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by Plato


A dialogue written in Greek and set in Athens in 399 bce; probably written soon after 399 bce.


The Apology dramatizes the trial that condemned Socrates to death for being insufficiently religious and for corrupting Athenian youth.

Events in History at the Time of the Dialogue

The Dialogue in Focus

For More Information

Plato was born in Athens in 429 bce to an influential, politically active aristocratic family and given the fine education typical for an Athenian boy of his status. His interests included wrestling (he was a champion), politics (he wanted to run for office), and writing. According to ancient tradition, Plato, in hopes of becoming the next Sophocles, began to compose dramas that showed some promise. However, after first hearing Socrates, Plato went home and set fire to these writings. Plato subsequently studied under Socrates for nearly a decade, until the teacher was tried and condemned to death in 399 bce. These events so disillusioned Plato that he left Athens to travel, visiting parts of Egypt and present-day Italy. Plato returned to Athens at the age of 40. It was probably at this point that he founded his philosophical school, the Academy, where he would spend most of his remaining time writing and teaching (one of his students was Aristotle). Twenty years later Plato went to Syracuse, a city-state of Sicily that had invited him to become its advisor. By then, Plato had written the Republic , a dialogue describing the ideal ruler as a philosopher-king, a model the new Syracusean ruler could possibly emulate (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). In the end, however, Plato’s proposals were seen as too radical and life in Sicily grew politically unstable and dangerous: the number of exiles and assassinations mounted. Taking heed, Plato returned to Athens and devoted himself to his Academy for the remainder of his 81 years. Plato’s Apology (from the Greek apologia, meaning “a speech in defense, usually self-defense”) is the first of 35 dialogues ascribed to him. Many of them explore the relationship between morality or virtue and politics. In his Apology, Plato presents Socrates as a man committed to the truth at all costs and as a defendant who is standing trial largely because of the misperceptions and wounded vanity of some preeminent Athenian citizens.

Events in History at the Time of the Dialogue

Socrates and his trial

Socrates was born to a middle-class family in 469 bce. His mother was a midwife and his father, an artist or craftsman who earned enough to leave Socrates the small inheritance that he lived on until his death at the age of 70. Socrates had a wife, Xanthippe, and three children but never held a job or worked at a trade. He spent all his time practicing philosophy in Athens, without payment. Apparently his family received little financial or emotional support from him, coming second to his philosophic mission.

Although Socrates is sometimes spoken of as the first philosopher, he built on the work of a group of early Greek thinkers (including Thales, Parmenides, and Heraclitus). Known as the pre-Socratic, these thinkers grappled with cosmology (from cosmos, the Greek word for “universe”), asking questions about the nature and structure of the cosmos. This first wave of Greek philosophers shared a focus on the external, material world. Although Socrates began as a natural philosopher, he ultimately abandoned that inquiry to become a moral philosopher, a thinker interested in the human being and his or her search for truth.

Socrates was reputedly a prolific philosopher. Yet the only written records of his thought are those related by other people, most notably Plato, who was not just Socrates’ student but also one of his closest friends. Xenophon (c. 430-356 bce), another student of Socrates, wrote versions of the trial too, and of Socrates’ philosophic conversations. A third account comes from the poetplaywright Aristophanes, a strident critic of Socrates. But most of Socrates’ ideas come to us from Plato.

We know for certain that Socrates was tried on charges of corrupting Athens’ youth, of not believing in the city’s gods, and of recognizing new divinities. He was found guilty and put to death by poison, more precisely, by hemlock. There is much conjecture about exactly what happened at the trial. Plato was present; Xenophon was not. To what extent the Socrates presented by Plato is the true, historic Socrates is nonetheless open to debate.

Development of Athenian democracy

From the sixth century bce onward, three types of regimes predominated in the Greek states: monarchies (or kingships), oligarchies (the rule of a few), and democracy (rule of the people). Athens ultimately provided the most salient example of the last.

