Plato (c. 427– c. 347 B.C.)
Socrates is brought to trial before the citizens of Athens, accused of not recognizing the gods that are recognized by the state, inventing new deities, and corrupting the youth of Athens. He apologizes that his defense speech will be plain and straightforward, as he hasn’t mastered the art of rhetoric employed by so many politicians. A defense speech in Greek is apologia, which gives this dialogue its title.
Socrates first denies previous complaints against him: that he gives physical explanations of divine matters and that he charges a fee for teaching rhetoric. He challenges anyone to testify that he has ever made any positive claims about the heavens or earth or that he has charged a fee for his teaching.
Socrates surmises that his reputation may have come from a prophecy by the Oracle at Delphi, which proclaimed he was the wisest of all men. Socrates has always admitted he knows nothing, so he was puzzled by this prophecy. To test it, he first examined the supposedly wise politicians of Athens and, by questioning them, discovered that they were full of hot air and in fact knew nothing. Next he questioned the poets, only to find that they were less able than others to explain their own works, leading Socrates to infer that it is not wisdom but divine inspiration that guides their writing. Then he questioned the craftsmen, who are very skillful but similar to the politicians in thinking they know all sorts of things they don’t know. Through all this questioning, Socrates earned many enemies but also concluded that he is wiser than everyone else because at least he knows that he knows nothing. He takes the Oracle as a command from Apollo to question men who think they are wise to show them that they are not.
Socrates calls forth Meletus, his chief accuser, and questions him about the charges he has laid. Socrates uses a fair bit of bullying and baiting and suggests Meletus is confused about the teaching of virtue and that he contradicts himself in accusing Socrates both of atheism and of inventing new gods.
Socrates persists in his practice, even though his life is in danger, because he feels he has a duty to Apollo. If he fears death, he would be presuming to know what happens after death. Since he cannot know, it is foolish to fear it, and he shouldn’t avoid acting justly because he’s afraid of dying. The people of Athens, not Socrates, should fear a death sentence, since they’ll be giving up Socrates’ valuable service. Socrates compares himself to a gadfly, who stings the lazy horse that is Athens, provoking it into action. Socrates has stayed away from politics at the warning of an inner voice that keeps him from heading into danger, a voice he calls a “supernatural sign.” A man like himself would never have lasted in politics, and so he would have been prevented from offering his services to Athens.
In closing, Socrates points out that the youth he has supposedly corrupted, including Plato, are upright men who still stand by him. Not even the parents or family of these people claim Socrates is a corrupting influence.
The jury finds him guilty by a vote of 280 to 221, and Socrates is surprised only that the vote is so close. When asked to suggest a penalty for himself, Socrates first claims that if the punishment were just he would be celebrated as a hero. More soberly, he rejects prison or exile, preferring death. He refuses to give up philosophizing, saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates is quite poor, but with the help of some of his richer friends, including Plato, he offers to pay a small fine.
The jury sentences Socrates to death, and he warns them they are mistaken in thinking that they can silence true and just criticism. They should try to live better, not kill off their critics.
Turning to his friends, Socrates points out that his “supernatural sign” did not warn him against any of his actions on this day, so perhaps his death is not such a bad thing. He concludes that a good man should fear neither life nor death. He asks his friends to take care of his three sons and bravely heads off to prison.
The Apology is one of the most eloquent and enduring defenses of the philosophical life. The Greek word apologia literally means “a speech made by a defendant in court,” but Socrates turns his apologia into a defense not just against the crimes of which he has been accused but of his entire way of living. Early in the speech, Socrates contrasts himself with politicians, poets, and craftsmen, as well as with the sophists and the generations of philosophers that have preceded him. By contrasting himself with these other figures—and, importantly, distancing himself from the sophists and earlier philosophers—Socrates stakes a unique claim for what philosophy is or should be. For him, philosophy is not about building up knowledge but rather questioning and clarifying knowledge. While the role of philosophy has changed over the millennia, the task of philosophy is still a central concern. While physicists or economists may study facts and explore new knowledge, philosophers are concerned primarily with understanding what our claims to knowledge amount to and what we ought to do with what we know.
For Socrates, philosophy is not an occupation or a hobby but rather a way of life. His goal, and the goal of any philosopher who follows him, is to seek truth and to live justly. This conception of the philosophical life is perhaps best expressed in the phrase “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Our duty as humans is to use our rationality to question ourselves and others in order to live more justly and truthfully. In this regard, it is worth noting that outside the Oracle at Delphi, which proclaimed Socrates the wisest of all men, stands the motto “Know Thyself.” Socrates is like a gadfly both because he jolts people into vigilant self-examination and because the complacent majority never welcome this jolting. Most of us find it easier to live in ignorance than to acknowledge our shortcomings. Ultimately, the citizens of Athens choose to execute Socrates rather than accept the challenge of self-scrutiny Socrates offers them.
Though the comparison has its limitations, many parallels exist between Socrates and Jesus. Both were simple men from humble backgrounds who taught anyone who would listen about the importance of self-examination and honest living. Neither of them wrote anything themselves, but both had admiring disciples who recorded their words and deeds. Furthermore, both of them were executed not for any real crimes but for the danger their subversive teachings posed to the state. Socrates’ teachings are entirely secular, which might explain why he is the founder of a philosophical tradition rather than a religious one. However, Socrates does claim his own kind of divine inspiration in his “supernatural voice,” which warns him against heading into danger. Essentially, this voice keeps Socrates in the path of true justice and wisdom. Socrates does not boast supernatural wisdom himself but rather credits the guidance of the gods. Unlike Jesus, Socrates has no claim to understanding the will or design of divinity, but like Jesus, he does claim to be guided by a supernatural force.
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