[Summary] Xenophon’s Apology

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. The following 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

Socrates, upon being summoned to court, contemplated not only his defense but also the prospect of his own death. While many have commented on his refined and eloquent manner of speech during the preceding, few have noted that he considered death preferable to life.

Socrates, who refused to prepare a defense in advance, believed his lifelong commitment to living justly was the best defense, and remarked that his divine inner voice had prevented him doing so. When questioned by Hermogenes about the unreliability of Athenian juries, who often convict the innocent and acquit the guilty, Socrates responded that if he were to be put to death it would be the kindest form of death, as old age would bring diminishing faculties and self-reproach. He perceived divine intervention in allowing him to end his life gracefully, and he expressed no eagerness to secure an acquittal that might lead to an extended but less dignified life and death.

The Trial: Accusations and Defense

Socrates, accused of not recognizing the state’s gods and introducing novel divinities by Meletus, defended himself by pointing out that he did participate in public religious activities and had a divine inner voice guiding his actions, much like oracles, divination and soothsayers relied on voices or signs. He claimed to speak more accurately and respectfully about the divine, and stated that the counsel he offered his friends was never found false.

The judges expressed disbelief and envy at the idea of Socrates receiving divine favor. Socrates then shared an incident where Chaerephon had inquired of the Delphic oracle about him, and the god Apollo had responded by calling Socrates the most liberal, upright and temperate individual. Despite further dissent, Socrates mentioned that the god’s words about Lycurgus, the great lawgiver of Lacedaemon, were even more laudatory, likening him to a god.

Socrates defended himself against the charge of corrupting the youth by arguing that he was not enslaved by bodily appetites, was just, wise, and had earned respect from both his fellow citizens and strangers. He questioned whether anyone could point to specific cases of corruption caused by his influence. Meletus claimed that Socrates persuaded some to disobey their fathers.

Socrates admitted influencing the young in matters of education and compared it to obeying doctors in health matters, wise authorities in politics or generals in matters of war. He found it strange that, despite his recognized expertise in education, he was charged with impiety and brought to trial.

Regarding the Guilty Verdict

Above all, Xenophon states, his intent is to relate that Socrates demonstrated no impiety towards the gods nor injustice towards men, and that he did not fear death. After the guilty verdict, Socrates refused to propose a counter-penalty, considering it a confession of guilt. When his companions suggested escape from prison, he rejected the idea, asking if they knew of a place where death couldn’t reach him.

As the end of the trial neared, Socrates addressed the court, asserting that those who encouraged witnesses to perjure themselves and bear false witness against him were deeply impious and unjust. He maintained his innocence, arguing that it had not been proven that he sacrificed to new divinities or taken oaths for different gods. He also questioned how he could corrupt the youth by teaching them frugality and the value of labor, asserting that none were lessened by his influence. Socrates further pointed out that his accusers failed to present evidence of any serious crimes that would warrant a death penalty, such as temple robbery, housebreaking, or betrayal of the state.

As Socrates expressed his innocence and refused to lower his pride for being wrongly condemned, he drew comfort from the example of Palamedes, unjustly killed by Odysseus, in the belief that time would testify to his innocence and his commitment to benefiting others.

As he walked to his execution, Socrates exuded an air of calm acceptance. He reminded his followers that the sentence of death had been upon him since birth, and that dying before facing life’s troubles was, in his view, a stroke of good fortune. When Apollodorus lamented the injustice of his death, Socrates gently asked whether dying for a just reason would be preferable.

When Anytus passed by, Socrates commented on his apparent arrogance and recalled how he had criticized Anytus for his son’s upbringing. Socrates then prophesied that Anytus’ son would fall into base behavior, which indeed came to pass, Xenophon notes, as the young man succumbed to the pleasures of wine.

Xenophon, remarking that Socrates’ self-laudation might have contributed to his conviction, admits that he himself considers his trial and death providential; for it provided Socrates an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of his soul, avoid the troubles of old age and experience a gentle death.

Finally, Xenophon praises Socrates’ wisdom and nobility, declaring him the best friend and mentor to all who would pursue virtue.

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