In 594 bce Solon, an ardion, or high official, of Athens, instituted a series of legal reforms, including the Seisachtheia laws, which attempted to ease the poorer citizens’ burdens by canceling certain mortgages and debts and by abolishing a creditor’s power to imprison or enslave. Solon also reorganized the Athenian citizens into four property classes and widened eligibility for public office, breaking the monopoly of the noble families. However, Athens’ development as a true democracy did not begin until after the fall of the Peisistratid tyranny (560-510 bce) and the ascension of the Athenian statesman Cleisthenes, almost a century later.

Coming to power in 508 bce, after a brief period of political struggle, Cleisthenes introduced a series of reforms that resulted in less power for the aristocratic upper class and more for common citizens. He converted the approximately 139 demes (local districts) of Attica, including the city of Athens itself, into political units, each with its own local assembly, cults, treasury, and demarch, or mayor. Each deme had to keep a register naming all male residents who were 18 years of age or older, which served as an official record of the citizen body. Citizens thus identified them-selves by their demo tics, the demes in which they were registered, and they retained those demotics even if they subsequently went to live elsewhere in Attica.

Cleisthenes also stripped the four traditional tribes, based mainly on family relations, of most of their importance and reorganized the citizenry into ten tribes, according to their demes. This, in turn, led to a reorganization of the boule, or council, which had been created under Solon. Instead of 400 members, the boule now consisted of 500 members, 50 of whom were chosen annually by lot from each of the ten tribes formed by Cleisthenes. No citizen could serve in the council more than twice during his lifetime.

Cleisthenes’ democratic policies were not wholly uncontested, however: during the early decades of the fifth century bce, there were several disputes between Athenians who favored an oligarchic regime, like the statesman and general Cimon, and Athenians who desired radical democratic reforms, like Ephialtes and Pericles. For most of the century, the more radical democrats maintained the ascendancy and democracy flourished in Athens, especially under Pericles, who dominated the political scene from the 450s to 429 bce. Pericles’ policies included negotiating a lasting peace with Sparta, revising citizenship laws to favor native Athenians, and commissioning numerous public buildings, among them, the famous Parthenon, a temple dedicated to Athena, the city’s patron goddess. But during the second Peloponnesian War (431-404 bce), there was increasing dissatisfaction with the democratic government in Athens. The discontent led to oligarchic revolutions, beginning, in 411 bce, with a moderate oligarchy, headed first by a council of 400 (the Four Hundred), then by an assembly of 5,000 (the Five Thousand). In 410 bce, the democracy was re-stored, temporarily. Athens’ defeat in the war led to rule by another, more radical oligarchy in 404-403 bce, which was supported by Sparta and known as the Thirty Tyrants. In 403 bce, a democratic revolution attacked this oligarchy and the king of Sparta himself abolished it. At this point, democracy returned.

The Athenians’ experience of Spartan tyranny may have heightened their suspicion in the matter of potentially anti-democratic activities and those who engaged in them. Indeed, the political misadventures of some of Socrates’ students possibly prompted the charges against the philosopher. One former student, Alcibiades, fled into exile to escape trial for the destruction of sacred statues (the merit of the charges is un-known); seeking refuge at Sparta, he aided its citizens against Athens during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 bce). Later Alcibiades would regain favor at Athens, then lose it once more, his actions remaining a lasting stigma to Socrates. Even more damningly, two other students, Critias and Charmides, were members of the Thirty Tyrants. Although Athenians, they had been selected by Sparta to serve in its puppet government in Athens during 404-403 bce. None of these instances could be brought up during Socrates’ trial, owing to a general amnesty for political crimes that had been declared when Athens re-established democracy in 403 bce. But while the amnesty made it impossible to charge Socrates with political crimes, it has been argued that he suffered guilt by association with these students. Presumably these are the students to whom Socrates refers when, in Plato’s Apology, he 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 any instruction to any of them” (Plato, Apology, 33a-b).

