Dr G's Study Notes for Plato's "Apology"
Plato's art and the hero Socrates
Like ourselves, the Hellenes oriented themselves through story-telling. Each place in the Hellenic world had its story. The odd tale of Kronos and Zeus in "Euthyphro" (the story in which Kronos ate his children until baby Zeus escaped and eventually dethroned him) is the story of a real Greek temple in a cave on Crete, where the priests claimed that the infant Zeus had been raised in hiding from his nasty father.
It was a good, useful story in its day. That is, it drew crowds of pilgrims from all over the Greek-speaking world. They came to see the place where Zeus grew up, and they brought food animals to sacrifice to the god and to share with the story-tellers, the temple staff!
Each temple in each city had its story, displayed in sculptures, sung in hymns, danced in ceremonies and reenacted in rituals. Before Plato's time, through the new technology of writing, the fame of these local stories had spread across Greece. Collectors gathered the stories up and wrote them down. The poet Hesiod assembled the stories of Kronos, Zeus and all of the Greek gods and goddesses in Euthyphro's favorite poem, Theogony ("Birth of the Gods," cir. 700 BCE). The father of history, Herodotus (484-432 BC), drew similar stories from even further travels, to Egypt and Persia as well as Greek sites.
Presumably, Plato would have needed a story for his new place, the Academy. And it couldn't be an old fashioned story like "Kronos and Zeus." It had to attract the kind of serious inquirers that Plato wanted to attend his world-class school. This practical problem, I believe, underlies Plato's famous account of Socrates.
Writing a story for the Academy was well within Plato's expertise because he was an artist. As a young man he had aspired to be a writer of tragedies, like famous Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Over the course of three generations leading up to Plato's time, these great Athenian poets and others had invented western theater and made it spectacular. They brought to life the old heroic stories of the ancestors, and their poetic words were enhanced by actors, scenery, costumes, masks, mechanical stage equipment, songs, music, dance and choreography.
But by the time that Plato reached adulthood, tragedy was dead. How? It had become too expensive to produce after Athens had lost her empire in the disastrous Peloponnesian War (ended 404 BC). The fleets that had maintained the power of Athens were sunk or destroyed, and tribute money no longer was flowing into the treasury from the "allies." Sparta had liberated Greece, as the Spartans put it, and the Athenians were facing starvation. It wasn't a time for lavishing money on the arts. Work had stopped on all major public building projects in Athens, including even the unfinished Parthenon, where, legend says, an artisan named Socrates (among many others) had been employed carving statues of the gods. The production of expensive new tragedies had ended just as abruptly.
the invention of the literary dialogue
Under the circumstances Plato couldn't write tragedies, but he came up a better idea for hard times. Traditional dramatic art had been a feast for the senses, but Plato transformed it into a delight for the soul, mind or inward life. He disposed with the physical theater altogether and substituted in its place a portable, low-budget, read-only form, the Platonic dialogue.
It was a great technological invention, one of the greatest in all of literary history. The new medium gave a boost to writers, as men and women with little or no state support or aristocratic patronage began to produce imaginative dialogues on all kinds of subjects. The dialogue was to become a prevalent literary form for the next 2000 years(!), throughout classical period, the European Middle Ages, and even up to the time of Erasmus, Thomas More, Galileo, and Copernicus.
The dialogue form exercised the brain. It was cheap to produce, as it didn't require performers or costumes or scenery or musicians or rehearsals or memorization. It could be distributed widely, even internationally, simply by circulating the manuscripts, and it even allowed authors with new or controversial ideas to masquerade behind independent or fictional characters like Socrates or Salvati. (Salvati is Galileo's proponent of the scandalous idea that the earth revolves around the sun.)
There was an important tradeoff, however. The audience had to be literate. The whole city no longer could attend, as in the old days of the public theater. To be admitted to the dialogue, you had to be part of an elite group or sub-culture of literate and educated people, people who valued knowledge and wisdom. Illiterates couldn't crack the code.
Although Plato radically transformed Greek tragedy, he maintained its core idea or essence. The Hellenes traditionally had used tragic stories to explain why suffering happens, and to show how to live and die with dignity, regardless of suffering. In this tradition, suffering almost always was explained spiritually. Some angry god or mischievous goddess was revealed to be the hidden cause of the mortal hero's agony.
For example, take the very ancient story of the primitive Greek hero Herakles ("Hercules" to the Romans). Herakles' famous deeds were a series of hard "labors," like fighting wild beasts and monsters, and cleaning out the grossest, stinkiest stables on earth. He never got a vacation. Why? The queen of the gods, Hera, hated him. Why? Her husband Zeus had fathered him upon a mortal woman. Stories of Herakles' labors inspired courage and determination in people who, like the hero, had limited control over their fortunes in life and so seemed born to misfortune or challenge by the gods.
Plato inherited this traditional tragic explanation for the mystery of why we suffer. Why does Plato's Socrates suffer? In "the Apology," Socrates diagnoses his own suffering in a traditional, spiritual way. The god Apollo has tasked him with a labor that is almost as painful as any of Heracles' jobs. Socrates' mission is to show the Athenians that only god is wise and that the true business of mortals is to improve their souls. This job leads him to confront a multitude of fools and crooks who do not know or practice virtue. When they take him to court, he makes his defiant speech and shows that he can die like a hero. It is almost as if the Athenian court is a tragic stage with Socrates playing the hero.
The Greeks imagined many possible reasons for suffering. Roughly contemporary with Socrates was Hippocrates (cir. 460 -cir. 377 BC), the father of western medicine, the namesake of our modern Hippocratic oath. He was a famous healer of bodies, as Socrates was a healer of souls. Both of these doctors absorbed the tragic habit of mind from popular Greek culture, and they used it to invent cures for suffering.
Socrates' cure is to think correctly. Among other thoughts, we must think that suffering is not a horrible, debilitating problem. We know nothing of death, and so we should not fear it. Constructive thought brings happiness.
The Socratic cure seems too simple to be true, especially when
compared with the medical cures of Hippocrates and his followers. Yet the US Food and Drug Administration has proved,
thousands of times over, the power of mere thought. Placebos (sugar pills) are rather effective in
combating diseases of every kind. In some cases they achieve cure rates
of 30%. Many new drugs fail their clinical
trials and never reach the market because they're no more effective than
Left: the descent into Zeus' birthplace on Crete still attracts tourists today.
Left: a classical bust of Plato
Legend says that Socrates worked on the statues of the Three Graces at the Parthenon. If so, his design may possibly have been similar to that in Raphael's Three Graces (1503), image left.
Left, a classical image showing Herakles wrestling Triton, the sea monster.
In Socrates' generation were Hippocrates (left)