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Apology of Socrates

(Απολογια  Σωκρατους)


4th century BC

(An innocent man delivers an inspiring speech to the court before he is executed.)

Jacques Louis David’s neoclassical masterpiece The Death of Socrates (1787), which can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Socrates is a bit of a mystery, if you insist on being a real evidentiary hardliner.  He wrote nothing himself, so we have to rely on others’ characterizations of him.  Xenophon paints him as the conventional wise man of the day.  Aristophanes deems his philosophizing empty and ridiculous.  Plato’s conception, the fullest and most detailed, is of a man worthy of admiration, even awe, both for his intellect and his noble spirit.  Plato’s Socrates seeks truth despite fashion or convention; he is imaginative, reverent, humble, perceptive, eloquent, and sharp as a razor.  I’ll go with Plato, not just because his picture is most complimentary, but because Xenophon’s is simplistic (in fact it suggests that Xenophon—with all due respect—knew Socrates only casually, but wished to write as though he knew him well); and Aristophanes did nothing more than exploit a famous name, attaching it to a caricature for effect.  In fact there were many philosophers in Athens who were very much like those “Sophists” Aristophanes pillories in his play The Clouds.  Socrates was the most famous philosopher around at the time, and he certainly would have associated and debated with the general run of them.  His was probably a household name, to be thrown about as representative of the lot of lounging jabberers even though– to one who actually listened to him– he towered above the rest.

The Apology of Socrates is Plato’s most distinguished tribute to his mentor.  A fellow named Meletus and others brought forth an indictment against Socrates that he was messing around with people’s minds, and especially corrupting the youth, and challenging religious convention (Socrates discusses these charges in the beginning of Plato’s Euthyphro).  The Apology documents the philosopher’s oral defense of his innocence of those crimes before a court of 501 people.  After his major speech he delivers two shorter statements: one in response to his subsequent conviction, and the other after his condemnation to death.  Although I recognize that Plato would have been driven by a desire to exonerate his mentor, I read the Apology as if it contains the actual words of Socrates.  Plato was only a generation younger than Socrates, and with so many illustrious people in attendance at the trial who would still have been alive when he wrote, Plato would hardly have dared to fabricate or even greatly embellish Socrates’ statements.  Or, if he had dared, I wager we’d have seen rebuttals and a mixed reputation for Plato during his lifetime rather than virtually universal admiration for him as well as his martyred teacher.

Socrates’ commitment to the idea that goodness is the sole goal for man remains heroically steadfast throughout the proceedings.  He delivers his arguments with impressive rhetorical skill and exquisitely reasoned arguments.  Among the themes running through his speeches, I find two to be central.  First, he is doing the will of God in disturbing the ignorant complacency of Athens, as a tiny gadfly disturbs a giant sleeping horse.  Second, no one knows anything really “fine and good”, and the wisest man is he who realizes this fact and does not parade around pretending to have knowledge.  With these two points he defends his position in Athenian society.  He admits that he can do nothing else in good conscience because of the divine spirit that prompts him to be bold in sharing his convictions.  He also accuses his accusers of injuring themselves and the state by putting to death an innocent man for no good reason.  How, I myself ask after reading it, could anyone have listened to this speech and honestly wished to kill him?  In fact his mighty stance for goodness had already roiled the authorities a few years earlier over a political matter, and the current charges might have been trumped up to get rid of a man whose greatness of mind and popularity were, as with Jesus a few hundred years later, a threat to the local bigshots.

The philosopher argues steadily and soberly, never pleading or showing frustration.  In fact, he finds pleading to be impious because it is an attempt to subvert justice with sympathy in the minds of the judges.  After his conviction and condemnation, his tone remains even, and he merely reiterates the damage that his condemners do themselves by their decision, for no one can really harm a good man, in life or death.  And besides, he continues, who is to say that death is worse than life?  Only God (ὁ θεος) knows the truth of that.  All Socrates claims to know is that his peculiar inner divine guide never opposed him in his steadfast protest of his innocence, nor did it object when he refused to compromise his principles to gain a lighter sentence. This suggests to him that he is on his way to something better than this life, for he does not believe that his divine guide would lead him to obliteration.  Therefore he departs this world in peace and faith.

