Supplement to Hauptli's Lectures on Plato's Apology

Copyright 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli

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1. Introduction:

This is not an apology nor (really) a defense but, rather, an explanation of his procedure and an indication of the degree of importance which he attaches to it.  In this dialogue he practices his therapy attempting to show his judges/accusers the extent of their ignorance! 

     Plato is generally disenchanted with the sorts of government which we find in the Greek city-states.  In one of his letters he writes (325c-326 b):

now as I considered these matters, as well as the sort of men who were active in politics, and the laws and the customs, the more I examined them and the more I advanced in years, the harder it appeared to me to administer the government correctly.  For one thing, nothing could be done without friends and loyal companions, and such men were not easy to find....Neither could such men be created afresh with any facility.  Furthermore, the written law and the customs were being corrupted at an astounding rate...finally I saw clearly in regard to all states now existing that without exception their system of government is bad.  Their constitutions are almost beyond redemption....Hence I was forced to say in the praise of the correct philosophy that it affords a vantage point from which we can discern in all cases what is just for communities and for individuals, and accordingly the human race will not see better days until either the stock of those who rightly and genuinely follow philosophy acquire political authority, or else the class who have political control are led by some dispensation of providence to become real philosophers.[1] 

Such a result he had little hope for.  But it was necessary if there was to be a just or good state.  It is this conviction, I think, that Socrates is also expressing in this dialogue when he says that what he is doing is of the greatest value to the state. 

     But is he “political”—is he actively pursuing a political agenda?  C.D.C. Reeve maintains that “because he [Socrates] conducts...[his] examinations, he is...political rather than...apolitical; because such examinations are a one-on-one affair, he is political in private.”[2]  That is, while Socrates is indeed political, his form of political activity consists of the process of the dialectical examination of Athenians’ beliefs—he is concerned with bettering individuals and their souls (psyches) and, thus, his political activity deviates significantly from the norm.  Why does Plato’s Socrates say that the philosopher must lead a “private life?” [32]   

Is there a personal danger?  No.  [Though this requires argument and a consideration of the Crito.] 

Would the public pick him/her to rule?  No.  [Is he in danger of “losing time” from his inquiries because he would be required to take on the duties of public life?  No.] 

Does/could ruling ruin the soul [psyche]? 

-Politics and the arts of persuasion and compromise. 

-Implication for Plato’s Republic: we must consider the kind of rule which the “philosopher kings” are to exercise.  Clearly, it can not be normal political ruling (which involves compromise and persuasion—at least not if he is to be consistent! 

     In their “Socrates and Political Theory,” Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith maintain that:

one other extremely important element in Athens’ government was the jury-court system.  Jurors volunteered for duty, and 6,000 of these volunteers were selected by lot for service for one year.  Specific juries would be assigned to each case by lot; those that were actually assigned to a case were paid for service.  To prevent tampering, juries were made large (no fewer than 200 jurors were assigned to any trial; sometimes as many as 1,000 or even more might be assigned), though by the beginning of the fourth century various changes were made precisely because the old system did not always achieve even the minimal requirements of procedural justice…..[3]   

     In their “Introduction” to The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies, Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith maintain that:

Socrates’ prosecutor was a younger man named Meletus.  Assisting Meletus in presenting the case against Socrates were two older men: a well-known and highly respected politician named Anytus and a poet about whom very little is known named Lycon.  The charge Meletus brought against Socrates was impiety.  Because the law against impiety did not specify all the ways one could be impious, as part of his indictment, Meletus had to specify precisely how Socrates was supposed to be guilty of this charge.  Meletus, accordingly, provided three specifications: Socrates was guilty of not recognizing the gods recognized by the city; Socrates invented new divine things; and Socrates corrupted the youth.[4]   

In Plato’s version [of the trial], Socrates claims to be surprised that he was convicted by a fairly narrow margin: had only thirty more jurors voted in his favor, rather than against him, he would have been found innocent.  If indeed there were 500 jurors, as we have said, this means that the vote to convict Socrates was 280 to 220, since a tie vote of 250 for each side would have counted in Socrates’ favor.  In a much later (c. 250 C.E. or so) account, Diogenes Laertius says that the vote to convict was by the much larger margin of 281 votes.[5] 

2. The Text:

17-19 In reality I have two types of accusers:

Those who have accused me over the years

Anytus and Meletus (who brought the suit)

These accusers I fear the most,[6] they maintain that I “make the worse arguments appear the stronger. 

