Note – My own apology: This article took far longer to write than anticipated, between multiple trips to UCSF, the need to get summer chores done before the fall semester begins, and - mostly - the mountain of contextual research and cross-referencing needed to make this article at least modestly relevant. A lot more could be said, but I am ready to move on to the next topic, so this will have to do for now.
In the Heliaea – the law court of Athens – within the agora, before an Athenian jury of 500 or 501 men. Socrates is on trial for, “corrupting the young and of not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other new spiritual things” (24b).
See the Commentary for a greater discussion of the contemporary Athenian legal system as it relates to Socrates’s trial.
- Meletus, although he barely qualifies, giving but a few short answers when questioned by Socrates. He is one of the three responsible for Socrates being tried. Socrates claims that Meletus is, “vexed on behalf of the poets” (23e). For more on Meletus, see the commentary on Euthyphro.
- Adeimantus, son of Ariston and Plato’s brother, is present at the trial (34a).
- Aeantodoros, brother of Apollodorus and supporter of Socrates, is present at the trial (34a).
- Aeschines, supporter of Socrates present at the trial (33e).
- Antiphon the Cephisian, father of Epigenes and supporter of Socrates, present at the trial (33e).
- Anaxagoras is mentioned during Socrates refutation of the charge of impiety, accusing Meletus of confusing the former with the later. Anaxagoras believed the sun to be made of metal, and the moon (and the planets) to be a fragment of the earth, as opposed to the popular belief that they were in fact gods (26d-e).
- Anytus, one of the three accusers of Socrates. He had served as a general during the Peloponnesian War, and contributed to the ousting of the Thirty in 430 BCE and the restoration of democracy. He does not speak in Apology, but has a part to play in Meno, one which appears to point to why he is one of Socrates’s accusers. Socrates claims that Anytus is “vexed on behalf of the craftsmen and the politicians” (23e).
- Apollodorus is present, and is one of those who offers to financially assist Socrates in paying a penalty of 30 minas (38b).
- Aristophanes is mentioned as a “writer of comedies,” and one of the Socrates’s older accusers, as opposed to the three that have brought him to trial (18c-e).
- Callias, son of Hipponicus, who, “has spent more money on Sophists than everybody else put together” (20a).
- Chaerephon, the man responsible for asking the Delphic oracle whether any man was wiser than his friend, Socrates (21a).
- Crito, father of Critobulus and friend of Socrates, and interlocutor of the eponymous dialogue, Crito. He is noted as being present at the trial (33e). He is one of those who offers to financially assist Socrates in paying a penalty of 30 minas (38b).
- Critobulus, friend and present at the trial (33e). He is one of those who offers to financially assist Socrates in paying a penalty of 30 minas (38b).
- Evenus, who, according to Callias is an, “expert in this kind of excellence, the human and social kind” (20b).
- Gorgias, Prodicus, and Hippias, three sophists, who, “go to any city and persuade the young… to join with themselves, pay them a fee, and be grateful to them besides” (19e-20a).
- Leon of Salamis. Socrates was one of five men ordered by the Thirty to retrieve him for execution. Socrates refused, “not in words but in action,” going home instead of with the other four to retrieve Leon (32d).
- Lycon, the third accuser of Socrates. Father of Autolycus, he is, “vexed on behalf of the orators” (23e).
- Lysanias of Sphettus, father of Aeschines, present at the trial (33e).
- Nicostratus, son of Theozotides, supporter of Socrates and present at the trial (33e).
- Paralius, son of Demodocus and brother of the deceased Theages is present at the trial (34a).
- Plato, the man himself, is mentioned as being present at the trial (34a). He is one of those who offers to financially assist Socrates in paying a penalty of 30 minas (38b).
- Theodotus, who, “has died so he could not influence,” his brother Nicostratus (33e-34a).
- The gods Hera and Zeus are mentioned by Socrates during his questioning of Meletus.
