I’ve written a sample short assignment using Plato’s Apology as the text. You will be writing short assignments for subsequent texts starting next week.
Remember that these short assignments are to be typewritten and 1-2 pages single spaced (or 2-4 pages double spaced, which I prefer). Use a normal font size (10-12 point) and margins.
This sample assignment is under two pages. It looks longer because I’ve added, in boldface, some extra comments describing what I’m doing. You won’t need to do this.
The Apology was written by Plato, and relates Socrates’ defense at his trial on charges of corrupting the youth and impiety. Socrates argues that he is innocent of both charges.1 His defense is ultimately unsuccessful, and he is convicted and sentenced to death. Socrates concludes the Apology by arguing that a just man should have no fear of death.
[Note that this introductory paragraph concisely does two things: it sets up the issue to be discussed, and it briefly presents the position of the Socrates on the main topics (his innocence and his view of death). Long background histories and so on are not needed in these papers – get straight to the point.]
Socrates defends himself against the charges brought against him by his prosecutor Meletus in two ways. One way consists of a description of Socrates’ motivation and method, which he hopes will explain to the jury why some people, including his prosecutors, dislike him. The second defense consists of Socrates responding directly to the two charges brought against him: “corrupting the young” and impiety, or more specifically, “not believing in the gods in whom the city believes” (p. 28). I’ll address these two lines of defense in turn.
[I wrote this second paragraph to clarify the argumentative structure of the paper. I could have also combined this second paragraph with the first one, but it seemed more natural to separate it in this case.
When I thought about Socrates’ defense, it seemed to me that it had two main parts: the part where he explains why he has a bad reputation, and the part where he responds directly to the charges against him.
The first paragraphs are usually the hardest ones to write. You have to stop and think about what the main thesis or theses of the paper are, and also think about the main argument(s) for them. Fortunately, once you’ve thought about these things, the rest of the paper usually falls into place.]
Socrates begins his defense by acknowledging that many people have accused him of “studying things in the sky and below the earth” and of “making the worse into the stronger argument” and teaching these things to others (p. 26). He replies that such accusations are “slanders”; the truth, he continues, is that he does not claim to have any special knowledge of anything in the sky or elsewhere. In support of this, Socrates relates the story of the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle, who was thought to give voice to the Greek god Apollo, had told Socrates’ friend Chirephon that no man was wiser than Socrates. Surprised by this, Socrates surmises that the only reason the god said this is that Socrates seems to know only that he does not know very much. This, Socrates explains, makes him unlike most other people he meets, who “think [they] know something when they do not” (p. 27). Others frequently fail to know what they claim to know, at least when questioned by Socrates. This leads other people to dislike him, Socrates claims, and is behind his unpopularity. Nonetheless, he insists that questioning others is a part of his “service to the god” (Apollo) (p. 27).
Later in his defense, Socrates makes repeated reference to the idea that he it is his duty to the god Apollo to question peoples’ claims to knowledge. He points out that he has never received pay for his services, and presents his poverty as proof of his service to the god (p. 30). Finally, Socrates claims that the god has given him a “divine sign” which warns him when he is about to do something wrong. It is this sign, he says, that has prevented him from leading a “public” life of politics.
Socrates responds to the charge that he is guilty of corrupting the youth, in two ways. The first way (p. 28) attempts to show that Meletus’ charge is “frivolous” on the grounds that it does not conform to plausible examples of how creatures become corrupted. Under questioning from Socrates, Meletus grants that all of the citizens of Athens except Socrates benefit the youth of Athens; Socrates alone corrupts them. Yet this is implausible, Socrates implies, for in other cases of corruption, such as the corruption of horses by bad owners, the contrary is the case, with only one or a few individuals benefiting them, and most people corrupting them.
Socrates’ second argument against the charge of corrupting the youth presents a dilemma. Although Meletus asserts that Socrates corrupts the youth deliberately, Socrates vehemently denies this (p. 29). Assuming that the alleged corruption is not deliberate, Socrates then presents Meletus with two possibilities: “Either I do not corrupt the young or, if I do, it is unwillingly, and you are lying in either case” (p. 29). If he doesn’t corrupt the young, then he is innocent of the charge. But even if he corrupts the young unwillingly, Socrates continues, he ought not to be brought to trial, for the proper response to someone who is unwillingly doing harm is to instruct the wrongdoer, and not to avoid them, as Meletus has done.
