Plato Project #1: The Apology of Socrates

I found this image but can’t figure out who painted it or when.


“How you, O Athenians, have been affected by my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that they almost made me forget who I was-so persuasively did they speak; and yet they have hardly uttered a word of truth.”

So begins Socrates’ final defense to the Athenian jury (Jowett’s translation).  These are words I read aloud every year to my AP Language and Composition classes, towards the end of the first week.  There are two reasons I’ve put this text near the start of the course. First – the loftier reason – the course is supposed to teach the basics of rhetoric and argumentation in reading and writing, so what better place to start than with Socrates?  Second, the more cynical reason: our school’s drop-add deadline is four weeks into the term, and my hope is that students who read the Apology and do not like it, or have too much difficulty reading it, will decide to take another course.  In short, for a high school junior, Socrates’ speech is a litmus test: if you can handle this, you’ll probably like the course, and if you can’t you won’t.  Some of them never believe me and stick it out for no clear reason except that it’s “awkward” to visit their counselor and change courses.

Many of my students bridle at what they invariably and absurdly call Socrates’ “old English.”  This is frustrating but given that it happens nearly every year, that’s just par for the course at this point.   For some of them, compound-complex sentences seem to be evidence that this text is “out of date.”  Generally, by the end of the text, many of the students are glad Socrates has died, and sympathetic to his accusers’ complains.   Anyway, enough of complaining.

The historical context of Socrates’ trial and death has been much studied I think.  Without delving into secondary sources, I’ll just write about a couple of things I noticed.  First, Socrates references a couple of different historical events.  He lets us know that he was “ordered by the generals whom [the jury] chose to command me at Potidaea and Amphipolis and Delium, remained where they placed me, like any other man facing death” (Stephanos 28 – all page references will be to the Stephanos pages).

Potidaea (432), Delium (424) and Amphipolis (422)  were each the site of a major battle during the Peloponnesian war.  Socrates’ trial took place in 399.  This reminds us that Socrates’ adult life was largely coextensive the Peloponnesian war – a conflict of almost 30 years between Athens and Sparta.

Potidaea was, along with Epidamnus, one of two major catalysts of the broader war (at least on Thucydides’ telling, but he’s our only real primary source here), bringing the Corinthians into conflict with the Athenians, and then, through some entangled alliances, the combined allies of the Spartans.  Delium was a failed siege effort by the Athenians of a Boeotian city.  Amphipolis was the battle that brought the first part of the war (“the Archidamian war”) to a close, with the so-called “peace of Nicias” being signed soon afterwards.  Both Cleon (an Athenian general) and Brasidas (a Spartan one) were killed at Amphipolis.   They represented the most hawkish wings of each side, their deaths seem to have led to the temporary cessation of conflict.  Socrates’ invocation of his military service serves to bolster his claim never to have meant any harm to the city.

Socrates later mentions  “the thirty” (32), a tyrannical oligarchy that ruled Athens in the immediate aftermath of the war in 404 BCE.  Socrates professes not to have broken in his loyalty to Athens, even at this trying time.  We don’t know whether he’s telling the truth, though he does say that “many will witness to my words,” suggesting this isn’t a controversial assertion on his part.

Socrates also makes a series of statements about people in the audience – the brother of Chaerephon (21), obviously Meletus whom is cross-examines, and then later he provides a catalog (at 33):

Many of them I see in the court.  There is Crito, who is the same age and of the same deme with myself, and there is Critobulus his son, whom I also see.  Then again there is Lysanian of Sphettus, who is the father of Aechinese–he is present; and also there is Antiphon of Cephisus, who is the father of Epigenes; and there are the brothers of several who have associated with me.  There is Nicostratus the son of Theosdotides, and the brother of Theodotus (now Theodotus himself is dead, and therefore he, at any rate, will not seek to stop him); and there is Paralus the son of Demodocus, who had a brother Theages; and Adeimantus the son of Ariston, whose brother Plato is present; and Aentoodurus, who is the brother of Apollodorus, whom I also see.

I’ll leave it to someone else to investigate these names if they want.  Obviously Crito has a dialogue named after him, and then Adeimantus I’m assuming is the same Adeimantus we find in The Republic, and of course Plato has written himself in here, like an artist who paints himself into an assembled crowd.

The big interpretive question I’m always left with after reading this text is “Why does Socrates do such an awful job of defending himself?”  Sometimes he makes arguments which we can see are true, but none of them seem like arguments designed to be anything less than confrontational with the crowd – and the crowd itself tries to shout him down at least three times.

When the jury (which was around 500 people) votes, the vote is close, Socrates says, but then when the penalty phase is reached, the vote isn’t as close… this has always amused me in a gallows-humor sort of way.  People who did not think he was guilty still voted to put him to death.  Perhaps they’re feeling the same thing as my students – they just want things to be over and done with.

