-What is it?-
The Apology is a Platonic Dialogue that details the trial of Socrates in the Supreme Court of Athens. It directly follows the Euthyphro, and in it, Socrates gives his self-defense for the charges that have been laid upon him by the court. These are mainly the charges of impiety, i.e. atheism/deifying gods that are not permitted by the state, and corrupting the youth through his teachings; as Socrates summarizes his accusers having said, “Making the worse appear the better cause.”
For the purposes of clarity and conciseness, the Apology will be broken down into five quick sections.
Socrates says hello to the court and establishes his speaking style and background. He says he will not give a speech, as he believes the court has heard enough rhetoric for one day. Instead, he will speak off-the-cuff, and he implores the jurors to exercise what reserves of patience they have left with him, saying:
“If I defend myself in my accustomed manner, and you hear me using the words which I have been in the habit of using in the agora, at the tables of the money-changers, or anywhere else, I would ask you not to be surprised, and not to interrupt me on this account…. I would have you regard me as if I were really a stranger, whom you would excuse if he spoke in his native tongue, and after the fashion of his country:—Am I making an unfair request of you? Never mind the manner, which may or may not be good; but think only of the truth of my words, and give heed to that: let the speaker speak truly and the judge decide justly.” (Apology, page 11).
It’s also here where Socrates explains what he does for a living—walk from city to city, teaching youth and citizens alike about philosophy, for no charge. The reason he gives for his passion is that he believes he has been charged with a spiritual quest by a daimon, a spirit, from which he receives wisdom. What’s more, a close friend of his once visited the Oracle of Delphi, and asked the Oracle who was the wisest in Greece. The Oracle responded that there was no one wiser than Socrates; incredulous—one of his most famous paraphrased quotes was, “All I know is that I know nothing.”—Socrates set out to find one person wiser than himself. He has been on this quest ever since.
-The Cross-Examination of Meletus-
Meletus is one of Socrates’ accusers and also one of the three Judges presiding over the Supreme Court. In his cross-examination, Socrates covers many points very quickly, and the dialogue between him and Meletus becomes notable, not for what is necessarily being said, but how it is being said. Meletus consistently flips his opinions whenever challenged by Socrates. Socrates will confront him with a point, and Meletus will say, “Yes, that’s actually what I meant.” Socrates will confront him with a conflicting point, and Meletus will then say, “Actually, that’s also what I meant.”
The points Socrates is making aren’t really what’s important—it’s the demonstration of Meletus’ character. The man seems disinterested in any kind of conversation entirely. He doesn’t care at all about defending his position, or hearing out Socrates’ own. Over the course of his cross-examination, it’s driven home somewhat strongly that he has no conviction about the matter of Socrates’ trial either way; it seems as though he wants to wrap this up as quick as possible, and his behavior would possibly lead one to believe he’s already made up his mind as to the outcome of the trial. A wholly disreputable and unbecoming attitude for someone who occupies one of the highest seats of justice in Athenian society.
After the cross-examination of Meletus, Socrates further explains why he feels it so necessary to pursue activities that have landed him in front of the Court. He relays the belief that a good man does not desert his duty for fear of death, and should hold firm to his post and obligation, lest he suffer the disgrace of abandonment. In Socrates’ conception, though he may be faced with death because of what he says and does, he believes in holding firm to what he sees as his duty—the teaching of philosophy and the inquiry of true justice, knowledge, beauty, and so on. It is here where one of his famous statements comes in, where he says that he believes himself to be the “gadfly” of Athens, motivating the state—which he compares to a great and noble steed, prone to slow movement because of its size—by reproach or questioning towards higher aspirations rather than lower ones.
Socrates is found guilty. He is presented with several options: he could spend the rest of his life in prison; he could leave Athens altogether in exile; or he could die.
The old man says that he has no money, and could not afford to pay the fees that it would take to keep him in prison. He also states that if he chose to leave Athens, he would spend his last remaining years going from city to city, and finding interest but no sympathy, for he would have shown himself to have deserted his character and the obligation to his state when it was most under duress. And again, he reiterates he is not afraid of death. He says, given his age, the Judges could simply wait, and death would come to him within a few years. But barring that, he would rather die than live an unrighteous life the rest of his days.
The Judges condemn him to die. Socrates bids a goodbye to all the jurors in the audience, and uses the last of his time to elaborate this thoughts on what might wait in the afterlife.
No man, in his belief, can truly know what waits after death—so to be afraid of it, or to speculate with certainty, is asserting a position that is by the nature of the object discussed, untenable.