Trial by jury in Classical Athens

By the midfifth century bce, the judicial process in Athens had developed into a system of juries, each consisting of a certain number of citizens who tried an individual case. All citizens older than 30 could volunteer for jury service at the beginning of each year. It was from this pool that the list of about 6,000 jurors for the year was compiled. Hoping to encourage volunteers, the Athenian statesman Pericles introduced payment for jurors around 425 bce. However, payment amounted to less than the wages an able-bodied citizen could earn in a day’s work. Consequently, many of the volunteers were men too old to work.

The number of jurors varied according to the case, but a jury usually consisted of several hundred members, chosen by lot. A magistrate or group of magistrates presided over each trial, with different magistrates handling designated cases. For example, the archon took charge of cases dealing with family and inheritance rights; the basileus, of cases involving homicide; and the strategoi (generals), of cases concerning military and naval matters. The thesmothetia tended to be responsible for any public case that did not fall within the purview of another magistrate.

The popular courts (dikasteria) met about 200 days a year. On each meeting day, a number of courts would be appointed to try cases as they arose. Actions were classified as private or public. Private actions concerned wrongs committed against an individual and could be raised only by the offended party. Public actions, wrongs committed against or affecting a whole community, could be raised by a magistrate or any official acting on the state’s behalf. A session generally lasted about eight hours, during which the jury heard speeches, first from the prosecutor, then from the defendant. After both speeches, the jury voted, placing objects like pebbles or shells into urns that designated conviction or acquittal. The votes were counted and the verdict deter-mined according to the majority; a tie was treated as an acquittal. If the verdict resulted in conviction, the jury then determined the appropriate punishment. A defendant could not appeal the jury’s verdict. But to discourage malicious or frivolous prosecutions, the accuser would be fined if less than one-fifth of the jury returned a verdict of conviction.

Socrates’ trial in the Apology follows the established Athenian procedure. However, Plato includes only the philosopher’s speeches: his self-defense, his counterproposal to the death penalty, and his final response to the verdict and sentence. The first and longest of these speeches displays the “Socratic method,” a technique that employs questions to identify false or contradictory assumptions. Not once but several times, Socrates deftly persuades his dialogue partner—the prosecutor Melitus—to abandon his initial belief and proclaim another one true. The technique helps Socrates demonstrate that even on the gravest matters, people’s opinions are often not based on fact or careful scrutiny. In his second and third speeches—delivered after the verdict—Socrates demonstrates another harsh reality: the unyielding nature of the Athenian judicial process. Although the exact number of jurors in his trial remains uncertain, many sup-pose there were about 500, of whom 280 voted for conviction and 220 for acquittal. “[I]f only thirty of the votes had fallen differently,” says Socrates in Plato’s Apology, “I would have been acquitted” (Apology, 36a).

The sophists

During Socrates’ lifetime, the term “sophist” (expert on wisdom) was applied to an intellectual who traveled widely through the Greek world, giving scholarly lectures and offering paid instruction in a wide range of subjects. Sophists were not considered a school or a single movement, as each sophist tended to have his individual ideas and doctrines to expound.

The sophists’ fields of expertise could include natural philosophy, mathematics, history, geography, and speculative anthropology. Other areas of interest were practical knowledge and rhetoric. Generally the sophists approached traditional subjects with inquisitiveness and skepticism. They were renowned for their argumentative powers. Indeed, the word “sophistry,” as now used, denotes a clever, specious argument, one that appears plausible but is built on fallacy. The Greek sophist Protagoras (c. 481-420 bce) reportedly composed a treatise on argumentative techniques and gained notoriety for claiming that he could make the weaker argument the stronger. Still, he employed persuasion to a higher purpose, to develop good citizens. Sophists aroused strong positive and negative reactions. Some enjoyed highly successful careers and their services were much sought after. The Greek statesman pedicles enjoyed close friendships with the sophists Damon (c. 500 bce) and Anaxagoras (c. 500-428 bce); Pedicles also invited Protagoras to Athens. However, those who held more conservative views regarded sophists as a subversive element, a force that could undermine morality and tradition, especially among the young and impressionable.

