| |

[Summary] Plato’s Apology

A summary is a convenience that comes at a cost – in order to shorten and simplify the information it condenses it, ideally, but in reality it often excludes and disregards also. The reader becomes more knowledgeable than they were, but not knowledgeable enough. Such has been my experience with philosophy-related summaries in the past, as I found them lacking and uninformative. Which is why I decided to create this: the most complete, yet simple and easy to read, comprehensive summary of Plato’s Apology online. In that spirit, however, a mere summary would not do.

For the sake of clarity, thoroughness and, if necessary, a substantiated reference, you may also appreciate:

Plato’s Apology, believed to have been written in the years following Socrates’ trial and execution, is Plato’s account of Socrates’ defense against the charges of impiety and corrupting the youth in 399 BCE.

The Apology is one of only two first hand extant accounts of Socrates’ trial, the other pertaining to the philosopher and historian Xenophon, entitled The Apology of Socrates to the Jury. The extent to which it represents a valid and valuable historical account of both Socrates and the trial of Socrates is debated, debatable, and will unfortunately remain unknowable, unless historians happen to uncover new sources of information.

For all intents and purposes, The Apology of Socrates remains a foundational text in the history of philosophy and a valuable resource in that it provides an overview of Socrates’ life and philosophy. Unlike Plato’s other dialogues, which focus on specific matters, The Apology presents Socrates’ own account of his life, values and beliefs.

Socrates’ Opening Speech

Socrates begins by addressing the citizens of Athens and acknowledging the persuasive accusations made against him by his detractors, but remarks upon the absurdity of having been warned against his eloquence, asserting that his eloquence, if any, is solely the truth.

Socrates states that his accusers’ words contain little, if any, truth, and requests the audience’s patience as he presents his defense. He introduces himself as an elderly and unpolished orator, unaccustomed to courtroom practices, and asks not to be judged for the simplicity of his speech but solely for the justice of his cause.

He categorizes the accusations he faces into two types, ancient and recent, and expresses his intention to address the older charges first, for they arouse when the citizens were impressionable children and engendered the false image of him as a speculator who disbelieves in the gods. Socrates notes the difficulty in confronting these old accusations, since he does not even know the names of his accusers and cannot call on them to respond. He is, as it were, fighting shadows.

Finally, he expresses his hope to dispel the negative opinions held against him and declares his intention to make his defense according to the law.

The Long Standing Accusations Against Socrates

Socrates proceeds to summarize his accuser’s affidavit: that he is a curious person who investigates matters both in heaven and beneath the earth, makes the worse argument seem better, and imparts these teachings to others.

Socrates rejects these claims, asserting that he has no involvement in the study of natural philosophy, and asks those in the audience who have heard him speak to attest to this fact. He also refutes the accusation that he is a teacher who accepts payment, claiming that he does not possess such knowledge, and cites other individuals who do receive payment for their teachings.

Socrates then explains the origin of his ill-reputation, for which he believes he is on trial, which is related to a unique form of wisdom he possesses – the wisdom attainable by humans.

To clarify and elaborate, he mentions Chaerephon’s visit to the Delphic oracle, where he was told that no one was wiser than Socrates, and calls on Chaerephon’s brother as a witness to confirm the story. As it may sound astounding, Socrates asks the Athenians not to interrupt.

After receiving the Oracle of Delphi’s response that he is the wisest of men, Socrates embarked on a mission to understand its meaning – for he did not believe himself knowledgeable nor wise. He endeavored to find someone wiser than himself, to prove the oracle wrong, but his conversations with politicians, poets and artisans led to a surprising discovery: those esteemed for their wisdom, and who believed themselves wise, overestimated their knowledge and understanding.

Socrates sought out individuals considered wise, starting with politicians. When questioned, and their ignorance was revealed, they grew irritated with him as did their followers. Socrates decided to converse with poets, thinking that they, as authors of profound verses, might be wise. To his surprise, he found that they couldn’t explain their own verses eloquently, indicating that their poetry is an innate talent or an inspired expression, but not true wisdom. He then turned to the artisans, recognizing their superior knowledge in various domains. However, he observed that artisans and skilled craftsmen often made the same mistake as politicians and poets, believing their expertise in one area extends to all matters.

