Lesson 5: The Apology of Socrates

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Instructions for Lesson 5

    1.  Read "The Apology" from Plato's Five Dialogues
    2.  Read this page.
    3.  Library Assignment #1 is due with Lesson 5; submit
         your word processing document to Dr. G
         electronically through the SLN Web Site.
    4.  Don't forget your positive daily thoughts about
         academic success and your goals! 

class discussion on Lesson 5



Module 1

1: Orientation  
2: Goals   

Module 2

  3: Euthyphro  
     4: The Library
 5: The Apology   
    6: Citation   
    7: Crito
    8: Phaedo  
    9: Exam Prep   
10: Plato Exam

Module 3

11: Research Project 
12: Research 101   
13: Books   
14: the Librarian   
15: the Web   
16: conferences  
17: Joy of Research 
18: Reasoning 

Module 4

19: Outlines 
20: Review the Plan:
21: Language 
22: Dr E's Grammar
23: Peer Review  
24: Hit Parade 

Module 5

25: About the Exam
26: Mock Final 
27: Exam Prep
28: Graduation 


1. Reading "The Apology"

To supplement your reading of this famous dialogue, if you wish, see Dr. G's introduction, hypertext, and study notes for "The Apology." Among the best internet sites on the trial of Socrates are Douglas Linder's Famous Trials and Tufts University's Perseus web, (These readings are optional.)

Image left shows a Roman copy of a now-lost Greek bust that perhaps dated back to 390-350 BCE (Plato's time). It may be close to what Socrates looked like. . . a funny, balding, pug-nosed, chubby, twinkle-eyed, unkempt old man. This figure is contrary to all that classical Greek statues typically had been: youthful and flawless in form and entirely serious in expression. Socrates broke the mold. His likenesses became popular in the Hellenistic world.

The only earlier Greek image that compares with Socrates is the figure of Silenus or Silens, a mythical satyr or wild animal-man of the forest who never thought of anything except sex and wine (shown on a coin, image right, cir. 420 BCE--note the Mr. Spock ears!). Lewd, drunken satyrs like Silenus figured prominently in popular satyric drama, which ridiculed human imperfections--our term "satire" comes from this ancient satyric tradition. When the Athenian comic writer Aristophanes wrote his send-up of Socrates in The Clouds (419 BCE), he of course recognized that the real Socrates looked like Silenus--and that the likeness would draw laughter from the crowd. The actor who played the character of Socrates in Aristophanes' play indeed may have worn a Silenus mask! Would Silenus corrupt the youth of Athens? You bet!

That poets had so much fun at Socrates' expense may have been the reason that he became a fierce literary critic. Perhaps Socrates' alienation from his own body was a primary motive that drove him to invest so much energy in his mind. In any case, when Socrates opened his mouth and spoke to people for the first time, he shocked all those who assumed that a person with his physical appearance must be a complete fool. Socrates' intelligence broke their stereotype; he then might appear to them as a great soul trapped in a ludicrous body.

It is easy to see how there could have been a sharp divide between people who knew of Socrates only by hearsay and people who actually knew him through conversation with him. In "The Apology," he complains that the jury has been biased against him by Aristophanes' false image.

2. Democracy and sophistry

Only a couple of generations before Socrates, there had been a revolution at Athens. In 510 BCE, the people rose up and overthrew the sons of Peisistratus, who like their father had ruled Athens primarily by military might. In place of the traditional military dictatorship, the Athenians set up a new form of government, a democracy, the first famous democracy in world history. Its revolutionary idea was that the leader's power would depend on consent of the governed. Where tyrants and kings traditionally had ruled Athens by force of arms, the new leaders would be obliged to rule by persuasion.

Suddenly, Athenians were interested in learning about argument, debate and public speaking. Words were weaponized. People hurled accusations at one another, as their ancestors had thrown spears. They fought in court, in assemblies, and even in Socrates' habitat where public opinion was formed, the streets. Survival clearly now depended on speaking skill.

In Socrates' time the Athenian democracy was an experimental society, not fully debugged. The new Athenian law allowed almost any citizen to accuse almost anyone else of almost any crime--and to bring the question to trial before a jury. The result was a torrent of litigation unmatched in history. Citizens with nothing to do could always go to court and get on a jury or else watch, because court was always in session. Lawyers hadn't been invented yet, so the litigants in court had to speak for themselves. 