Socrates’ dialogue closes with the noble final line “the hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways–I to die, and you to live.  Which is better God only knows” (42).  This brings up another question my students often raise – “was Socrates a monotheist?  I thought the Greeks were polytheists.”  I don’t have a real answer to that either.  But beyond that, Socrates’ final challenge: how do you know death is so terrible, especially when compared with unjust living – is, of course, a timeless one.

So, that’s my take on this speech, more as an English teacher than a philosopher.  I’m interested to hear others’.  Someone told me once they thought everyone had their own experience with this text, and they were all powerful.  What is yours?

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8 Responses to Plato Project #1: The Apology of Socrates

  1. Nates says:

    The Apology is a strange text. It says a lot about the Socratic method, but you don’t actually see much of it in action. But it does set things up nicely.

    On the God question, I think a lot of Greek intellectuals by Socrates’ time were becoming dubious of the whole Olympic Gods thing. You see other philosophers talking about a more abstract, philosophical God. (Of course, Plato will take that ball and run with it in later works.)

    For my students, the key insight I want them to get from it is Socrates’ unusual negative conception of wisdom: not accumulating facts, but getting rid of false beliefs. This is helpful for them later on, when they start encountering the many skeptical arguments in philosophy. They can now more easily see these arguments as accomplishing something important, rather than just being destructive in character.

    For myself, there are two things I find especially interesting about this dialog. First, the strange origin story involving the Oracle at Delphi. We’re led to believe that the whole Socratic method stems from one of his friends asking the Oracle–on a lark–if anyone was wiser than Socrates. When the Oracle says no, Socrates starts questioning people to try to disprove the Oracle–unsuccessfully. Part of the point is to provide divine sanction for his activities. But Socrates takes great pains to insist that the story is true, pointing out several indirect witnesses (the original friend being dead by then). But it’s a very strange and arbitrary way of grounding the method that would become the foundation for much of the western philosophical tradition!

    The second thing I find fascinating is Socrates’ daimon. As he does in other dialogs, he insists that he occasionally hears a voice that prevents him from doing something wrong. And I don’t see much evidence that he means this to be figurative. (If I’m recalling it right, I think at one point he acknowledges that the jury might think he’s crazy in talking about this spirit.) What does it mean that the father of philosophy and the archetype of rational living is hearing and acting on disembodied voices!

  2. Nates says:

    Another thing that’s interesting: you can see Socrates/Plato in the process of carving out a space for a new kind of philosophy, different from what anyone else is doing. This is especially clear at 18b:
    “…they got hold of most of you from childhood, persuaded you and accused me quite falsely, saying that there is a man called Socrates, a wise man, a student of all things in the sky and below the earth, who makes the worse argument the stronger.”
    The students of things in the sky and below the earth would be the Presocratics: people like Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, etc. who are trying to determine the ultimate principles of nature. Socrates shows no interest in this stuff. And then you have the Sophists who are concerned more with victory than truth.

    Socrates is trying to establish a kind of inquiry distinct from both of these: truth-governed, but focused on the human life. Plato will sometimes take some long detours into metaphysical topics, but he follows Socrates in ultimately caring most about the good life.

  3. Nates says:

    By the way, the picture you posted is actually of St. Paul preaching to the Athenians. (If you look closely, you can see the halo!) The painting is by Raphael (see here:

    But this is all quite fitting, since, as Nietzsche noted, Christianity is really just Platonism for the masses.

  4. Josh says:

    Google images misled me! Admittedly I just typed “apology of socrates” into and that was a painting I was willing to believe was appropriate. I’m sure there’s a Socratic lesson there.

    The two big discussions I have with my class are (1) “what is Socrates’ definition of wisdom?” which leads to a talk about what you’ve called “Socrates’ unusual negative conception of wisdom” and (2) “is the unexamined life worth living?” I’m less introducing Philosophy and more introducing argumentative writing, and trying to encourage my students to be more abstract in their reasoning as they face various writing tasks. I’m also trying to set the standard for class discussions – around interesting topics with ambiguous answers that cannot likely be resolved by factual appeal.

    Now that I type all this I’m realizing “The Apology” is an odd text to do all of that with – like maybe I should just pick a Paul Krugman (or David Brooks) column or something.

    The “daimon” part of the text is curious. Someone pointed out to me once that this daimon has something to do with the charges against Socrates, since that voice is different somehow than the gods (or The God) that’s being talked about. This voice has something to do with conscience or a faculty of reasoning, right? It’s not like it’s telling Socrates random things he should go do – it’s telling him when someone’s ideas (or his own) are wrong. but not when they’re right.

    As for the “Socratic method” – I’ve done the most work around with my students when reading “Euthyphro” (since it’s included in The Trial and Death of Socrates, which we buy for each of them). I’m interested as we look at some of the other dialogues whether we can establish something that deserves to be called “The Socratic Method.” In my head it’s probably a caricatured version of the process that happens in “Euthyphro,” but I’ll save talking about that for then.

    That also raises the question of Socrates vs. Plato, and what, if anything, can be made of that distinction.

    One last thought – have you read Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony (the full title of which is The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates)?

