Plato’s Apology

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Plato’s Apology

by Plato


A dialogue set in the year 399 b.c.e.; although the exact date it was written is uncertain, some sources argue that it was written shortly after the year in which it is set.


The Apology is a dramatization of the trial at which the philosopher Socrates was found guilty and condemned to death; its title comes from the Greek word Apologia, which means “defense.”

Events in History at the Time the Dialogue Takes Place

The Dialogue in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Dialogue Was Written

For More Information

Plato was born in 427 b.c.e. to an influential, politically active aristocratic family and received the fine education typical for a boy of his background in fifth-century Athens. His various interests included wrestling (he was a champion), politics (his aspirations included running for office), and writing. According to ancient tradition, Plato began his career as a writer anxious to become the next Sophocles, and started composing dramas that supposedly showed some promise. These he promptly sent home and burned upon hearing a lecture by a man destined to become not only Plato’s, but the world’s teacher: Socrates. Plato studied with Socrates for just under a decade, until the teacher was tried and condemned to death (399 b.c.e.). A young man of 28 at the time, Plato was so disillusioned by the death of Socrates that he left Athens and began to travel. He visited parts of Egypt, Sicily, and present-day Italy before returning to Athens at the age of 40 to found the philosophical school known as the Academy. Plato spent the majority of his time happily absorbed by his writing and teaching of students (among whom would be Aristotle). At the age of 60, Plato received an invitation to act as advisor to the government in Sicily. Plato had written the Republic (also in Literature and Its Times) by this time, and it was thought that under his guidance the new Sicilian ruler might become the philosopher-king depicted in that dialogue. Things did not go as planned, however; not only were Plato’s proposals and ideas viewed as too radical, but Sicily’s political situation was unstable to the point of being dangerous. The King, in an attempt to consolidate his power, began exiling and then assassinating several members of his court. Amidst this turmoil, the philosopher decided to return home to Athens, where he devoted himself to his Academy until his death at the age of 81. During Plato’s lifetime Athens sank from a great empire to just one of the many Greek city-states jockeying for power. He bore witness to several of its brutal attacks on other city-states, which aggravated his already critical opinion of Athens because of Socrates’ trial and execution. Plato’s experiences in Sicily had confirmed that Athens was not unique in its less-than-scrupulous approach to public affairs. It should come as no surprise, then, that a great number of the 35 dialogues ascribed to him explore the relationship between morality, or virtue, and politics. In his first dialogue, the Apology, Plato’s portrayal of Socrates is that of a man committed to the truth at all costs, a man forced to stand trial in large part due to the misperceptions and wounded vanity of some of Athens’s most preemisper citizens.

Events in History at the Time the Dialogue Takes Place

Socrates and his trial

The philosopher Socrates was born in 469 b.c.e. to a middle-class family. His mother was a midwife. His father, an artist/craftsman, earned enough to leave Socrates a small inheritance. By all accounts, this is what Socrates lived on until he was put to death by the city of Athens at the age of 70. Socrates had a wife, Xanthippe, and three children, but he never held a job or worked at a trade. All his time was spent practicing philosophy in Athens, and as he reminds us more than once in the Apology, he never received payment for his efforts. According to most sources, his family members came second to his philosophic mission; they received little financial or emotional support from him.

Socrates is sometimes spoken of as the first philosopher, but he actually built on the foundation of a group of early Greek thinkers known as the pre-Socratics. Individuals such as Thales, Parmenides, and Heraclitus grappled with questions that can aptly be described as “cosmologi-cal”—what is the nature and structure of the cosmos? what set of elements is the world composed of? Generally this first stage of Greek philosophers shared a focus on the external, material world. Sources tend to agree that Socrates developed a different focus; although he began his career as a natural philosopher; at some point he abandoned that inquiry and became a moral philosopher, more interested in man and his search for truth.

Although Socrates was a prolific philosopher, he left no treatises or writings. The only written records of Socrates and his thought are from other people. The majority of Socrates’ ideas are handed down to us by Plato, a student of Socrates and one of his closest friends. Other accounts come to us by way of a contemporary of Socrates, Aristophanes, who was a poet and strident critic. Another of his students, Xenophon, wrote a version of Socrates’ trial too, as well as accounts of his philosophic conversations.

We know for certain that Socrates was tried on the charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and not believing in the city’s gods. Found guilty, he was put to death via ingestion of the poison hemlock. Precisely what transpired during the trial is a matter open to speculation and debate. To what extent the Socrates presented in Plato’s Apology is the true, historic Socrates, and his speech a close rendition of what he actually said, is a controversial question.