If you were called to answer charges in court, what would you say? Unless you had sat on juries, or studied with a teacher of public speaking, you wouldn't have a clue. Athenians under age 30 couldn't serve on juries, so young people developed their verbal arsenals by studying with a teachers.

That's how Athens established the world's first marketplace for instructors like Dr. G: teachers of "rhetoric" or public argument. If you were going to do battle in court, like Socrates' accusers Meletus and Anytus in "The Apology," you first went to the best speech teacher that you could afford, you bought a speech from him, you took it home and memorized it, and then you went up before the jury and tried to remember the words, without looking too foolish as you stumbled through the delivery, like some stage actor on the first day of a rehearsal without book. To win, you had to know what to say.

Who were these teachers of rhetoric? They called themselves "sophists"--these wise men who were so clever with arguments that they could "make the worse appear to be the better cause." That is, they could help crooks and wrong-doers win their cases. People hated sophists, precisely as lawyers are hated today, because sophists argued endlessly over everything, they did not appear to believe in anything at all (except their own enrichment from other people's controversies), and not everybody could afford one. Sophists seemed to challenge basic notions of right and wrong. Whoever had the best speechwriter was right; whoever had the second best speechwriter was wrong. We can see the problem with this system if we imagine a world in which college students are allowed to buy English papers written by professional writers: the student who can afford the best paper probably gets the highest grade! 

Socrates generally disliked these sophists, too. He battles them in various Platonic dialogues, and he particularly sneers at them in "The Apology," where he refuses to buy one of their prefabricated speeches to defend himself. At his trial, unlike Meletus and Anytus, he makes his case to the jury simply by speaking from his heart and telling the truth, he says. He does not construct a speech full of lies and gestures, calculated to win the jury's votes, he says. None of that schoolboy stuff for him!

3. The philosopher versus the sophist

Throughout the Socratic dialogues, Plato seems anxious to show that Socrates was not a sophist, though Socrates' enemies smeared him as one. True, Socrates was a kind of teacher who put words and ideas into people's minds, and sophists did too, but Plato attempts to highlight a key difference. Socrates was a philosopher, a lover of wisdom (from the Greek roots philos=love, sophia=wisdom), where the others were mere sophists (meaning "wise men"). A single word made all the difference: love. Socrates was in the wisdom game because he sincerely longed to know the truth; they were in it for the money, so they claimed to have truth to sell.  

This philosopher/sophist distinction is crucial for us. We aren't likely to excel in any subject, unless we love that subject enough to be passionate about it. Our true desire to know is the essential ingredient in the recipe. As writers, if we show our  readers that we love the subject, that we have a genuine curiosity about it, that we are striving as much as we can to investigate and understand it, then readers are likely to sympathize and to work with us, even if we don't have all of the answers, and even if our writing style is imperfect. On the other hand, showing that we are unenthusiastic--that our subject bores us--guarantees that our readers won't care, either. The power of persuasion usually begins at home. 

What set Socrates apart? Where did he get his fanatical love of wisdom? What drove him to inquire and speculate so much more intensely than other people, even when it made so many enemies for him that eventually it cost him his life? 

As he explains at his trial, a bizarre thing happened to him. The oracle of Apollo at Delphi said that Socrates was the wisest of mortals ("Apology" 21a). Imagine hearing such a statement, if you are Socrates! The oracle was a prophetess, believed to speak the god's actual words. After the oracle's pronouncement about him, poor Socrates spent the rest of his life trying to understand what the god had meant. How is it that I am wise? This seemingly simple question was the beginning of real philosophy and academic education in the western world. Homo sapiens ("wise man") had begun the process of reflection.

We're not Apollo worshippers, so the impact of the oracle on Socrates is difficult for us to appreciate. In Socrates' belief, Apollo existed and never lied. What the god had said was what Socrates thought about every day. How is it that I am wise? how is it that Euthyphro is less wise? how is it that Meletus is less wise? how can the god say that I am wiser than Euthyphro and Meletus?