As the writings of the sophists appear to be lost, historians must draw upon the accounts of others for information, including Plato, who was one of the sophists’ harshest critics. The predominantly negative impressions of the sophists are partly the result of his writings. Keen to determine the direction of philosophy, Plato deliberately distinguished himself from the sophists, whom he viewed as operating without “a coherent positive doctrine” (Gagarin, p. 4). Plato may also have blamed the suspicion with which sophists were often regarded as a contributing factor to the death sentence pronounced upon Socrates, whom conservative Athenians often associated with sophists, although he denied sharing their ideas or practices.

Sophists, in fact, seem to have been among Plato’s favorite targets; the most famous make frequent appearances as characters in his dialogues. Like most of Socrates’ conversational partners, they are usually on the losing side of an argument, and Plato never misses an opportunity to ridicule their flowery speeches, their tendency to focus on trivial details during a debate, and their utter irreverence for the truth. One of Plato’s dialogues, called the Protagoras, after the sophist of the same name, is quite telling in this respect. In this dialogue, Socrates, who also appears as a character, concedes that Protagoras is superior in “speechmaking,” but not in verbal exchanges of question and answer. Socrates furthermore objects to the tactic of 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, 336d). He himself cannot make such a speech, admits Socrates, but this skill is entirely different from genuine discussion and argument.


B elief in the gods played a major role in most aspects of daily life in ancient Greece. In addition to the 12 major gods of olympia, which all Greeks worshipped, each city-state had its own set of deities with its own local mythology, which often involved the founding of the city. Citizens regularly participated in public religious rituals, and statesmen and military leaders commonly consulted the gods when there were decisions or policies to make. Poets were thought to have divine insight, partly because of the inspiration they received from the goddesses known as the Muses. Others furthermore recognized that the poets transmitted Greek mythology through their verse and respected them for the service, While Socrates’ generation thought of poets as spokesmen for the gods and preservers of the religious traditions, it regarded philosophers more ambivalently: some were celebrated; others, distrusted. The Apology showcases the rivalry between the two groups. As a philosopher, Socrates upheld a distinction between knowledge and opinion. In his view, all of the people he engaged in dialogue had opinions about what was true, but they were often contradictory and illogical, not the result of careful thought Philosophers like Socrates, Protagoras, and Antiphon also distinguished between nature and convention, and this too posed a challenge to poets and religious tradition. Is it not possible, asked the philosophers, that the existence of gods is conventional rather than natural? The gods may simply be an invention by the poets, one that prevents men from asking basic questions about the origin of man and the nature of the universe. From the perspective of philosophy, poetry does not answer the myriad questions of human existence. Meanwhile, the poets see the philosophers as challengers to piety, justice, and support of the city’s laws and traditions. It is hardly surprising, given the conflict between poetry and philosophy, that a number of Socrates’ accusers were poets; Meletus, who was either the son of a minor poet or a poet himself, apparently initiated the charges against Socrates. In fact, one view of the Apology regards it as Plato’s response to the poets’charges against philosophy.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates denies that he is a sophist and differentiates 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.

(Apology, 17a-b)

Socrates also points out that he, unlike the sophists, receives no payment for his discussions with young people. He mentions by name well-known sophists such as Gorgias, Prodicus, and Hippias, pointing out that they have earned a handsome living teaching the art of persuasive rhetoric to young men from wealthy families. Socrates, on the other hand, lives in abject poverty. (Actually Socrates’ financial standing was not quite as dire as the Apology suggests. He had ties to elite families through his marriage and his father, as noted, had left him a small inheritance. Of course, Socrates may still have had less wealth at his immediate disposal than a well-paid sophist.)

The Dialogue in Focus

The contents

The Apology is Plato’s portrayal of the trial and sentencing of his teacher, Socrates. In the course of the dialogue, Socrates delivers three speeches to the jury: the first is a defense of himself and his work; the second, a counterproposal to the death penalty; and the third, a response to the jury’s pronouncement of the death sentence upon him.

