and towards a more virtuous path. It’s necessary to point out that Socrates is not an anarchist or an ambling agent of chaos or Eristic discord and discourse—he does not engage in the rhetoric he practices because he wants to throw everyone off-balance and disrupt the order of the state and the lives of its people, simply to satisfy some desire for agitation.
Rather, he sees his perceived agitation as a sign that the state of Athens may be in need of a kind of jolt or wake-up call. In other Dialogues, Socrates pays tribute to the state and says he would not be the man he is without it; but that doesn’t mean that he can’t criticize, not the structure of the state, but the behavior of the people who inhabit its organs that so govern, regulate, and deliberate its functions. Socrates is engaging in this behavior because he appears to believe that the men who inhabit these positions are leading themselves astray by refusing to acknowledge their own ignorance, which in turn bleeds into a kind of frustration and unconscious, state-sanctioned abuse, an example of which can be found in the very trial Socrates is now being subject to.
Put another way, Socrates does not want to see others brought to court on the same pathological vindictive charges that have landed him in the trial. He believes the state and its various departments must operate in the highest virtue, and if the men who are installed in these positions are unable to do so, then they themselves, not the state, are unfit for their titles and the power that goes with them.
The jury condemns Socrates to die, upon which he has a few poignant remarks.
He says that such a sentence was not unexpected, and wonders if it’s not because he lacked virtue in what he said, but rather “proper” delivery in how he said it—meaning he wonders if it’s because he didn’t suck up to them and grovel, like many others often do, begging for their lives when they come to the court.
Socrates points out as well that a death sentence holds nothing severe over him as the court may think, for two reasons:
1. Condemning someone to death is not a solution to a problem, but rather an escape from accusation. He says:
“For if you think that by killing men you can avoid the accuser censuring your lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves.” (Plato, pg. 13).
In saying this, he means to convey an inclination of his own that some of the jurors who condemned him to death may have been coerced to do so. He seems to believes that more than a few of the men who voted to condemn him to death were doing so, not out of a sense of justice, but out of a sense of self-preservation. They passed the sentence in order to placate hostile parties present within the court, and perhaps outside of it, that may have accused any juror who did not vote in favor of the death penalty of impiety, or corruption, or any other charge that would in turn warrant a death sentence or at least exile.
Socrates understands the impulse of these jurors, if there were any who were so coerced, but says this is in direct opposition to true justice, and even more, to their own self-preservation. He goes on to say that such a sentence passed by these kinds of men—both the ones who coerce by threat of force, and those whose person and principles are pliant under this threat—is reflective of a cowardice endemic to men who know they could improve but choose not to, and release this frustration onto other by exaggerated displays of force.
2. Socrates is not afraid of death. He says that he believes it is one of two things: an endless sleep, in which case all eternity will be but one night, and who knows, he might wake up sooner rather than later. Or his soul will live on and move to another place, a higher realm where he will be able to converse with all the greatest heroes and legends of history, forever. Either way, he’s not worried.
The Dialogue ends with this line:
“The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways – I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.”
-Why is this important-
If the preceding Dialogue the Euthyphro is a somewhat paternal and gentle investigation between an old man and a precocious youth into the foundation of truth and meaning in any given social structure, The Apology is that old man’s vehement exhortation towards his colleagues of their consistent abuse and manipulation of the systems that owe their very existence to that foundation of truth and meaning which they so blatantly disregard and re-appropriate for their own selfish purposes.
In the opinion of this author, Socrates very much so comes across as a George Costanza-esque figure in this Dialogue. He is irate, passionate, perhaps somewhat misguided and a bit vulgar in his delivery and explanation of these sentiments, but he is, in some deeper emotional way—and certainly a rational one—intelligible. He is frustrated, first and foremost, that the men of the Court of Athens have lost sight of their duty to not just the law, but to virtue, truth, and righteous action, the components that are not supposed to be subordinated to the mechanics of law, but influence and guide them.
There is a definite sense, and Socrates comments on this in the latter part of the Dialogue, that the old man is fighting a losing battle. The opinions of the accusers have already been made up, and either by rumor, fear, bribery, or implied violent coercion, so have the opinions of enough jurors so as to condemn him to death. But in this, there is an example Socrates sets that is both admirable and, admittedly, suicidal: he speaks his mind.
This Dialogue is the Ancient Greek equivalent of every scene in a work of art—whether it’s literature, cinema, music, whatever—where the protagonist quits their job and tells their boss, or bosses, exactly what they think. As much as it is a logical deconstruction of the absurdity of the charges laid as Socrates’ feet, it is also an emotional appeal to all those who have been falsely accused, not just by a mere technical accident of improper evidence or poor testimony, but by a much larger, and far more severe, fault in the system of justice itself—the very people who are supposed to run it justly. Socrates’ frustration is seeing these men, who have sworn to uphold the law through virtue and true justice, become enamored with their own stations and subsequently blinded so much that they will do anything to protect them. He is, at the end of the day, a citizen of Athens who is fed up, not with the structure of the state itself, but how it is being abused by those who are supposed to be its caretakers. And despite his death sentence, or perhaps because of it, there is a certain catharsis to be found in this fifteen-page scene of an old man telling the Judges of the Court of Athens, one of the most influential and eminent legal bodies in all recorded history, that they’re full of shit.
-Where can you find it-
The Apology can be found on the Internet Classics Archive or Project Gutenberg, both of which I have provided links for here:
Internet Classics Archive: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html
Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1656/1656-h/1656-h.htm
Thank you for taking the time to read this recommendation. There will be another put out around this time next week on the Platonic Dialogue the Crito, which centers around a discussion between Socrates and a close friend, had in the jail beneath the Court of the Athens as Socrates awaits his impending execution, and which concerns the true value of the state and the loyalty of a citizen to their state.
If you have any suggestions or ideas for future recommendations, or critiques of past recommendations, message me through the website, or my personal Facebook, and I’ll take them into consideration. Or come visit me at my home in the scaffolding of Marquette’s Lower Harbor Ore Dock. I enjoy face-to-face criticism. Even if it’s mean.
See you next week.