Socrates’ defense against the charge of impiety is more direct. He points out that the entire defense he has given so far rests upon his belief in the Greek god Apollo, who Socrates believes has given him a divine sign, and who he has spent his adult life serving. “Clearly”, he says, “if I convinced you by my supplication [to the god] to do violence to your oath of office, I would be teaching you not to believe that there are gods …. This is far from being the case, gentlemen.” (p. 32)
[The five paragraphs above all develop the arguments outlined in paragraph two.]
Socrates is found guilty on both charges. During the sentencing phase he proposes, outrageously, that his punishment be that he be awarded free meals in the Prytaneum (the town hall of Athens) at the expense of the city. His actual punishment is the death penalty. The Apology concludes with Socrates arguing that the just man should not fear death.
[Notice that I say very little about the long sentencing phase of the Apology. This is because, although it is amusing, there is not much argument given in this part. This will happen in other essays too; there may be large parts of the text that you can ignore or summarize very briefly since they don’t contain important arguments.]
Socrates begins this last argument by claiming that death is one of two things: “either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or it is, as we are told, a change a relocation of the soul” (p. 34). If the dead have no perception, he says, this would be an advantage, for he thinks that the “most pleasant night of sleep” is the one that is sound and completely dreamless, as death would be. On the other hand, if death is a change of place, then this too would be a blessing. After all, Socrates claims, if one goes where the dead are, then one can, he assumes, speak with them. And what could be more enjoyable than speaking with Hesiod, Homer, and other great Greek poets, statesmen, and heroes? Socrates concludes his defense (p. 35) by remarking that his death penalty may actually be a blessing for him, both for the reasons he has just given and because his “divine sign” has not opposed him at any time during his defense, suggesting to Socrates that he has done no wrong in his own defense.
Further Guidelines for the Short Assignments:
- These short essay assignments are not quite the same as book reports or article summaries. The difference is this: the short essay assignments should focus on the arguments presented in the paper, rather than trying to summarize everything that is said (as an article summary would). Thus, as my example shows, there may be times when you ignore or only briefly describe large parts of the text, and other times when you focus very closely on just one or two paragraphs. If you just summarize the paper without focusing on the arguments, expect to get a mediocre grade.
- In preparing these short assignments, you should start by asking yourself two questions:
i. What is the main claim (or claims, if there is more than one)?
ii. What are the main arguments for the claim (or claims)?
Most of the paper, and most of your grade, is determined by your answer to these questions. Many of the papers we will read will have one or two major arguments, and then several arguments for smaller points that are only indirectly related. The Apology is like this: there are several short arguments (on page 33, e.g.) that aren’t really crucial to the overall paper. I ignored them. Part of your job in writing these is to choose what is really important and what is not.
- On the syllabus, I said that you should include a question about the reading. Since we have over 40 students in our class, I won’t have time to answer them all. So I’ve decided to make the question part optional.
- In the example above, I have a footnote at the end of the first sentence which gives the full reference for the text I’m using. I’d like you to give a similar footnote or endnote in each short assignment. You’ll probably just have to do this once in each paper, since everything you’ll be citing will be from our book.
Since the other page references are from the same text, only a page reference is needed. Give a page reference whenever you quote from or closely paraphrase an author.
- Get straight to the point. Don't bother with lengthy introductory or concluding paragraphs. One or two sentences to introduce your topic is usually sufficient.
- Articulate the thesis or position clearly. You need to make clear what the author is arguing for or against. Although this is not difficult to do, failure to clearly state a thesis is probably the single most common problem with philosophy papers.
- Be concise. Most or all of what you say should be articulating or defending your thesis, or illustrating the links in your reasoning. Avoid lengthy sentence constructions wherever possible.
- Stay on track. It's easy and often tempting to wander into areas that don't directly relate to the question. Don't.
A number of factors are considered in determining your grade. Since these factors interrelate in various ways, it is senseless to try to assign a percentage value to each. Let's just say that an ‘A’ paper does well in every area, lower grades have trouble in one or more areas.
1. Accuracy of content. Obviously, if you present another's position, you need to get it right. This is especially important when you present the author’s arguments for his or her position.
2. Thesis coherently stated (if applicable). The main position or positions of the author you are discussing must be made clear.
3. Primary claims supported with evidence. You must back up your major claims (about what the author is arguing for) with some evidence, be it textual, argumentative, empirical, etc. I realize that the degree to which you are able to do this on short assignments is limited, but some support is usually possible.
4. Paper coherently structured. It should be clear how each paragraph relates to the overall paper, and how each sentence works within each paragraph.
5. Grammar and spelling correct. Be sure to proofread your papers.