As the dialogue begins, Socrates, in traditional rhetorical fashion, prepares his audience, the jury, not to expect too much of his defense. 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 [he] happen[s] upon” and not “in beautifully spoken speeches like theirs” (Apology, 17c). He calls the jurors “the men of Athens,” entreating them to deal with him leniently, stating that although he is 70 years old, this is the first time he has ever appeared in court. As 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 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 the older accusers, says Socrates, 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 older poets as his original accusers, specifically Aristophanes, who parodied Socrates in his comedic satire Clouds, a play performed in Athens 24 years before this trial (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). According to Socrates, Aristophanes’ play had made an informal charge 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, 19b). Socrates dismisses these accusations, saying simply that “none of these things is so” (Apology, 19d). If anyone in the jury has ever heard him conversing about these topics, they should come forward. But, says Socrates, none of them can be-cause 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 also expresses concern at the unfair advantage that the comic poet has over him: Aristophanes has had more than 20 years to slander Socrates, while the philosopher has only a day to defend himself. Socrates then admits that a juror might well ask why he has been so slandered if he is innocent. 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’ 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, 21b)

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

Ironically Socrates’ wisdom 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, 2Id). Socrates then demonstrated 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” at the time (Apology, 2Id). Was the person embarrassed or insulted by Socrates’ questions? If so, the person could easily fall back on the standard prejudices against philosophy.

Next Socrates turns to the charges against him by his new accusers, led by the poet Meletus. The charges are that Socrates corrupts the city’s youth, and that he does not believe 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 be 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, 25c-e)

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, that of not believing in the gods of the city. Considering the official charge, Socrates gets Meletus to refine it while he is on the stand. Meletus accuses Socrates of not believing in any gods at all. Yet Socrates always claimed to hear a daimon, the voice of a spirit that warned him against or encouraged him toward a given action (this concept of an inner source of moral authority that supersedes conventional religious, political, or cultural authorities is one of Socrates’ main contributions to Western moral philosophy). Since such spirits are thought to be the children of gods, or nymphs, or some sort of divinity, Socrates is able to demonstrate that he does 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, 27d-e). Getting Meletus to change his accusation is a very clever move on Socrates’ part, for it allows him to avoid discussion of the original charge—not believing in the city’s gods.

Having dispensed with the official charges against him, Socrates delivers one of the most poignant parts of his speech. He tries to reconcile himself and his philosophy to the city of Athens. Socrates explains to the jury that 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 … I do it rather on your behalf, so that you do not do something wrong … by voting to condemn me. For if you kill me, you will not easily discover another of my sort.

(Apology, 29d-e, 30d-e)

In his argument, Socrates compares himself to a gadfly on the sluggish horse that is Athens. He admits that his relentless questioning of citizens is annoying but maintains that it is also necessary, portraying himself as an engaged social critic concerned for his city’s well-being, in contrast to the self-absorbed, materialistic sophistscientist described by Aristophanes. According to Socrates, Athens desperately needs him to remind its citizens of the high and noble aspects of life that are more important than individual wealth, beauty, or glory. He enlightens them about what is just and virtuous, encouraging them to develop these attributes and thereby improve their individual souls. Socrates pursues wisdom not only for its own sake but also so he can exhort citizens to virtue (which, for him, encompasses excellence, knowledge, courage, wisdom, self-control). Socrates believes that virtue can be taught to others. Thus, there is a publicspiritedness to his philosophy.

Next Socrates tries to garner sympathy from the jury as he explains his aloofness and detachment from ordinary obligations, which Aristophanes has criticized. Socrates says he has neglected many aspects of his private life 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, 31b). His is a practical philosophy. It deals not with abstract subjects such as stars and gnats but with the city and its affairs, and to such an extent that Socrates neglects his personal needs.

Socrates turns to his lack of involvement in public affairs, which would have been very damning to the ancient Athenians. Citizens were expected to attend public assemblies, hold public office, make speeches, and sit on juries. Accounting for the lack, Socrates admits that it might seem strange that he is ua busybody in private,” while “in public 1 do not dare go up before your multitude to counsel the city” (Apology, 31c). His divine voice, Socrates explains, warned him not to enter politics, probably be-cause 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, 31e). If he had died young, he would not have fulfilled his god-given purpose of goading his fellow Athenians to virtue.

