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Genre - Oratory

Plato's Apology is in the widest sense an example of forensic oratory, in which Socrates defends himself in court against his accusers. The Apology is also an important example of a fairly extensive literature designed to defend Socrates against his detractors and to present what his defenders believed to be the real Socrates. Finally, it should be noted that the Apology is a set of speeches recreated by a second party after the fact (like the speeches in Thucydides), and therefore should not be considered a word-for-word reproduction of what Socrates said on that occasion.

Historical Background

After the defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, the democracy, which had so vigorously prosecuted the war, could not survive. The Assembly, cowed by the presence of the Spartan fleet, voted to choose thirty men to form a temporary government while they codified "the ancestral laws" as a basis for a new constitution. The phrase "ancestral laws" was a well-known slogan of the oligarchs at Athens. The first step taken by the Thirty, with the tacit approval of the Athenian people, was to rid Athens of those politicians whose bad advice had contributed to Athens' downfall. But the ultimate aim of the Thirty was to eliminate their political opposition. Ignoring their assigned task of codification, they proceeded to use their autocratic power, with the support of the newly arrived Spartan garrison stationed on the Acropolis, against prominent democrats. Political ideology, however, was not the only motive behind the reign of terror established by these oligarchs who became commonly known as the "Thirty Tyrants". Greed encouraged them to prey upon well-to-do Athenians by passing a law that they could put to death and confiscate the property of anyone not included on their list of three thousand citizens.

To learn more about how to teach Plato's Apology, see Susan Gorman's Teaching Plato in Translation - The Apology: Eloquence and the Introduction.

The tyrannical behavior of the Thirty resulted in a mass exodus of disenfranchised Athenians from Athens to neighboring cities. Among these exiles were the former generals under the democracy, Anytus and Thrasybulus. In the spring of 403 a small army of democrats led by these two men succeeded in entering the Piraeus, and in the summer of the same year defeated the forces of the Thirty. The remaining oligarchs still were in control of Athens, but the Spartan garrison, combined with the army of the Spartan king Pausanias who had replaced Lysander as commander, engaged in only token resistance to the exiles. Through the efforts of Pausanias the democrats were allowed to enter Athens peacefully and the democracy was restored. An amnesty was decreed which stipulated that no citizen could be brought into court on a charge of political wrongdoing committed before the restoration of the democracy. The only persons excluded from this amnesty were the Thirty themselves and their close associates, who were outlawed. With the withdrawal of the Spartans, Athens again became an independent city.

Since the trial of Socrates took place in 399, four years after the restoration of the democracy, it must be viewed in the context of the events narrated above. Critias, the leader of the Thirty, and Charmides, who was his assistant during the rule of the Thirty, were known to have been at one time or another associates of Socrates. Socrates was tried under the auspices of the restored democracy and, although the actual prosecutor in his trial was the obscure Meletus, the prosecution was instigated by Anytus, one of the democratic leaders exiled during the rule of the Thirty.1 Socrates had refused to become involved in the crimes of the Thirty (Ap. 32c-d),2 but the fact that he had remained in the city throughout the rule of the Thirty certainly did not endear him to the democrats who had to go into exile. This, of course, could not be the basis of an accusation in court because of the amnesty, but the charge could be couched in sufficiently vague terms to avoid a technical violation of the amnesty. On the other hand, Anytus and other enemies of Socrates almost certainly did not desire the philosopher's death, but would have been satisfied if Socrates had chosen the usual alternative of exile even before the trial had begun or proposed it as a penalty after condemnation. Socrates, however, refusing to be intimidated by the trial and insisting that his activities had benefited Athens, staunchly proclaimed his own innocence. His uncompromising attitude no doubt angered the jury and led to their decision to condemn Socrates to death.

1It might seem strange that almost four years elapsed between the restoration of the democracy (403) and Socrates's trial (399). The answer is that a commission had undertaken the revision and codification of the laws, which originally had been the task of the Thirty, and, until they finished their work in 400, the courts were in a state of confusion. Thus it is clear that the restored democracy sought revenge against Socrates as soon as it was practically possible.
2This number plus letter(s) refers to sections of the Apology. The numbers and letters are generally located in the margins of the text.