  5. Nates says:

    I feel like I’ve read the equivalent of a Greatest Hits Sampler for Kierkegaard over the years, but I’ve never read his work in any systematic way.

    We’ll have to see what we make of the Daimon as we proceed through these dialogs. Yes, the voice is always prohibitive–paralleling how the Socratic method is always negative. But I’m not yet sold on the minimalist reading of it as one’s own conscience. I think Socrates heard voices and saw himself as having a guardian spirit.

    Or maybe it’s safer to say that Plato has chosen to portray him this way. There’s a lot of Achilles comparison going on in these early dialogues, as Plato seems to be fashioning his teacher as a new kind of philosophical hero. Since Achilles had special access to the Gods, maybe he wants to show off Socrates as doing something similar.

  6. David says:

    -“Obviously Crito has a dialogue named after him, and then Adeimantus I’m assuming is the same Adeimantus we find in The Republic, and of course Plato has written himself in here, like an artist who paints himself into an assembled crowd.”

    Yes, that was my thought exactly! Pretty cool. Apparently Rembrandt was fond of this:

    It’s been at least ten years since I read The Apology. I’ll follow your lead (Josh and Nates) and list some elements of the text that jump out at me.

    Socratic Ignorance

    On Socrates’ own account of his activity, it is aimed at exposing in the hope of correcting those “who think that they are wise when they are not.” Once exposed, Socrates points out, his targets assume that Socrates thinks that he is wiser than them, but if this true, Socrates says famously–if Socrates is indeed wiser than his fellow citizens–it is not because he has knowledge his fellow citizens lack but rather because he, at least, knows better than to pretend to knowledge he doesn’t have. I’m choosing that phrase ‘knows better than’ very deliberately, as I think we really are meant to get the impression that Socrates has a ‘know-how’ that his fellow citizens lack, and a very peculiar kind of ‘know-how’ at that: not the practical knowledge associated with statesman, soldiers, craftsman, etc., but rather an understanding of how to live. This, I think, is the original intimation of what ‘philosophical knowledge’ or ‘philosophical understanding’ could possibly be, if not knowledge of the cosmos (science/religion/metaphysics), of the mundane natural world (science), of how to acquire and keep power (statecraft, politics), etc. It’s whatever kind of knowledge you need in order to know what you’re talking about when you ask, as Socrates says we all ought to ask, prior to doing anything at all, “in performing this action, will I be acting rightly or wrongly, like a good man or a bad one.”

    Now one of the things that struck me as interesting is that when it comes to this species of knowledge–moral/philosophical knowledge–Socrates is not the least bit diffident. Throughout the dialogue, he’s claiming to know things about how one ought, and ought not, to act and live. This makes his general unpopularity easy to understand, I think, and makes me wonder whether Socrates isn’t being a bit disingenuous on those occasions when he expresses puzzlement as to why he should be so widely disliked. Socrates suggests that his unpopularity stems primarily from the fact that he bruises a lot of egos, but there’s this funny cumulative effect that happens (to me, at any rate) when you listen to his speech. He comes across as a man who is–how should I put this?–clearly very, very high on himself! I mean, at one point he describes himself as a “gift from God”! The impression I’m left with is that ‘Socratic ignorance’ only goes so far. When it comes to the question, How should I live?, Socrates thought he had the answers.


    At 40d, Socrates explains why it is irrational for the ‘good man’ to fear death. He says that death can be only one of two things–annihilation, which Socrates likens to a deep sleep, or the soul’s ‘migration’ to a kind of heavenly paradise–and neither of these are conditions it would be rational to fear. A similar argument is later offered by Epicurus and still receives a lot of attention among philosophers today.

    Favorite Bit

    I love when Socrates complains about the “skilled craftsmen,” who, “on the strength of their technical proficiency…claimed a perfect understanding of every other subject” (22e). That’s as true today as it was then.

  7. Josh says:

    David –

    This does remind me that another discussion question I’ve had good luck with over the years, with the opening pages of the Apology is: “does Socrates actually know what wisdom is?” My students almost always line up on two sides with this one, given that no explicit definition is ever given (he does say something about “the wisdom of men” and “the wisdom of the gods,” but it’s not quite a definition) – we find lots of “wisdom is not x”-type statements. As a pedagogical exercise, it’s good because it forces students to draw a positive inference from a range of negative statements.

    As for the artisans extending their knowledge beyond where it’s warranted, it reminded me of a poem of Pushkin’s that Dostoevsky quotes in one of his A Writer’s Diary entries (the translator’s made it rhyme in English):

    A painting once a cobbler stopped to view,
    And pointed out an error in one shoe;
    The artist took the brush and made it right.
    “There!” said the cobbler, “Now I think you might
    Correct that bosom: it’s a bit too bare;
    The face as well requires some repair.”
    To these complaints Apelles put an end:
    “Judge not above the boots, my cobbler friend!”

  8. David says:

    I like the Pushkin.

    I forgot to mention: Socrates’ tone in APOLOGY also reminded me a bit of this classic:

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