All of Socrates’ skillful arguments come to naught, for the jury finds him guilty. In the sentencing phase of the trial, Meletus makes a speech requesting the death penalty, and Socrates delivers his second speech, a counter-proposal. Considering his options, he 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 too, uttering the famous dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology, 37e-38a). In accordance with his view that all his philosophizing has been for the good of humanity, Socrates makes a counterproposal: he should be rewarded for his ser-vice to the city by being housed and fed at Athens’ expense, like the victorious Olympic athletes. (To some of the ancients, Aristotle among them, this counterproposal almost seemed calculated to infuriate the jury.) Socrates concludes with a second counterproposal, a fine of 30 minae, a large sum of money. Again, the options of exile and silence as alternatives to death are unacceptable. In his pursuit of truth, Socrates opts rather to make the ultimate sacrifice: that of his life.

Once the jury hands down the death sentence, Socrates addresses the jurors for a third and final time. He now refers to them as judges. (While it was customary to address jury members as judges during court proceedings, Socrates waits until this point to do so.) He says that he will call only the men who voted to acquit him judges, because they are the only “judges in truth” (Apology, 4la). He adds that 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. He surmises that death is either 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.

(Apology, 41b-c)

Public vs. private life

Towards the end of his defense, Socrates presents the jurors with two examples of his political activities, attempting to prove his commitment to virtue “not in speeches, but what you honor, deeds” (Apology, 32a). The first example occurs during his tenure on the Athenian Council, the one political office he held during his lifetime. As noted, Athenian citizens were divided into administrative units called tribes, and each year men were chosen by lot to serve on an administrative council as prytanes, or board members, for part of the year. In 406 bce Athens was near the end of the second Peloponnesian War, a 27-year conflict with Sparta that pitted democracy against oligarchy in a struggle for control of the Greek city-states. Socrates was serving as a prytanes when the ten generals who had commanded the Athenian naval fleet at the Battle of Arginusae were facing trial. Although the generals had orchestrated a brilliant victory at Arginusae (an island in the Aegean Sea), they were forced to leave behind disabled ships and the corpses of Athenian soldiers because of the post-battle confusion and the onset of a violent storm. Upon their return to Athens, the generals were brought up on charges of neglecting their duty; included was a charge of impiety because they failed 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 argued was blatantly illegal; each commander had, by law, the right to be tried separately based on the merits of his own particular case. Socrates brought a motion challenging the decision. According to legal procedure in fifth-century bce Athens, the trial should have been suspended until his 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 attempts to intimi-date them, and the trial ended 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, had refused to be a party to the “mob mentality” that prevailed in Athens at the time:

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, 32b-c)

The second instance of Socrates’ involvement in the unjust proceedings of Athenian politics occurred not during the democracy, but during Athens’ rule by an oligarchy in 404-403 bce. Again, Sparta, the victor in the Peloponnesian War, installed a puppet government in Athens known as the Thirty Tyrants. Made up of Athenians with anti-democratic leanings, this government enjoyed little popular support, relying during its brief tenure on a garrison of Spartan soldiers stationed in Athens to protect it. In order to raise money to support the 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 Salaminian and bring him from Salamis to die,” Socrates refused: “Perhaps I would have died because of this, if that government had not been quickly overthrown” (Apology, 32c-d).

With these two examples, Socrates demonstrates the difficulties of a public and political life. Communities—even democratic ones—do not always act justly, so there is often a conflict between true justice and the laws or will of the city.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates defends his choice of a private rather than a public life by pointing out that any individual prepared to speak the truth puts himself at the mercy of a possibly corrupt majority: “Now do not be vexed with me when I speak the truth. For there is no human being who will preserve his life if he genuinely opposes either you or any other multitude and prevents many unjust and unlawful things from happening in the city” (Apology, 31e). In several other dialogues by Plato, Socrates expresses reservations about various aspects of democracy, especially majority rule. The dialogue Laches features a Socrates who is asked to cast a deciding vote but protests this method: “It is by knowledge that I think one must make decisions, not by the greater number, if one intends to decide well” (Socrates in Kraut, p. 197). Finally, in the Crito, Socrates asks, “And in particular, concerning the just and unjust and shameful and noble and good and bad things,... must we follow the opinion of the many and fear it rather than that of the one—if there is such an expert—whom we must be ashamed before and fear more than all others?” (Plato, Crito, 47d). As one scholar explains, Socrates distrusted the rule of the many. He “thought moral experts should rule, and he urged withdrawal from everyday politics only because he realized that he and his followers were far from being experts” (Kraut, p. 194). However humble this opinion may have been, it clashed with the standard esteem for the public and political life, which many saw as a civic responsibility.

