Thursday 12 December 2013

The Apology of Socrates by Plato

The time is 399 B.C. and Socrates has been charged with the corruption of youth and for believing in gods other than the gods of Athens.  His defence?  He was told by Chaerophon, a companion of his, that the gods at Delphi had declared that no one was wiser than Socrates, and Socrates, knowing that he was neither great nor wise, set out to find a wiser man than he.  But ….. surprise! …… with each man, or segment of society Socrates questioned, he discovered that, while most men had knowledge, they were lacking wisdom and, as of the date of the trial, it does not appear that he has found one wise man.

So what made these respectable men of Athens so enraged that they demanded Socrates' death?  Perhaps the problem was that Socrates didn't merely question men …… he grilled them, he roasted them, he flambéd them, he broiled them and he probably verbally flogged them, before going on his merry way.  Is it any wonder that a large segment of Greek society was out for his blood?  Yet Socrates was not ignorant of his unfortunate affect on people.  He was aware of the brooding animosity of the enemies he had left scattered in his wake, but he proclaimed that his duty to God, nay, his responsibility to God, was to answer the question that was set before him:  Is Socrates the wisest man?

"Strange, indeed, would be my conduct, O men of Athens, if I who, when I was ordered by the generals whom you chose to command me at Potidea and Amphipolis and Delium, remained where they placed me like any other man, facing death ---- if, I say, now, when, as I conceive and imagine, God ordered me to fulfil the philosopher's mission of searching into myself and other men, I were to desert my post through fear of death, or any other fear; that would indeed be strange, and I might justly be arraigned in court for denying the existence of the gods, if I disobeyed the oracle because I was afraid of death: then I should be fancying that I was wise when I was not wise.  For this fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.  Is there not here conceit of knowledge, which is a disgraceful sort of ignorance?"

And to the possibility of being freed on the condition that he agreed to no longer attempt to influence the people (or to tell the truth, as Socrates would term it), he responds:

" ……. if this was the condition on which you let me go, I should reply:  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 anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?  Are you not ashamed of this? ……."

As far as Socrates was concerned, he had a duty to God and to truth to fulfill his purpose and nothing was going to sway him from this quest.  His rhetoric is brilliant but he really makes no effort to placate his accusers.  Though his life is important, which is evidenced by his attempt to refute the charges, there is something he places in much higher esteem:  the truth and his obligation to it.

"….. I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living ….."  

The Death of Socrates
by Jacques-Louis David

Sadly, the verdict was death for Socrates, his final words a moving epitaph:

"The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways --- I to die, and you to live.  Which is better, God only knows."


  1. Interesting post! I am trying to introduce myself to ancient literature and am a bit at a loss where to start. I know that many philosophers based their works on those of their teachers (like in case with Plato), so it would make sense to begin at the roots. If I start with Socrates, do you think I'll be okay?

    1. I chose to start with the Greeks and, first of all, I bought a book that would quickly introduce me to its important figures and its history. The Book of the Ancient Greeks by Dorothy Mills is excellent. It is aimed at high school students but it gives great background and it is not too overwhelming. Then I started with The Iliad, which I would recommend. Everything in Greek literature refers back to the war with Troy and its heroes; apparently Greek children were required to memorize the whole thing! Even in The Apology, Socrates mentions Troy so this is probably the best place to start. I would also read it in smaller sections so you can mull over what you've read. I scheduled it over about 2 months, reading regularly, and found this very helpful. It cemented what I'd read and made the book not so overwhelming. The Teaching Company (Great Courses) also has a great course you can purchase on The Iliad if you need further help.

      If you are looking to work chronologically through the ancients, The Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh would pre-date The Iliad (and possibly some other works that I'm not familiar with) but personally I liked The Iliad as the starting point and then you can move to The Odyssey.

      I admit I'm very picky about translation, but I would highly recommend Richard Lattimore for The Iliad. It's an excellent translation and IMO, clearer, more enjoyable and he communicates Greek culture very well. For The Odyssey I made the mistake of first reading Lattimore's translation (because I liked him so much for The Iliad) but Fagles was much better.

      In any case, I hope my answers give you more information for your step into ancient works. Best of luck! :-)

    2. Wow so much useful info, thanks! I can't believe I've never heard of Great Courses. I checked out my library and they actually stock a huge collection of their DVDs. I already put the Iliad one on hold. Thank you so very much for opening my eyes!

      I will take your advice and read The Book of Ancient Greeks first to get some background information. I also tried to read The Iliad before, but put it aside, so hopefully this ancient lit project of mine supplemented by the educational videos will motivate me to continue. Homer is definitely on my list of authors to read. I have both Iliad and Odyssey in Fagles translation, but I will search for a copy in Lattimore's to compare. Again, thank you kindly for sharing your experience. I can now take a few first firm steps on my journey to ancient literature.

    3. You're so welcome! Let me know if you want to do an Iliad buddy-read if you are going to read it later in the year. I've been wanted to re-read for the past year or so. I'm pretty "booked" up (ha, ha!) until April but after that my schedule opens up a little.

    4. Will do! That would be very nice!