These accusers maintain that I corrupt the youth and don’t believe in the City’s gods.[7] 

Soc replies to the first sort of accusers first:

-19d I did not converse on any of the silly subjects they allege.  Note the discussion of the difference between Socrates and the Greek physologoi (or natural philosophers) in my lecture supplement introducing Plato—whereas these thinkers did discuss abstruse metaphysical, cosmological, and scientific topics, Socrates was more concerned with what we would call moral philosophy (with virtue, justice, human nature, etc.). 

-I did not charge any fee. 

-20c I have no knowledge (nor did I claim to have such). 

-20d Why did I engage in my questioning at great cost to myself? 

--21a Oracle at Delphi: “No man is wiser than Socrates.”[8]  The Oracle speaks for the god Apollo (the Greek god of youth, manly beauty, music, song, and prophecy), and Apollo commands that one should: “Know thyself”—indeed, “Know Thyself” was inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi in the time of Socrates.[9] 

--In his Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Gregory Vlastos discusses the “Delphic precedents” of this sort of pronouncement.  For example: “Upon crossing the Halys a great power will Croesus destroy.”[10]  Vlastos maintains that in such statements: “...the god is making fools of those who earnestly seek his help.  He allows his mouthpiece to utter sentences which are meant to be true only in a sense their hearers are virtually sure to miss.   
Not so in Socrates’ complex ironies.  Here everything is open; there is no sly concealment.”[11] 
  Vlastos elaborates upon the distinction between the sort of “irony” contained in the Delphic pronouncements and that contained in Socrates’ statements: “the oracles of the gods are notoriously inscrutable.  Apollo’s supplicants are left unsure whether the surface meaning of his response is the true meaning.  Socrates’ interlocutors are not left in the like uncertainty.  Given moderate intelligence and good will, no one who hears Socrates say that he has no knowledge [20c], that he cannot teach [19e, 33], and that he...[does not lead a political life] [32], would have reason to think that what he means in each case is simply the literal sense of what he says.”[12] 

--So it isn’t accidental that this particular god is “picked” here, the audience (and we) are aware that we need to interpret the pronouncements—their “ironic” character is understood.   

-21c I went looking for wise men: “I went to one of those reputed wise, thinking that there, if anywhere, I could refute the oracle and say to it: “This man is wiser than I, but you said I was.”  Then, when I examined this experience was something like this: I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not.  I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not.  As a result he came to dislike me, and so did many of the bystanders.  So I withdrew and thought to myself: “I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” 

--Note that if Socrates is engaged in the pursuit of a divine mission, if he is following the god(s) rather than simply pursuing philosophy, his pursuit of this divine mission is unusual—he appears to set out to refute the god’s statement!  Perhaps, however, he is best interpreted here as trying to find out what the god means by the statement.[13]  Note also that it is likely that Socrates engaged in his examination activities before the oracle spoke—only in this way would there be any reason for the oracle to mention Socrates (if he wasn’t well known for this sort of activity, the oracle wouldn’t have answered the question “Who knows the most” by speaking of him). 

--Also note that even if Plato’s Socrates is a pious follower of Apollo, the fact that he allows that the Oracle (and, perhaps, the deity) is fallible (that the pronouncements might be incorrect) indicates that he attaches great weight to uncovering the truth (rather, say, than simply accepting, or obeying, divine pronouncements).  Given that the Oracle’s statements where treated as enigmatic by the Greeks, it is not surprising that interpretation would be called for, but note that Plato’s Socrates doesn’t simply propose to “interpret” the Oracle’s statement here.  He seems to be sketching out a life-plan, and it does not seem to have been “dictated by the god!” 

-23b The oracle meant that “human wisdom amounts to little.”  Discuss “Socratic Ignorance.” 

--All human knowledge?  Including the making of cabinets and saddles?  No, it is “worthwhile” knowledge which is in question! 

-23c The young who hear me follow me of their own free will; and they too engage in the questioning process I engage in—this makes many still more angry. 