Sources and literary context

The primary source for Plato’s Apology was an actual event, the trial of Socrates. Although it is known that Plato was an eyewitness to the trial, some argue that his Apology idealizes Socrates. These scholars contend that in attempting to deflect criticism leveled against his teacher, Plato transforms him into a model of civic virtue, interested in the concerns of Athens; he is depicted as an instructor who 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.

Xenophon, as noted, wrote the other surviving account of the philosopher’s trial, but his version was composed years later and based on hearsay. Also as noted, discrepancies exist between the two accounts: according to Xenophon,


P lato, like Socrates, was deeply troubled by the behavior of Athens. It dealt brutally with city-states that proved too independent for its taste, a pattern that Plato viewed with “moral revulsion. (O’Hare, p. 2), Any city-state that joined the Delian League (analliance for mutual protection against Persia) had to follow Athenian rules. The city-state had to adopt a constitution modeled on that of Athens send offerings to Athenian religious festivals, receive Athenian Inspectors, adopt the Athenian systems of money arid weights and measurements, and require all of its own officials to swear an oath of loyalty to Athens. When Athens suffered losses during the second Peloponnesian War, citystates that tried to assert their independence were harshly punished. The mistreatment of these city-states troubled Plato, who saw a great disparity between the ideals of freedom and democracy that Athens proclaimed and its often ruthless practices-In another of his dialogues (Gorgias, 51 9a), Plato criticizes the founders of the city’s empire for filling Athens with harbors, dockyards, walls, tribute money, and other such nonsense instead of with moderate and upright ways. The decline of the empire, its decades-long struggle between oligarchy and democracy, arid the dissolution of Greece’s political system based on the polls explain why so much of Plato’s writing concerns basic political questions: What is the organization of the best regime? the proper relationship between philosophy and politics? between religion and politics? And how should we define virtue and justice? a question that goes to the heart of Socrates’ trial and conviction as presented by Plato in the Apology.

Socrates wanted to provoke a guilty sentence in order to escape old age (he was 70 at the trial). He therefore did not suggest a counter-or milder penalty “and would not let his friends do so, saying that this would be an admission of guilt” (Vlastos, p. 291). But Plato’s version disagrees, saying that Socrates reacted first by saying that he should be rewarded, not penalized, then by relenting and proposing a monetary fine as punishment. Despite these discrepancies, Xenophon’s Apology of Socrates is sometimes considered corroborating evidence for Plato’s account, since the two are similar in many other respects. Both authors wished to refute the charges against Socrates, to counter the unflattering portrait of him in Aristophanes’ Clouds, and to extricate their teacher from damaging associations with the sophists.

Plato’s Apology is classified as a philosophical dialogue, an argument presented in dramatic form between at least two characters; some contend that Plato introduced or at least popularized this literary form. Socrates functions as the central character and Plato’s mouthpiece in several dialogues, which are thus called the Socratic dialogues. Among Classical dialogues, Plato’s are distinctive for their humor, irony, vivid characterization, and inclusion of such secondary texts as myths and legends. They are also notable for their authorial detachment. Plato himself rarely appears and never speaks in his dialogues, distancing himself from the issues raised and leaving the reader to decide which position to adopt. The technique is in keeping with his beliefs about learning: Plato “remains convinced throughout that anything taken on trust, second-hand, either from others or from books, can never amount to a worthwhile cognitive state; knowledge must be achieved by effort from the person concerned” (Homblower and Spawforth, p. 539).