- Achilles, Hector, and Patroclus are mentioned in Socrates’s speech on good men and the fear of death.
- The ten generals who, “failed to pick up the survivors of the naval battle” of Arginusae in 406 BCE (32b). Socrates’s was sitting on the council at the time, and solely voted against their prosecution, an act which was looked upon unfavorably by his peers in the council.
- Minos, Rhadamenthus, Aeacus, and Triptolemus are mentioned as the “true jurymen” who sit in judgment in Hades (41a).
- Orpheus, Musaeus, Hesiod, Homer, Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Sisyphus are mentioned as residents in Hades worth meeting (41a and 41b-c). Palmaedes and Telamonian Ajax are also mentioned as residents, and that they, “died through an unjust conviction,” making them appropriate conversational partners for Socrates.
The single greatest difference between Apology and the rest of the dialogues is that the former does not take the shape of the latter. It is virtually a monologue; the only other speaker is Meletus, and he speaks only briefly when questioned directly by Socrates. Throughout, Socrates speaks, the jury only present through his comments directed directly at them, typically to keep them from making a disturbance when he is about to say something likely upsetting (i.e. 21a).
The unique nature of Apology has led many scholars to conclude that: 1) it is Plato’s earliest surviving dialogue; 2) is records with as much accuracy as is possible, considering the circumstances surrounding its authoring, the historical trial of Socrates. There is no way to prove that either of these is the case, and there are some obvious flaws in this line of thought, although it remains the majority opinion regardless.1 For another theory on how Apology fits into the Platonic corpus – one with its own strengths and weaknesses – see this discussion by Bernard Suzanne. I shall not take sides on the issue, as it is irrelevant to the present discussion. Another interesting feature of this dialogue is that Plato ties himself directly to the event by admitting he was present, albeit in an unassuming manner, almost in passing (34a and 38b).
Apology is serious business, but not without some humor. Socrates opens with what I interpret to be sarcasm, to wit: “I do not know, men of Athens, how my accuser affected you; as for me, I was almost carried away in spite of myself, so persuasively did they speak” (17a). This before he begins the process of tearing apart the weak and inconsistent accusations of Meletus and his associates. And there is his discussion of what would be an appropriate “penalty” for his conviction, Socrates concluding that the just assessment of that he deserves is to be fed at the expense of the state in the Prytaneum alongside the Olympic victors (36d-e). Perhaps it is just the translation I am using, but this bit always strikes me as funny – in a sarcastic sort of way – although the jury apparently did not agree, the humor being at their expense.
At this point in the process, the accusers have all had the opportunity to give their accusations, the reasons why they have had Socrates brought to trial, and why he should be convicted and put to death. After the sarcastic opening line, Socrates begins his defense by divorcing himself from the orators and rhetoricians, a profession to which one of his accusers – Lycon – belongs (23e). Socrates pre-apologizes for his poor method of speaking – an example of Socratic irony as he will not speak poorly at all – noting that he will only speak the truth, not after the manner of the orators – meaning the accusers – because, “practically nothing they said is true” (17b-c). We also learn that this is Socrates’s first appearance in a law court, although later he will admit that he came close to appearing before one during the last days of the Tyranny (17d and 32d-3).
As in many of the dialogues, Socrates lays the ground rules down early: he will first address accusations made against him by his “first accusers,” before addressing those made by Meletus, Lycon and Anytus (18a-b). These early accusers – Socrates notes there are many, but mentions no names other than that of Aristophanes – present a greater threat, as they have been influencing the men of the jury for many years, most since childhood (18b-c). These accusations are like a case already one, Socrates never having had the opportunity to provide a defense against them.
