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The Apology of Socrates – as recorded by Plato (A précis by James Webster) ‘My accusers have spoken persuasively, but have barely uttered a word of truth. I am amazed they told you to ‘not be deceived by (my) eloquence’, I am not a good speaker, the only force I have is the force of truth. From me you shall hear the whole truth, in an un-prepared speech, with the words that occur to me in the moment, for I am confident in my cause. As I am a stranger to courts of law, please forgive me if I use the simple language I am accustomed to, don’t mind the manner, think only of the truth of my words. I have had many accusers over a long time, more powerful than these present ones. They have accused me of being someone who ‘speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause.’ I dread such accusations because they would lead their audience to believe that I don’t believe in gods, and these accusations were made when you were younger and more impressible, and I was not there to prove my accusers wrong. These nameless accusers who through envy and malice spread such deceitful accusations can now not be cross-examined, therefore I can only fight their shadows. I will answer these ancient, nameless accusers first (before I answer the present charges.) The task is not an easy one, but I leave the event to God. In beginning, ‘What is the accusation that has given rise to this slander against me?’ In summary ‘That Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.’ Such accusations were also represented by Aristophanes in his play ‘The Clouds’ where he has a character called Socrates walking in the air and talking nonsense about matters of which I personally know very little (natural philosophy). The truth is I have nothing to do with physical speculations, as many of you have witnessed; the rest of you, please ask those who know to tell you the truth about this. From what these people tell you about the truth of this part of the charge, you will be able to judge the truth of the rest. There is also no foundation in the accusation that I am a teacher and take money. There are many who are such teachers or Sophists, they go around the cities, persuading young men to pay them to teach. But just as if you wish someone to perfect your horses, you should hire someone who knows all about perfection in horses, if you wish to pay someone to teach human and political virtue you must find someone who understands it. If someone really did have such wisdom, they are very fortunate, but I don’t.

-2You might then ask, ‘Why then, Socrates have you been charged? Surely you must be doing something strange, compared to other men.’ In answering I will explain why I have been called wise and have such an evil fame. The reputation is a result of a certain wisdom I possess, which is attainable by man, compared to the superhuman wisdom in those I have described, I do not possess that wisdom. 

What sort of knowledge is ‘attainable by man?’, what other sort is there? What can you do with the knowledge attainable by man?

A friend of mine, Chaerephon, known to yourselves, impetuously asked the Oracle of Delphi if there was anyone wiser than myself, and was told there was not. I mention this, because it helps me explain why I have such an evil name. When I heard this from Chaerephon, I did not know what the god meant, because I knew that I had no wisdom, and yet he is a god and cannot lie. I thought that if I could find someone wiser than myself, then I could go to the god with this refutation. Accordingly, I visited a man with a wise reputation who was a politician. Whilst talking with him, I couldn’t help thinking that he was not really wise, despite his reputation and self-opinion, and I tried to explain this to him. In consequence, he hated me. As I reflected on our discussion I thought, that although neither of us knows anything really beautiful and good, at least I know I know nothing. The next person I examined, who had even higher pretensions to wisdom was exactly the same, he also thought he knew something when he didn’t. In this way I began to make enemies, and I was conscious of this, but the word of God ought to be considered first, so I knew I must continue to go to those who appear to know, and find out the meaning of the oracle. As a result of my searching I found the surprising fact that those with the greatest reputations for wisdom were the most foolish, whilst those with the lesser reputation were wiser and better. After the politicians, I went to the poets, I questioned them on their own writings and asked them to teach me the meaning of them. They could not do so, so I concluded that poetry is not a result of wisdom but by a sort of genius and inspiration, like a soothsayer who says many fine things but does not understand the meaning of them. However, on the strength of their poetry, the poets had also falsely drawn the conclusion that they were wise, when they were not.