The person who asked these questions had been educated primarily in music and gymnastics, his parents had been a stone cutter and a midwife; he had not traveled outside of Athens, except as an infantryman on military campaigns. Who could have imagined that such an ordinary person would become a model of intellectual life for millions of people for thousands of years?

Well, how is it that Socrates was wise? Unlike other Athenians, who claimed to know everything, he admitted his ignorance. The problem with knowing everything is that there's nothing left to learn. We can pursue knowledge only after we realize that we don't already have it. The wise look at a given situation and see what they do NOT understand about it. This perspective is tricky because our minds naturally are disposed to understanding on the basis of recognition, picking out the familiar or the known. We tend to see truth in things that are only familiar. (E.g., my credit card company loves me; their advertising has convinced me that is true.)

How is it useful to know your own ignorance? Look at how Socrates  discusses death, near the end of the dialogue, when he has been condemned to die ("Apology" 40c). He says: why assume that death is an evil? How can that assumption lead to happiness? Why not assume that death will be a peaceful sleep or a trip to the highest heaven that we can imagine? What we tell ourselves about death will determine whether or not we waste our time on earth fretting about it, and whether we die like cowards or heroes.

4. Did Socrates lose?

When we look back at Socrates' trial, we who feel fortunate to live in a democracy wonder what went wrong? How could a jury--in a democratic society somewhat like ours--decide that this man deserved the death penalty? Scholars have adopted a variety of arguments to explain what must have happened.

  • Some argue that Socrates must have had it coming, that Plato's portrayal of Socrates' innocence must be inaccurate. This approach of finding faults in Socrates, however, is mere speculation contrary to most of the available evidence (including all of the evidence in Plato).

  • Others imagine that Socrates must have wanted to die, since he really didn't defend himself vigorously at the trial. That is, he knew how to win his case in court, but he refused to take the necessary steps (such as saying he was sorry, promising not to offend again, pleading for his life, and so on). This suicide or martyrdom theory was the belief of Xenophon, the only one of Socrates' students besides Plato whose account of the trial still exists. (At one time there were dozens of accounts of the trial; it became a popular subject to write about in the years after it happened.)

  • Others say that Socrates defended himself well, but simply lost the case for reasons that we cannot know.

Many volumes have been written on this mystery, but perhaps the case is best solved as Plato solved it. What had to be clear to Plato, in hindsight, was that Socrates did not lose, and the scope of Socrates' big win must be even clearer to us today than it was to Plato. If Socrates had not been executed, the city would have had no remorse, the Athenians would not have set up his memorial statue, Plato would not have been given the ground that became the Academy, and we (more than likely) would not be reading anything about Socrates today. Even if Plato had written dialogues about a Socrates who had won his trial, it is unlikely that any Christians would have noticed similarities between Socrates and Jesus, so Plato's manuscripts would have burned with other "pagan"  documents in the early Christian period. In all likelihood, Socrates would not have taught or conversed with anybody, in any fashion at all, since 399 BCE.

Of course, if we claim that Socrates' death was good for him, we can't be speaking about his body. We must be considering him as living somehow after death. One way that he can survive is the way that traditionally Greek heroes always lived after death, in poetic words. (Recall the religious background from the Hellenics for Dummies page.) Through "The Apology" and Plato's dialogues in general, readers for all time can imagine themselves speaking Socrates' words, taking the role of Socrates, being Socrates. Socrates lives in those who know his story.

Why should we imagine that Socrates' death was an evil, if he did not see it that way?

Reading Assignment for Lesson 6: read about MLA citation in the rule book, Hacker's A Pocket Style Manual, pages 113-154. Pay close attention to 113-135, and at least skim through 135-154 (tab 32b on works cited lists).







Left: look-alikes Socrates and Silenus the corrupt satyr.





















Left: the Athenian liberator-assassins Aristogeiton and Harmodios, as their heroic statues probably looked on display in democratic Athens in Socrates' time.











































Left: a modern replica of an image of Apollo, god of death and prophecy, dating from Socrates' time, about 450 BCE.






































Left: modern image of Socrates in Dublin.








Left: statue of Apollo from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (webified). Socrates believed that he served this god of death and poetry.






gutchess@englishare.net                    Academic writing home page                    Gary Gutchess 2003, 2005