In addressing these first accusers, Socrates divorces himself from the caricature provided in Aristophanes’s Clouds. He denies that image outright, and relies on the jury – many of whom have heard him speaking publicly – to know better than to believe the comedian (19b-d). He then goes on to separate himself from the Sophists as teachers for money; although it appears that many in Athens have made that association, Socrates claims that he does not have the sort of wisdom the Sophists claim to have (20c). This leads to relating the story of Chaerephon’s visit to Delphi to ask the oracle whether there is anyone wiser than Socrates, the short answer being “no” (20e-21a). He knows this story will have an upsetting effect on the jurors, asking them to not create a disturbance before relating the oracle.
This oracle is what led Socrates to pursue his method of systematic questioning of those who claimed to have real knowledge, starting with those who saw themselves as being wise. Socrates’s intent was to prove the oracle wrong (21b-c). But, as he goes from individual to individual, he finds that he is wiser, simply because he realizes that he does not know anything of value, while the others believe they do (21d). Socrates associates his quest for a wiser man to be like the labors of Herakles (22a). It is through this line of questioning, Socrates admits, that he, “acquired much unpopularity, of a kind that is hard to deal with and is a heavy burden,” resulting in slanders against him, and an undeserved reputation for having wisdom (22e-23a).
This part of his defense accomplishes two things: first, it addresses the old accusations that Socrates sees himself as being wiser than the rest; second, it begins to address the new accusations of impiety, as he – in seeking someone wiser than himself – is ultimately only pursuing the will of Apollo. Such is his piety that he lives, “in great poverty because of [his] service to the god” (23b).
After a brief discussion of how Socrates’s pupils have contributed to his undeserved image as an annoying gadfly who sees himself as being intellectually superior to those around him, he officially begins his defense against the charges of Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon, although, as we have seen, he has already been addressing them indirectly. This is the only part of Apology that is a dialogue, and then only just barely, as Socrates questions Meletus directly. In the process of tearing down the accusations of the accusers, Socrates asks Meletus whether he considers it important that the young men of Athens be as “good as possible” (24d); what he thinks is responsible for this improvement – to which Meletus answers “the laws,” followed by, “the jurymen…. All of them,” then adding the audience, the members of the council, indeed every Athenian but Socrates (24d-25a); After further coaxing, Socrates accuses Meletus of thinking himself wiser at his young age, and that Meletus’s accusation that Socrates deliberately misleads the young falls apart in that it would have led to the old philosopher being harmed by one of his students (25b-26a). Therefore, since it is not possible that Socrates was deliberately misleading anyone, Meletus is in fact guilty of not providing Socrates with appropriate corrective instruction, what he should have done instead of bringing Socrates to court (26a).
Socrates then turns to the charge of impiety, since it is intimately linked with the charge of misleading the Athenian youth. His first question is the nature of the impiety of which he is being accused, to which Meletus responds that he is an atheist – he does, “not believe in gods at all” (26c). After reaffirming his accusation of atheism, Socrates accuses Meletus of accusing him of having the same beliefs as Anaxagoras (see the list of those mentioned in this dialogue, above). At this point, it appears that Meletus begins to hesitate in the face of Socrates’s – at times hostile – questioning, and the jury must force him to answer the next questions (27c). It is not long after that Socrates’s defense is concluded: “I do not think, men of Athens, that it requires a prolonged defense to prove that I am not guilty of the charges in Meletus’s deposition, but this is sufficient” (28a). Of course, that is his opinion only, and it is here that he admits to the real problem he is facing – and one that appears to provide a glimmer of the what is likely the ultimate truth behind Socrates’s death: “I am very unpopular with many people. This will be my undoing, if I am undone, not Meletus or Anytus but the slanders and envy of many people. This has destroyed many other good men and will, I think, continue to do so” (28a-b).