-3So in this regard, I once again knew that I was superior in that I at least had knowledge of my own ignorance, whereas they were ignorant of their ignorance. Then I went to the artisans, who did actually know many things, however they mistakenly believed that because they did know a lot about their field of expertise that they possessed wisdom about other things also. I then concluded that I would prefer to not have their knowledge or their ignorance, than to have both. This inquisition, trying to find a real wise man, has made me many enemies. And people imagine I possess the wisdom I find wanting in others and call me wise. The truth is that God only is wise, and by his answer, intends to show that human wisdom is worth little or nothing. It’s as if he said that he is wisest who (like myself) knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. So, obedient to the god, I continue to enquire into the wisdom of people, and if they are not wise, then in vindication of the oracle, I show them that it is so. I am so devoted to this, that I am poor, having time for nothing else. Another thing, young men of the richer classes, with little to do, come about me to hear the pretenders examined and also like to imitate me, and soon discover that there are many pretenders to wisdom. These pretenders, then blame me for their embarrassment, instead of being angry with themselves. They say I am misleading the youth! They really can’t answer as to what it is that I am doing wrong, but simply repeat the ready-made accusations about philosophers about teaching ‘things up in the clouds and under the earth’ and ‘making the worse appear the better cause’, because they don’t want to admit the truth about their pretence to knowledge being exposed as the cause of their enmity towards me.  

Is it possible that if you don’t wish to deal with the truth of the matter, that you invent something else? What does that achieve?

As there many such people who have this angst towards me, they have built a strong infamy about me, which is why these charges have been brought. The second class of accusers, have brought the formal charges against me. They are headed by Meletus, (who calls himself a lover of his country), their affidavit contains something of this kind: ‘Socrates is a doer of evil, who corrupts the youth; he does not believe in the gods of the state, but has other new divinities of his own. I say that Meletus is the actual doer of evil, he is so eager to bring men to trial from a pretended zeal and interest in these matters in which he has never really had any interest.

-4I will endeavour to prove all this to you: ‘Meletus, you think a great deal about the improvement of youth?’ ‘Yes’. Then you must tell the judges who it is that can improve the youth, remember that you have called me their corruptor No answer. … observe that Meletus does not answer. This is disgraceful and proves he has no interest in the matter. Meletus answers that ‘The Laws’ improve the youth. That is not my meaning, tell me who it is that knows the laws. The judges, present in court. You mean that the judges are able to instruct and improve youth? Certainly. All of them, or some only and not others? All of them. That’s great news, we have plenty of improvers then! Do you say the audience also improve the youth? Yes. And the senators? Yes, them also. But perhaps the members of the assembly court corrupt the youth, or do they too improve them? 

In all this Socrates appears to be using dialectic to fully explore the implications and assumptions in the position taken, which position is presented as an absolute statement of fact of a cause and effect relationship – ie About ‘Socrates corrupting the youth.’ He is not just accepting the statement.

They improve them. Then it appears that ever Athenian except myself improves the youth? Is this what you affirm? Yes, that is what I stoutly affirm.

-5I am very unfortunate if you are right. But what about horses, is it true that only one man harms them and every one else does them good, or is the opposite more likely? That it is the few that do them good. That is the truth, whether or not you agree. But it would be very fortunate for our youth if only one person could harm them, but you have really shown that you really don’t care about these things. Another question, ‘Is it better to live among bad citizens, or among good ones?’ Please answer… do not the good do their neighbours good and the bad do them evil? Certainly. And would anyone prefer to be injured than benefited by those they live with? Certainly not. And when you say I corrupt the youth, do you allege I do it intentionally or unintentionally? Intentionally, I say. But if we accept that evil neighbours will harm each other, why would I go and intentionally corrupt somebody knowing that it will lead to their causing me harm? Either I do not corrupt them, or I must do so unintentionally, and in either case, you lie. If I do it unintentionally I cannot be convicted and should have been corrected in private, but here you are not trying to educate me, but to punish me. As for you Meletus, to be clear, are you saying that I corrupt the young by teaching them to not acknowledge the gods acknowledged by the state, but to acknowledge other divinities instead? Exactly. Now please be clear, are you saying that I teach the youth different gods, and therefore do believe in some gods (although this is not in the charge), or are you saying that I am an atheist and a teacher of atheism? I mean you are a complete atheist. Do mean that I don’t believe in the godhead of the sun or moon, like other men? I assure you judges, that he does not: Socrates says that the sun is stone, and the moon earth. My friend, all these judges would know that these are the doctrines of Anaxagoras, not of Socrates, the youth can go and watch these doctrines at the theatre. I would be laughed at if I pretended I invented them! So Meletus, do you affirm that I don’t believe in any god? Yes, I swear by Zeus, that that is the truth.

