The Apology is Plato’s recorded account of the actual speech Socrates delivered in his own defense on trial for his life. This paper provides a play by play of the trial that would be the end of Socrates. Socrates has been faced with the charges of corrupting the youth, busying himself with studying all things above the earth and below the sky (in other words, not believing in the gods), and making the worse of the stronger argument (in other words making false arguments seem true by using elaborately worded logical arguments to deceive others). This paper breaks down the defense brought forward by Socrates in what would become the end of his life. Although poetic and beautifully worded, it would not be enough to convince the jury that he was innocent.
It begins with Socrates admitting to how strong the argument made against him must sound when he says “so persuasively did they speak. And yet, hardly anything of what they said is true” (17a). “I show myself not to be an accomplished speaker at all. That I thought was most shameless on their part-unless indeed they call an accomplished speaker the man who speaks the truth” (17b). He then goes on to say “One thing I do ask and beg of you gentleman. If you hear me making my defense in the same kind of language as I am accustomed to use in the marketplace, do not be surprised. This is my first appearance in the lawcourt, at the age of seventy. I am therefore simply a stranger to the manner of speaking here. Just as if I were really a stranger, you certainly would excuse me if I spoke in that dialect and manner in which I had been brought up” (17d). His first words tell us that he is already at a disadvantage in that a strongly worded accusation has been brought against him by members of the jury of Athens who dislike Socrates. We also see that Socrates, even on trial for his life, continues to speak in the same way which he is accustomed to. He remains true to himself even in a situation that directly affects his life. So what do we learn of Socrates from the first words of his Apology? We learn that he is disadvantaged to begin with at the trial, but continues to remain consistent in his manner of speaking.
Socrates attempts to first refute the claim that he makes the worse argument the stronger. He says that those who spread that rumor are people who hate him, and accuse him of not believing in the gods because he is a student of all things in the sky and below the earth (18c). Socrates says that these accusations are nothing new to him, and that parents have warned their children not to listen to him from an early age. He says that many of the men in the jury have been infected with the belief that Socrates was a person to be avoided, and that he was not there to defend himself, so they have internalized the belief that Socrates is a trouble maker because they have believed it for so long (18d). He says “I must surely defend myself and attempt to uproot from your minds in so short a time the slander that has resided there so long. I wish this to happen, if it is in any way better for you and me, and that my defense may be successful, but I think this is very difficult and I am fully aware of how difficult it is (19a). From this section, we see that Socrates has long been infamous among the citizens of Athens.
Socrates then speaks of the Sophists who charge a fee for their services of knowledge and their usage of rhetoric, but Socrates himself says he never charges a fee for his knowledge. Socrates goes on to say “I am very conscious that I am not wise at all” (21b). “I went to one of those reputed wise. I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not.” (21c) 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 of us 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 than he is to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know”(21d). Socrates goes on to say “I found that those who had the highest reputation were nearly the most deficient, while those who were thought to be inferior were more knowledgeable” (22a). Socrates realized that one can only be wise when they realize that we never truly know anything at all. When he tried to explain this to others, he found that the natural reaction was for people to hate him, as he put it, “I acquired much unpopularity, of a kind that is hard to deal with and is a heavy burden” (22c). “Because of this occupation, I do not have the leisure to engage in public affairs to any extent, nor indeed to look after my own, but I live in great poverty because of my service to the god” (23b). This explains why so many people in high places hated Socrates. Nobody likes to be told they are not wise when they pride themselves on their wisdom, especially by a man who lives in poverty.
Socrates then addresses the young crowd that chooses to follow him when he says, “the young men who follow me around of their own free will, those who have most leisure, the sons of the very rich, take pleasure in hearing people questioned; they themselves often imitate me and try to question others” (23c). He goes on to explain how this angers people to be told that they are not wise by children, and how that anger is then directed towards Socrates for “corrupting the youth”. Socrates then challenges Meletus (one of his accusers) to tell the jury who it is exactly that improves the youth. Meletus is silent and does not know what to say. Meletus then goes on to say that basically everyone in Athens improves the youth except for Socrates (24e). Socrates then provides the counter example using horses. Very few men are able to improve horses (the horse breeders), and most others corrupt them (those that ride them and use them for profit) (25b). “It would be a very happy state of affairs if only one person corrupted our youth while others improved them. You have made it sufficiently obvious, Meletus, that you have never had any concern for our youth; you show your indifference clearly; that you have given no thought to the subjects about which you bring me to trial”, says Socrates (25b-c). Here, Socrates makes Meletus look foolish by expressing how ridiculous it is to think that Socrates alone is responsible for corrupting the youth while all the rest of Athens betters them.
