The Socratic Enterprise Plato, "Apology"

Plato (left) with his student, Aristotle (right) in the Academy as portrayed by Rafael's "The School of Athens"

Plato is perhaps the most well-known philosopher in history. He lived in Classical Greece, and established The Academy in Athens: the first institution of higher learning in the western world. Along with his teacher, Socrates (who is the primary influence on most of Plato's work), and his foremost student, Aristotle, Plato laid the very foundation for western thought, both in philosophy and in the sciences.

[T]he safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. - Alfred North Whitehead
Who is Socrates?

Socrates never wrote anything. All we know about him comes from either Plato’s dialogues or the poetry of Aristophanes. But it is clear that Socrates is a primary motivational device in Plato's writings.

Socrates is characterized in Plato's dialogues as an old man who wanders about Athens cross-examining people he meets about their claims to knowledge. In particular, he likes to ask questions about people's moral judgments and claims to virtue. He is known for doing so obnoxiously and relentlessly, earning him substantial disdain from the people and rulers of Athens. This disdain helps Socrates find himself on trial before Athens' court of 500, brought up on various charges. The Apology is Plato's account of the speech Socrates gives in response to and defense against those charges.

Two Major Themes from "Apology"

There are two important overarching themes in Plato's Apology you should be on the lookout for. As we work through the text, try to keep both of these in mind:

  1. Philosophy and its relationship to sophistry: What are the differences between these two pursuits? Why does Socrates (and by extension, Plato) disdain the sophists of Greece?
  2. The pursuit of wisdom: In Apology, Socrates advances a particular conception of wisdom. What is is this notion? How does it relate to ignorance How does it compare to what we might consider wisdom today?
A Working Outline of "Apology"
  1. Who is Socrates?: An introduction and defense against "the old charges" or long-held prejudices against Socrates: (a) being interested in "things of the earth and sky" and (b) "making the weaker argument the stronger."
  2. Defense against the new charges brought to the court by Meletus and Anytus: (a) corrupting the youth of Athens and (b) not believing in the Gods of the state (the well-known Greek pantheon).
  3. Positive defense of Socrates' lifestyle: Why continue to do philosophy if all it does is make one hated and ostracized?
  4. The court's vote to convict and sentence Socrates to death.
  5. Socrates' defiant response to the verdict: "Fuck you, Athens?"
Socrates' Defense

The "Old News" Charges

Socrates begins with a discussion of what he calls "the old prejudices" Athenians hold against him, and offers an initial defense by pointing to what he thinks are fairly obvious facts of his life up until this point.

Socrates reminds the court that he focuses his entire life on the discussion of topics surrounding questions of values and the virtues, in an attempt to reject the charge of developing a "false cosmology" which runs in opposition to the interests of Athens. In short, he suggests that he really just wants to help people live good lives.

Food for thought: In response to the charge of sophistry, Socrates points to his relative poverty to reaffirm that he hasn't been paid for his teachings a day in his life. Why might this be particularly important for Socrates? Why does he resist this charge so fervently?

A Tale from Delphi

At 20e-22a (in the standard Stephanus pagination), Socrates recounts a prophecy of the well-known (in Greek mythology) Oracle at Delphi. A friend of his once visited the Oracle to ask after the wisest man in Greece. She replied by pointing the friend to Socrates. When he heard this, Socrates was shocked, as he thought of himself as quite ignorant.

After some confusion and hesitation, he sought to prove this saying incorrect by finding someone wiser than he. He began his well-known process of questioning people in the public places of Athens, including politicians, poets, and craftsmen. No person he met was able to demonstrate the kind of wisdom Socrates sought.