Socrates next replies to the second set of accusers (Meletus...). 

24c They say I (1) corrupt the young, and

           (2) don’t worship the city’s gods. 

Regarding (1):

-24d Soc: What improves the young? 

--Mel: The laws, the jurymen, the citizens. 

-25a-26c Soc: And where all these improve, one can corrupt? 

--To make one’s neighbors bad is to harm oneself! 

--Why didn’t you improve me?   

Regarding (2):  

-26d-27e Soc catches Meletus in a series of contradictions—Socrates doesn’t believe in the city’s gods, Soc doesn’t believe in gods... 

-Note here the final passage from the Euthyphro (15e-16a). 

28b Soc: “My real accusers are the first sort.” 

-I don’t fear death.   

-Why not? 

-29d “If you said to me in this regard: “Socrates, we do not believe Anytus now; we acquit you, but only on condition that you spend no more time on this investigation and do not practice philosophy, and if you are caught doing so you will die;” if, as I say, you were to acquit me on these terms, I would say to you: “Gentlemen of the jury, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy....”” 

-30a “I think there is no greater blessing for a city than my service to the god”—that is, no greater service than his philosophizing. 

--We need to dig behind the metaphor here!  Compare this passage with 29d and 38a. 

-30d I shan’t be harmed by you. 

--Note the “irony” here! 

Three Ironic Passages:

-32 “A man who really fights for justice must lead a private life, not a public life, if he is to survive for even a short time.”  Again, “irony.” 

--As much as Socrates enjoyed the public scene in the Agora, he made it clear, according to Plato that he was not a “public” person, that is, he was not interested in politics.  This was a scandalous opinion to hold in Athens, where the real work of every Athenian citizen was just that—being a citizen.[14] 

-33a “I am not a teacher.”  Again, “irony.” 

-33c-d “To do this has…been enjoined upon me by the god, by means of oracles and dreams, and in every other way that a divine manifestation has ever ordered a man to do anything.  This is true, gentleman, and can easily be established. 

--Contrast this with Crito 46b! 

34a-35c Regarding the “appeal to pity:” in her Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato’s Crito, Roslyn Weiss maintains that: “...Socrates will not beg and supplicate his judges and induce his children to do the same [because he believes that] in a court of law judges ought to acquit a man not out of pity—as a favor...but because they judge the man innocent “according to the laws”....Socrates identifies two ways in which a defendant might seek to “persuade” the judges [either by use of emotional and rhetorical tricks, or through philosophical dialectic], but he approves of only one of these ways as constituting appropriate conduct in court: only one of these ways helps the judges judge as they ought [and, of course, that way is the latter].”[15] 

The jury finds him guilty. 

36 What penalty?  According to the Athenian procedures, Socrates may propose an alternative punishment, since his accusers ask for death:

-I don’t know what death is, so I don’t fear it;

-Olympic honors;



-a fine.   

-37b-e “What should I fear? That I should suffer the penalty Meletus has assessed against me, of which I say I do not know whether it is good or bad?  Am I then to choose in preference to this something that I know very well to be an evil and assess the penalty at that?  Imprisonment?  Why should I live in prison, always subject to the ruling magistrates?  A fine, and imprisonment until I pay it?  That would be the same thing for me, as I have no money.  Exile?  For perhaps you might accept that assessment. 
  I should have to be inordinately fond of life, gentlemen of the jury, to be so unreasonable as to suppose that other men will easily tolerate my company and conversation when you, my fellow citizens have been unable to endure then, but found them a burden and resented them so that you are now seeking to get rid of them.  Far from it, gentlemen.  It would be a fine life at my age to be driven out of one city after another....” 

38a “The unexamined life is not worth living for a man.” 

-Note that this passage ties together (somewhat) the importance he attaches to virtue, to the soul, and to philosophizing.  “Examination” is not (by itself) the end.  But this doesn’t mean that a just soul is (by itself) the end either.  Instead, these are connected for Plato. 

-Contrast this passage with 29d and 30a! 