Socrates felt compelled to prioritize the word of the gods and continued his quest for wisdom, questioning the wise and inadvertently exposing their ignorance, despite the animosity he stirred among those he encountered. He explains that young men often found this amusing and imitated him, questioning self-proclaimed experts themselves. Those examined, according to Socrates, instead of being angry with themselves became angry with him, and accused him with the generic slander leveled against all philosophers: not believing in the gods and making the worse argument seem better.

His investigation, provoked by the Delphic Oracle, has led to numerous enemies, accusations, and his reputation as a wise man, which he redundantly disputes. He explains that human wisdom is of little value, as only God is truly wise. The Oracle’s proclamation, according to Socrates, merely uses his name to convey this message.

Socrates reflects on whether he would prefer to possess their wisdom, coupled with their overconfidence, or to remain as he is, with knowledge of his ignorance. He decides that he is better off as he is, as advised by the Oracle.

Socrates identifies his three accusers and their respective associations: Meletus, who represents the poets, Anytus, who represents the craftsmen, and Lycon, who represents the politicians. He remarks that he speaks frankly, even though it has made him unpopular, and argues that the animosity he faces is a testament to truth of his words.

The Current Accusations

Socrates proceeds to address the accusations brought forth by Meletus, Anytus and Lycon, for which he finds himself on trial, starting with the charge of corrupting the youth.

He begins by pointing out the irony that Meletus portrays himself as a concerned patriot who cares about the well-being of the youth, despite never having shown interest in such matters before.

Socrates, in his characteristic method of questioning, challenges Meletus to identify who is responsible for the improvement of the youth. Meletus claims it is the laws and the various institutions of Athens, to which Socrates counters by questioning whether the judges, the audience, the senators and the citizen assembly all contribute to the youth’s improvement. Meletus agrees that these groups do contribute positively.

Socrates comments on the unlikelihood that a single person, only himself, corrupts the youth while everyone else improves them, and contends that this demonstrates that Meletus has not given the matter much thought.

Socrates then asks whether he intentionally or unintentionally harms the youth, and Meletus responds that it is intentional. He then asks whether anyone would intentionally harm themselves, and Meletus agrees they wouldn’t. Finally, he asks if it is preferable to live among good or bad citizens, and Meletus agrees that living among good citizens is better. Socrates then arrives at his refutation through elenchus, and proceeds to expose Meletus’ contradiction: if he intentionally harmed the youth, he would have intentionally harmed himself.

Socrates, in responding to Meletus’ accusation of corrupting the youth of Athens, questions why he would intentionally harm the youth if, in so doing, he would bring harm upon himself and, since he does not charge for teaching, there is no incentive.

Finally, Socrates states that either he does not corrupt the youth at all, or if he does it is unintentional, and in either case Meletus’s accusation is unfounded, since the law does not concern itself with unintentional corruption. If he unknowingly harmed the youth, Meletus should have approached him privately and instructed him, instead of bringing him to court to be punished.

Socrates then asks Meletus to clarify what he means by accusing him of both not believing in the gods and also accusing him of promoting new divinities. Meletus, in response to Socrates’ questions, states that he believes Socrates to be an atheist – not believing in any gods. Socrates refutes this by pointing out that he does believe in divine entities, and believing in the offspring of the gods but not the gods themselves is unthinkable. Ultimately, Socrates concludes that Meletus’s indictment is contradictory and seems like a mockery.

Socrates affirms that his downfall will not be on account of Meletus or Anytus, but due to the envy and malice of the world.

Socrates’ Warning, for the Sake of Athens

Socrates responds to those who might question his way of life, which could lead to his untimely death, by asserting that a person of worth should not concern themselves with living or dying but rather with the rightness or wrongness of their actions. He affirms the importance of fulfilling one’s duty, regardless of the consequences, and cites the example of Achilles, who cared more about living in disgrace than avoiding death.

Socrates asserts that his mission, as guided by God, is to encourage people to prioritize wisdom and the improvement of their souls, and insists that he will not stop conversing and questioning, as he does, even if that decision means certain death, and reaffirms his commitment to the mission of a philosopher, which entails examining himself and others. He argues that to abandon his duty would be a reproachable act of impiety, and remarks that although his knowledge of the world is limited, disobedience to a superior authority is undoubtedly wrong. He will continue to follow his calling and urges the citizens of Athens to prioritize virtue over wealth and material gain.

