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The Apology

Plato

24b - 28a

20c - 24e

28a - 32e

Summary

Socrates now turns from his old accusers to his new ones, those who have brought him to trial. Socrates reminds the court that they accuse him of corrupting the minds of the young and of believing in supernatural phenomena of his own invention rather than in the gods of the state. In order to defend himself against these charges, Socrates calls on Meletus, his principal accuser, and interrogates him in the familiar form of the elenchus, or cross-examination.

If he has such a bad influence on the youth of Athens, Socrates asks, what is it that has a good influence? Meletus responds that the laws make people good. Socrates then urges Meletus to clarify which people might have this good influence, whose business it is to know the laws. In response to Socrates' persistent questioning, Meletus first asserts that the jurymen are responsible for knowing the laws, and then accepts both Councilors and members of the Assembly as equally good influences. Because the Assembly is open to all adult males, Meletus finds himself claiming that the entire population of Athens has a positive influence on the youth, with the sole exception of Socrates. Socrates then draws an analogy with horses, saying that only horse- trainers, very specialized people, have a positive influence on horses, whereas most people would have a negative influence. Surely, Socrates suggests, if it takes such expertise to improve a horse, it would be odd to think that pretty much anyone can improve a person.

Next, Socrates' questioning leads Meletus to claim that wicked people like Socrates intentionally do harm to those with which they live in contact, and that this acts to the detriment of all in that society. Socrates replies to Meletus that, in doing harm to others and hurting all of society, Socrates would thus also be hurting himself, as a member of society. Socrates claims that he cannot possibly be so foolish as to want to hurt himself, and so if he does cause harm, it must be unintentional. And, he concludes, one who unintentionally does harm should be instructed and reproved, not tried and punished.

Socrates then addresses the accusation that he does not believe in the gods sanctioned by the state, assuming that this is the negative influence Meletus refers to. Under Socrates' questioning, Meletus asserts that Socrates believes in no gods whatsoever. Socrates replies that Meletus is confusing him with Anaxagoras, a well-known Presocratic, whose theories Meletus is ascribing to Socrates. To prove Meletus wrong, Socrates undertakes to show that he must believe in gods of some sort. He suggests that it would be impossible to believe in human matters without believing in human beings, or in equine matters without believing in horses, or in musical matters without believing in musicians, and so it must analogously be impossible to believe in supernatural matters without believing in supernatural beings. But the affidavit Meletus himself drew up against Socrates claims that Socrates believes--and teaches others to believe--in supernatural matters. That must imply, then, that Socrates believes in supernatural beings. Since the only kinds of supernatural beings, according to Socrates, are gods and children of the gods, it must follow that Socrates believes in gods, contrary to Meletus' initial assertion.

Commentary

This is the only appearance in The Apology of a speaker other than Socrates, and it is the only instance of the elenchus. However, the dialogue is disappointingly poor, and the reasoning on both sides is shoddy. While most of Socrates' cross-examinations bear the careful consideration of a curious inquirer, this exchange is bitter and dismissive. Socrates does not even pretend to have an interest in identifying the source of Meletus' views. Instead, he sets out to dismiss Meletus as mean-spirited and ignorant. Throughout, Socrates bullies Meletus, mocking him and pushing him to answer more quickly. Often, particularly when his arguments reach their conclusions, Socrates leaves off questioning Meletus altogether, and answers his questions for him with derogatory scorn. Socrates' purpose in doing this is most likely to dismiss Meletus as a worthwhile opponent. He has already given thoughtful answers to his old accusers, and his strategy here is to suggest that even by taking Meletus seriously, he would be conceding too much. Meletus is spoken of harshly here and in the Euthyphro, and we can reasonably suppose that Plato was also intent on smearing the reputation of one of the men responsible for Socrates' death.

Socrates' analogy of the horse-trainer is dubious at best, as we are never given a solid reason for putting our faith in the analogy. Why should we suppose that making horses physically fit is a similar activity to making humans virtuous? Just when we hope Socrates will give us an answer, he simply dismisses the whole affair, saying to Meletus, "you make it perfectly clear that you have never paid the slightest attention to the matters over which you are now indicting me" (25c).

His argument that he cannot possibly be causing harm intentionally is similarly dubious. It rests on the doctrine that no one ever does evil willingly and knowingly. This is an interesting and much discussed doctrine, but it is one of Socrates' own invention, and it is bold, to say the least, that he presents it here without further argument on its behalf. Furthermore, if he is right in saying that no one intentionally does evil, and those who unintentionally do evil deserve instruction rather than punishment, he is calling the whole purpose of the law court into question. If the court exists in order to try and punish, there must exist people who deserve punishment--at least in the eyes of the jurymen.

When discussing Socrates' belief in the gods, Meletus associates Socrates with Anaxagoras. As mentioned earlier, Anaxagoras was a Presocratic philosopher with whom Socrates studied in his youth and who posited an atheistic worldview. Anaxagoras was exiled from Athens around 450 B.C. for his irreligious views, and so it would indeed be a serious charge to associate Socrates with Anaxagoras. However, as Socrates has already argued, he is different from the Presocratics in that his teachings do not concern themselves with cosmology in any way. Nevertheless, Socrates' "proof" that he does believe in the gods is again far more questionable than the reasoning behind his more sophisticated dialogues. Probably the most problematic leap is the one that takes Socrates from believing in supernatural beings to believing in gods. Traditional Greek thought held that there were several kinds of supernatural beings, gods and children of gods being only two of them, while dead souls, fate, and fortune were also supernatural beings. Strangely, Socrates dogmatically asserts that all supernatural beings are either gods or children of the gods, and Meletus agrees to this assertion without objection.

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"...The unexamined life is not worth living..."

by Shmosef, October 13, 2013

This is arguably one of Socrates' most famous quotes, and in fact, living the examined life was the main cause of him sippin' on a killer cocktail. But, what does he mean? Why does he think that death is favorable option to living an unexamined life? What does the examined (or conversely, the unexamined) life look like? Another way to think about this is "Why does Socrates so willingly accept his fate?". Just food for thought.

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