The sophists

The pursuit of philosophy was considered a dangerous, unsavory practice in the Athens of Socrates’ day. In part, this was due to the existence of sophists, men who became incredibly wealthy peddling their services as “teachers of wisdom.” In reality, many of the sophists taught nothing more than the art of rhetoric. Athens was a very litigious society, and “the Sophists professed to teach the right way of winning these lawsuits,” which, in other words, could easily mean “the art of teaching men how to make the unjust appear the just cause” (Copleston, p. 84).

The public at large probably found it hard to distinguish between Socrates and the sophists. It no doubt was difficult for them to differentiate the kind of arguments for which the sophists were famous from Socrates’ questioning of Athenian citizens in pursuit of the truth. In fact, it is significant that the Apology opens with Socrates denying that he is a sophist, and with an attempt to demonstrate the difference between his teachings and theirs:

How you, men of Athens, have been affected by my accusers, I do not know. For my part, even I nearly forgot myself because of them, so persuasively did they speak. And yet they have said, so to speak, nothing true… . They said you should beware that you are not deceived by me, since I am a clever speaker. They … will immediately be refuted by me in deed, as soon as it becomes apparent that I am not a clever speaker at all. … I am an orator—but not of their sort. So they, as I say, have said little or nothing true, while from me you will hear the whole truth.

(Plato, Apology, pp. 63–64)

Another key distinction Socrates makes between himself and the sophists is to point out that he receives no payment for his discussions or arguments with young people. Socrates mentions by name well-known sophists such as Gor-gias, Prodicus, and Hippias; and while they have earned a handsome living teaching young men from wealthy families the art of persuasive rhetoric, Socrates lives in abject poverty.

This association of Socrates with the sophists plagued him throughout his life and was difficult to overcome. They were held in very low regard by just about all segments of Athenian society, democrat and aristocrat alike. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that the most famous of the sophists appear so frequently as characters in Plato’s dialogues; like most of Socrates’ conversational partners, they are usually on the losing side of an argument, and Plato never misses an opportunity to poke fun at their flowery speeches, their tendency to focus on trivial and insignificant details during a debate, and their utter irreverence for the truth. One of Plato’s dialogues, called The Protagoras after a well-known sophist, is quite telling in this respect. In this dialogue, Socrates concedes that Protagoras is superior in “speech-making,” for he uses tactics that include making “a long speech in reply to every question, staving off objections and not giving answers, but spinning it out until most of the people listening forget what the question was” (Plato, Protagoras, p. 36). He himself cannot make such a speech, admits Socrates, but this skill is entirely different from genuine discussion and argument.

The conflict between poetry and philosophy

Ancient Greece was an extremely religious society. Belief in the gods played a major role in almost all aspects of daily life. In addition to the 12 major gods of Olympia, which all Greeks worshipped, each city-state had its own particular set of deities whose mythology often involved the founding of the city (for the Athenians, for example, this would include the goddess Athena). Citizens participated in all kinds of public religious rituals with their fellow citizens on a regular basis, and statesmen and military leaders frequently attempted to consult the gods to determine what their will was with regards to a specific decision or policy. Appeals were also made to the deities to determine what was right or just, a question to which the poets were thought to have particular insight. This was due partly to a belief that poets were inspired by muses, divine creatures who are privy to the ways of the gods. In fact, it was through epic and tragic poetry that the Greeks learned all about the gods, and came into intimate contact with their ways.

Socrates’ generation showed high respect for its poets, regarding them as spokesmen for the gods and preservers of the society’s religious


An aspect of Socrates’ career that aroused suspicion among Athenians (and which many believe helped prompt the prosecution to finally bring charges against him) were the political misadventures of his students. One former student, Al-cibiades, was exiled several times for anti-democratic intrigue, which included the treacherous act of fleeing to Sparta and aiding it against Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Two other of Socrates’ students, Critias and Charmides, were members of the Thirty Tyrants, an anti-democratic oligarchy that ruled Athens for a time. None of these instances could be brought up during Socrates’ trial, because a general amnesty for political crimes was declared when Athens re-established democracy. It was thus impossible to charge Socrates with political crimes, but it has been argued that he nevertheless suffered guilt by association with these few students. It is presumably in reference to his students’ participation in the oligarchy that Socrates says,”I have never been anyone’s teacher; but if anyone, whether younger or older, desired to hear me speaking … I never begrudged it to him… . And whether any of them becomes an upright man or not, I would not justly be held responsible, since I have never promised or taught instruction to any of them” (Apology, p. 86).

traditions. On the other hand, his generation had little use for the notions of philosophers, which led to a rivalry that is apparent in the Apology. It has Socrates repeatedly mention and criticize a real-life comic poet of the day, Aristophanes,”the great reactionary who opposes with all the means at his disposal all the new-fangled things, be it the democracy, the Euripidean tragedy, or the pursuits of Socrates” (Strauss, p. 103).