-6No one will believe you then. You have contradicted yourself, I wonder if you are just trying to test me! You have said that Socrates is guilty of not believing in gods and of believing in new ones. You act like a person in jest. So, men of Athens, please be patient as I ask Meletus some questions about his claims and attempt to prove their inconsistency… Meletus, did ever man believe in the existence of human things, and not of human beings, or believe in horsemanship, but not in horses? Of course not. So, can a man believe in spiritual and divine agencies, and not in spirits or demigods? He cannot. And you do swear on the affidavit that I believe in spiritual agencies. And if I believe in divine beings, how can I help believing spirits or demigods? What are spirits or demigods? Are they not either gods or the sons of gods? They are. And so again you say that whilst I am an atheist that I do believe in demi-gods, the sons of gods. What a nonsense you are making. You have put this in the indictment because you have nothing real to accuse me of. I believe I have answered this ridiculous charge from Meletus, but I know that I may be destroyed yet by the envy and detraction of the world, which has and will be the death of many men. Some one might say, aren’t you ashamed of living a life which will bring you to an untimely end? My answer to that is, that a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying, but only to consider whether what he is doing is right or wrong – acting the part of a good man or a of a bad. 

What happens when you live life focused on (anticipated) consequences versus living by principle?

If this were not so, we would regard all war heroes, such as those who fell at Troy, as being not good for much. 

What do our traditions esteem? Consequences or principle? What do we esteem about the Anzacs at Gallipoli (War heroes)? Why do we hold that legend so dearly, as compared to knowledge of ‘successful’ people who may be rich but don’t appear to have any other ambition? Then again, what do we really follow in practice?

-7Had Achilles any thought of death and danger? For wherever a man’s place is, either that which he has chosen or has been given by his commander, he ought to remain there is in the hour of danger; he should not think of death or anything other than disgrace. So if after I have previously followed the command of Generals who have directed me during war, would it not now be strange for me to ignore God who orders me to fulfil the philosopher’s mission because of a concern over death and danger? If I did disobey this order from the gods, you may justly bring me to court on a charge of not believing in them. The fear of death would be a fancy that I was wise, when in fact I could not be. For fear of death is indeed a pretence to wisdom, because it pretends to know the unknown. For nobody knows whether death, which men apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.   

Do we live life as if dying is a bad thing? Do we know if it is? If we don't, would we change about our approach to life if we truly accepted that we did not know if death was a good or bad thing?

Once again, compared to many others (and in this instance regarding death), I do not claim to know what I don’t know. However I do know that injustice and disobedience to a better, whether god or man, is evil and dishonourable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good (ie death) rather than a certain evil (dishonour due to disobedience to a better).   

Should you live by knowledge you don’t have (ie what you only imagine or ‘guess’ to be so, or what you actually know is true (even if it is not much)?. Is it good to live as if you do know what you don’t know, or to accept that you really don’t know very much, but seek knowledge and practice discrimination? How often do we really look at our own ‘knowledge?’

So even if you were to let me off, but on the condition that I not continue to enquire and speculate in this way any more, I would say to you: ‘Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one whom I meet and saying to him after my manner: You, my friend, - a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, - are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? 

What do we place our faith in?

And if he answers ‘yes’, then I do not let him off, but interrogate, examine and crossexamine him, and if I think that he has no virtue in him, but only says he has, I reproach him with undervaluing the greater, and overvaluing the lesser.