In the end, in one of the most legendary moments in the history of human civilization, Socrates drank the poison hemlock.  So, technically, the anti-wise, the short-sighted philosophobes, won the day.  But, thanks to the reputation Socrates gained through his life and death, and surely in part Plato’s own writings, the situation turned out much like the Scopes “Monkey Trial” (the 1925 case against teaching evolution in public schools), where a battle initially lost led to a war won.  Socrates became a martyr for free thought and expression, and a symbol of all that is most honorable in philosophy and the contemplative life.  Every philosophical school in the Hellenistic period adopted him as their hero—the Cynics, Skeptics, Stoics… and of course the twin pillars of Greek philosophy Plato and Aristotle were his intellectual successors.

A final note on botany:  That terrible “poison hemlock”, Conium maculatum, is a parsley (Umbelliferae, or Apiaceae), native to Europe and introduced all over the world.  By the way, there’s another plant, a  cousin with a good deal of family resemblance, called “water hemlock”, Cicuta maculata.  Anyway, neither of these herbs are at all related to the tree we North Americans call hemlock (Tsuga spp.), which was so-called by the colonists because of its superficial resemblance to the poison hemlock (some say in smell, others say in the leaves’ appearance).  In fact, go ahead and make a tea of the needles of the Eastern Hemlock Tsuga canadensis– rather than killing you, it will just spruce up your breath and your vitamin C.  Perfect as a prop in a dramatic production of the Apology.  


Tidbits of Significance 

(translated from the Greek by Harold North Fowler; the section designations are conventional for Plato’s works):

How you, men of Athens, have been affected by my accusers, I do not know; but I, for my part, almost forgot my own identity, so persuasively did they talk; and yet there is hardly a word of truth in what they have said.



…now I make this request of you, a fair one, as it seems to me, that you disregard the manner of my speech– for perhaps it might be worse and perhaps better—and observe and pay attention merely to this, whether what I say is just or not; for that is the virtue of a judge, and an orator’s virtue is to speak the truth.



“Socrates is a criminal and a busybody, investigating the things beneath the earth and in the heavens and making the weaker argument the stronger and teaching others these same things.”

-Meletus’s sworn accusation, 19B


I thought to myself, “I am wiser than this man; for neither of us really knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either. I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.”



And by the Dog, men of Athens—for I must speak the truth to you—this, I do declare, was my experience: those who had the most reputation seemed to me to be almost the most deficient, as I investigated at the god’s behest, and others who were of less repute seemed to be superior men in the matter of being sensible.



So again in the case of the poets also I presently recognised this, that what they composed they composed not by wisdom, but by nature and because they were inspired, like the prophets and givers of oracles; for these also say many fine things, but know none of the things they say; it was evident to me that the poets too had experienced something of this same sort. And at the same time I perceived that they, on account of their poetry, thought that they were the wisest of men in other things as well, in which they were not.



“This one of you, O human beings, is wisest, who, like Socrates, recognises that he is in truth of no account in respect to wisdom.”

-Socrates’ interpretation of the oracle that said he was the wisest man, 23B


But I, men of Athens, say Meletus is a wrongdoer, because he jokes in earnest, lightly involving people in a lawsuit, pretending to be zealous and concerned about things for which he never cared at all.



You do not speak well, Sir, if you think a man in whom there is even a little merit ought to consider danger of life or death, and not rather regard this only, when he does things, whether the things he does are right or wrong and the acts of a good or a bad man.



For it is thus, men of Athens, in truth; wherever a man stations himself, thinking it is best to be there, or is stationed by his commander, there he must, as it seems to me, remain and run his risks, considering neither death nor any other thing more than disgrace.



For to fear death, gentlemen, is nothing else than to think one is wise when one is not; for it is thinking one knows what one does not know. For no one knows whether death be not even the greatest of all blessings to man, but they fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils. And is not this the most reprehensible form of ignorance, that of thinking one knows what one does not know?



…virtue does not come from money, but from virtue comes money and all other good things to man, both to the individual and to the state.