Another factor to consider was the intellectual ferment at Athens during the last half of the fifth century. The fact that old beliefs were under constant attack by intellectuals disturbed many Athenians. As early as the middle of the fifth century, Anaxagoras, who said that the sun and moon were not gods, was prosecuted for impiety and left Athens rather than submit to the court's penalty (perhaps death). In order to bring Anaxagoras to trial a decree was passed by the Assembly which virtually outlawed the teaching of astronomy as irreligious. A tradition exists (which may be unreliable) that c. 411 the famous Sophist Protagoras was prosecuted for impiety because of his treatise On the Gods and fled Athens before the trial could take place. This Athenian distrust of intellectuals combined with the political pressures of the last two decades of the fifth century made Socrates vulnerable to prosecution. Aristophanes in the Clouds had presented him as a Sophist and an irreligious teacher of astronomy who corrupted his students with his teaching. Although Socrates was not a teacher of astronomy nor the impious man that he appears to be in the Clouds, he was a tireless questioner of traditional values and constantly seen in the company of wealthy young men of oligarchic leanings. His enemies believed that Socrates was corrupting these young men with his radical thoughts and making them bad citizens. In their minds, the actions of Alcibiades, Critias and Charmides confirmed that Socrates was a bad influence on young men and that this influence was responsible for many of the disasters that Athens had suffered in the last years of the war and immediately afterwards.

To learn more about ancient tyranny in ancient Greece, see the Tyranny Knowledge Builder.

The Historical Socrates

It is difficult to give an account of the real Socrates with total confidence because he wrote nothing and we are dependent on sources which are not at all impartial. For example, the Clouds of Aristophanes presents a hostile view prevalent among the Athenian populace during the last quarter of the fifth century. On the other hand, we have two apologies3 for the life of Socrates written sometime in the years immediately following his death by two younger associates of Socrates, Plato and Xenophon. These two works are the earliest examples of a tradition of literature in defense of Socrates, including a number of lost works extending down to the third century A.D., of which we know only the authors and titles. Plato's Apology presents to us a speech delivered by Socrates in his own defense at his trial in the first person throughout. Plato never intrudes to comment on what Socrates says. Despite the appearance of complete objectivity, it is certain that this speech is not an exact word-for-word reproduction of what was said by Socrates on that occasion. On the other hand, since Plato was no doubt aware that his readers would include those who were present at the trial, the speech he puts into the mouth of Socrates probably represents fairly accurately the essence of the original. Xenophon's Apology is a narrative in which "quotations" from Socrates's speech are interspersed. There are no crucial differences in the views of Socrates presented by the two authors, who agree that Socrates was a noble character unfairly judged by the Athenians.

3The use of the word "Apology" in this context is based on the meaning of the Greek word apologia which does not mean `a statement of regret requesting pardon', but 'a formal statement of justification or defense'. The latter definition is in fact still a secondary meaning of our word "apology."

There are, however, discrepancies. For example, the oracle from Apollo in Delphi in Plato's Apology says that no one was wiser than Socrates (21a). The same oracle in Xenophon stresses Socrates's moral rather than intellectual excellence. In the words of Xenophon's Socrates: "...Apollo replied that no one is more free [i.e., not enslaved by the desires of his body], more just or more in control of himself than me".4 Xenophon's Socrates, in his reaction to this oracle, confirms the truth of Apollo's statement, adding a claim of wisdom and, in general, revealing a conspicuous lack of the humility evident in Plato when he wonders about the meaning of the oracle (21b). The reason for this discrepancy may be the fact that Xenophon did not know Socrates as well as Plato and more importantly was not present at the trial while Plato was (Ap. 38.b). Although Plato and Xenophon certainly do not present impartial views of Socrates, it is generally accepted that a truer picture of the real Socrates can be found in the pages of their works than anywhere else.5

4All quotations in this section are translated by the author.
5In addition to the apologies of Plato and Xenophon, Socrates appears in almost all of Plato's Dialogues and in Xenophon's Recollections [of Socrates] and in two works by these authors which both have the title Symposium 'Drinking Party'.

Socrates was not very physically attractive. He had a snub-nose, large protruding eyes, which appeared to be continually staring, thick lips and a pot-belly. Yet apparently he had enormous personal magnetism. As Plato has Alcibiades say in his Symposium: "Whenever I hear [Socrates], ... my heart jumps and his words cause tears to pour down my face and I see that very many others have the same experience" (215e).

