Socrates’s Desire to Die: On Xenophon’s Apology

Xenophon’s Memorabilia (“recollections”) is his public defense of Socrates, but the title is notably silent about whether or not the recollections are exclusively of Socrates. The text is, instead, rife with the recollections by Xenophon on the Socratic, and therefore, the philosophic life. As an alternative, his shorter Socratic writing, the Apology of Socrates, is clear about who delivers the apologia: Socrates is the subject. The same may be said of Xenophon’s writings of Cyrus, who is also called out by name in the Cyropaedia. Thus both the Apology of Socrates and the Cyropaedia share some things in common. Xenophon’s Apology also shares kinship with Plato’s Apology, as well. Xenophon acknowledges at the beginning of the dialogue that “others have written” on Socrates’s apology. However, perhaps Xenophon acknowledges certain elements lacking from Plato’s account thus his need to give a new account of the apology.

At the outset of his Apology Xenophon announces the goal of the text: to justify Socrates’s “big” speaking, perhaps even boasting about himself. In Xenophon, Socrates speaks in a brash and uncouth manner, in which case Xenophon would agree (to a degree) with Aristophanes’s charge against Socrates of speaking too freely. Whenever reading Xenophon, we are aware of his first-person perspective, unlike Plato’s disguised poetry that often comes from multiple narrators. At any rate, Xenophon’s text is also polemical against what he calls Plato’s “lofty” portrayal of Socrates (he never calls Plato out by name), and Xenophon’s conviction that Socrates clearly prefers death to life, rather than begging for his life from the jury. In this way, Xenophon’s praise of Socrates is regarding his honorable decision to die rather than to debase himself, however Xenophon’s critique of Socrates is against his uncourtly and disrespectful way of speaking that cost him his life (less so the charges against him).

Hermogenes, a close follower of Socrates who also appears in Plato’s dialogue on language, the Cratylus, engages in dialogue with Socrates regarding his defense. In fact, Hermogenes is the source of Xenophon’s text (thus Xenophon, like Plato, removes a certain degree of blame from himself as the author). Socrates responds that he looks forward to a pleasant death that will leave a strong memory in his followers minds -an extraordinarily different account than is found in Plato.

Then Socrates appears before the jury of his accusers, led by Meletus. Socrates remarks on his first charge: that of atheism, or not believing in the gods of the city. He defends himself by noting that everyone, including Meletus, has seen him sacrificing in public. However, to what extent is Socrates replacing his faith, with the practice of following the appropriate religious ceremonies. He replaces speech with deeds as justification for himself.

Next, on the charge of Socrates introducing new gods into the city, he defends himself by comparing his revelations from his daimonian to omens and oracles. How are they different activities? Asks Socrates. His “divine thing” or “divine sign” tends to appear jus as Socrates and companion(s) are about to do something. Suddenly the daimonian advises Socrates against doing something inadvisable. In Plato, Socrates’s divine sign appears at: Theages 128D, 129B; Apology 31D, 40B, 40C, 41D; Republic 496C; Euthydemus 272E; Phaedrus 242B. Socrates further reinforces his statements, after an uproar from the men of the jury, that he has been divinely chosen, as evidenced by Chaereophon’s (an enthusiastic follower of Socrates) inquiry to the oracle at Delphi claimed that no man was more free, nor just, nor prudent than Socrates.

Socrates makes mention of his lifestyle, being moderate and requiring very little money and most continent in his deeds, as well. He is both frugal and possesses fortitude. Could such a man corrupt the youth by behaving in such a way? Meletus takes objection to Socrates, noting that he has persuaded young men to be educated by him rather than from their parents (recall the ‘Thinkery’ in Aristophanes’s The Clouds). Socrates compares himself to a doctor, a healer of the city, and people go to a physician, not their parents, for certain needs.

Xenophon ends his account of Socrates’s apologia without repeating the full trial, as Plato does. Xenophon instead says his account is sufficient to show that Socrates was willing and ready to die. He was not willing to escape death at any opportunity, which is both a praise and criticism of Socrates.

After this brief interlude from Xenophon he recreates the conclusion of Socrates’s trial, per Hermogenes. Socrates compares himself to Palamedes -a man who was wrongly put to death at Troy by Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Diomedes (not mentioned in Homer’s Iliad but is found in the writings of Ovid and Virgil). After leaving the courtroom Socrates goes with his followers to die a happy man, though they are sad. Along the way, he hurls insults at Anytus. And thus, Socrates departed his life in a “cheery” but uncouth way. Xenophon closes his short account of the apology by praising Socrates’s “wisdom” and “nobility of character.” And if a man who is seeking virtue can be a better helper than Socrates, Xenophon claims such a man is most blessed.

For this reading I used the Agora Edition of Xenophon’s Shorter Socratic Writings as edited by Gregory A. McBrayer, a Professor at the University of Ashland and translated by Andrew Patch, along with an accompanying essay by Thomas Pangle.