“The Apology of Socrates” by Plato

Introduction

A great deal of what we know about Socrates the man, in fact, all of what we know of him, is what is written about him by others who may or may not have heard him speak. This is because Socrates chose not to write anything down in his pursuit of wisdom. Some of these writings, such as Plato’s Apology, provide such a degree of firsthand knowledge, though, that we are able to make some characterizations. In this document, Plato records, to what degree of accuracy is uncertain, the defense presented by Socrates himself at the trial for his life. Within the text, Socrates continually refers to himself as being the wisest man alive, based upon the words of the Oracle at Delphi, which is known to never speak falsely. As he works to argue his case based upon reason alone, he reveals some of the more common elements of Athenian culture and law and the discrepancies that existed between them. Many of these elements are again brought forward when Socrates talks with his friend about why he won’t go along with tradition and simply escape from the Athenian jail after having been sentenced to death as revealed in Plato’s Crito. Although many of the values found in the Apology can also be found in the Crito, there are some troubling differences.

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In Apology, Socrates reveals his own foreknowledge that he was acting in a way that contradicted the important values of his culture. He speaks out against his enemies saying that they have maliciously spoken against him, “telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause” (Apology: p. 944). He knows that he is facing a jury that has been biased against him from their youth through the mouths of their fathers and it is highly unlikely that they will judge him fairly now. Unlike the claims of the U.S. Constitution, Socrates’ trial is not characterized by having a ‘fair and impartial’ jury of his peers. He then complicates matters by admitting that he knowingly acted in a way that would make these men dislike him. “Then I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this” (Apology: p. 946). From this, it can be deduced that Socrates is expected to defend himself without benefit of counsel to argue on his behalf, preventing him from exacerbating the issue like this.

For his defense, Socrates relies on logic and reasoning to present his case, clearly summarizing his actions and demonstrating them to be neither harmful nor malicious toward the state. “At last I went to the artisans, for I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things; and here I was not mistaken, for they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom” (Apology: p. 947). His friends try to convince him to adopt a different approach in his defense, perhaps illustrating the needs of his family and his responsibility to care for them or to call for pity due to his age or failing health, illustrating the cultural norms where these sorts of tactics worked. In other words, important decisions such as who should be found innocent and who should be put to death for their crimes were frequently solved through emotional ploys and business deals rather than logical facts, truth and justice. It was these values that Socrates was upholding in refusing his friends’ offers to help him escape.

In accepting his punishment, as written about in Crito, Socrates is able to prove the depth of his convictions and continue to stand for those ideals he has purported to stand for thus far. In his calm acceptance of the death penalty, Socrates expresses a deeper concern for the welfare of men living without an example of how to properly examine whether what they know as truth is actually truthful or merely the platitudes of a dominant leadership. Again, Crito reinforces the idea that the Athenian customs are based not as much on strict adherence to the laws themselves but to an elaborate game of deceit and bribery as he attempts to convince Socrates that the right thing for him to do would be to escape. This is not for Socrates’ sake alone, but also for the sake of his friends. Crito reminds Socrates “people who do not know you and me will believe that I might have saved you if I had been willing to give money, but that I did not care. Now, can there be a worse disgrace than this – that I should be thought to value money more than the life of a friend?” However, this is about where the similarities end.

In arguing against his friend’s advice, Socrates argues that he cannot give in to the demands of the many – that he must escape in order to save the good name of his friends among the popular crowd – because it is incumbent upon him to obey the just laws of his society before looking to his own good. “Do you imagine that a state can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and overthrown by individuals? … Anyone, and especially a clever rhetorician, will have a good deal to urge about the evil of setting aside the law which requires a sentence to be carried out.” Socrates opts to remain in jail and drink the hemlock thus fulfilling his death sentence as a means of setting an example to the rest of his society. This example seems somewhat inconsistent though when one considers that the law itself is flawed. At what point does Socrates feel it is incumbent upon the citizens to resist inappropriate or unjust laws?

Perhaps the answer is in moderation – when the majority of society does not obey the laws, as is hinted in both the Apology and the Crito, it is necessary for examples to be set by outstanding citizens of how the law must be supported by the community if it is to be successful in maintaining peace. When the majority of society does not place humanitarian needs above the petty jealousies and greed of individuals by allowing unjust laws and blatant abuse of the system, it is then necessary for outstanding citizens to set the example of how to resist. While Socrates might have been able to escape the death penalty had he been willing to pull some of the tricks that people before and after him pulled in order to sway court opinion, he would have had to have done so by undermining the very things he most stood for – the examination of the truth, the pursuit of wisdom and the importance of self-examination. By both accepting his own lack of wisdom in all things and by accepting that he was indeed wiser than any of the men he had met thus far, Socrates was able to illustrate the importance of eternal questioning as a means of self-definition and of discovering greater truths. By remaining loyal to this stance in his own defense, he not only emphasized this importance to those who came after him, but also ensured his words would somehow be immortalized as the only way in which he might be able to reach future generations.

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