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The Apology

Plato

35e - 38b

32e - 35d

38c - 42a

Summary

After some deliberation, the jury finds Socrates guilty by a vote of 280 to 221. The only surprise that Socrates registers is that the vote was so close: he expected to lose by a much wider margin. Meletus has proposed the death penalty, and Socrates is invited to propose an alternative form of punishment. True to form, Socrates does not ask himself what penalty he would like to pay, but what penalty he deserves. Considering he has occupied himself by dissuading his fellow citizens from pursuing personal ambitions and urging them instead toward mental and moral perfection, Socrates concludes he deserves a reward rather than a penalty. Accordingly, he proposes that he be given free dining in the Prytaneum, where victorious athletes are feasted during the Olympic Games.

Socrates excuses what might have seemed like a joke, insisting that he cannot propose an appropriate penalty when he is convinced that he has not intentionally wronged anybody. Since he is incapable of intentionally wronging anyone, he can hardly intentionally wrong himself by proposing an unjust penalty. Even so, he rejects most of the penalties the jury might consider to be acceptable. Imprisonment would leave him to the whim of whichever magistrates were in charge of the prisons. Banishment would just send him to wander from town to town, earning resentment and expulsion from each, just as he has here. One last time, Socrates also refuses to give up his philosophizing, as it is only through this that he can do his duty to God and pursue goodness. Only through philosophy can he properly come to know himself, and it is here that he makes his famous assertion that the unexamined life is not worth living. Finally, he suggests, if he must pay a fee, that it be set at one hundred drachmae, a small fee that is barely within his limited means. At the last minute, several young admirers, Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Apollodorus offer some of their own money, raising the fine to three thousand drachmae.

Commentary

Similar to his refusal to beg the jury for mercy, Socrates refuses to beg for the death penalty to be commuted. Simply to do so for personal reasons, or out of fear, would be petty and disgraceful. The only reason for commuting the penalty would be if it were an unjust penalty. Socrates does indeed consider the penalty to be unjust, not because it is so harsh, but because it was laid down at all. His alternative, then, is not a lighter penalty, but a reward. His suggestion of being feasted like a hero of the Olympic Games is just one in a long string of comparisons he makes between himself and more generally recognized heroes. For instance, at 28c, he likens himself to Achilles, the hero of The Iliad, in his determination to fulfill his duty regardless of the danger, and at 22a, he alludes to the Labors of Hercules in connection with his own project of showing the ignorance of others. In these comparisons again, we find a form of Socratic irony. Socrates knows full well that the jury would find it perverse that he, a meddlesome busybody, should in any way resemble these legendary heroes. The irony then lies in the fact that, in many ways, he is even more beneficial to his fellow person than an Achilles or a Hercules.

In reference to the victorious Olympic athletes, Socrates says, "these people give you the semblance of success, but I give you the reality" (36d). While heroic feats might allow us to admire and bask in perfection, Socrates teaching allows us to strive for perfection ourselves. (This distinction between semblances and reality possibly foreshadows Plato's later teaching, where the difference between illusion and reality, between the imperfect world of matter and the perfect, transcendent world of forms, is central.)

Socrates' claim that the unexamined life is not worth living makes a satisfying climax for the deeply principled arguments that Socrates presents on behalf of the philosophical life. The claim is that only in striving to come to know ourselves and to understand ourselves do our lives have any meaning or value. Again, goodness is associated with wisdom, making the life of the philosopher--the lover of wisdom--the most desirable life of all. If we refuse to question ourselves and the world, we will act without reason, unable to distinguish between good actions and bad actions. Without philosophy, Socrates might argue, humans are no better off than animals. The good life is one in which we make both ourselves and those around us happier and better off, and the only way to pursue that life is to pursue wisdom and self-knowledge. If Socrates were to give up philosophizing, he would be abandoning the examined life, and without wisdom or self-knowledge he would be better off dead.

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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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