Thoughts on the Apology of Socrates

Socrates’s apologia is his defense against the accusations of the city of Athens, whose accusations are voiced during the trial by two men: Anytus, a prominent and elite Athenian; and Meletus, the writer of Socrates’s charges. Recall, Anytus was offended by Socrates’s criticism of Pericles during a prior discussion which Plato documents in the Meno.

The opening words of Socrates’s Apology are “I do not know…” What does Socrates not know? The dialogue begins with Socrates’s defense, presumably shortly after the accusations of illicit activities have been leveled against him. Socrates charges his accusers with lying, and he also makes the claim that he will provide the truth to the men of Athens. It is Socrates’s first time speaking in a court of law, at the age of 70. He identifies his true accusers as the poets, particularly Aristophanes, for implanting false rumors of Socrates’s impiety and irrelevance inside the minds of the men of Athens.

Socrates cites his friend, Chaerephon, who spoke with the Oracle at Delphi, as evidence of his goodness for Athens. The Oracle once claimed that Socrates was the wisest person alive. In order to test if this claim is true, Socrates decides to begin questioning the men of Athens. He goes to the politicians first, then the poets, then the sophists and others, like the craftsmen, who are considered of good repute. Therefore, Socrates began to gain a reputation among the young men, not the old men, and Socrates says his unpopularity among the older men brings him sorrow – men like Meletus, who speaks on behalf of the poets, Anytus, who speaks on behalf of the craftsmen and politicians, Lycon who speaks on behalf of the orators. Primarily the charges against Socrates are articulated by Meletus: Socrates is accused of corrupting the youth and of not believing in the gods of the city (24b-24c). In response, Socrates charges Meletus with being frivolous and engages in the following discussion.

Socrates pushes Meletus to identify who it is that improves the young, that is, who can successfully educate the youth. He shows Meletus’s lack of consistency, and Socrates ultimately concludes that a man who leads a private life will live longer but risks nothing. However, Socrates claims that he is the same in private life as public life (i.e. he is not a politician). When Socrates completes his defense, and the men of Athens deliver their guilty verdict, Socrates is not angry, and he is not concerned about losing his life, for the “unexamined life is not worth living” (38a).

The end of the dialogue mirrors its beginning: acknowledging the lack of knowledge among humans. Socrates concludes that a good man cannot be harmed in life, and that only the gods know who is better, either those who go to die, or those who live. At the end Socrates goes to die (recall his “divine sign” or “daemon” which is explicitly not a god of the city). Perhaps the city of Athens has justly condemned Socrates to death, for his obvious lie in his claim to possess no knowledge of the nature of things.

For this reading I used the Grube translation as featured in the Hackett Classics Edition.

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