The Apology is one of those rare works that gracefully bridges the divide between philosophy and literature. The work is less concerned with asserting any particular philosophical doctrines than it is with creating a portrait of the ideal philosopher. On trial, with his life at stake, Socrates maintains his cool and unwaveringly defends his way of life as unassailably just. This speech has served as inspiration and justification for philosophical thinkers ever since. It is also valuable in that it links three major themes in Socratic thought: Socratic irony, the elenchus (the Socratic mode of inquiry), and the higher ethical concerns that dominate Socrates' life.
The Delphic oracle, which proclaimed that Socrates was the wisest of men because he knows that he knows nothing, can be posited as the source of Socratic irony. This oracle has led Socrates to assume his highly ironic stance of confessing his own ignorance, and yet showing his interlocutors to be even more ignorant than he; great wisdom turns out, contrary to expectation, to reside in a humble acknowledgment of ignorance. With wisdom of this kind, Socrates does not take himself too seriously. Indeed, his wisdom is deeply humbling, as it casts all pretensions to human knowledge into question. With a smile, Socrates accepts that he is better off the less he thinks he knows, and passes this wisdom along with appropriate wit.
This irony, then, deeply informs the elenchus, Socrates' preferred mode of inquiry. It is important to note that almost all written accounts of Socrates are dialogues (The Apology is an exception)--Socrates never lectures on his beliefs in a one-sided manner. This supports the idea that Socrates has no knowledge of his own to put forward. His method of inquiry consists of identifying what his interlocutor thinks he knows, and then slowly dissecting those claims of knowledge. The Apology, however, is presented almost exclusively in the form of a monologue, because Socrates is not discussing and dismantling any one particular claim so much as he is laying out the method behind these dismantlings. As such, it is an invaluable commentary on the other dialogues.
The elenchus acts to disabuse Socrates' interlocutors of their pretensions and thereby deepens their wisdom. For Socrates, wisdom and virtue are closely connected, so his efforts serve to improve society as a whole. In Socrates' view, if we are all wise, none of us will ever do wrong, and our self-knowledge will lead to healthier, more fulfilling lives. Thus, the philosopher, according to Socrates, does not merely follow abstract intellectual pursuits for the sake of amusement, but is engaged in activities of the highest moral value.