“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 For some of them, compound-complex sentences seem to be evidence that this text is “out of date.”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?