The Trial of Socrates

Summary of Plato’s Apology

The Apology is Plato’s recollection and interpretation of the Trial of Socrates (399 BCE). In the dialogue Socrates explains who he is and what kind of life he led. The Greek word “apologia” means explanation—it is not to be confused with apologizing for one’s actions. The following is an outline of the argument that Socrates makes in his defense.

I. Prologue (17a-19a)

The first sentence sets the tone and direction for the entire dialogue. Socrates, in addressing the men of Athens, states that he almost forgot who he was, and that the speeches of his accusers reminded him. The dialogue will thus be a kind of “recollecting” by Socrates of who he is. That is to say, the Apology will become Socrates’ answer to the question: “Who is Socrates?

II. The First False Charges (19a – 24a)

A. The Charges and Their Assignment (19a-20c)

The first “charge” against Socrates arose from general accusations that had been directed toward him through the years. These accusations were that Socrates was: (1) a physicalist and (2) a sophist. The charge of “investigating things beneath the earth and in the skies” were also leveled at physicalists like Thales and Anaxagoras. The charge of “making the weaker argument appear the stronger” was directed to sophists like Gorgias, Hippias, and Evanus. But Socrates is neither a physicalist or a Sophist. He is not a physicalist because he believes in a non-physical soul, and he is not a Sophist because, among other reasons, he doesn’t charge for his teaching and he is interested in truth not influence.

B. Socrates’ Art and the Delphic Oracle (20c-23c)

The false image of Socrates arose because people misunderstood his true activity. Socrates explains this activity by relating a story about the Delphic Oracle. A friend of Socrates’ went to the Oracle and asked the priestess: “Who is the wisest of mortals?” and the priestess replied: “Socrates is the most wise.” When Socrates heard this he was surprised, since he thought of himself as ignorant. In response he tried to invalidate the claim by finding someone wiser than he. He began to question various people including politicians, poets, and craftsmen. In each encounter the various individuals claim to be in possession of some kind of wisdom or knowledge. But upon further questioning, Socrates became convinced that none of these persons possessed knowledge or wisdom.

Socrates concluded that the truth of the statement “Socrates is most wise” is that Socrates was most wise because he was aware of his own ignorance, while those around him who claimed to know were ignorant of their ignorance.

C. How the Charges Arose (23c-24a)

In the course of Socrates’ verification of the Delphic Oracle’s claims that he was most wise, he challenged many people about their cherished beliefs. The response of many individuals was confusion and anger. Over the years, this anger took the form of a general resentment toward Socrates.

III. The Specific Charges (24b – 28a)

The charges made were that Socrates was guilty of: a) corruption of the youth; and b) impiety or not believing in the gods. And the penalty they demanded was death.

Regarding the Charge of Corruption of the Youth Socrates responds:

  1. Meletus says that Socrates is the person in Athens who is responsible for the corruption of the youth. Yet it is absurd to say that only Socrates corrupts the youth. This implies that everyone else helps the youth. But just as there are few horse trainers, so there are few who really “train” the youth. Socrates is of these “trainers.”
  2. Who would voluntarily corrupt the youth? (25c-26a) If Socrates voluntarily harmed the youth, then (since evil begets evil) they would harm him. And no rational person voluntarily harms himself. But if he harmed the youth involuntarily, then he should be educated not punished. So either he is intentionally harming the youth which is self-destructive, or he is unintentionally harming them in which case he should be taught how not to do so, not punished.

Regarding the Charge of Impiety

Could a person believe in things like clothes and yet not in human beings who wear them? So too with divine things: Since Socrates believes in a Diamon (a divine thing), it follows that he believes in divinities. He also says that believes in spiritual activities so he obviously believes in spirits.

IV. Socrates’ Interpretation of his Art (28b – 32e)

Socrates is unpopular, but not ashamed of his occupation even if it brings death. One should not fear death, for that is to claim one knows what one does not know—that death is bad.) Socrates encourages people to care not for their possessions or bodies, but for their souls.

Socrates, far from being an impious corrupter of the youth, is actually a blessing sent by the gods. To show this, Socrates likens himself to a gadfly (a horsefly). Just as a gadfly constantly agitates a horse, preventing it from becoming sluggish and going to sleep, Socrates converses in the marketplace to prevent the city from becoming sluggish, careless and intolerant. Ultimately, Socrates’ whole life has been a service to the city begun out of a pious response to the saying of the gods. He is their gadfly.

V. Socrates Answers the Charges (33a-34b) 

Finally he asks if any present in the court felt that he had corrupted them. Plato and others indicate that, to the contrary, they have been helped by Socrates not corrupted by them.

VI. Epilogue (34c-35d)

Socrates tells the men of Athens that he wants to be judged according to his account of himself and not by any other standard—such as appealing to his old age or the fact that he has children. Thus Socrates wishes to be judged and not exonerated for any other reason than the demands of justice. A vote is taken and Socrates is found guilty.

VII. The Conviction and Alternate Penalties (36a – 38c)

The penalty proposed is death by hemlock. At this point Socrates has the opportunity to propose an alternate penalty. Socrates argues that since the penalty should be something he deserves, and since he has spent his life in service to the city without pay, he deserves free meals for the rest of his life. (He does appear to offer that his friends will pay a small fine for him.)

VIII. Final Speeches (38c-42a)

There are two final speeches. The first are to those who voted for his death; the second are for those who voted for his acquittal.

To those who voted for his death (38c-39d)

At his age of 70 death would have soon arrived naturally. But now these people will bear the responsibility for it—and they will have allowed Athens to be condemned for my execution. Socrates notes that he could have won his case if he had appealed to their emotions, if he had practiced Sophistry, but he chose instead to speak the truth. He prophecizes that there will be others to take his place when he is gone. After all, it is not the particular person of Socrates which is at issue here, but the activity of philosophy itself.

To those who voted for his acquittal (39e-42a)

Socrates notes that his Daemon never attempted to dissuade him from anything that he said. So this outcome must be for the good. After all, death is either one of two things: a deep sleep or a change of place. A deep sleep is more peaceful than most of our waking time. If he were to enter Hades—if death were a change of place—he would have the opportunity to meet all of the great Greek thinkers and heroes. And here he could ask them the same questions that he asked the men of Athens. So he has in no way been harmed, for he will either sleep soundly or continue talking. [He omits the ideas of some eternal punishment. Obviously such an outcome was unthinkable.]

[In the next dialogue, the Crito, Socrates rebukes his friends who want to help him escape. Socrates has been found guilty and believes he should abide by the laws of the state that has nurtured and educated him. Finally the dialogue The Phaedo will describe the scene of Socrates’ death. After he has gone Plato writes movingly:

“Such was the end of our comrade … a man who, we would say, was of all those we have known the best, and also the wisest and the most just.”

2 thoughts on “The Trial of Socrates

  1. Especially when you realize this was a real man, facing a real death, and willing to die for his principles.

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