Plato (c. 427– c. 347 B.C.)

Apology

Summary Apology

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.

Analysis

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.