Socrates asserts that killing him would be a greater loss to the state than to himself. He likens his role to that of a gadfly, sent by God, to rouse the city from its sluggish stupor with its sting, and presents himself as a man who values principles and integrity over personal safety or material success, encouraging the Athenians to consider the value of his words.

He mentions a personal daimon that guides his actions and warns him against wrongdoing, and explains why he does not participate in politics, for he believes that those who truly fight for justice are likely to perish early if involved in politics. He recounts a story from his time as a senator when he alone voted against an illegal action, even in the face of threats, demonstrating his unwavering commitment to justice. He recounts another incident that transpired during the regime of the Thirty Tyrants, when he and four others were tasked with illegally retrieving a general for execution. He alone refused, and would have perished had it not been for their downfall shortly thereafter.

Socrates continues his defense by asserting that he has no formal disciples and does not teach. He invites those who may have been harmed by his discussions, or their relatives, to come forward and testify against him. He lists several people, including Crito, Lysanias and Plato, who are present and could testify about the alleged corruption of the youth, but support him instead. They support him, Socrates says, because he speaks the truth whereas Meletus lies.

In this final part of Socrates’ defense, he addresses those who might be upset by his lack of emotional appeals or supplications for acquittal. He explains that he is not bringing his family to court or resorting to such actions because he believes they are undignified, not just for himself but for the entire state. He argues that individuals of repute should not engage in such behavior, and their conduct should be honorable and dignified. Socrates also emphasizes the importance of adhering to the laws and principles of justice, asserting that judges should not be swayed by personal appeals and make their decision solely based on the law.

He concludes by affirming his belief in the gods and entrusts his case to both the jury and the divine, accepting whatever judgment is deemed best for all. Ultimately, the jury finds Socrates guilty.

Socrates’ Perspective on Death

Socrates expresses his lack of surprise over the guilty verdict, which he anticipated, although he did not expect the votes to be so evenly divided. Where it not for Anytus and Lycon’s support, he contends, Maletus would not have secured the votes necessary to avoid a fine, as Athenian law dictated.

Prior to the jury’s deliberation on his sentence, but following his accuser’s suggestion for the death penalty, Socrates is allowed to offer a counter-proposal: a fitting punishment for himself.

Socrates acknowledges that he has never led an idle life, unlike many who prioritize wealth, family and public honors. Instead, he has focused on persuading people to prioritize wisdom and virtue, putting the welfare of the state before his personal interests. Socrates argues that his sentence, if any, should be suitable for someone who has been a benefactor to the city, and suggests that maintenance in the Prytaneum, an honor reserved for Olympic victors, is a just recompense.

He considers, however, the possibility of a fine, imprisonment or exile, but questions the wisdom of proposing a certain punishment as an alternative to death, which is unknown and unknowable.

Socrates concludes by asserting that one should not use any means to avoid death but should focus on avoiding unrighteousness instead. He predicts that his death will bring punishment upon his accusers, as they killed him to escape accountability and not to answer for their own lives, in the belief that more accusers, younger and more severe, will emerge, making their lives even more troublesome, and encourages self-improvement as the noblest path.

Socrates’ Final Address to his Friends

In this concluding part of Socrates’ defense, he addresses his friends after being sentenced to death.

Socrates shares something he considers extraordinary: that his inner divine voice, which has always warned him against wrongdoing, did not oppose him throughout this trial. The meaning of this, he says, is that what occurred is a good thing and that those who fear death, and consider it an evil, are mistaken.

He then considers two possibilities regarding death: if death means nothingness and eternal unconsciousness, it’s a great gain because it’s like an undisturbed night’s sleep; if, however, as some believe, it involves the soul’s transition to another place, the afterlife would be an even greater reward – a chance to converse with the wise and legendary figures from the past, where Socrates would continue his quest to distinguish the wise from the pretentious.

He comforts his friends, asserting that nothing bad can befall a good person, whether in life or after death, as the gods look after their well-being, and that he bears no ill-will against his accusers even though their intentions were not benevolent.

Socrates does, however, have one final request to make of his friends: when his sons come of age, he asks his friends to guide and chastise them just as he has challenged and corrected them, to ensure they prioritize virtue over worldly concerns and that they do not pretend to be what they are not. That, he says, is the justice they will impart to his sons, as they have done for him.

Socrates, acknowledging the time for his departure, concludes with a reflection on the uncertainty of whether death or life is better, leaving the answer to God.

Similar Posts