Socrates was a man of his times in that he found handsome younger men sexually attractive. In Plato's Charmides he reports his own sexual arousal at the sight of the beautiful young Charmides (who later became involved with the Thirty Tyrants): "I caught a glimpse inside [Charmides's] garment and burned with passion" (155d). But Socrates took a view of love affairs between older and younger men which was atypical of the Athenian aristocracy: he believed that the purpose of this kind of love should not be sexual gratification, but the progress toward virtue of the younger partner. Socrates seems to have put this belief into practice throughout his life, even politely rejecting the sexual advances of the youthful and attractive Alcibiades, an unusual reversal of the normal relationship, in which the older man was expected to pursue the younger (Pl. Symp. 217a-219e).

Socrates's self-control went beyond the area of sex and was evident in his behavior as a soldier in the Peloponnesian War. Socrates made an enormous impression on Alcibiades with his ability to endure cold, his powers of concentration (he remained standing still out of doors for a 24 hour period from sunrise to sunrise grappling with some philosophical problem), and his coolness in crisis (Pl. Symp. 220a-221b).

Socrates's primary concern in life was arete 'excellence', not in the Sophistic sense of practical efficiency in public life, but as moral excellence of soul, that is, virtue. Socrates in fact seems to have been the first philosopher to see the soul as the moral essence of the individual, improved by virtue and ruined by its opposite, rather than as a morally neutral life principle, which was the earlier view of the soul. Socrates's concern for morality involved not only the private sphere of a man's life, but also the public, as illustrated by his two involvements in politics. Both instances reveal him resisting injustice, on the one hand, of the democracy and, on the other, of the oligarchic Thirty. In 406 Socrates, serving as a member of the presiding committee of the Council, argued against the illegality of trying the Arginusae generals as a group, instead of individually, and during the rule of the Thirty, he refused to become involved in their crimes by acting as their agent in the arrest of Leon of Salamis (Ap. 32a-d).

One of the most famous doctrines associated with Socrates is that virtue is knowledge. The kind of intellectuality that the Sophists were applying to the practical affairs of life Socrates thought should be applied to the moral life. One could not be virtuous without first knowing what virtue is. Once one has attained the knowledge of virtue, then, according to Socrates, one cannot help but be virtuous since no one does wrong voluntarily.6 Socrates saw the elimination of ignorance as the first step in leading men to virtue. To this purpose Socrates evolved a technique for testing knowledge by argument and questioning which is known popularly as "the Socratic method". The essence of this method is elenchus, a process which most often begins with Socrates's asking a question of one of his interlocutors (e.g., what is justice?). After a definition is given, Socrates gets the interlocutor to assent to a statement which obviously contradicts the first answer. The interlocutor then suggests another definition, which is closer to the truth, but still is shown by Socrates to be faulty. This process may be even repeated a third time until an acceptable definition is reached or it is felt that it is not profitable to go any further with the discussion. This is the technique which he used to point out the ignorance of his fellow Athenians and his followers imitated, thus winning him many enemies (Ap. 23a-e).

6This was a very controversial point in philosophical circles from the last quarter of the fifth century down to the time of Aristotle. Socrates believed that men did evil only out of ignorance, while his opponents in this matter maintained that men often did wrong while knowing what was morally right.

Despite his conviction that his fellow Athenians were ignorant, Socrates did not see himself as the possessor of the knowledge that others lacked. In his mind, his only wisdom lay in the fact that he realized that he didn't know anything while they, although ignorant, thought that they were wise (Ap. I.21). Socrates's profession of ignorance is at least in part to be taken seriously in that he saw his philosophical function, not as the presentation of a complete and coherent philosophical system, but as total involvement with his fellow man in the search for truth. This profession of ignorance, however, is also often an example of playful Socratic irony. The word "irony" is derived from the Greek word eironeia 'pretended ignorance'.7 Socrates frequently assumes this ironic pose in conversation with his younger associates, in order to put them at their ease since, given his skill at argument, philosophical discussion with Socrates could be an intimidating and inhibiting experience. Socrates, however, employs a more sarcastic kind of irony designed to confuse when he is involved in discussion with more mature interlocutors (especially Sophists) who have an inflated sense of their own wisdom and self-importance. It was no doubt evident to many such opponents that Socrates was playfully mocking them by continually answering one question with another and produced angry reactions from them, as is evident in Thrasymachus's outrage at Socrates's irony in the Republic (336 c-d).