After following this trend for many years and exhausting many seemingly obvious possible avenues for wisdom, Socrates began to accept the truth of the Delphic Oracle's prophecy. In his view, the claim that "Socrates is most wise" can be expressed in a different way, namely: Socrates is wise because he is aware of his own ignorance in a way that those he spends his time interrogating do not. This is the foundation for one of the most oft-cited lines from Socrates, an essential relation between wisdom and ignorance:

The New Charges (of Meletus, Anytus, et al)

After dismissing his old charges via the story of the Delphic Oracle, Socrates takes care to respond directly to the current charges he is being interrogated about by Meletus and Anytus: corrupting the youth of Athens and failing to believe in the state Gods.

If Socrates is such a terrible influence on the youth of Athens, he asks, who can serve as a good influence? After all, he's trying to make them better, more reflective citizens... Who or what else can do this? Athens and its institutions (at least on Socrates' view) aren't doing so well in this regard. He argues that he's being singled out when all he wants is to help. After all, is it not better to have good citizens than bad??

Socrates also takes care to argue that he does, in fact, believe in a realm of the supernatural, which directly contradicts the charge of atheism.

Socrates' Defense of the Reflective Life

In addition to responding directly to the charges leveled at him, Socrates provides a positive defense of his life's pursuit, namely that of philosophical reflection.

Socrates means no harm. He insists that, quite the contrary, his wisdom is "the most valuable asset [the city of Athens] can possess," whether they like it or not. On his view, he behaves the way he does because it is right. He maintains that he is on a mission from the Gods to continue bettering himself and his fellow man. As he suggests, the Gods have set him on the city as a gadfly on a horse.

Sometimes, of course, this pursuit of critical awareness and betterment can be difficult and abrasive, but Socrates argues that it would be wrong and disgraceful to ignore this duty because of fear of death. Socrates goes as far as to say that if the court required him to stop his pursuit of philosophy, he'd much rather die. Here, Socrates directly challenges the people of Athens. If they choose to execute him, he says, they're only harming themselves.

The Trial Verdict

The Vote and Sentencing Proposals

Having heard the accusers' case and Socrates' defense, the court votes, finding him guilty as charged. His accusers then assess his penalty, settling on a sentence of death via the ingestion of hemlock poison.

As was typical within the Athenian court system, Socrates is given a chance to counter with his own ideas about what his punishment ought to be. He initially proposes that he actually be rewarded for his actions challenging the Athenians in their complacency, and argues that he should be housed and fed at the Prytaneum for the rest of his life (an honor usually befitting champions of the Olympic Games). After the court promptly rejects this proposal, Socrates proposes another alternative: a fine of 3,000 drachmas, which is also rejected out of hand. The court reaffirms their verdict at the urging of Anytus, Meletus, et al.

Socrates' Response: Defiance to the End?

Accepting that the court has just sentenced him to death, Socrates takes a few parting shots at the court and at Athens more generally:

  • What a waste. Socrates is old (in his 70s at this point). He would have died soon anyway.
  • This is on you, Athens. The court hasn't reached this point because Socrates isn't capable of convincing them, but because he refuses to stoop to their level.
  • A long life or a good life? In our lives, we can devote our efforts either toward avoiding death or toward avoiding wickedness. While Socrates has not avoided death, he has, on his view, avoided wickedness. Can his accusers say the same?
  • Athens isn't off the hook. There will be others to encourage critical reflection. Others will continue to challenge the status quo.
  • A slight digression: death is a good thing. Either (a) death is simply a cessation; a long sleep with no perceptual awareness OR (b) there is an afterlife in which good men will be rewarded with the company of other good men. Either way, Socrates thinks, he's set.
  • A final request: Socrates asks that Athens treat his own sons as critically has he has treated theirs; to let them concern themselves chiefly with goodness, rather than money or honor.
Jacques-Louis David, "The Death of Socrates" (1787)
Created By
Alex Richardson


Created with images by kalleboo - "Athens Acropolis" • NASAblueshift - "From "The School of Athens" by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato and Aristotle" • bencrowe - "Socrates" • Jirka Matousek - "Athens Greece" • Pavel69 - "Одеон Герода Аттического" • morhamedufmg - "statue herodot sculpture" • ccarlstead - "Sculpture"

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.