-8 

Do we really value virtue ourselves? What would that mean if we did, do we truly think that it is better to live according to virtue?

I will continue to do this with all those I meet, especially the citizens of Athens (who are my brethren). For I know that this is a command of God.   

Do we accept that as true? If we did, what would the implications be for our lives? Why would God command that?

And, I believe that no better good has ever happened to the state than my service to the God. For I do nothing but persuade you all to forget about your property and person and chiefly care about the good of your soul. For I tell that you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private.  

Do we agree with this? Why? What does that mean for the way you live?

This is my teaching and if this is a doctrine which corrupts the youth, I am a mischievous person. Wherefore I say to you, regardless of whether you acquit me or not, I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times. 

Is that reasonable?!!

I have something more to say, please let me finish for it will be good for you to do so. I will have you know that if you kill such an one as I am, you will injure yourselves more than you injure me. Nothing can injure me, certainly not my accusers, for a bad man is not permitted to injure a better than himself. And even if my accusers kill, exile or deprive a man of civil rights, and may imagine they are doing them harm, I do not agree. The evil of doing as they would be doing, the evil of unjustly taking away the life of another, is far greater injury? 

Why is this so?

I also argue, for your sakes, that you should not sin against God by condemning me, who am his gift to you.

-9For you will not easily find a successor to me, who am a sort of gadfly, provided to the state by God. The state is a great and noble steed, who can be tardy in his motions owing to his very size and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly, and all day long I am in all places always fastening upon you, arousing and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, therefore I advise you to spare me.   

Is there an influence of a Gadfly in our lives? What does it feel like? Do we encourage it?

You may not like being woken from your sleep and can me dead – as Anytus suggests, and then (unless God sends you another gadfly) you would remain asleep for the rest of your lives. Proof of the fact that I am given to you by God is the fact that I have neglected my own concerns and been focussing on you, getting you to focus on virtue. I have had no reward for this, as my poverty attests. 

Do we make the most of this gift?

You may ask, why I only give advice in private, and not provide advice to the State in public, this is because the oracle or ‘sign’ which advises me, and it only ever advises me to refrain from doing something, never to actually do something, and this is why I don’t go advising the state. (This needs to be corrected I think…) Indeed I would have perished long ago had I gone into politics. Whoever tries to go to war against the many unrighteous and lawless deeds done in a state will soon perish. An example of this was when I held the office of a Senator – as was my public duty. And our particular tribe was holding the presidency over the trial of the generals who had not taken up the bodies slain after the battle of Arginusae – and the tribe wanted to try them in a body, which was illegal, and I was the only officer that stood up against this. The orators then tried to impeach and arrest me, but I was much more prepared to run the risk of punishment than I was to participate in something unjust. Also, during the time of the Thirty Tyrants, they wanted myself to help put a man, to death unjustly, they accused him of the sort of crimes the Thirty themselves were committing, even though he was innocent. Whilst the other men who were commanded with me went to fetch this innocent man, I went home, preferring to risk the wrath of the tyrants to doing any wrong. Just imagine if I had have acted according to my principles whilst maintaining a public life – I would not have survived very long at all.

- 10     

Would we do the same (ie stood up to the Tyrants)? Should we live in such a way? Would our lives be better if we did? Was our first reaction that it would be good for a man like Socrates to be a leader? Would it actually be the best thing?

But I have always acted in accordance with my principles and never changed for any one, even for those whom are slanderously called my disciples. I have actually never had regular disciples, but any one can come and hear me as I pursue my mission and nobody has to pay. 

What about ourselves would we ‘never change for anyone’?

However I do not take any responsibility for the way the listeners go on to act, good or bad, because I do not actually teach or pretend to teach them anything. And, I have definitely never instructed anyone in private – my words can be heard by the whole world if they wish. As to why people like to converse with me then? People simply enjoy hearing any pretender to wisdom being cross-examined by me, which as I have said, is simply my duty, but many do find it amusing.   

Why do people like it so much, is it still popular now? Do we have a natural wish for justice and truth? If so, where does this come from?

