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The Apology

Plato

38c - 42a

35e - 38b

Study Questions

Summary

After Socrates' brief and rather flippant request for the death penalty to be commuted, the jury votes to put Socrates to death. This time, the margin is greater--over two thirds--in contrast to the narrow margin that found Socrates guilty. Socrates now makes his final address to the jury before being led off to prison.

He warns those that sentenced him that they will hereafter be blamed for putting a wise man to death. If only they had had a little patience, he suggests, he would have died without their help; after all, he already an old man of seventy. He reflects that perhaps he might have saved himself by saying whatever was necessary to secure his acquittal, of weeping or appealing to the jury's mercy. However, he has not done so for lack of ingenuity, but for lack of impudence: he would be disgracing himself and the court if he were to make such appeals. The difficulty, as he sees it, is not to outrun death, but to outrun wickedness, which is a far more dogged pursuer. Socrates accepts that he has been outrun by death, but points out that, unlike him, his accusers have been outrun by wickedness. While he has been condemned to death by a human jury, his accusers have been convicted of depravity and injustice by no less a tribunal than Truth herself. He is happier accepting his sentence than theirs, and considers this to be a fair sentence.

He finishes his address to those who voted against him with a stern prophecy. Though they may have managed to silence him in the hopes that they can continue to live free of criticism, he will be replaced by even more critics who until now have kept silent. Socrates warns his accusers that in order to live free of criticism, one must behave well rather than stop the mouths of one's critics.

Socrates then addresses those who voted to acquit him, to reconcile themselves to his fate. He remarks that the divine voice that often warns him against harmful actions has remained silent throughout the trial and throughout his own speech. From this he concludes that perhaps death is a blessing, since his sign would have opposed him unless his actions were to bring about a good result. After all, Socrates reasons, death is either annihilation--a complete and final sleep--or death is a transmigration, where his soul would live on somewhere else. If death is annihilation, it is to be looked forward to as we would look forward to a deep, restful sleep. On the other hand, if death is a transmigration to some sort of afterlife, that afterlife will be populated by all the great figures of the past, from Homer to Odysseus. Socrates remarks how delightful it would be to pass amongst these great figures, questioning them regarding their wisdom.

The conclusion Socrates reaches, then, is that the good man has nothing to fear either in this life or the next. He denies any grudge against his accusers, even though they seek his life, and asks his friends to look after his three sons and to make sure that they always put goodness above money or other earthly trappings. Socrates concludes with the famous phrase: "Well, now it is time to be off, I to die and you to live; but which of us has the happier prospect is unknown to anyone but God" (42a).

Commentary

We find another interesting application of Socratic irony in Socrates' assertion that he would be showing impudence if he were to weep and beg for mercy. To the jury, he would have been showing impudence by not doing so and defiantly maintaining his position. The fact is, Socrates does show impudence to the court, but this kind of impudence is of little value or interest to Socrates. When he speaks of impudence, he refers to impudence before the much higher tribunals of Truth and goodness. He would be compromising his dignity and his duty to truth if he were to so debase himself. Socrates then is ultimately condemned by this jury because he does not speak to them, but to the truth. His moral position in general is one of always trying to be just and honest rather than to please his fellow person, knowing that even if he irritates others, he is ultimately doing them good by living justly and truthfully.

Socrates' warning that he will be replaced, and by many, is a curious one. Only a bit earlier, at 31a, he warns the jury not to condemn him, as he will not be easy to replace. Now he suggests that he is quite replaceable, and that the jury will not solve their problem at all by putting him to death. Perhaps we see here that Socrates does indeed change his tactics and his position in order to avoid death. Before he was sentenced, he argued that he was irreplaceable in an attempt to convince the jury not to sentence him. Once he was sentenced, he warned the jury they would only be causing themselves more headaches if they put him to death--perhaps another attempt to get them to change their verdict.

Though it can be supported with textual evidence, this reading is not a desirable one; it would contradict so much of what Socrates has said about not fearing death and maintaining his position that it would drastically weaken the force and integrity of his words. Perhaps a better reading comes from asking what rhetorical effects Plato was aiming for in these two different passages. At 31a, Plato is honoring Socrates, his great mentor, pointing out that he is unique among thinkers, and completely original. Here, at 39c-d, Plato is alluding to himself and many of the other pupils of Socrates who became active after Socrates' death, writing Socratic dialogues and passing on his teachings. Socrates' claim, at 39d, that these new critics will be younger and harsher is borne out by The Apology itself, in which Plato provides a damning criticism of Meletus and the Athenian justice system. Furthermore, the seemingly inconsistent claims at 31a and 39c-d can be reconciled in this reading. Plato is right in saying that Socrates is unique and original: no one like him has appeared in the subsequent two-and-a- half millennia. On the other hand, it is also true that his influence did breed a whole new generation of critics. In fact, Socrates almost single- handedly gave birth to the Western rational philosophical tradition, and if all philosophers that have come since are following in his footsteps, his form of criticism has multiplied exponentially.

Socrates' attitude toward death and the afterlife is fleshed out in far greater detail in Plato's Phaedo, a more mature work that deals primarily with the question of the immortality of the soul. In this dialogue, Socrates' uncertainty is gone, and he is quite convinced that his soul will live on in the afterlife. This contrast between The Apology and the Phaedo is illustrative of the contrast between the early and more mature works of Plato. An early work, The Apology centers more around Socrates' philosophical opinions, which, as he so persistently claims, are agnostic regarding any factual questions. As Plato developed his own voice, he began increasingly to speculate on more metaphysical and epistemological questions, and used Socrates as more of a mouthpiece for putting forward his own views. Thus, in the later Phaedo, we see Socrates claiming to have positive knowledge of what happens after death. As for The Apology, Socrates concludes in typical manner, acknowledging that he does not, and cannot, know for certain what awaits him after death.

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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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