Socrates next defends himself against the accusation that he does not honor the gods. Meletus is accusing Socrates of being an atheist because Socrates believes the sun is made of stone and the moon is made of earth (26e). Socrates then points out that there are books written that share the opinion of Socrates that can be bought at most common bookshops. Meletus continues to insist that Socrates does not honor the gods, and Socrates defends himself by saying that Meletus appears to him to be “highly insolent and uncontrolled”, and that he seems to have “made this disposition out of insolence, violence, and youthful zeal” (27e). Socrates follows up by asking the question“Does any man, Meletus, believe in human activities who does not believe in humans? Does any man who does not believe in horses believe in horsemen’s activities? By saying this, Socrates is referring to his statements that in practicing his philosophy of questioning, he is, in doing so, serving the gods. Once again, Socrates makes Meletus look like a fool in front of everyone. He goes on to say, “I do not think, men of Athens, that it requires a prolonged defense to prove that I am not guilty of the charges in Meletus’ deposition, but this is sufficient. On the other hand, you know that what I said earlier is true, that I am very unpopular with many people. This will be my undoing, if I am undone, not Meletus or Anytus but the slanders and envy of many people. This has destroyed many other good men and will, I think, continue to do so” (28a-b). Socrates realizes that if he is put to death, it will not be because his accusers can prove he has done anything wrong, but rather because he is hated by so many people.
“Someone might say: Are you not ashamed, Socrates, to have followed the kind of occupation that has led to your being now in danger of death? However, I should be right to reply to him: You are wrong sir, if you think that a man who is any good at all should take into account the risk of his life or death; he should look to this only in his actions, whether what he does is right or wrong, whether he is acting like a good or a bad man. According to your view, all the heroes who died at Troy were inferior people” (28b-c). Here, Socrates shows his courage in the face of death and his commitment to his mission of truth seeking. “This is the truth of the matter, men of Athens: wherever a man has taken a position that he believes to be the best, or has been placed by his commander, there he must I think remain and face danger, without a thought for death or anything else, rather than disgrace”, says Socrates (28e). “To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know” (29a). Also, he goes on to make the point that “No one man knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils” (29a). Here, Socrates displays his immense courage in the face of death. It seems Socrates couldn’t care less whether he lives or dies, and feels it would be wrong not to risk death if that meant sacrificing what he feels is his mission on earth: seeking truth. To Socrates, to be a good man is more important than whether he lives or dies.
Socrates believed so much in his mission that he said even if the jury were to say, “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” (29c), he would still go on with his mission. If that were the case, he would say “Men of Athens, 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 (29d). Socrates makes a point of making it perfectly clear that he has no intention of ceasing his mission any time soon. Socrates says that to anyone he meets, his response will be “Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?” (29e). He goes on to say, “For I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul. Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.” (30a). Socrates speaks with a type of prophetic confidence here that is difficult to ignore. The way he speaks and the way he sounds so sure of himself, it feels as though he must be right in what he says.
He goes on to say “Be sure that if you kill the sort of man I say I am, you will not harm me more than yourselves. Neither Meletus nor Anytus can harm me in any way; he could not harm me, for I do not think it is permitted that a better man be harmed by a worse; certainly he might kill me, or perhaps banish or disfranchise me, which he and maybe others think to be great harm, but I do not think so. I think he is doing himself much greater harm doing what he is doing now, attempting to have a man executed unjustly” (30d). The jury casts their votes and finds Socrates to be guilty, and Meletus asks for the death penalty to be issued. Later, he says “There are many other reasons for my not being angry with you for convicting me, men of Athens, and what happened was not unexpected.” (36a). “I have deliberately not led a quiet life, but have neglected what occupies most people: wealth, household affairs, the position of general or public orator or the other offices, the political clubs and factions that exist in the city. I thought myself to be too honest to survive if I occupied myself with those things.” It is almost as if Socrates knew all along that he would be put to death. In no way does he change the aggressive tone he uses to speak to the jury. He does not apologize for his life’s work or his ideas. He is true to himself till the very end of his life. “It is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living” (38b). Perhaps Socrates felt no fear or remorse for his sentence because his daimonion did not oppose him. Socrates believed the daimonion to be his divine sign, which, from an early age had always guiding him to avoid situations he was not supposed to be. In the events leading up to his trial, it did not oppose him. Socrates takes the poison hemlock and dies surrounded by a handful of his loved ones.