-38b Socrates chooses to propose a fine—thirty minae.  Scholars differ substantially as to the size of the fine.  C.D.C. Reeve maintains that one mina was the equivalent of one hundred days wages for an average worker at that time (of course Socrates didn’t charge for his work), so a fine of thirty would be a significant sum.[16]  G.M.A. Grube maintains, in his footnote to this passage that one mina was worth about $25. 

-Roslyn Weiss maintains that “for Socrates, the injustice of proposing imprisonment or exile is related to the following two facts: (1) that he would be proposing—not merely submitting to—these punishments and (2) that these punishments are “bad.””[17]  She also contends that while “scholars have sought to explain Socrates’ reluctance to choose imprisonment or exile by suggesting that these penalties would have interfered with Socrates’ divine mission of practicing philosophy.  But Socrates states quite plainly his objections to these potential penalties, and in the case of neither of them does he object to the penalty because it would render him unable to philosophize.  Prison is objectionable because he would be enslaved.  In exile he would be driven constantly from city to city.  The reason Socrates fully expects foreign cities to be inhospitable to him in this way is that he has every intention of continuing to practice there the kind of philosophy he practices in Athens....Socrates’ not that as a wanderer he could not carry out his philosophical mission; on the contrary, it is just because he will carry out his philosophical mission that he will be a wanderer.  Had Socrates wished to say that prison and exile were unacceptable to him because they would interfere with his practice of philosophy, he could have; he cites just that reason for his refusal to go into exile and remain quiet)....”[18]  While I think she has a point, I am of the “school” which believes that he rejects these penalties because they would interfere which his “mission” (with his philosophizing which is practiced both to “learn,” and to “improve Athens”).  Of course, for exactly the reason immediately below, he can not propose as a penalty that he cease philosophizing! 

The jury finds for death and Socrates addresses the jury:

To those who voted to kill me: [39a-c]  

--39a “It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen of the jury, it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death.” 

--Which is worse: death or a wicked life? Cf., Plato’s Republic.   --Which is worse: death or a wicked life? Cf., Plato’s Republic.   

To those who voted to acquit me: [39c-42a]

-40d There is a good hope that death is a positive blessing (cf. Plato's dialogue Phaedo). 

-41d A good man cannot be harmed either in life or in death.   

-42 Encourage my sons to act as gadflies too!

Final Statement [42a]: “Now the hour to part has come.  I go to die, you [all members of the jury] go to live.  Which of us goes to the better lot is unknown to no one, except the god.” 


3. Final Comments:

1. Note that the Euthyphro is supposed to show us the importance of not acting without knowledge (Euthyphro continues to act on his “understanding” of what piety dictates when he clearly demonstrates that he lacks such understanding).  But in this dialogue, Socrates contends that he has no (worthwhile) knowledge, yet he continues to try and change the state!  Is there a problem here? 

2. Roslyn Weiss notes that:

we may compare Socrates’ actual experience in court as described in the Apology with the experience he imagines in the Gorgias.  In the Gorgias, at 521d-e, we find Socrates saying the following: “This is because the speeches I make on each occasion do not aim at gratification but at what’s best.  They don’t aim as what’s most pleasant.  And because I’m not willing to do those clever things you recommend, I won’t know what to say in court....For I’ll be judged the way a doctor would be judged by a jury of children if a pastry chef were to bring accusations against him.  Think about what a man like that, taken captive among these people, could say in his defense, if somebody were to accuse him and say, ‘Children, this man has worked many great evils on you, yes, on you.  He destroys the youngest among you by cutting and burning them, and by slimming them down and choking them he confuses them.  He gives them the most bitter potions to drink and forces hunger and thirst on them.  He doesn’t feast you on a grand variety of sweets the way I do.’  What do you think a doctor, caught in such an evil predicament, could say?  Or if he should tell them the truth and say, ‘Yes, children, I was doing all those things in the interest of health’, how big an uproar do you think such ‘judges’ would make?  Wouldn’t it be a loud one?”[19] 

3. In their “Socratic Religion,” Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith maintain that:

one product of Socrates’ revisions [his view that the gods were morally perfect], we are told, is that he ends up actually being guilty of the charges—he disbelieves in “the gods of the state,” and “invents new gods,” gods of a thoroughly moral nature.  As Vlastos puts it:

what would be left of her [Aphrodite] and of the other Olympians if they were required to observe the stringent norms of Socratic virtue which require every moral agent, human or divine, to act only to cause good to others, never evil, regardless of the provocation?  Required to meet these austere standards, the city’s gods would have become unrecognizable.  Their ethical transformation would be tantamount to the destruction of the old gods, the creation of new ones—which is precisely what Socrates takes to be the sum and substance of the accusation at his trial.[20] 