7Our use of this word as a literary critical term (e.g., dramatic irony) is entirely a modern usage.

At the heart of Socratic irony, however, was not just Socrates's innate playfulness, but a serious conviction that teaching was not, as in the manner of the Sophists, the mere handing over of information by the teacher to the student. In fact, Socrates did not consider himself a teacher in the usual sense, but only an assistant at the birth of knowledge, an intellectual midwife. In Plato's Theaetetus Socrates uses this metaphor to explain how, although he knows nothing, he can help others in their search for truth (150b):

I cannot give birth to wisdom myself and the accusation that many make against me, that while I question others, I myself bring nothing wise to light due to my lack of wisdom, is accurate. The reason for this is as follows: God forces me to serve as a midwife and prevents me from giving birth.

Unlike the Sophists, Socrates believed that knowledge was attainable, but in his view the only real knowledge is that which the student attains himself with the active use of his own mind. His purpose was to put young men on the right track toward truth and virtue; whether they attained these goals or not was up to them.

Exercise for Reading Comprehension and Interpretation

17 - 18a
What are the main themes of the introduction? What is the intended effect of this introduction?

18b - 19
What are the older false accusations which Socrates mentions? What is the source of these accusations against Socrates? Why does Socrates find this older accusation harder to deal with than the one presently brought against himself?

When Socrates denies that he even attempts to teach others and that he makes money by such efforts, of what professional group is he refusing to be considered a member? What characteristic Socratic attitude of argument is illustrated by his expressed admiration for the ability of Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias, and Evenus to educate?

21 - 23
What was Chaerephon's question to the Delphic Oracle and what did the priestess reply? What was Socrates's reaction to the reply? Since Socrates does not believe that he is wise, why does he not reject the oracle as false? What did Socrates proceed to do because of the oracle? What was his final interpretation of the meaning of the oracle? Explain why he adopted this interpretation. What does Socrates believe this oracle says about human wisdom? What duty does Socrates undertake as a result of the oracle?

24 - 27
What are the charges against Socrates brought by Meletus at this trial? Reread the three arguments that Socrates uses against these charges and then explain how these arguments are typical of the Socratic method.

28 - 31
Compare Socrates's attitude toward the threat to his life in this trial with sophistic utilitarianism (argument from advantage). What meaning does Socrates's example from Homer's Iliad and his analogy of military service have for his present situation? What is Socrates's attitude toward the conflict between his responsibilities to his fellow Athenians and his divinely imposed duty? Explain the difference between the values emphasized by Socrates and those considered important by the typical Athenian. Look up the word "gadfly" in a dictionary. What is the meaning of Socrates's metaphor of the gadfly? According to Socrates, what is so unusual about his devotion to Athens' highest welfare?

31 - 33
Explain the nature of Socrates's "divine guide". How has this guide affected Socrates's life? What moral do the examples of Socrates's service on the Council's executive committee and his conduct when ordered by the Thirty to arrest Leon of Salamis illustrate? In Socrates's view, what disqualifies him from being called a teacher and why has he attracted such a large number of followers?

34 - 35
What usual practice of defendants in Athenian law courts does Socrates refuse to follow? Why does he find this practice objectionable? According to Socrates what would be impious about his earning acquittal by this means?

36 - 38b
When required to propose an alternative penalty, what does Socrates at first suggest? Why does Socrates reject exile as a possible penalty? Why can't Socrates keep silent? Briefly explain the meaning of Socrates's statement: " unexamined life is not worth living". What penalty does Socrates finally propose?

38c - 42
What reason does Socrates give for his conviction? What prophecy does Socrates make with regard to the effect of his death on the Athenians? Why does Socrates assume that his condemnation is actually something good? What is Socrates's view of death? Why does Socrates especially want to talk to Palamedes and Ajax (son of Telamon) in the afterlife? Explain why Socrates, having been condemned to death, still believed that "a good man can suffer no evil".

Table of Contents > Next Section: Plato's Republic


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