Socrates used two insights to challenge the authority of the poets. Firstly, he observed a distinction between knowledge and opinion. In the Apology, Socrates describes his mission in life as a quest to discover the truth. What he finds is that all of the people he engages in dialogue have opinions about what is true, but these are often contradictory and illogical. These opinions do not seem to be the result of any kind of sustained analysis or even careful thought, and individual convictions are not strongly held. With very little effort, Socrates is able to persuade his dialogue partner to abandon his initial belief and proclaim another one true. Then Socrates examines yet another position, and the individual changes his mind again and adopts still another opinion as true. In this way, Socrates demonstrates that people’s opinions on even the gravest matters are not based on fact, and have not been subject to careful scrutiny. Even some beliefs about the Greek gods are a matter of opinion rather than objective knowledge or truth.

Philosophers like Socrates made a second distinction that resulted in an attack on poets and the religious tradition—the distinction between nature and convention. There are things like trees and birds and the sun that exist in nature, no matter what men do. There are other things, like robes, temples, and chariots, that are conventional, or manmade. Is it not possible, ask the philosophers, that the existence of gods is conventional rather than natural? The gods might simply be a function of the poets’ art, a fiction that is their creation. The creation, moreover, prevents men from asking questions about subjects such as the origin of man and the nature of the universe. The philosophers are not content with the so-called divine wisdom of the poets; they seek true knowledge rather than what they regard as religious myths about the nature of the cosmos. From the perspective of philosophy, the pronouncements of the poets do not provide definitive answers to the myriad questions of human existence. Meanwhile, the poets see the philosophers as dangerous in that they undermine piety, justice, and support of the city’s laws and traditions. Poetry and philosophy are at such cross-purposes that it seems almost natural for some of Socrates’ accusers to have been poets who bore him ill will. In fact, one interpretation of the Apology is that the dialogue is Plato’s attempt to answer the charges of the poets against the pursuit of philosophy and to convince them that the questions, investigations, and criticisms that philosophy generates can be beneficial to the city.

The Dialogue in Focus

The plot

The Apology, thought to be one of Plato’s earliest dialogues, is his portrayal of the trial and sentencing of his most esteemed teacher, Socrates. As the dialogue opens, Socrates seems to be preparing his audience, the jury, not to expect too much of him during his defense speech. First, he attempts to distinguish himself from the clever rhetoricians of his day by warning the jurors that unlike them, he will simply speak the truth “at random in the words that I happen upon,” and not “in beautifully spoken speeches like theirs, adorned with phrases and words” (Apology, p. 64). Socrates, referring to his jurors as “the men of Athens,” then entreats his fellow citizens to deal with him leniently, stating that although he is 70 years old, this is the first time he has ever appeared in court. A xenos, a stranger, or outsider to these proceedings, he asks for the court’s sympathy.

After this introduction, Socrates lays out the charges against him. He divides them into two groups, emanating from what he calls the “old” and the “new” accusers. The new accusers are the men who brought the specific,”official” charges against him for which he is on trial. But Socrates says that the older accusers are far more dangerous; they are the ones who have been slandering him and turning public opinion against him for years. Since he views them as the larger threat, he deals with their charges first.

Socrates refers to some of the older poets as his first accusers, specifically Aristophanes, who parodied Socrates in his comedic satire the Clouds, a play performed in Athens 24 years before the trial began. According to Socrates, Aristophanes’ play had made an informal “indictment” against him, accusing him of the following: “Socrates does injustice, and is meddlesome, by investigating things under the earth and the heavenly things, and by making the weaker speech the stronger, and by teaching others these same things” (Apology, p. 66).


The poet Aristophanes dedicated an entire play to portraying Socrates and his philosophy as a dangerous influence on lhe city. The lead character is a “regular guy” named Strepsiades. He has made an imprudent marriage, has a bad relationship with his son, and is struggling with seemingly insurmountable debts due to the extravagance of his family. Strepsiades decides that he and his son will attend Socrates’school, the so-called “thinkery,” to learn how to make the “weaker speech the stronger” and thus convince his creditors to forgive his debts. At the thinkery, a student of Socrates attempts to impress Strepsiades by recounting the “brilliant” investigations conducted by Socrates that very day. These include “how many of its own feet a flea could leap” when it jumped from person to person and whether “gnats hum through their mouth or through their behind” (Aristophanes, p. 122). As if these descriptions of Socrates were not sufficiently derogatory, the play says that while “investigating the courses and revolutions of the moon and gaping upwards,” Socrates was “crapped on” by a lizard (Aristophanes, p. 122). Not only does the play portray Socratic investigations as ridiculous in the extreme; it also portrays the philosopher’s preoccupation with metaphysical science as dangerous in that it distracts Socrates and his students from their own basic needs and city concerns. This is why when the play first introduces Socrates, he is hovering in the clouds, suspended from a basket, suggesting his detachment from ordinary citizens and their practical concerns.