This nearly-fatalistic attitude towards the outcome of the trial allows Socrates to segue into his views on duty and death. He cites the Iliad, comparing his own actions to those of Achilles and the latter’s pursuit of Hector. The son of Thetis did not fear death, “and was much more afraid to live a coward who did not avenge his friends” (28b-d). Socrates then reminds the jury of his own service to the city, having performed dutifully at the battles of, “Potidae, Amphipolis, and Delium” (28e). He compares this physical service to his taking on the mantle of a philosopher in the service of Apollo. He knows that “it is wicked and shameful to do wrong, to disobey one’s superior, be he god or man” (29b). But, since he has a divinely inspired duty to question the Athenians and work to make them better, he places his duty to Apollo over that due any of his mortal superiors, and so he sentencing him to give up the practice of philosophy is the one punishment he will not accept (29d-30b).
After describing how it is he improves the citizens of Athens, he turns the tables around on the jury; he is not providing a defense for himself, but for them: “Indeed, men of Athens, I am far from making a defense now on my own behalf, as might be thought, but on yours, to prevent you from wrongdoing by mistreating the god’s gift to you by condemning me; for if you kill me you will not easily find another like me” (30d-e). Socrates is irreplaceable – to Socrates at least – although he admits that his behavior can be annoying; he compares Athens to a “great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish,” and himself to a gadfly, sent by Apollo to “rouse each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long and everywhere” (30e-31a).
After describing his divine sign, an inner voice that advises him only on what not to do, as that which has kept him from engaging in the affairs of the city (31c), he cites two events intended to show his true character. First, he mentions the trial of the generals after the naval Battle of Arginusae in 406 BCE, and how he refused to vote to see the trial move ahead as it was contrary to Athenian law, a stand that stirred the anger of the crowd (32b-c; see also Xenophon’s Hellenica I.vii.15)2. He also reminds the jury of his behavior during the Tyranny in regards to the judicial murder of Leon of Salamis, and how, had the Thirty not fallen shortly thereafter, Socrates, “might have been put to death” (32c-d; see also Hellenica II.iii.39).
Rather interestingly, Socrates makes a statement intended to divorce himself from some of those with which he has been associated by the Athenian public,
“I have never been anyone’s teacher. If anyone, young or old, desires to listen to me when I am talking and dealing with my own concerns, I have never begrudged this to anyone, but I do not converse when I receive a fee and not when I do not. I am equally ready to question the rich and the poor if anyone is willing to answer my questions and listen to what I say. And I cannot justly be held responsible for the good or bad conduct of these people, as I never promised to teach them anything and have not done so. If anyone says that he has learned anything from me, or that he heard anything privately that the others did not hear, be assured that he is not telling the truth” (33a-b).
Although no names are mentioned, it clearly points to the sophists – the Pharisees of the Platonic corpus – and to unpopular individuals such as Alcibiades, men who had been followers or associates of Socrates and who had played roles in Athens’s recent downfall. In essence, since he does not charge a fee, he is not a sophist, and since he is not a sophist, he does not teach anyone anything, and therefore cannot rightly be associated with any of Athens’s more nefarious personalities. Somewhat self-contradictorily, at 35c Socrates points out that it is right to, “teach and persuade,” the jury, in lieu of trying to supplicate it.
Returning to the charge of corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates points out that – had he indeed done harm to nay Athenian youth by corrupting them – then they or their relatives would certainly want to say something in support of his accusers. He points out a dozen men in the crowd, all of whom have enjoyed, “hearing those being questioned [by Socrates] who think they are wise, but are not” (33c). If Socrates had harmed any of them, he points out, they would make excellent witnesses for Meletus, yet he did not, a fact that points out further flaws in the accusers’s argument (33d-34b).
Socrates concludes his apologia by pointing out who he won’t resort to cheap pathos in trying to secure his acquittal. In a way, it is similar to (but not exactly like by any means) how the Apostle Paul points out how he does not have to remind the recipients of his letters what he has done for them, the point being to remind them specifically of those things. In 34b-35b, Socrates disparages those who resort to beg the jury for clemency due to the needs of their families, yet he points out that he is the father of three sons, “one adolescent while two are children.” True, he does not resort to begging or pleading, but his children are brought into the picture regardless. After an admonition to the jury to not perjure themselves, and a reminder of his piety, Socrates awaits the verdict of the jury. Unfortunately, for him, he has not convinced enough of the jurymen of his innocence – whether of the charges brought by his accusers or of his association with men such as Alcibiades – and so is found guilty.
