Dr G's Introduction to Plato's "Apology" 

Plato links


" Phaedo"

Socrates' defense at his trial is one of the most well known speeches in all of western history. In it, Socrates refuses to apologize for his life. The word "apology," in its classical sense, simply means defense or justification.  In  "the Apology" Socrates defends and justifies his fanatical pursuit of wisdom. He regards his quest for truth as the real reason that he is being prosecuted.

The jury consisted of at least 500 male citizens of Athens, all over age 30, selected by lot. Athenian juries were large to limit bribery (Few people could afford to bribe more than 250 jurors!) but they could be packed. If you were going to appear in court, you enlisted as many friends as possible to volunteer for jury duty that day.

Jurors were selected from the jury pool by simple lottery. Hence, the more popular litigant was likely to win, or the more unpopular one to lose. At his trial, Socrates had a number of his friends in court--including Plato and other students and some of their family members--but presumably the friends of Anytus and his co-prosecutors simply outnumbered them that day. (Plato may have been underage and confined to the role of spectator. All "corrupted" youths, under 30, would have been disqualified from jury service as underage.)

Some readers think that Socrates' speech wasn't strong enough, that he could have saved himself if he wanted to, and that he decided to lose so that he would become a kind of martyr. Another possibility is simply that he counted his friends in the jury and realized that he couldn't win, regardless of what he said.

The appearance of justice at these affairs was quite important, and procedures were elaborate by ancient standards. First, the prosecutors spoke for three hours; then the defendant spoke for the next three. The defendant was entitled to call witnesses and to question the accusers, and they were required to answer. (These are basic rights that we take for granted; the Greeks may have invented them.) Once the defense speech was finished, the jury voted on the question of guilt or innocence. If a guilty verdict was reached, then each side proposed what the penalty would be: whether a fine, imprisonment, banishment from the city, or death. A second vote then was taken to choose the penalty to be imposed. 

Zeus and Hera from the ParthenonIs Plato's account of Socrates' trial accurate historically? Obviously, there were no transcripts of ancient court proceedings. Plato probably reconstructed Socrates' speech as well as he could from memory, perhaps consulting other friendly witnesses about it. It's usually assumed that he did not distort Socrates' actual speech very much, because some of his readers would have remembered what Socrates actually had said.

It's curious that Plato records only Socrates' speech and not the speeches of the accusers. Nobody ever will know why. Some scholars speculate that the prosecution had a very strong case against Socrates, and Plato did not want people to remember Socrates' sins. Other explanations are equally plausible. Perhaps Plato simply felt that the prosecutors' speeches were merely a pack of lies, as Socrates claims in his defense speech, so that they were not worthy of repetition. Perhaps Plato was interested in writing only from Socrates' point of view. It's even possible that the dialogue is unfinished or that some editor or copier of manuscripts, long after Plato's time, took out the prosecutors' speeches. There was plenty of time for the text to change after Plato's era. The earliest manuscript that we have today dates only from the Middle Ages, almost 2000 years after Plato! 



Left: classical bust
of Socrates.














Left: Socrates' student Xenophon (image from Raphael's School of Athens) wrote of the famous trial that Socrates had sought martyrdom.








Left: remains of Zeus and Hera from the Parthenon marbles. Their portrayal with human characteristics was controversial even before Socrates. 







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