Apology of Plato

Two posts ago I wrote about the difficulty we encounter, when reading Plato’s dialogs, distinguishing his teachings from those of Socrates. Because the Apology is an early dialog and the subject matter is Socrates himself, it may give the most accurate portrait of him of all the dialogs. The apology is a “transcript” of Socrates’ defense while on trial for his life. In the decade following his execution (in 399 BCE) a number of authors wrote their own accounts of the trial, and Plato probably wanted to create a definitive version to defend the memory of his teacher. Of course no record of the trial is completely accurate, if only because the Greeks had not yet invented the concept of a court reporter and thus had to rely on their memories of what was said.

Socrates Dictates his Will, Josef Abel, 1800 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Socrates Dictates his Will, Josef Abel, 1800 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

One of the most important things to remember when reading the Apology, is that Socrates really didn’t care whether he won or lost the trial. He was 70 years old and had already reached a place in his philosophy in which he no longer feared death,

For let me tell you, gentlemen, that to be afraid of death is only another form of thinking that one is wise when one is not; it is to think that one knows when one does not know. No one knows with regard to death whether it is not really the greatest blessing that can happen to a man; but people dread it as though they are certain that it is the greatest evil; and this ignorance, which thinks that it knows what it does not, must surely be ignorance most culpable. (29a-b)

Transcending fear, particularly the fear of death, is one of the great benefits of studying philosophy. Unmotivated by fear, Socrates was free to follow his own convictions–and possibly the urgings of his daemon–and seize on the trial as one more chance to educate the Athenians and set an example for his students by demonstrating his dialectic.

Thus Socrates, whose disclaimer that he doesn’t know how to speak in court sounds weak from a man who has already put the greatest sophists of the day in their place, spends most of the trial bringing up edgy theological ideas, such as when he calls on the god Apollo as a witness or when, in passing, he asserts that the Gods cannot lie. Both of these points required a number of unorthodox assumptions and would have made most of the jurors uncomfortable. Socrates then goes on to demonstrate his teaching method by cross examining Meletus which, to most of the jurors, would have been more a demonstration of how annoying he could be. Towards the end of his defense he declines to beg for the court’s mercy (a standard section in Athenian court practice) and explains away his lack of political service by saying that he just would have been gotten himself killed by the other Athenians had he involved himself,

The true champion of justice, if he intends to survive even a short time, must necessarily confine himself to private life and leave politics alone. (32a)

No one, least of all Socrates, is surprised when the court returns a “guilty” verdict. The prosecution recommends the death penalty. Athenian law allows the defendant to propose his own penalty, and everyone expects him to suggest exile, which the jury will probably accept. Instead, he proposes a trivially small fine, saying its the most he can afford. He then raises the number, after Crito and others offer to pay. Obviously, though, if Socrates’ friends are paying it won’t really be a punishment.

Socrates is sentenced to die and soon becomes the most famous martyr to philosophy in Western history (or perhaps the second most famous, depending how one classifies Jesus).

Socrates and Plato [public domain via Internet Archive]

Socrates and Plato [public domain via Internet Archive]

At this point, let’s pause to contrast the careers of Socrates and Plato. Socrates “The Gadfly” was an outsider who was always as odds with, and ultimately executed by, the system. Plato was a respected citizen who died in his sleep at a party. Socrates’ teachings were primarily dialectical–dealing with ways to change and improve society. Plato’s were primarily metaphysical and idealistic and implied that one might as well accept society because the physical world wasn’t the real world anyway as well as advocating a world view that was ultimately static. Socrates discarded his (probably lower-middle) social class and became something else. Plato remained close to his aristocratic roots. Socrates conversed in the streets and at dinner parties. Plato taught at an a academy.

If we think of “philosopher” as a role in society then, in many ways, these two men are the original archetypes of the two kinds of philosopher that have historically been found in Western Civilization. For want of better terminology, I call them Outsiders and Academics, and I am currently writing a book about the Outsiders. While I would of course love it if you were to buy my book, when it comes out, everything you really need to know about the two can be found by studying Socrates and Plato. Outsiders like Socrates are the initiators: they force society to examine new ideas. Since societies don’t really like new ideas, the Outsiders usually suffer for it, financially and/or physically. The Academics, on the other hand, safe within legitimized social organizations such as universities, are the developers and guardians of the new ideas which were first introduced by outsiders. Occasionally, an academic is able to conceive and promulgate a truly original idea, but this is rare because the process they go through to earn their positions selects against innovators and because they have too much to loose to buck the system. Our civilization seems to need both types of philosopher to function.


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