From the verdict, Apology concludes in a whirlwind fashion when compared with the defense portion. After pointing out that the verdict was essentially the result of a popularity contest – as they apparently tended to be in Athenian jurisprudence – he comments on the death sentence proposed by Meletus. Already mentioned, my favorite part of Apology is here, when Socrates offers the counter-proposal of free meals in the Pyrtaneum as his punishment. His argument is that the service he provides to Athens makes him more worthy than someone victorious at the Olympic games (36c-37a). Acknowledging that this sounds arrogant (and it does), a statement that he does nothing to counter other than to say that he is not, he segues into the problem with the Athenian judicial system, at least in capital cases (37a-b). Socrates’s believes that, had he been given more days to speak, instead of the one afternoon allowed, they would be convinced of his innocence; but, since he is defending himself from not only the accusations of Meletus, Lycon and Anytus, but from “old accusers” such as Aristophanes as well, the time allotted was not sufficient to see justice done. After discussing the possibility of imprisonment or exile, he proposes a fine of one mina, all he can personally afford (38b). At this point, Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Apollodorus offer to help Socrates with a fine, and the amount is raised to 30 mina. Regardless, the jury deliberates, and they vote for Meletus’s recommended punishment: death.
With nothing to lose, Socrates takes the opportunity to address those who voted him guilty, pointing out that old age would have done the job for them if they had just been patient (38c-d). He claims that he was convicted because he refused to play the game as they, the jury, desired, by not saying what they wanted to hear (36d-e). He sums up his situation and decision to not supplicate the jury by saying,
“it is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death. Slow and elderly as I am, I have been caught by the slower pursuer, whereas my accusers, being clever and sharp, have been caught by the quicker, wickedness. I leave you now, condemned to death by you, but they are condemned by truth to wickedness and injustice. So I maintain my assessment, and they maintain theirs. This perhaps had to happen, and I think it is as it should be” (39a-b).
He then makes a rather striking statement: claiming to be prophesying, he notes that those who convicted him will suffer, “a vengeance much harder to bear than that which you took in killing me,” one which will come upon them immediately (39c). He predicts others will follow in his footsteps, younger men he has held back, who will be, “more difficult to deal with” (39c-d). Whether this is Plato remembering something Socrates actually said at the trial, or Plato’s own thinly veiled threat – one in which he is referring to himself – is anyone’s guess; I personally believe the latter to be the most likely.
Socrates notes that his daimon has been silent throughout; nothing Socrates has done has been opposed by his inner divine spirit. From this he concludes that he has proceeded in the correct manner in his defense, as, “it is impossible that my familiar sign did not oppose me if I was not about to do what was right” (40b). From here, he segues into the nature of death. For Socrates, it is either one of two states: first, it can be like a “dreamless sleep.” There is nothing detestable about this for Socrates, as he feels that there are few nights, “better and more pleasant,” than those; if death is like that, then all eternity would seem to be no more single night (40c-e). The second possibility is that death is, “a change from here to another place,” that is, to continue in an afterlife in Hades. For Socrates, there could be no better fate than to spend eternity discoursing with those who are gone before. Not only would he be able to converse with the morally upright – those who have been assigned to sit in judgment – but also those held in high esteem by the Greeks for their wisdom and/or piety, as well as those condemned to an eternity of suffering for their actions while alive. He would also question those who – like Socrates himself – were unjustly convicted by their peers. Such opportunities would provide him with, “extraordinary happiness” (41a-c).
Socrates winds up his defense declaring, “it was better for me to die now and to escape from trouble” (41d). Yet, he leaves the jury with a parting shot designed to make them reflect on their actions that day: “Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the god” (42a).