Aristophanes also portrays Socrates and his students as purveyors of the art of rhetoric associated with the sophists. S’tepsiades’ son, Phidipides, is taught unjust speech at the thinkery, and is able to use it to his advantage with his father’s creditors. But Strepsiades soon realizes the full ramifications of life in a society that throws off all its laws and traditions when his son returns from the thinkery proclaiming the uselessness of his father’s old-fashioned ideas. Distraught, Slrepsiades asks the god Hermes what to do and is told to burn down Socrates’ thinkery: only then will society be rid ot this disease known as unjust speech. Lawsuits and other civil remedies are not an option, because sophists can simply talk their way out of them by making “the weaker speech the stronger.” Ironically Clouds closes with the death of Socrates, who some 20 years later refers to this very play in his self-defense speech. Athenian public opinion has been turned so heavily against him for so long by Aristophanes, says Socrates, that overcoming the jury’s prejudice against him is hopeless. He has only an afternoon to defend himself, while Aristophanes has been slandering him for many years.

Socrates simply states that “none of these things is so” (Apology, p. 66). If anyone in the Jury has ever heard him conversing about these topics, they should come forward. But, says Socrates, none of them can because he has never discussed the things Aristophanes accuses him of, and the same holds true for the rest of the rumors Aristophanes has spread about him. Socrates then admits that a member of the Jury might well ask why he has been so slandered if he is innocent of all charges. His response is that the Athenians resent him because he possesses wisdom. In order to explain what kind of wisdom he has and why it is unique, he tells the jury how his quest for the truth began.

Socrates recounts how his friend Chaerephon paid a visit to the Oracle of Delphi and asked if there were any man alive wiser than Socrates. The oracle replied that Socrates was the wisest. Socrates recounts his reaction to the oracle’s pronouncement for the jury:

Whatever is the god saying, and what riddle is he posing? For I am conscious that I am not at all wise, either much or little. So what ever is he saying when he claims I am wisest? Surely he is not saying something false… . And for a long time I was at a loss about what ever he was saying, but then very reluctantly I turned to something like the following investigation of it.

(Apology, p. 69)

Socrates’ inquiry consisted of questioning the three most well-respected segments of society to prove that they were wiser. He questioned the politicians, the poets, and the craftsmen, always seeking out those reputed to be the wisest. Each time Socrates discovered that while the person knew quite a lot about their particular pursuit, the individual did not possess what could be called true human wisdom.

Socratic wisdom, it turns out, consists of being able to recognize and admit what he does not know, which distinguishes him from his fellow citizens: “As I went away, I reasoned … I am wiser than this human being. For probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes he knows something when he does not know, while I … do not even suppose that I do’” (Apology, p. 70). Socrates then took on the mission of demonstrating to those who thought themselves wise that they really were not. This, according to Socrates, is the source of the slander against him. His line of questioning made him hateful, not only to the person questioned, but also “to many of those present” (Apology, p. 70). Was the person embarrassed or insulted by his line of questioning? If so, the person could easily fall back on the standard prejudices against philosophy, since there has been a long-standing suspicion of it in Athens.

Next Socrates turns to the specific charges against him by his new accusers, led by the poet Meletus. The charges of the official indictment are that Socrates corrupts the youth, and that he believes not in the gods of the city but in other daimonia (or spirits). Socrates brings Meletus to the stand in order to cross-examine him, and what follows is worthy of the most popular courtroom drama. As far as the first charge goes, Socrates, using his dialectic method, succeeds in getting Meletus to agree that: 1) one person alone cannot corrupt the youth—that would take an effort by many, and furthermore; 2) no one would deliberately corrupt the youth in his society, since it would be foolish to turn them into dangerous villains and then be forced to live among them.

[Socrates] But tell us further, Meletus, before Zeus, whether it is better to dwell among upright citizens or villainous ones. … Do not the villainous do something bad to whoever are nearest to them, while the good do something good?

[Meletus] Quite so.

