(The) Apology (of Socrates) is Plato’s account of Socrates defending himself during the trial that would to his death. It is not a very reliable report of what Socrates actually said, but is rather Plato’s interpretation and elaboration of it, as seen from his idealistic perspective. However, scholars agree that some parts of Plato’s Apology brings out the essence and character of Socrates perhaps even better than a historically accurate chronicle of the trial could have. Even a single sentence in Apology may not have been spoken by Socrates, nevertheless much of it breathes his spirit.
With this caveat we can proceed to take a closer look at Socrates and his speech in this classic of Western philosophy and literature. It has also to be noted that the word ‘apology’ in this context does not mean excuse or regret as we use it in the modern day English, it comes from the Greek word “Apologia” which means defense or a speech made in defense; once ‘apology’ had this meaning in the English language too.
All his life Socrates did only one thing, he taught people to question. ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’ was Socrates’ motto. Examining means analysis, analysis means questioning and thinking. To Socrates, having a clarity of consciousness and depth of insight are much more important than accumulating knowledge, which normally means knowledge of various things of the outside world. If there is anything worth knowing, according to Socrates, it is, first and foremost, oneself. Pre-Socratic philosophers such as Thales, Anaxagoras, Anaximander were extremely curious about the nature of reality, they were the first scientists and explorers in their own primitive manner. Eventually they led the way for the modern science to emerge. Socrates was a curious person and a searcher too. However, for Socrates, who is considered the father of Western philosophy, the priorities were somewhat different. He had a rather pragmatic approach to life. One has to become luminous from within, one has to strive to know one’s own mind and consciousness first before going about exploring the whole wide world. In this sense, Socrates was much more of like a mystic than a philosopher. Yet at the same time he was a most down-to-earth and practical person, who sought all his life to awaken the people around him and transform the society. The Athenian establishment did not like him, and he was eventually brought to trial. Socrates was 70 years old at that time, yet young, lively and reverberant in his mind and spirit. Everyone knew he could be sentenced to death. Socrates was not a sentimental martyr to eagerly court death (perhaps as Jesus did), yet he was not afraid of death in the least. And so he spoke in his defense.
The main indictment against Socrates was, “Socrates is an evil-doer and corrupter of the youth, who does not receive the gods whom the state receive, but introduces other newer divinities.” This was what the establishment thought of him, but Socrates begins to elucidate what he thinks of himself. He is not an advocate of physical science or a Sophist, he says, but he has respect for them. Socrates refers to the incident where the Oracle of Delphi pronounced him to be the wisest man on the earth. It was a declaration that both shocked and intrigued him. But after meeting and interviewing many people from numerous walks of life over the years, he has found out that all these people did not know much but they thought they did. Socrates too knew nothing, but he knew that he knew nothing. Perhaps herein lay the only kind of wisdom Socrates had and perhaps herein lay the quintessence of wisdom: to know that one knows nothing. Socrates seemed to say: real knowledge consists in understanding how ignorant one is. And he was detested for this, he made many enemies because he disparaged the pundits and the professors of knowledge. But he was also loved by many young men of Athens for his clarity and courage, a fact which further infuriated the older self-conceited folks.
At this point, addressing his accuser Meletus directly on the charge being ‘a corrupter of citizens’, Socrates asks why on earth would he go about busying himself in such a futile task? He is not an enemy of the state, what would he stand to gain if he corrupted the same people with whom he had to live with. Surely, even if he happened to have corrupted people, it could not have been intentional. And if he did that unwittingly, he need to be instructed instead of being accused in the way he was. It goes without saying that Socrates is always open-minded and curious to learn. Regarding the charge of believing in new gods, Meletus clarifies that actually Socrates believes in no gods at all, and has taught that sun is a stone and the moon is earth. However, Socrates clarifies that that was taught by natural philosophers like Anaxagoras and not by himself. A part of the accusation against Socrates is that he believes in supernatural things and not in gods, but Socrates defends himself saying the only supernatural beings he knows are gods and sons of gods. Rather disappointingly though, this is a hollow argument on the part of Socrates, because even the Greeks believed in many kinds of spirits and supernatural beings besides the traditional gods. On the whole, the dialogue with Meletus is the weakest section of Apology, and does not reflect much of the Socratic spirit.
However, Apology bounces back with Socrates reaffirming his commitment to what he considers his mission in life. He asks the jury what could have been his motivation in pursuing his characteristic mode of philosophical inquiry even risking death. He says he does what he does because he believes in doing what is right. It is his duty, he says, a calling that came from the gods themselves. As such, he should be less willing to abandon his post as a seeker of truth than a good soldier would be to abandon his post. It is, of course, well known that Socrates had been a soldier when he was young, and here he invokes a kind of military dedication to one’s duty, regardless of whether it could lead to death or not.
Socrates’ wisdom lies in his brutal honesty and straightforwardness. He does not hesitate to admit that he does not know when he does not know. And in the present situation, he does not know anything about death. Normally, the unknown is the most fearful thing to most of us. However, though Socrates does not clarify the point, it would seem like curiosity has got the better of Socrates, taking over the natural fear component, indeed as it usually happens with many kinds of explorers. So, Socrates says, he does not fear the unknown. Socrates says it is foolish to fear the unknown, but when we examine it this assertion obviously does not stand to reason. Nonetheless, we can interpret Socrates’ logic in this way: since it is equally likely for the afterlife to contain many desirable aspects as much as it can contain undesirable and painful aspects — and one simply does not know — the prospect of death could be worth exploring. He is not particularly eager to explore death, but if the court can only acquit him if he is willing to give up philosophizing and interacting with people, then he does not mind dying instead of obliging the court.
Socrates says, to him wealth and respectability do not matter in the least. His allegiance is to truth, above all. Life has no meaning if it is not lived in pursuit of truth and perfection of the psyche (soul / mind). He says this, in essence, is the message he has taught the youth of Athens, and unless this is considered to be a source of corruption, he is innocent of the charges laid against him. As inspiring as it is, in this part of Apology Socrates causes some confusion because if he is acquitted he can still pursue philosophy and perfection of the soul, people do not have any objections in Socrates doing that per se, the problem comes only when he preaches to youngsters. Socrates fails to make a distinction between these two, but he seems to imply that they both together and cannot be separated.
Socrates says unlike most Athenian citizens (Athens was the first democracy of the world, and a direct democracy), he is not interested in politics and policies, he is in no way opposed to the state, his only interest is pursuit of truth at the individual level. Socrates expresses his view that a state would in fact become healthy and prosperous if its citizens grow in wisdom and virtue. As such, he is working for the state and not against the state.
Socrates’ arguments, however, failed to convince the jury. He was sentenced to death by consuming poison.
Allen, R.E. (Tr.). (1989). The Dialogues of Plato, Volume 1: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Gorgias, Menexenus (vol. 1). New Haven, CT : Yale University Press