Now, if I am or have been corrupting any youth, those who have now grown up and realised that I led them astray are free to come forth and say so, I can see many of them here in court, if my accusers wished to bring these witnesses forward, they could-easily and should have done so. But it is apparent that the opposite is the truth, these ex-listeners to my discussions and their fathers and guardians actually support me, they do so for the sake of truth. Some of you, who may be accustomed to seeing it, or have even yourself done so, may ask as to why I have not brought my children into court and brought my eyes to tears, as if hoping by such a spectacle that you would spare me. At which, I reply, do not take offence, regardless of whether or not I am afraid of death, such actions would demean me, and considering the reputation for wisdom that has been applied to me (rightly or wrongly), would be shameful conduct.   

What is Socrates putting first here? Is that the wisest thing to do – why/ why not? How does that apply to us?

You may have seen some characters, even of great reputations, carrying on like this when they have been condemned, as if they hoped that by you sparing their lives, that they would become immortal, you will not see that from me.

- 11  

Would it make them immortal though? What are they really putting first?

Even if you set aside public opinion, I believe it is much more appropriate to inform and convince a judge than to simply appeal to his favour or sympathy. A judge’s duty is not to make a present of justice, but to give a judgment, as he has sworn, according to law. Such a habit of false persuasion is perjury, and is impious, and especially since I am on trial for impiety, do not expect me to participate in it. I will also not attempt to convince you by force of persuasion to disregard your oaths, then by implication, I would be teaching that there are no gods, and would simply convict myself of the charge against me! For I do believe there are gods, and in a sense higher than that in which any of my accusers believe in them. And to you and God I commit my cause, to be determined by you as is best for you and me. ………………………………………………………………………………………….. The vote is held and Socrates is found guilty. ………………………………………………………………………………………….. I am not surprised by the vote, I am only surprised it was so close (on thirty votes), but I am not grieved. ………………………………………………………………………………………….. The accusers propose death as the penalty ………………………………………………………………………………………….. Socrates has an opportunity to propose an alternative penalty: I only propose for myself that which is due, and what is that? What is appropriate for a man who has never been idle, but has been careless of wealth and family, military offices, prestige etc…? I knew that I was too honest a man to become a politician and live, I did not conduct myself on the public stage, but helped you in private: I sought to persuade every one to look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before private interest, and to look to the state itself, before looking at the interests of the state – and that this should be the order in which you consider all your actions. So what is my due? Doubtless it should be a good thing. What would you give to a poor man, who is your benefactor and who simply desires leisure so he can instruct you?

- 12 Well, you could maintain me so I could carry on, a far better use of public money than on a sportsman or charioteer. Such people only give you the appearance of happiness, whereas I give you the reality.   

Why is it that Socrates gives real happiness, why not the others mentioned? What do we experience contemplating Plato? Is that real?

You may believe that I am being reckless in what I am suggesting, but I do not believe I intentionally wronged anyone. If there was more time, perhaps I would have more of a chance, but I have had only a moment in reality to refute very great slanders against me. And, just as I have asserted that I have not wronged anyone else, I will not wrong myself, therefore I cannot propose a punishment for myself, why should I, simply to protect myself from death? I don’t even know if that is a good or a bad thing. 

Is it better to suffer and evil than to cause one to happen unjustly?

Why should I propose that I be imprisoned, at the mercy of the magistrates, or fined, for which I will have to go to prison anyway, as I have no money to pay, or exiled, only to be rejected and harassed wherever I would go, for the young men would wish to follow me and I would either drive them away and they would turn against me, or their parents would drive me away if I did not. I could also not simply just go into exile, and learn to be quiet, for as I have said, my actions are in obedience to God, and if I say that these actions are to daily discourse about virtue and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me even less. Yet this is all true. As I said, although I believe that I should not suffer any harm, but if you believe that a fine is appropriate, my friends, Plato, Crito, Critobulus and Apollodorus have said they will provide security for thirty minae. The jury decide that the punishment for Socrates is to be death. I believe that this jury (the ones who voted for death) will get an evil name with the detractors of this city, they will say that you ‘killed a wise man’. Not that I call myself wise, but they will want to reproach you. If you had have waited just a few more years, nature would have taken me anyway. You may think that I was convicted because I had not the right sort of words, but I say that I the deficiency on my part was that I refused to abase myself in front of you with weeping and wailing, but I thought at the time that I ‘will not’ do anything common or mean when in danger, and I do not repent it. I would rather die having spoken in my manner, than speak in yours and live.

