[Modernized] Xenophon’s Apology

The Apology of Socrates to the Jury
Modernized for Readability

Xenophon (c. 430 – 355/354 BCE) was a Greek historian, philosopher and military serviceman whose prolific writings span an extensive array of subjects, such as military campaigns, historical events, economics, political philosophy and even Socratic dialogues, among others.

Throughout the centuries, he has been regarded as an expert commander, a philosopher in the same league as Plato himself, and a historian of the utmost importance. His eloquence, undoubtedly worthy of praise, has been remarked upon by several notable figures of antiquity; including Diogenes Laertius, who referred to him as the Attic Muse, and Cicero, who wrote that “the muses were said to speak with the voice of Xenophon”.

In the realm of philosophy, Xenophon is best known for his Socratic dialogues – namely, Memorabilia and Apology. Although considerably less famous than Plato, Xenophon’s writings are primary, extant sources of information about Socrates’ life, character, values, beliefs and Socratic philosophy in general.

For students of philosophy and enthusiasts alike, for historians interested in the origin of Western philosophy, and all those who would care to know more about the historic Socrates, Xenophon’s writings are an essential and indispensable resource.

Xenophon’s Apology, by his own account and admission, does not seek to record the entirely of Socrates’ defense, but rather to remark that he committed no impiety towards the gods nor injustice towards men, and to accentuate that Socrates, in fact, welcomed death.

The original text, as written by Xenophon and subsequently translated by H.G. Dakyns, possesses no subheadings. These original subheadings have been added to aid navigation and facilitate comprehension.

In that spirit and in line with that purpose, maintaining the same format, you may also appreciate:

Socrates’ Demeanor

When it comes to Socrates’ memories, one moment stands out, deserving a record more than others. It’s the time when he had to appear in court, not only to defend himself but also to make a choice about his own life. Many people have written about this, often highlighting Socrates’ eloquent style, showing that he truly spoke in this manner. However, what often gets overlooked is Socrates’ perspective on death and his belief that it might be better for him than life. His attitude can sometimes come across as bold or even arrogant.

But, we do have an account from one of his close acquaintances, Hermogenes, the son of Hipponicus, which sheds light on the reasons behind Socrates’ demeanor. Hermogenes remembered a time when Socrates was discussing various topics instead of preparing for his impending trial. Hermogenes straightforwardly asked him whether he should be focused on planning his defense. Socrates initially responded, “Don’t you think I’ve been preparing for my defense my whole life?” When Hermogenes asked how, Socrates explained, “By persistently living a just and blameless life. I believe this is the best defense a person can have.”

Later in their conversation, Hermogenes pointed out that Athenian juries often sentenced innocent people to death and acquitted the guilty, swayed by eloquent arguments or sympathy for the defendant. Socrates responded, “Twice I’ve tried to prepare my defense, but divine intervention stopped me.” Hermogenes found this strange and remarked, “Why would God prevent you from preparing for your trial?” Socrates answered, “Do you find it strange that God might think it’s better for me to die now? I’ve lived a life I believe few can surpass. The joy of knowing that I’ve always lived a holy and just life has been incomparable. My friends and close associates share this view. If my life continues, I’ll face the struggles of old age, with failing senses, forgetfulness, and self-reproach. What joy is left for me? Perhaps God, in His kindness, is stepping in to allow me to end my life peacefully and gracefully. If I am sentenced to death, it is believed to be the easiest and least burdensome path for both me and my loved ones. A painless and dignified departure, leaving behind no regrets, but rather fond memories of a man who lived honorably and peacefully.”

“I must admit,” he continued, “the gods were right in opposing me when I contemplated my defense, at a time when you all believed the primary objective was to find a way to secure an acquittal. If I had achieved that, I would have only ensured that my life would end not in the way it will soon, but rather in the misery of illness or old age, when a multitude of miseries not conducive to happiness converge.”

“No,” he continued, “I want to make it clear that I will not fervently pursue such an outcome. On the contrary, even if I end up wearying the court by extolling the blessings I owe to both gods and people or by emphasizing my beliefs about myself, I would still choose death over supplicating for the chance to live a little longer, gaining only a life devoid of the richness that death promises.”

