The Apology of Socrates: Plato’s Philosophical Groundwork
The Apology is one of the earliest works of Plato, in which he presents Socrates’ defense against the charges brought about him by the Athenian court, accusing him of atheism, evil influence and corruption. Although critics differ in opinion on whether it is the first dialogue by Plato or not, what is without doubt is that it is one of his earliest works. If it is indeed the first, it is all the more significant because then it is the first glimpse of Western philosophy presented to the modern reader, as hardly anything from an earlier date survives.
What I’ve figured out as one of the most vehement debates surrounding the ‘Apology’ is the issue regarding the amount of truth in Plato’s account of Socrates’ judgment. The theory that it is completely a work of art, a creation of Plato’s fertile imagination is presently, on the whole, rejected. Socrates was sentenced in 399 BC, and many of the personals who were present during this famous court case (there were about 501 jurors to judge the case) were still alive, and any gross digression from Plato’s speech would have been immediately criticized, which was not the case at all in my opinion. The presentation of the Socratic defense in the Athenian court in fact became a popular literary and philosophical trope soon after the sentence, which proves two things: first, the incident created a sensation and was very well remembered by contemporary Athenians, and secondly, Plato was writing not an innovation, but well within a literary tradition (that of an apologia or defense), and there was no possibility of wild digression. The fact that Xenophon’s account of the same incident is also extant gives us a point of departure as well. What I like most about the literary technique is Plato’s use of a familiar device to prove the authenticity of his account. He makes Socrates mention him twice by name, thus legitimizing his right to present the account. At the same time, we must also remember that Plato at that time was only an emerging philosopher, and any wild digression from something that existed well grafted within living memory would have jeopardized his career as a philosopher, which in the Greek philosophical tradition in general and the Socratic tradition in particular, was defined as a seeker for truth.
However, I’ve noticed certain incongruities within the text itself, which makes us question the authenticity of the treatise. The work thus belongs neither to the realm of the chronicle tradition not to the purely fictional tradition. This brings us to the third possibility, which is the most interesting part of the apology: it is the personal adaptation of a significant historical (and for Plato, one with great personally significant) incident to create a philosophical point of departure for Plato to launch the deeper subjects of Socratic theorizing that he would make his own in subsequent years. I’ve found it meaningful both in the content as well in the form. To start with the later, The Apology though largely in the form of a speech, briefly introduces the dialectic form that would become the vehicle for the dissemination of much of Socratic thought, and would also become a viable model of philosophical discourse in subsequent years. Secondly, it foreshadows some of the characters and the types that would subsequently appear in other Socratic dialogues. The prosecutors appear in one or another form also appears in other dialogues of Plato. I strongly feel that through a device of historicity, Plato places Socratic well within the philosophical currents and the social forces of his time. This is an attempt to put Socratic philosophy in relief to the earlier philosophical tradition of the Sophists, with their stress on rhetoric. Socrates in his Defense, quips towards the rhetorical obsession of his predecessors. He accuses one of his prosecutors as the representative of the rhetoricians, thus placing them in the same category with politicians and the religious pariahs, all with dubious associations in the Socratic world. Secondly, Socrates himself precludes any attempt at rhetoric in his speech, stating that only truth will guide his words, thus effectively creating a cleavage between truth and rhetoric.
According to my opinion, the second is the way in which Plato introduces the devices that he was to later develop as a commendable tool in dealing with Socratic philosophy, in the narrative form of questioning and answering, popularly referred to as dialogues. We find an early form of dialogue in Socrates’ questioning of Meletus, one of his accusers. Referred to as the ‘elenchus’, this form of questioning does not prove anything to be true or false, but is employed to bring out the incoherencies within the proposition of interlocutor, thus revealing incoherencies within an accepted source of belief. The other form of conversation, which is geared towards bringing out truth in the form of enquiry is often referred to as ‘dialectic’, and is not much employed here. It will be later used to exemplary aptness in Republic and some of the later dialogues of Plato. It is thus, in the Apology, that we find laying down the groundwork and the methodology for his later philosophical treatises.
Apart from being a starter for more important works to follow, the Apology is itself part of a Platonic group, where it is conjoined with Euthyphro, Crito and Phaedo. I’ve observed that the uniqueness of this group lies in ‘a dramatic setting at around the time of Socrates’ trial and death, and they all contributed to a paradigm of how the philosopher should live and die’. (Tredennick xvii) Morality, as we all know, played a very important role in Plato’s philosophical scheme. In fact, it is the guiding theme of all Platonic dialogues, and Socrates for him acted as the very pinnacle and source of that morality. Morality was the touchstone through which Plato initiated his enquiries to a wide range of philosophical questionings. I believe that Socrates, for Plato, was the very pinnacle of the personal detachment that should characterize not only a philosopher’s thought but his life as well, because a life not led in accordance to one’s speech was bound to be hypocritical. Therefore, the moral thrust of the Apology is all the more important, as it shows not only how a philosopher should argue, and search for truth and the methodology that can be employed in reaching those conclusion, but more importantly, how that rigor and discipline, and detachment can be used and applied in the philosopher’s life as well. There is no denying the fact, that once asserting Socrates’ moral supremacy and transparency, it becomes easier for Plato to later on lay down the philosophy of ideas and make Socrates speak them. The truth would be justified by the way he lived, and died, and asserted thereby the truth in the existence of forms. To sum it up, I would argue that through this masterstroke, Plato succeeds in making the necessary groundwork for initiating the theory of Forms in Socratic ideals and the belief in the superficiality and transitory nature of life on earth.
Tredennick, Hugh. Harold Tarrant. The Last Days of Socrates. Penguin Classics. 2003.