In his conception, there are two options: one, death is nothingness, a state of relative unconsciousness lasting for all eternity. He compares it to a great sleep, and says that if this is the case, people should rejoice, for all of eternity is but one long and restful night.
The other option is that death is the transference of the soul from one place to another. If this is the case, and there is some kind of an afterlife, Socrates paints a hopeful picture. He believes that such a place would involve the communion of great men and women from all across history—kings, queens, heroes, heroines, great artists and musicians and scientists and philosophers, and a whole number of others unknown—which the one who has died will be welcomed in to. Socrates says that if such a place exists, he cannot wait to ask questions and converse with all those who have come before him. It is a hope alone, and one unfounded at that, but one the old man seems to find contentment in.
Socrates eventually says goodbye to the jury, and before he is led down to the jail below the Court, where he’ll be held for several days before his execution, he departs with these last words:
“The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows.” (28)
-Why is it important?-
The Apology is one of the most seminal texts in all of popular Western Philosophy. There are many reasons for this, and many opinions as well, and the author will detail two of his own below.
The first reason and/or opinion is the document sketches out a refined scene of speaking truth to power.
Quite a few of Socrates’ arguments are somewhat specious or unsupported. For example, he makes the case that someone who is unconscious of their wrongdoing should not be charged with a crime, and says that as this is the case with him, he cannot be charged. This is fair enough, to a point. Intention and action must be proven to constitute a crime, and the degree of both determines the justice that will be applied.
That being said, even if Socrates didn’t intend to corrupt youth or preach impiety, he still committed actions that led to those outcomes. Several of his students took part in destructive revolutions that evolved into tyrannies during his lifetime. His character is not entirely without blame, regardless of the extent to which his intention may have led him.
But his accusers are not bringing him into the Court to have a genuine discussion with him. They don’t care about finding the root causes of events, or investigating the truth the matters, or carrying out justice in any capacity. They’ve brought the old man in because he’s irritated them personally, and they are using the mechanism of the Athenian Court to dispose of him. In the Apology, the Judges are the constructed epitome of a naked abuse of power. These are men who will use their positions to settle personal debts. They have no sense of duty to anyone, or anything, other than themselves. While Socrates could certainly improve on certain things, the very event of the Trial proves that point he makes over and over again—that the Judges are just as, or possibly far more, guilty of impiety and corrupting the youth by reason of their conduct than Socrates.
The second reason and/or opinion that makes this document worthwhile is that Socrates knows this. It’s clear he has a sense of how the Trial is going to go before he begins speaking. He’s not laboring under any pretenses that he might be able to change the Judges’ minds—they’ve already been made up.
So the Dialogue becomes the portrait of a man who knows he’s going to die, and has chosen to make one last public speech before he’s taken away. He will take part in two other Dialogues after this—the Crito and the Phaedo—but those are more private events than this one.
Through this framework, the Apology becomes a kind of ideal example as to how one, when faced with injustice and the pain of death, can respond. Socrates delivers a defense—keep in mind, in ancient Greek, apology/apologia means, “to explain or defend”—that is both measured and passionate, sincere and ironic, improvisational and refined, and more than anything, authentic in the sense that he believes he is doing what is ultimately right. The strength of his conviction, while at times can make him appear ridiculous and out of touch, is somewhat endearing, if only in how genuinely he seems to believe in, uphold, and defend it.
It is a sacrificial act, and in this moment, Socrates becomes a martyr for a greater cause. This is not necessarily to say that the only way, or the only end, to a great cause is martyrdom—but it does demonstrate an example of, if such an end is met on such a way, how one may choose to act when faced with such a moment.
The Apology is a groundbreaking piece of Western Philosophy and literature, and perhaps—forgive any hyperbolic intonation—one of the most important documents ever written. It is an excellent demonstration of what occurs when systems of power fall into the hands of those who are unfit to wield them, and how one can respond when they not only witness, but are directly subject to, injustice at the hands of these systems. More than that, perhaps, it is beautiful a portrait of how one may live and speak, knowing that one is going to die regardless. There is strength to be found in facing the unknown with such conviction and steadfast belief, while at the same time acknowledging that even those can provide no real certainty for what is to come. In the end, perhaps to know that you know nothing, to know that there some things no one can know, is a greater wisdom than most, even in the highest courts, would esteem.
“Apology.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of Apology, by Plato, Project Gutenberg, Feb. 1999, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1656/1656-h/1656-h.htm.
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