…I believe it is not God’s will that a better man be injured by a worse. He might, however, perhaps kill me or banish me or disfranchise me; and perhaps he thinks he would thus inflict great injuries upon me, and others may think so, but I do not.



For if you put me to death, you will not easily find another, who, to use a rather absurd figure, attaches himself to the city as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well bred, is sluggish on account of his size and needs to be aroused by stinging. I think the god fastened me upon the city in some such capacity, and I go about arousing, and urging and reproaching each one of you, constantly alighting upon you everywhere the whole day long. Such another is not likely to come to you, gentlemen; but if you take my advice, you will spare me. But you, perhaps, might be angry, like people awakened from a nap, and might slap me, as Anytus advises, and easily kill me; then you would pass the rest of your lives in slumber, unless God, in his care for you, should send someone else to sting you. And that I am, as I say, a kind of gift from the god, you might understand from this.



…something divine and spiritual comes to me, the very thing which Meletus ridiculed in his indictment. I have had this from my childhood; it is a sort of voice that comes to me…



And do not be angry with me for speaking the truth; the fact is that no man will save his life who nobly opposes you or any other populace and prevents many unjust and illegal things from happening in the state. A man who really fights for the right, if he is to preserve his life for even a little while, must be a private citizen, not a public man.



But, as I believe, I have been commanded to do this by the God through oracles and dreams and in every way in which any man was ever commanded by divine power to do anything whatsoever.



Why, I have often seen men who have some reputation behaving in the strangest manner, when they were on trial, as if they thought they were going to suffer something terrible if they were put to death, just as if they would be immortal if you did not kill them.



…the unexamined life is not worth living…

ἀνεξέταστος  βίος  οὐ  βιωτὸς  ἀνθρώπῳ

-38A  [as one of the most important and well known quotes of Socrates I include the original.  Literally it reads “the unexamined life is no life for a man”].


For neither in the court nor in war ought I or any other man to plan to escape death by every possible means.



But, gentlemen, it is not hard to escape death; it is much harder to escape wickedness, for that runs faster than death.



…I am now at the time when men most do prophesy, the time just before death.



For now you have done this to me because you hoped that you would be relieved from rendering an account of your lives, but I say that you will find the result far different.



…a wonderful thing has happened to me.  For hitherto the customary prophetic monitor always spoke to me very frequently and opposed me even in very small matters, if I was going to do anything I should not; but now, as you yourselves see, this thing which might be thought, and is generally considered, the greatest of evils has come upon me; but the divine sign did not oppose me either when I left my home in the morning, or when I came here to the court, or at any point of my speech, when i was going to say anything; and yet on other occasions it stopped me at many points in the midst of a speech; but now, in this affair, it has not opposed me in anything I was doing or saying. What then do I suppose is the reason?  I will tell you.  This which has happened to me is doubtless a good thing, and those of us who think death is an evil must be mistaken.  A convincing proof of this has been given me; for the accustomed sign would surely have opposed me if I had not been going to meet with something good.



But you also, judges, must regard death hopefully and must bear in mind this one truth, that no evil can come to a good man either in life or after death, and God does not neglect him.




…you want to figure out what ideas of Socrates could have been so subversive as to drive the Athenians to kill him;


…you’d like to see how a noble thinker responds to false accusation and condemnation to death.



(for the Socratic:)

  • Plato, Euthyphro  (4th century BC)
  • Plato, Phaedo  (4th century BC)
  • Plato, Symposium  (4th century BC)
  • Xenophon, Memorabilia  (4th century BC)

 (for the contemplater of death:)

  • Edward Young, Night Thoughts  (1745)
  • Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard  (1751)
  • Martin Heidegger, Being and Time  (1927)
  • C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed  (1961)

Find It!

Hardcover: The Loeb Greek-English version is the only widely available hardcover version of this classic.  Is this not crazy?  Anyway, you can’t go wrong with Loeb for precision and handsomeness. 

Paperback: You can look like a philosophy grad student with the ubiquitous (and excellent) Hackett Reading in Philosophy.  Or go for the always-reliable Penguin edition.

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