[Socrates] Is there anyone, then, who wishes to he harmed by those he associates with, rather than to be benefited? [Meletus] Of course not

[Socrates] What then, Meletus? Are you so much wiser at your age than I at mine, that you have become cognizant that the bad always do something bad to those who are closest to them … whereas I have come into so much ignorance that I am not even cognizant that if I ever do something wretched to any of my associates, I will risk getting back something bad from him?

(Apology, p. 75)

Perhaps he has corrupted the youth involuntarily, admits Socrates, but in that case, the city should simply teach and admonish him, not punish him.

Socrates does a similarly brilliant job of disposing of the second charge against him. While the official charge is not believing in the gods of the city, Socrates gets Meletus to refine this charge while he is on the stand, and accuse Socrates of not believing in any gods at all. Socrates always claimed to hear a daimon, the voice of a spirit that warned him against or encouraged him toward a given action. Since such spirits were thought to be the children of gods, or nymphs, or some sort of divinity, Socrates was able to demonstrate that he did believe in gods after all, for “what human being would believe that there are children of gods, but not gods? It would be as strange as if someone believed in children of horses or asses—mules—but did not believe that there are horses and asses” (Apology, p. 78). Getting Meletus to change his accusation was a very clever move on Socrates’ part, for it allowed him to avoid any discussion of the original charge, which is not believing in the city’s gods, of whose traditional actions he was extremely critical.

Having dealt with the official charges against him, Socrates turns to one of the most poignant and powerful elements of his speech. He attempts to reconcile himself and his philosophy to the city of Athens. Socrates explains to the jury that his philosophizing, his relentless questioning and criticizing of fellow citizens is ultimately beneficial for both individual citizens and the city as a whole:

Best of men, you are an Athenian, from the city that is greatest and best reputed for wisdom and strength: are you not ashamed that you care for having as much money as possible, and reputation, and honor, but that you neither care for nor give thought to prudence, and truth, and how your soul will be the best possible? … So I, men of Athens, am now far from making a defense speech on my own behalf, as someone might suppose. I do it rather on your behalf, so that you do not do something wrong concerning the gift of the god to you by voting to condemn me. For if you kill me, you will not easily discover another of my sort… in fact, the god seems to me to have set me upon the city… . I awaken and persuade and reproach each one of you, and I do not stop settling down everywhere upon you the whole day.

(Apology, p. 81)

In his argument, Socrates compares himself to a gadfly on the sluggish horse that is Athens, a vivid analogy that has endured over time. He admits that his relentless questioning of citizens is annoying, but maintains that it is also necessary, portraying himself not as the self-absorbed, materialistic sophist/scientist described by Aristophanes, but rather as an engaged social critic concerned for the well-being of his city. According to Socrates, Athens desperately needs him to remind citizens of the high and noble aspects of life that are more important than individual wealth, or beauty, or glory. He enlightens them as to what is just and virtuous, and encourages their development of these attributes. Socrates, then, is not only pursuing wisdom for its own sake or his own personal edification; he is pursuing wisdom so he can exhort citizens to virtue, which indicates there is an element of public spiritedness to his philosophy.

Socrates then attempts to garner sympathy from the jury, while simultaneously explaining his aloofness and detachment from ordinary obligations, which Aristophanes has criticized. The defendant tells the jury that he has neglected many aspects of his private life in order to fulfill his mission to the city of Athens. He lives in poverty and his own family has been “uncared for” all these years so that he might go to citizens privately,”as a father or an older brother,” and persuade them to care for virtue (Apology, p. 82). (In fact, Socrates was known to spend all his time questioning fellow citizens or engaging in philosophical discussion with his followers.) So his philosophy, rather than consisting of abstract investigations of stars and gnats that are of little use to the city, actually focuses on the city and its affairs so much that Socrates neglects his own personal needs.

Next, Socrates attempts to account for his lack of involvement in public affairs, which would have been very damning in the eyes of the Athenians. Citizens were expected to participate in many facets of the democracy, and this included going to assemblies, holding public office, making speeches, and sitting on juries. Socrates admits that it might seem strange that he is “a busybody in private,” while “in public I do not dare go up before your multitude to counsel the city” (Apology, p. 83). According to Socrates, his divine voice warned him not to enter politics, probably because if he had he would have been killed: “For there is no human being who will preserve his life if he genuinely opposed either you or any other multitude” (Apology, p. 83). If he had died young, he says, he would not have fulfilled his god-given purpose of goading his fellow Athenians to virtue.