- 13   

How would we feel in this situation? Can we relate to what Socrates is saying? If so, what things are we true to?

Neither in war or law should a man do anything just to escape danger. A man could, when in battle, throw away his arms and surrender to avoid death, but I say to you that the difficulty is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness, for that runs faster than death. I am old, and death, although slow, has overtaken me, but my accusers are fast, and unrighteousness has overtaken them.  

Does unrighteousness catch-up with us/others? Does it result in suffering?

And while I go to suffer the penalty of death, they go too, condemned, to suffer the penalty of villainy and wrong, let us each take our reward. And I prophesy (as people do when they are about to die) to you who condemned me and are my murderers, that immediately after I do you will endure a much-worse fate. You have killed me because you wanted to escape the accuser and not to give an account of your lives, but you will not get your wish. For many will now accuse you, whom I have until now restrained, and being younger than me they will not be as considerate as I am. If you wish to avoid having people censuring your evil life, the answer is not to go around killing those who do, but to improve your life. 

What motivates us to avoid the truth and not face facts?!

To the friends who tried to acquit me, I would like to tell you of a wonderful circumstance. The divine faculty which always tells me stop when I am going to make an error, in this instance, when I am faced with death, has made no sign of opposition to me at all. I believe this to be a sign that what has happened to me is for the good. The divine sign would have surely opposed me had I been going to evil and not good. Therefore those of us who think death is an evil are in error. If we reflect another way, we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good. Death is either one of two things – a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.  

What do we think? Are there other alternatives?

Now if there is simply no consciousness after death, but a state like a deep, dreamless sleep, then what a gain it must be. Any man would say that any night they have had of beautiful sleep, undisturbed by dreams was the most pleasant night they have ever experienced, then who wouldn’t call it a great gain to spend an eternity in such a night?

- 14 If after death, the soul makes a pilgrimage, and this pilgrim arrives in the world below, he would leave behind those who only profess to know and administer Justice in this world, to a place where those who truly know Justice dwell, Minos and Rahadamanthus and other sons of God, righteous in their own life and sitting as true judges in the world below.  

Can true justice be found on this earth? Can we find it in ourselves?

Who would not want to make the pilgrimage to that place? To be able to talk to Homer and Orpheus, Hesiod and Musaeus? If this is so, let me die and die again! I could meet all the heros such as Ajax who suffered death through an unjust judgement. Above all, I could continue my search into true and false knowledge, as I have in this world, and I shall find out who is wise and who pretends to be wise and is not. What would a man not give to be able to converse with all the fabled heroes who have gone before us, who have shined before us, and put our questions to them – especially in a world where they do not put a man to death for asking questions, for in that world not only are they happier than we are, they will be immortal also – if what is said is true. Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death, and know of a certainty that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death. 

Can evil happen to a good person?

He and his are not neglected by the gods, nor is my own approaching end mere chance – but I see clearly that it was better fore me to die and be released from trouble. Wherefore, I am not angry with my accusers, or condemners, they have done me no harm, although they did not mean to do me any good, and for this I may gently blame them. Still I have one more favour to ask, when my sons are grown-up, I would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches or anything, more than about virtue, or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing. Then reprove them, for not caring about what they ought to care, and if you do this, I and my sons will have received justice at your hands. The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways – I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows. The end.

Plato's Apology - A Precis with challenging questions  
Plato's Apology - A Precis with challenging questions  

A precis of the Jowett translation of Plato's Apology of Socrates, with some challenging personal questions that arose in me in response t...