The idea that Socrates might not be dangerously critical of his culture’s religious attitudes—and especially the idea that he might genuinely believe in dreams and oracles and signs and voices, as we shall argue later in this chapter—is very troubling to some scholars precisely because Socrates has for centuries been held up as the hero of reason..[21]   

Unlike contemporary philosophers, Socrates saw no need to investigate religious beliefs per se.  As Aristotle tells us, Socrates confined his philosophical activities to ethics, and so it should not be surprising to us that Socrates seems to have attended to theological issues only insofar as they related to ethical concerns.[22]   

I have more to say about Socrates and religion in my “Socratic Voices, Piety, and Rationality” on the course website—while I will not lecture on this, it is provided as a supplement for those who wish to think further on this topic. 

Notes: (click on the note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] Plato, “Letter VII,” trans. L.W. Post, from selection from Thirteen Epistles of Plato in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1961), pp. 1575-1576 (325c-326b). 

[2] C.D.C. Reeve, Socrates and the Apology (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989), p. 159. 

[3] Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith, “Socrates and Political Theory” in The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 2002), pp. 190-223, p. 191.  The essay originally appeared as part of their Plato’s Socrates (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 1994). 

[4] Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith, “Introduction” to The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 2002), pp. 1-13, p. 2. 

[5] Ibid., pp. 2-3.  According to Gary Wills, the vote was 266 to 235 [cf., his Certain Trumpets (N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 303]. 

[6] Does he really “fear” them? 

[7] Cf., my lecture supplement “Socratic Voices, Piety, and Rationality.”  

[8] In his Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1991), p. 82, Gregory Vlastos translates the passage as: “for I am not aware of being wise in anything great or small....It looks as though while neither of us knows anything worthwhile, he thinks he does; but as for me, while, as in point of fact, I have no knowledge, neither do I think I have any.”  In a footnote Vlastos maintains that:

many readers...have misread this text, taking Socrates to be saying that he knows he has no knowledge.  A closer reading will show that he says no such thing...all he that he is not aware of having any knowledge, and...that he has none. 

[9] The phrase ‘Pythian’ refers to the oracle.  More generically it refers to inhabitants of Delphi.  The ancient Greek Olympic games were referred to as “the Pythian Games.” 

[10] This prediction was offered by a Delphic Oracle to King Croesus—note that it may be read two ways (he interpreted it as predicting a great victory for himself, only to find defeat on the battlefield). 

[11] Gregory Vlastos, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher, op. cit., pp. 243. 

[12] Ibid., p. 244. 

[13] Cf., C.D.C. Reeve, Socrates and the Apology, op. cit., pp. 21-28.

[14] John Fleischman, “In Classical Athens, A Market Trading in the Currency of Ideas,” Smithsonian v. 24 (1993, July), pp. 38-47, p. 44. 

[15] Roslyn Weiss, Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato’s Crito (N.Y.: Oxford U.P. 1998), p. 28.  In a footnote to this passage, Weiss contends that “the Gorgias makes a similar distinction between the types of persuasion, that is between teaching-persuasion and conviction-persuasion.  See Gorg. 454c-455a” (ibid.). 

[16] Cf., C.D.C. Reeve, Socrates in the Apology, op. cit., p. 173. 

[17] Roslyn Weiss, Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato’s Crito, op. cit., p. 28. 

[18] Ibid., p. 34, footnote. 

[19] Roslyn Weiss, Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato’s Crito, op. cit., p. 30, footnote.  The passage may be found in Plato’s Gorgias, trans. W.D. Woodhead, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, op. cit., pp. 302-303 (521d-e). 

[20] Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith, “Socratic Religion,” in their Plato’s Socrates (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., pp. 176-212, p. 182.  They are citing Gregory Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Ithaca: Cornell, 1991], p. 166. 

[21] Ibid., p. 188. 

[22] Ibid. 

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