All of Socrates’ skillful argument comes to naught, for the jury finds him guilty. Then the sentencing phase of the trial begins. Meletus makes a speech requesting the death penalty, and Socrates is expected to make a counterproposal. Considering his various options, Socrates rejects exile, realizing that if his fellow citizens cast him out because of his philosophizing, so will every other city in the world. But what about,”being silent and keeping quiet” in exile? Socrates rejects this alternative, uttering the famous dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” (Apology, p. 92). Socrates makes an ironic counterproposal: he should be rewarded for his service to the city by being housed and fed at Athens’ expense, like the victorious Olympic athletes. He concludes with a second counterproposal, a fine of 30 minae, quite a large sum of money. As shown, the options of exile and silence are unacceptable. Socrates is prepared rather to make the ultimate sacrifice for his pursuit of truth: his life.

Once the jury has deliberated and handed down the death sentence for Socrates, he addresses the jury again. Tellingly he now uses the word judges in his speech for the first time. (It was customary in those days to address the members of juries by the title of judges during court proceedings, but Socrates has not used that term until this point.) He says that he will call only the men who voted to acquit him judges, because they are the only “judges in truth” (Apology, p. 95). He says he is not worried about death, because his divine voice is silent. It has not warned him of impending evil or tried to stop him from anything he was going to say during his trial. Either, he surmises, death is like a quiet restful sleep, which is nothing to fear, or it is a journey to Hades, the underworld. But if there is a Hades, even death will not stop him in his pursuit of true knowledge:

Certainly the greatest thing is that I would pass my time examining and searching out among those there—just as I do to those here—who among them is wise, and who supposes that he is, but is not. How much would one give, judges, to examine him who led the great army against Troy, or Odysseus, or Sisyphus, or the thousand others whom one might mention, both men and women? To converse and to associate with them and to examine them there would be inconceivable happiness.

(Apoiogy, p. 96)

Civil disobedience

Towards the end of his defense, Socrates decides to present the jurors with two examples of his political action. In this way he will offer proof of his commitment to virtue “not in speeches, but what you honor, deeds. (Apology, p. 83, emphasis Plato’s).

The first example occurs during Socrates’s tenure on the Athenian Council, which is the one political office he held during his lifetime. The citizenry of Athens were divided into administrative units called tribes, and every year men were chosen by lot to serve on an administrative council as pry tones, or board member for a portion of the year. In 406 b.c.e., Athens was in the midst of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, a 27-year conflict which pitted democracy against oligarchy in a struggle for control of the Greek city-states. Socrates was serving as a pry tones when the ten generals who had commanded the Athenian naval fleet at the Battle of Arginusae were facing trial. Although the generals orchestrated a brilliant victory at Arginusae, which is an island in the Aegean Sea, they were forced to leave disabled ships and Athenian soldiers behind because of the confusion after battle and the arrival of a violent storm. Upon their return to Athens, the generals were brought up on charges of neglecting their duty, which included a charge of impiety because of their failure to insure that the dead soldiers received a decent burial with all the appropriate rites.

The board decided to try the generals together, which Socrates held was blatantly unfair; each commander had the right to be tried separately based on the merits of his own particular case. Socrates brought a motion challenging the decision, and according to legal procedure in fifth-century Athens, the trial should have been suspended until the motion was considered. But public indignation against the generals was so strong that the presiding officers brushed the motion aside and proceeded with the trial. All of the prytanes except Socrates succumbed to threats and other tactics of intimidation, and the trial culminated in the execution of the Athenian generals. Later, when cooler heads prevailed, the Athenians realized that they had committed an injustice. He alone, Socrates reminds his fellow citizens, refused to be a party to the “mob mentality” that had prevailed in Athens:

I alone of the prytanes opposed your doing anything against the laws then, and I voted against it. And although the orators were ready to indict me and arrest me … I supposed that I should run the risk with the law and the just rather than side with you because of fear of prison or death when you were counseling unjust things.

(Apology, p. 84)

The second instance of Socrates’ involvement in the unjust proceedings of Athenian politics occurred not during the democracy, but during Athens’ brief rule by an oligarchy. The Thirty Tyrants had been installed in Athens by the Spartans at the end of the Peloponnesian War, aided and abetted by Athenian citizens who had anti-democratic leanings. The regime enjoyed little popular support, and its brief tenure was maintained by the presence of a garrison of Spartan soldiers in Athens. In order to raise money to support this garrison, the Thirty Tyrants began to execute wealthy residents who were not Athenian citizens, and then liquidate their assets. When the Thirty Tyrants summoned Socrates, along with several other prominent citizens, and gave them the order to “arrest Leon the Salamin-ian and bring him from Salamis to die,” Socrates refused (Apology, p. 84): “Perhaps I would have died because of this, if that government had not been quickly overthrown” (Apology, pp. 84–85).