So how could one summarize the last stand of Socrates? Socrates for many years has lived a life of a traveling truth seeker. He lives with barely enough to get by and spends his time making people who pride themselves in their knowledge look foolish using his method of asking questions to reveal flaws in their arguments. He is followed by a crowd of rebellious and privileged youth who take what they learn from him elsewhere and using their learned skills irritate many. He is well known throughout Athens and disliked by many in power. Many people in high places have a bone to pick with Socrates, and one in particular, Meletus, wants to see him silenced. Socrates is brought to trial, charged with corrupting the youth, busying himself with studying all things above the earth and below the sky (in other words, not believing in the gods), and making the worse of the stronger argument (in other words making false arguments seem true by using elaborately worded logical arguments to deceive others). He has chosen to live a lifestyle very different from other citizens of Athens. He feels it is his purpose on earth, provided to him by the gods.
Socrates knows full well he is at a vast disadvantage coming into the trial. Many of the men who are to vote to determine his life or death are very jealous and hateful of Socrates. This seems to not even phase Socrates, however. He remains true to himself and continues to speak the way he does to everyone. He never pleads for sympathy or adopts a tone of sorrow. In fact, he mocks his prosecutors and insists he is clearly right and innocent in his actions and that they are the ones who are guilty.
There have been those who compare the execution of Socrates to the execution of Christ. The narrative of Christ’s crucifixion is recorded in Mark 15. Early in the morning, the chief priests, with elders, and teachers of the law and the council called the Sanhedrin reached a decision. Christ was asked if he was the king of the Jews, to which Jesus replied “Yes, it is as you say” (Mark 15:3). The chief priests accused Christ of many things, of which Jesus made no reply, as if Christ did not want to even waste his time talking them because they hated Him so much (Mark 15:4). When questioned by Pilate, Jesus responded by saying “I was born to be a king, but my kingdom is not of this world.”, and that He came to testify to the truth, and that everyone on the side of truth listens to him. There was a custom in the age of Christ in which a prisoner would be released on the Feast of the Passover, which the trial happened to fall upon. Knowing that Jesus was being prosecuted out of envy by those in a position of power and authority, the man in the position to sentence Jesus, named Pontius Pilate, offered to release another prisoner instead (Mark 15:9). However the crowd demanded that Christ be crucified (Mark 15:14). Pilate was reluctant to see an innocent man crucified, so he had Jesus first flogged, but the crowd was still not satisfied and wanted to see Christ put to death, so Pilate reluctantly allowed for Christ to be turned into the hands of his murderers. Jesus is then stripped of his clothes and led down the road to be crucified. Before He dies, he says to God “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”. Once nailed to the cross, He speaks to one of the criminals crucified next to Him and tells him that they will soon be together in heaven. Jesus then speaks to God and breathes His last breath.
There are many similarities to be drawn between the poetic deaths of each of these figures. To begin with, both figures were well known throughout their areas in their time, and their fame lead to hatred from authority figures: in the case of Socrates, men who held high places in office like Meletus, in the case of Jesus, the Pharisees and Sadducees who held power in the Jewish hierarchy. They were both put on trial not because they harmed anyone, but because their words were hard to swallow for those who did not want to hear them. They both spoke a truth that challenged those who thought they knew the truth. When put on trial, both men stayed true to themselves. Socrates continued to speak in his typical method of jabbing his questioners with additional questions and logic which they could not answer to. Christ spoke plainly in the face of opposition that he was in fact the true king who came to save those who heard Him. In the case of Christ, Pilate knew Christ was innocent and not deserving of death, and in the case of Socrates, many members of the jury voted in favor of him. Both men offered truth to those who were willing to accept it, and many did to extent that each man changed the world in their own way. Socrates was not angry about being sentenced to death, in fact he almost expected it. Likewise, Jesus did not hate those who put Him to death. In fact, he asked God to grant them forgiveness. At the end of their lives, both of these men who changed the world forever found themselves surrounded by only a few of their closest friends and family.
Each of these men died a death that one could argue immortalized them forever. The fact that they were killed for doing nothing wrong other than living their lives with a purpose to serve the greater good only makes the ideas they stood for that much more powerful. There is definitely an element of beauty in the idea that someone can be truly changing the way the world thinks for the better and yet be hated so much by others. The same fate has befallen so many other great people through the course of history. Dr. Martin Luther King, J.F.K., John Lennon, Malcom X. It just shows that when a great voice that brings about change for the better speaks up, there will always be those who are negatively affected by the change, and want to silence the voice. Unfortunately, to be a leader is to be a threat. To be a leader is to make yourself vulnerable to the hatred of those in opposition to you. It is a sad irony that those who make the best changes in the world usually have to make the ultimate sacrifice for it. In the end, Socrates and Christ stayed true to themselves in the face of death, and in doing so locked their message in stone for all eternity.