Genre - Oratory
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
and therefore should not be considered a word-for-word reproduction
of what Socrates said on that occasion.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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"
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.
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.
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).
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
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: "...an 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".