With these two examples, Socrates demonstrates the difficulties of a public and political life. Communities do not always act justly, so there is often a conflict between true justice and the laws or will of the city. Socrates’ primary commitment is to the pursuit of true justice, which has sometimes prompted his taking political action against the city-state. In retrospect, this pursuit of justice, without regard for its consequences, can be seen as heroic.

Sources and literary context

The source material for Plato’s Apology was an actual event, the trial of Socrates. The only other account we have of the trial was the one written by Socrates’ student Xenophon. Xenophon’s Apology is sometimes described as corroborating evidence for Plato’s account, since the two works are, in many respects, similar. However, others argue that Plato’s Apology presents an idealized portrait of Socrates. This school of thought argues that Plato’s and Xenophon’s presentations of how Socrates conducted himself at the trial are indeed different, even contradictory, and that Plato’s Socrates is nothing like the poet Aristophanes’ portrayal of him either. These same scholars conclude that Plato, in attempting to respond to the various criticisms of his teacher, portrays a new Socrates in the Apology. This ideal Socrates is a teacher of civic virtue, interested in the concerns of the city. He has turned away from abstract philosophy as the lone pursuit of wisdom, and employs it to assist his fellow citizens in the attainment of true knowledge, which can be used in settling disagreements over what is good and just in Athens.


There is an ongoing debate among scholars as to the question of whether multiple authors are responsible for Plato’s body of work. According to a few critics, there is a great disparity between Plato’s earlier and later dialogues. A difference in tone, emphasis, perspective, and even conclusions has led some scholars to argue that certain dialogues were written by a student of Plato’s. But it is equally possible in view of the fact that Plato’s career spanned 40 years, that the mature Plato came to different conclusions than the young Plato, who was perhaps more susceptible to Socrates’ teachings. In his later dialogues, Plato often relegates Socrates to a minor character, and no longer uses him as his mouthpiece.

Precisely how much of this account is Plato’s simple transcription of Socrates’ words, and how much is Plato’s original thought is an ongoing debate that may never be settled definitively. Whatever the exact relationship between Socrates’ words and Plato’s writings, out of it was born a series of dialogues unparalleled in philosophic and literary achievement:

It is to Plato’s literary genius that Socrates owes his pre-eminent position as a secular saint of Western civilization. And it is Socrates who keeps Plato on the best-seller lists. Plato is the only philosopher who turned metaphysics into drama. Without the enigmatic and engaging Socrates as the principal character of his dialogues, Plato would not be the only philosopher who continues to charm a wide audience in every generation.

(Stone, p. 4)

Events in History at the Time the Dialogue Was Written

Athenian imperialism

Athens dealt brutally with city-states that proved to be too independent for its taste, and Plato viewed these acts of the empire with “moral revulsion” (O’Hare, p. 2). In fact, some of the political realities of relationships between Athens and its allies were much harsher than one might assume. For example, a city-state was under strict instructions when initiated into the Delian League (an alliance of the various city-states originally formed for mutual protection against the common enemy of Persia, and ultimately dominated by Athens). The city-state had to adopt a constitution modelled on that of Athens, send offerings to the Athenian religious festivals, receive Athenian inspectors, adopt the Athenian systems of currency and weights and measurements, and require all of its own officials to take an oath of loyalty to Athens.

As Athens suffered increasing losses during the Peloponnesian War (432–404 b.c.e.), city-states that tried to assert their independence were


one of the contributions to Western thought for which Plato is famous is his choice of format. The strategy that Plato’s Socrates uses is the dialectic method, whereby principles are examined and accepted or rejected via a dialogue consisting of questions and answers. In addition to the contributions that Plato’s dialogues have made to philosophy, they are invaluable from a social and historical perspective. The dialogues are peppered with events and individuals that comprised Athenian intellectual life in the late fifth century b.c.e. We meet notorious politicians such as Alcibiades, famous playwrights such as Aristophanes, clever sophists, or teachers of wisdom, such as Gorgias and Protagoras, and numerous scholars, scientists, and other imminent personages. As one scholar has noted, “Plato is conveying not only ideas but a portrait of the society in which they were formed” (Segal, p. xii).

appreciated even less. The examples of Melos and Mytilene are cases in point. When faced with the possible rebellion on the island of Mytilene, the Athenian assembly heard arguments for and against the total annihilation of its citizens. Although the arguments urging more moderate measures won the day, these consisted of bringing in thousands of Athenians to occupy the island as colonists, turning the inhabitants into serfs, and confiscating the island’s fleet and fortifications. The massacre at Melos is an even more violent example of Athenian brutality. The Melians insisted on remaining neutral during the Peloponesian War. Athens several times attempted to convince Melos to do otherwise, sending a large military contingent to the island to intimidate it, and one year later demanding tribute. When officials refused to comply, Athens sent a portion of its army to the island to convey in no uncertain terms that neutrality was no longer acceptable.

