Thoughts on the Apology of Socrates

Socrates’s apologia is his defense against the city, voiced primarily by Anytus, a prominent elite Athenian, and Meletus, the writer of his accusation. Anytus is offended by Socrates’s criticism of Pericles 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 accuses his accusers of lying, and he also makes the claim that he will provide the truth to the men of Athens. It is his 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 to the men of Athens.

Socrates cites his friend, Chaerephon, who spoke with the Oracle at Delphi who claimed that Socrates was the wisest person alive. In order to discover if this is true, Socrates goes to the politicians first, then the poets, then the sophists and others, like the craftsmen, who are considered of good repute. Therefore, he has gained a reputation among the young men, not the old men, and his unpopularity among the older men brings Socrates sorrow – Meletus, on behalf of the poets, Anytus, on behalf of the craftsmen and politicians, Lycon on behalf of the orators. Primarily the charge is from Meletus: Socrates is accused of corrupting the youth and of not believing in the gods of the city (24b-24c). In turn, Socrates charges Meletus with being frivolous and engages in the following discussion.

Socrates then 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. However, Socrates claims that he is the same in private life as public life, he is not a politician. When the men deliver their verdict of guilty, Socrates is not angry, and not concerned about losing his life, for the “unexamined life is not worth living” (38a).

The dialogue ends in a parallel to the opening lines, in 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 have 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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