Accusations and Defense

Hermogenes recounted that it was with this resolve that, when Socrates was charged with not recognizing the state’s gods but introducing new divinities and corrupting the youth, he stood forward and said, “First of all, ladies and gentlemen, I’m baffled as to why Meletus claims I don’t recognize the gods the state acknowledges. After all, as far as making sacrifices goes, everyone who happened to be present on public altars or at common festivals has witnessed me participating, including Meletus himself if he wished to. As for the so-called ‘novel divinities,’ how can I be accused of introducing them when I merely claim to have a divine inner voice guiding me in what I should do? What else do those who interpret the meaning of bird cries or human utterances base their beliefs on, if not on such voices? Thunder, for instance, is universally seen as a mighty omen and a form of divine communication. Even the priestess on her tripod at Delphi conveys messages from the god using her voice. The god possesses foreknowledge and warns those he chooses of future events. This is a belief held by everyone, just as I do. The only difference is that when they interpret these messages through birds, utterances, symbols, and seers, I speak directly of a divine voice, claiming to express it more accurately and respectfully than those who attribute the power of the gods to birds. To prove that I’m not deceiving anyone about the divine, I can offer this evidence: despite sharing heavenly advice with numerous friends, I have never been shown to be a deceiver or deceived.”

As the judges heard these words, some murmured their disagreement. Some disbelieved what Socrates was saying, while others were envious of the divine favor he seemed to receive. Socrates, undeterred, continued, “Let me share more with you, and those who wish to doubt my divine honors can do so. Chaerephon once asked the oracle at Delphi about me in front of many witnesses, and Apollo’s response was that there was no one more free, upright, or temperate than me.”

Upon hearing this, the judges responded with an even louder murmur of disbelief. Socrates persisted, “Still, gentlemen, the god had even greater words for Lycurgus, the renowned lawgiver of Sparta. It’s said that as he entered the temple, the god addressed him with these words: ‘I am considering whether to call you god or man.’ While the god didn’t liken me to a god, he certainly held me in high regard.”

“But I don’t expect you to accept this too quickly, even on the word of the god. I invite you to carefully examine the evidence for yourselves. Can you name anyone less enslaved to bodily desires than me? Have you encountered a person more independent, given that I accept no gifts or payment from anyone? Who else is as just as someone content with what they have, with no desire for what belongs to others? Whom would you consider wiser than a person like me, who, from a young age, has diligently sought to understand and learn all that is good? The fact that many of my fellow citizens dedicated to virtue, and even strangers, prefer my company is a testament to my efforts. How do you explain that so many people are eager to give me gifts, despite my inability to repay them with money? And why is it that no one expects me to return the favors they’ve done for me, but instead, many express gratitude for what I’ve given them?”

“Consider also that during the city’s siege, I lived no differently than during times of prosperity. While others indulged in expensive market delicacies, I found the joys of the soul to be sweeter and more affordable. If you can’t find any falsehood in my self-description, it’s clear that the praise I receive from both gods and men is well-deserved. However, Meletus, you still claim that my way of life corrupts the youth. We all know what corrupting influences are. Could you provide an example of someone who, under my influence, has turned from religious to irreligious, from sober to profligate, from a moderate drinker to a heavy drinker, from a lover of honest labor to effeminate, or succumbed to any other wicked pleasure?”

Meletus exclaimed, “I know you’ve convinced some people to follow your teachings rather than obey their own parents.”

Socrates responded, “I confess to that, particularly in matters of education because people recognize my expertise in that area. Just like in matters of health, a person would rather follow their doctor’s advice than their parents’. In the public assembly, the citizens of Athens presumably listen to those who present the wisest arguments rather than their own relatives. When selecting generals, you, I presume, prioritize the most competent military authorities over your fathers, brothers, or even yourselves.”

Meletus replied, “Yes, Socrates, because it’s expedient and customary to do so.”

Socrates continued, “So, Meletus, doesn’t it strike you as peculiar that in all ordinary matters, the most qualified individuals receive not just an equal share but an exclusive preference? Yet, in my case, solely because I am recognized as an expert in a subject as vital as education, you are prosecuting me on such a serious charge?”

