82. Apology (Socrates on trial) by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

Plot:  Plato recreates Socrates’ Apology (meaning Defense) in court regarding the charges brought against him  – corruption of the youth and disbelief in the Gods – which are answerable by death.

The text is included in the Penguin edition of Socratic dialogues The Last Days of Socrates by Plato, translated by Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant (ISBN 0140449280)

My thoughts:  Plato shows us a slightly more personal picture of Socrates at the beginning of his address to the court : he is seventy years old, and has never appeared in a court of law before. Nevertheless he is confident of success as he will rely on the truth. We also see his usual ‘modest’ claim of not being a skilled speaker, and he begs the jury to overlook his manner of speaking as it is all he is used to.

He begins not by immediately defending himself against his courtroom accusers (although he does claim everything they said was lies) but by defending his reputation against the prejudice of numerous people who have spent years talking about him, accusing him of investigating the causes of physical phenomena (instead of believing in such things are actions of the Gods) and even makes mention of the image painted of him by Aristophanes in The Clouds. He claims that his behaviour in questioning others and seeking the truth in all things is due to his search for wisdom in others, as he has trouble accepting that the Delphic Oracle has pronounced him (Socrates) the wisest man in the world. In testing the wisdom of politicians, poets and craftsmen, and finding them lacking, he has earned their resentment and enmity.

Socrates then directly cross-examines his chief accuser Meletus. His tone is much more defiant and he often does not wait for Meletus to answer his questions before storming ahead with his arguments, and becomes arrogant in saying that the Gods have assigned him to Athens to goad and stimulate them towards goodness. (Yes, he is actually saying he is God’s gift to Athens)

On the charge of corrupting youth of Athens, Socrates does make an excellent point in noting that Meletus has not produced a single witness to attest to such corruption, or any witness to show Socrates charged a fee for any education he may have offered.

Socrates is found guilty by a reasonably narrow margin, and is then asked to propose an alternative sentence to the death penalty requested by his accusers. His remarkable response is to suggest that he should be provided free meals by the State for the private good he has tried to do the citizens of Athens! What excellent bravado!! Rejecting imprisonment or banishment, he finally suggests a fine which his supporters including Plato will pay, but that is not satisfactory and Socrates admits he will continue his philosophizing so the sentence is death.

Interestingly, Socrates mentions several times a supernatural voice which has guided him since childhood in his decisions. Not mentioned before now, and possibly a device to prove to the jury that Socrates was divinely directed in his quest?

Many  of the editor’s comments throughout the Apology, while useful in understanding the text as always, were quick to demonstrate where Socrates has made a mistake or was likely to get the jury offside with him, where I could not always agree.

Favourite lines/passages:

“When a man has once taken his stand, either because it seems best to him or in obedience to this orders, there I believe he is bound to remain and face the danger, taking no account of his death or anything else before dishonour.”  (page 54)

“So long as I draw breath and have my faculties, I shall never stop practising philosophy and exhorting you and indicating the truth for everyone that I meet. … I am not going to alter my conduct, not even if I have to die a hundred deaths”   (pages 55-56)

“Nothing can harm a good man either in life or after death”  (page 70)

Personal rating:  A lot to like here, and it would be hoped we could all face death with such dignity.  It will be interesting to compare with Xenophon’s version of the same apology.  A 7 from me.

Next : Socrates in prison awaiting his death in Crito by Plato

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