Reception and impact

Devastated by their teacher’s death sentence, Socrates’ students urged him to flee (as depicted in Plato’s sequel, the Crito), but Socrates refused. Instead he carried out his execution by drinking hemlock. Plato’s Apology, written within a few years of these events, became the earliest contemporary account of Socrates’ trial. Few immediate reactions to Plato’s Apology are recorded. However, Aristotle, Plato’s student, analyzed Plato’s account of the trial and concluded 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 antagonized the jury, which was no way to win their vote.

Interestingly, what Aristotle saw as a defect, others have regarded as inspiration. In the eyes of many, Socrates became a martyr for truth and knowledge; he refused to pander to mass opinion and fought for the individual’s right of free inquiry and free speech against the power of the state. The philosopher’s trial and execution inspired other Classical writers. Xenophon, also a Socratic disciple, wrote his own Apology of Socrates several years after the trial; Libanius (314-393 CE), a Greek orator, composed yet another version centuries later. Isocrates (436-338 bce), an Athenian orator and teacher, even envisioned himself as a second Socrates and composed his own apology (Antidosis, 353) after he lost a court case involving an exchange of property.

Scholars have long debated the respective merits of Plato’s and Xenophon’s versions. Indeed, the phenomenon known as the “Socratic problem” springs from historians’ continuing difficulty in distinguishing the personality and philosophy of the real Socrates from the somewhat idealized representations provided by his two disciples. Still, most contemporary scholars consider Plato’s account to be the most reliable source of information about Socrates’ trial and Socrates himself.

Whatever its degree of accuracy, Plato’s Apology has continued to intrigue audiences for 2,400 years. It furthermore remains the first of a series of dialogues that are unparalleled in philosophic and literary achievement and have gone far to ensuring the fame of both teacher and student through the ages:

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)

—Despina Korovessis and Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

Brick house, Thomas C., and Nicholas D. Smith, eds. The Trial and Execution of Socrates. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Gagarin, Michael. Antiphon the Athenian: Oratory, Law, and Justice in the Age of the Sophists. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth, eds. The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Kraut, Richard. Socrates and the State. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.

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

Plato. Apology. In Four Texts on Socrates. Ed. Thomas G. West and Grace Sterry West. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

_____. Crito. In Four Texts on Socrates. Ed. Thomas G. West and Grace Sterry West. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

_____. protagoras. Trans. C. C. W. Taylor. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

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

Vlastos, Gregory. Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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a·pol·o·gy / əˈpäləjē/ • n. (pl. -gies) 1. a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure: my apologies for the delay. ∎  a public statement of regret, such as one issued by a newspaper, government, or other organization: the Prime Minister demanded an apology from the ambassador. ∎  (apologies) used to express formally one's regret at being unable to attend a meeting or social function: apologies for absence were received from Miss Brown. 2. (an apology for) a very poor or inadequate example of: we were shown into an apology for a bedroom. 3. a reasoned argument or writing in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine. PHRASES: with apologies to used before the name of an author or artist to indicate that something is a parody or adaptation of their work: here, with apologies to Rudyard Kipling, is a more apt version of “If.”

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apology defence, justification; acknowledgement of offence given. XVI. — F. apologie or late L. apologia — Gr. apologíā speech in defence, f. apologeîsthai, f. APO- + *log- *leg- speak (see LOGOS).
So apologetic XVII; sb. XV. apologist XVII. — F. -iste, f. Gr. apologízesthai render an account (f. apōlogos; see prec.), whence apologize XVI; now assoc. with apology.

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Apology ★★ 1986

A psychotic killer stalks Warren, an experimental artist, in Manhattan while a detective stalks the killer. Written by Medoff, author of “Children of a Lesser God.” 98m/C VHS . Lesley Ann Warren, Peter Weller, John Glover, George Loros, Jimmie Ray Weeks, Christopher Noth, Harvey Fierstein; D: Robert Bierman; W: Mark Medoff; M: Maurice Jarre. CABLE