Plato’s Apology

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David

The Apology is a dialogue written by Plato around 399 B.C. The work represents the events of Socrates’s legal defense against the accusations laid out by the Athenian court against him.

The Apology is one of Plato’s most famous works and is one of the most moving accounts of a man’s philosophical sentiments. During the trial, Socrates was around seventy years old, and he not only countered the accusations set against him but also explained his life, which he led around his philosophy. In the early stages of the trial, Socrates compared himself with the sophists and other philosophers that came before him. He also compared himself with the politicians of his time. In doing so, he made an impression that he is different from these types of people in that he lives his life based on his philosophy. In Socrates’ view, philosophy is not about the simple act of hoarding knowledge, but instead, it is about questioning what is already accepted as common knowledge. Socrates did not treat philosophy as an amusement. He did not even treat it as a profession. He looked at philosophy as an instrument to be used by people in their search for justice and truth. This is what prompted Socrates to say that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates reminded those around him to always use their intellect to scrutinize their lives and ask themselves whether they are living their lives truthfully. In the end, Socrates described himself as a gadfly, a bug that bites a sleepy horse and annoys it. He compared the people of Athens to a sleepy horse, content with their beliefs which they do not examine and scrutinize. These people lived in self-contentment and never saw any reason to question themselves or their beliefs.

The Hated Philosopher

In his efforts to live his life around what he believed to be the right way to live it, Socrates earned the hatred of his fellow Athenians. He exerted his utmost to devote himself to the service of his friends by conversing with them about the philosophical way of life. He never accepted money from those who offered it to him. He was not a responsible father to his children, as he was often outside the house, devoted to conversing about philosophy with other people. Ironically, his way of life and his relentless questioning led to him being accused of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates knew very well what was coming to him. Eventually, the accusations against him led the Athenian court to sentence him to death.

Socrates’ Harsh Words Against Democracy

During the time of Socrates, the people of Athens were very proud of their democracy. To them, it was the best political arrangement there is. Being a democracy, Athens is ruled by the masses. And in a society where the masses rule, the moral failings of the masses tend to be overlooked. Socrates may be described as being righteous when he said that people should examine their lives and their beliefs, but most people do not want to be challenged in intellectual argumentation. Most people will remain contentedly lazy and simply sink into their comfortable lives, confident in their beliefs. Anyone who managed to irritate them and made them feel intellectually lacking in some way would naturally be a target of their bitterness. Socrates criticized Athenian democracy by comparing it to a ship. He says that in the business of sailing, the captain of the ship should naturally be knowledgeable in the business of sailing, and anyone who knows nothing about it should not be allowed to command a ship. However, in the democracy prevailing in Athens, everyone who can claim to guide the city can win a seat in politics. Most people are too lazy to think deeply about important matters, and when these people manage to gain political power, their inability to think deeply will result in poor handling of the government. And so. Socrates establishes that democracy has ingrained faults within its system and that these faults naturally lead to corruption. To add to his harsh comments about Athenian democracy, Socrates also criticized the Athenian court for letting emotional appeals meddle with the administration of justice. 

Impiety and the Corruption of the Athenian Youth

Socrates defends himself against the charge of impiety by pointing out that he was pious. He says he has faithfully fulfilled his mission in submission to the god who inhabits Delphi. The Oracle at Delphi had earlier pronounced Socrates as the wisest of all men. Socrates was perplexed rather than boastful after hearing the oracle’s words. He knew that he knew nothing, and now the oracle proclaims him as the wisest of men. He set out to prove the oracle was wrong by asking his fellow Athenians what was truly valuable in life. Socrates believed that anyone who could give him a good answer would surely be wiser than him and therefore prove the oracle wrong. But Socrates found out that people merely pretended that they knew the answer, yet no one was able to satisfy his curiosity. He eventually thought that the oracle might be right because he was the only one who was ready to admit his ignorance to himself and to everyone else, thus making him the wisest of all men.

Socrates claims that he hears an inner voice — a “divine sign” — that guides him to avoid wrong choices. This may make a man sound strange but not politically dangerous. However, the fact that Socrates has a group of youthful followers who converse with him about philosophical matters and who admire him, makes him a dangerous citizen in the eyes of the Athenian court.

The Death Sentence

The court eventually found Socrates guilty by a vote of 280 to 220. The jurors determined that Socrates should be sentenced to death. However, they ask Socrates what he feels is the best punishment that suits his crime. Socrates responded that he should be rewarded instead of punished for his actions. He was asked again, and this time, he said that he should be fined a modest amount of money. The jury decided that Socrates deserved death more than the fine. He was then moved to a jail where he was eventually ordered to drink a cup of hemlock, a highly-poisonous plant.

The Apology’s accuracy has been debated by scholars for centuries. Some scholars believe that Plato strived for accuracy in recording the events during the trial. They argue that Plato expected his work to be read by many Athenians, including those who attended the trial, not long after the death of Socrates. Plato must have anticipated that people could accuse him of distorting speeches made by the accused and the accusers. It is possible that Plato may have recorded most of the words uttered by Socrates and later may have consulted other people’s recollection of the trial. After cross-checking with the recollections of people who attended the trial, Plato may have rewritten his notes and made them as close as possible to what was actually said in the trial. It is also possible that Plato added words that Socrates did not deliver, or may have polished some of Socrates’ speech and made them more powerful. In Plato’s time, the concept of accurate reporting did not exist yet and the Apology was only Plato’s way of recording his teacher’s defense. It cannot be overlooked that Plato admired his teacher so much and his primary purpose in writing the Apology was to portray Socrates in a much better light than his accusers. At the same time, Plato may have written the Apology as an attempt to show Athens that Socrates was right in promoting the idea of examining one’s own beliefs.