Regarding the Guilty Verdict

It’s worth noting that much more was discussed during the trial, whether by Socrates himself or his supporters. But my aim is not to recount every detail of the case. What I’ve shown is that Socrates was determined, above all else, not to exhibit impiety towards the gods or injustice towards people. Furthermore, he did not fervently seek to escape death. On the contrary, he believed it was time for him to die. This became even more evident after he was convicted. When asked to propose an alternative punishment, he refused and even said that suggesting one was akin to admitting guilt. Later, when his friends tried to help him escape from prison, he treated the idea as a jest, asking if they knew of any place outside Attica where death was forbidden.

As the trial neared its conclusion, Socrates stated, “Gentlemen, those who encouraged the witnesses to commit perjury and bear false testimony against me, along with those who heeded their counsel, must be conscious of their grave impiety and injustice. As for me, I see no reason to hang my head lower now than before my conviction. I have not been proven guilty of any of the charges brought against me. There’s no evidence that I sacrificed to unfamiliar gods in place of Zeus, Hera, and the gods of their company. I haven’t sworn oaths by other gods or invoked their names.”

“And as for corrupting the youth, how could I do that by teaching them values like courage and frugality? Even my accusers do not claim that I’ve committed crimes deserving of the death penalty, such as temple robbery, burglary, selling free citizens into slavery, or betraying the state. So, I find it bewildering how it has been demonstrated that I’ve done anything deserving of death. Dying innocently is not a reason for me to feel ashamed; rather, it reflects poorly on those who condemned me.”

“I take some comfort in the example of Palamedes, whose fate resembled my own. He continues to be a nobler subject of song than Odysseus, who unjustly had him killed. I’m confident that both past and future generations will vouch for me – that I never wronged anyone, nor turned them into a worse person. Instead, I always aimed to enrich those who engaged in discussions with me, freely imparting any knowledge or wisdom I possessed.”

Having said this, he moved in a manner consistent with his words. His demeanor, expressions, and steps exuded a sense of serenity.

As he noticed some of his followers in tears, he asked, “Why do you weep now? Don’t you understand that a sentence of death was upon me from the moment of my birth? If I meet my end prematurely while the blessings of life still flow freely, it might sadden me and my well-wishers. However, if I’m approaching the end of my life amid troubles, I believe you all should take heart and celebrate my good fortune.”

Apollodorus, who deeply admired Socrates, innocently said, “The hardest thing to bear, Socrates, is to witness your unjust execution.” Socrates is said to have gently stroked the young man’s head and responded, “Would you have been more content, my dear friend, to see me put to death for a just reason rather than unjustly?” He smiled tenderly as he spoke.

It’s also reported that when Socrates saw Anytus passing by, he remarked, “See how proudly the great man walks. He likely thinks he has accomplished something grand and noble by having me put to death. All because I, upon seeing him receive high honors from the state, told him it was unbecoming to raise his son in a tannery. What a scoundrel he is! He appears not to realize that, between the two of us, the one who has achieved what’s best and noblest for all time is the true victor in this matter. Well, well,” he added, “Homer has attributed to some, at the end of their lives, the power to foresee what will come. I am also inclined to make a prediction. I once spent some time with Anytus’ son, and he struck me as having a strong character. What I’m saying is that he won’t stick with the lowly occupation his father has prepared for him for long. Without a serious friend or guardian, he might be drawn into base passions and descend into depravity.”

The prophecy came true. The young man succumbed to the temptations of wine, and he never stopped drinking, day and night. Eventually, he became utterly worthless, a burden to his city, his friends, and even himself. As for Anytus, even though he is no longer among us, his negative reputation endures, thanks to his son’s improper upbringing and his own lack of compassion.

It is true that Socrates, with his self-praise, aroused jealousy in the courtroom, which may have led the judges to vote against him more readily. However, I consider the fate that befell him as something providential. He found the easiest form of death among many possibilities and escaped the most painful part of life. It was a remarkable opportunity for him to demonstrate the strength of his character. Just as he had never obstinately opposed life’s pleasures in the past, he faced death without a hint of weakness. He welcomed death with cheerfulness and gracefully fulfilled his life’s journey.

For my part, as I reflect on his wisdom and nobility, I can’t forget him, and when I remember him, I can’t help but praise him. If any of those who pursue virtue have ever encountered a more supportive friend than Socrates, I offer my heartfelt congratulations to them, for they have indeed found someone truly enviable.

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