Apology starts in media res, which is a shame as it would be helpful to know more about the accusations leveled against Socrates by the triad of accusers: Meletus, Lycon, and Anytus. In spite of being as much a popularity contest as a system of jurisprudence, the Athenian legal system did have procedures that were to be followed; history has shown that they were at times disregarded in the heat of the moment – the trial of the generals mentioned in Apology being one example (see 32b ff).
The trial itself is the penultimate step in a multi-part judicial process, the final step being administration of punishment. Socrates had two prior occasions on which to defend himself against the accusers’s charges: the first would be when he had been summoned before the King Archon when the charges were initially presented, and the King Archon – who was oversaw trials involving religious crimes – would determine whether or not there were grounds for the trial.3 Obviously, this decision was made in favor of Meletus and his compatriots, so the process would then move on to the second phase, an actual hearing before the King Archon, who would question both Meletus and Socrates, again to determine whether there was merit in going forward with a trial. The third phase – the one allegedly reported in Apology – was the actual public trial.
As noted above, the trial takes up after the prosecution has had its say. Socrates takes center stage, the “dialogue” being a virtual monologue in reality, and his defense often being more a critique of certain segments – and at times, individuals – in contemporary Athens. At least part of his defense centers on him not stooping to the depths that the typical Athenian might in a similar situation, of not being guilty of the same sorts of selfish behavior. And the past incidents he cites in his defense – the trial of the generals, and the incident involving Leon of Salamis – while arguably notable displays of idealism, turned out to all be fruitless gestures. Even his attempts to distance himself from the sophists run afoul on contradictions in his speech. Likewise his attempts to divorce himself from his more troublesome associates.
My personal interpretation is that the Socrates of the Apology comes off as a bit smug and self-righteous. The defense presented by Plato does not seem focused or well organized; if there is a theme, it is something akin to: “at least I am better than the lot of you.” There seems to be a thread of anger and/or frustration running throughout, one that – I would hazard to guess – comes from Plato and not his older friend; the prophecy of imminent vengeance on those who declared Socrates guilty near the end of the dialogue points directly at Plato.
The historicity of this dialogue has been, and will continue to be, argued. By his own admission, Plato was an eyewitness to the trial, but unless one is willing to claim that he had photographic recall, then Plato must have embellished his account at least a little by putting words into Socrates’s mouth; this was certainly standard operating procedure for historical works of the period.
Apology is not my favorite dialogue. It does not portray Socrates at his best, and there is a bitterness that comes through in many places. That bitterness – whatever its source – may be justified, as may be the difference in Socrates’s attitude; after all, he is on trial for his life. That said, I shall next turn to Xenophon’s account of the trial of Socrates. Xenophon was not an eyewitness of the trial, being off on his Persian adventure, instead allegedly relying on the remembrances of Hermogenes, another of Socrates’s pupils. Xenophon’s Socrates is quite different from Plato’s; he is certainly easier to comprehend, and, to me, more likable for his earthiness. That does not make him any more historically accurate, however. Regardless, a comparison of the two Socrates shall be worth the time spent; the reader can determine whether one is a truer representation than the other.
1 Concluding that Apology is Plato’s first – or at least very early – writing is largely based on Xenophon’s comment in his own telling of the story, that, “it is true that others have written about this [Socrates’s trial], and that all of them have reproduced the loftiness of his words” (1). However, although it may be reasonable to assume that Plato is one of these other authors, Xenophon mentions no names.
2 The generals were ultimately tried and executed in spite of Socrates’s legal objections; such was the fickle and volatile nature of Athenian political life.
3 This is the setting for Euthyphro, which takes place outside the King Archon’s court at the Royal Stoa just before Socrates enters to answers the charges of Meletus, Lycon, and Anytus. For a description of the various Athenian archonships, see chapter 3 of David Stockton’s The Classical Athenian Democracy. For a very accessible and concise description of the Athenian legal system as it pertains to the trial of Socrates, see this site.