Melos was defeated after a long siege, whereupon the Athenian Assembly voted to execute all of Melos’s male inhabitants, take its women and children as slaves, and send Athenians to occupy it. The orders were executed by the Athenian forces, with predictably gruesome results.

In view of such real-life incidents, Plato saw a great disparity between Athens’ stated ideals of freedom and democracy and Athens’ often ruthless practices towards its so-called allies. It is this type of incident that may have inspired him to argue that Athens was in dire need of a philosopher to instruct the Assembly on moral issues and to remind citizens of what virtue is.

Political and social change in Athens

As disappointing as the gulf between the theoretical and practical aspects of Athenian politics in the fifth century was for an idealist like Plato, the situation would worsen considerably in the fourth century. The Peloponnesian War seemed to have exhausted Athens both materially and spiritually. Philip II of Macedon found it easy to seize one part of Greece after another as he made his conquering way through the areas surrounding Macedonia. He placated Athens on the way, assuring the once great city that it had nothing to fear from him. A single individual, an orator by the name of Demosthenes, attempted to alert the Athenians to the danger Philip presented, pleading with them to send out forces against his approaching armies. But Athens was already in a desperate state militarily. No longer were its garrisons composed of citizens; the work of soldiers was doled out to paid mercenaries, a practice unheard of in earlier days. Often as not, these mercenaries abandoned their post in the middle of a campaign to go off in search of a more lucrative war. This was a sad contrast to fifth-century Athens, when “Athenian forces were everywhere, the citizens ready for anything,” and no one had to be reminded to defend the polis and their most vital interests (Kitto, p. 155–56). In the end, Philip conquered not only Athens, but all of Greece, which led to the eventual collapse of the polis, the political/social unit known as a city-state.

There is no question but that the political upheaval of his time had a profound impact on Plato and the ways in which he used Socrates’s teachings in his writing. The decline of the Athenian empire, Athens’ decades-long struggle between oligarchy and democracy, and the dissolution of the Greek political system based on the polis help explain Plato’s concerns. They clarify why so much of his writing deals with questions of importance to political communities, such as what is the definition of virtue? the definition of justice? the organization of the best regime? the proper relationship between philosophy and politics? and the proper relationship between religion and politics?


Although Socrates was not successful in defending himself at trial, we know that he did convince a significant amount of the jurors, for it would only have taken 30 additional votes (out of a jury of 500) to acquit him. Socrates’s students were devastated by their teacher’s sentence, and a sequel to the Apology called the Crito tells of what lengths they were willing to go to save their teacher from what they saw as the height of injustice. In the Crito, a student visits a peaceful Socrates in his cell, offering to help him escape jail and the death sentence that awaits him the next day. Socrates refuses, arguing that even when laws or court verdicts are unjust, they must be respected and slowly challenged and changed, not blatantly disobeyed.

Aristotle, Plato’s student, actually saw much in Plato’s account of the trial that left something to be desired in terms of Socrates’s performance. Aristotle argues that Socrates neglected to follow the most basic rule in using persuasive rhetoric: do not anger those whom you are trying to persuade. In Aristotle’s reading, Socrates seems to go out of his way to be antagonistic toward the jury, which is no way to get them to vote for him. Interestingly, what Aristotle saw as a defect, others through the ages have seen as inspiring. Socrates was a martyr for truth and knowledge. He refused to pander to the masses, choosing instead to stand and fight for the individual’s right of free inquiry and free speech against the sometimes oppressive power of the state.

—Despina Korovessis

For More Information

Aristophanes. Clouds. In Four Texts on Socrates: Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito and Aristophanes’ Clouds. Trans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Copleston, Frederick, S. J. Greece and Rome. Vol. 1, A History of Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Finely, M. I. Early Greece: The Bronze and Archaiac Ages. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.

Kitto, H. D. F. The Greeks. Middlesex: Penguin, 1952.

Nichols, Mary P. Socrates and the Political Community: An Ancient Debate. New York: SUNY Press, 1987.

O’Hare, R. M. Plato. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Plato. Apology. In Four Texts on Socrates: Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito and Aristophanes’ Clouds. Trans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984.

_____. Protagoras. Trans. C. C. W. Taylor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Segal, Erich. Introduction to The Dialogues of Plato, by Plato. New York: Bantam, 1986.

Stone, I. F. The Trial of Socrates. New York: Random House, 1989.

Strauss, Leo. The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Trans. Richard Crawley. London: Orion, 1993.

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Plato’s Apology

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