Plato's Dialogues: Socrates' Defense

When we last left Socrates, he had just finished an unproductive discussion with Euthyphro, and was on his way to court to face charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates’ Defense, also commonly called the Apology, is not a dialogue, aside from a few lines, but a speech given by Socrates in answer to his accusers’ charges against him. This is the first time so far that Socrates speaks mostly of himself, and my understanding is that it’s the only time he does so at much length.

One interesting tidbit is that this is the first work so far to mention Plato by name. This makes the speech feel authentic, since the author explicitly puts himself at the scene, though of course, that doesn’t mean this is an accurate depiction of the trial.

In any case, Socrates begins by apologising for not being a great orator like his opponents. We should take this with a grain of salt since this claim is actually good rhetoric, disarming the audience from looking for slick oratory. He says that resentful men, like his accusers, have unjustly given him a bad name because of his past arguments with them, and their slander has prejudiced those who haven’t yet met him. As evidence of his good intentions, a bit later, Socrates cites his own poverty, and points out that he has always taught openly and free of charge. Clearly, then, he was not trying to stir up trouble or personally benefit from his vocation. He goes into an account of the beginning of his career, which is one of the highlights of the dialogues so far because it lets us see what Socrates believed he was doing, and this part is worth quoting at length:

You know Chaerephon, of course. He was a friend of mine from boyhood, and a good democrat who played his part in the recent expulsion and restoration. And you know what he was like, how enthusiastic he was over anything that he had once undertaken. Well, one day he actually went to Delphi and asked this question of the god, […] he asked whether there was anyone wiser than myself. The priestess replied that there was no one. As Chaerephon is dead, the evidence for my statement will be supplied by his brother, who is here in court.
Please consider my object in telling you this. I want to explain to you how the attack upon my reputation first started. When I heard about the oracle’s answer, I said to myself, What does the god mean? Why does he not use plain language? I am only too conscious that I have no claim to wisdom, great or small. So what can he mean by asserting that I am the wisest man in the world? He cannot be telling a lie, that would not be right for him.

So, Socrates then sets out to interview a man with a great reputation for wisdom. The result sounds like it must have been, well, a typical Socratic dialogue, and Socrates is less than impressed with his interlocutor. As he left the interview, he says that he thought to himself:

Well, I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of, but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.

This observation is the key point to all of the dialogues so far, and is the idea for which Socrates is, for good reason, best known. He then goes to other men, but the result of his conversations is always the same. A vain man with Socrates’ insight would be tempted to proclaim himself wiser than all, and given the hostility Socrates received he almost may as well have done so. His own interpretation of these events, though, is that the oracle had a point beyond Socrates himself:

The effect of these investigations of mine, gentlemen, has been to arouse against me a great deal of hostility, […] which has resulted in various malicious suggestions, including the description of me as a professor of wisdom. This is due to the fact that whenever I succeed in disproving another person’s claim to wisdom in a given subject, the bystanders assume that I know everything about the subject myself. But the truth of the matter, gentlemen, is pretty certainly this, that real wisdom is the property of God, and this oracle is his way of telling us that human wisdom has little or no value. It seems to me that he is not referring literally to Socrates, but has merely taken my name as an example, as if he would say to us, The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless.

Despite this defense, Socrates is condemned. He observes, after hearing his sentence, that he is proud of the way he conducted himself, for not stooping to sophistry or begging forgiveness from the jury. “I did not think then,” he says, “that I ought to stoop to servility because I was in danger.” In law as in warfare, it’s better to die honorably than to survive by a cowardly surrender.

Now, Plato clearly portrays Socrates as the protagonist in this dialogue, with his accusers and the majority of the jurors as the villains, but then, we’d expect a devoted student to defend his teacher in this way. So let’s ask the barely-thinkable question: Were his accusers right? The question seems absurd, but keep in mind that unlike us, his accusers were there at the time, and were able to convince a majority of jurors of their case.

We are working at a serious disadvantage, since our main source for knowledge of Socrates is Plato’s dialogues, and a few other works by contemporaries, some flattering and some not. I can easily see how a man like Socrates, if portrayed less sympathetically, could be a public nuisance, and indeed, even guilty of the charges against him. The main problem is that Socrates’ method is entirely destructive. In every dialogue, he tears down his interlocutors’ beliefs and offers nothing to replace them. Now, in some cases the ideas he does this to should be discarded, but sometimes, they’re more benign. Meno, for example, is clearly demoralised by his discussion with Socrates, though he did seem to benefit from the conversation.

The contrast between Meno and Euthyphro is a key point. We can’t progress on the road to wisdom by carrying faulty ideas, and we can’t arrive at truth unless we’re willing to discard falsehoods. If we’re willing to do so, like Meno, then Socrates has provided a service, albeit an often frustrating one, by letting us know that we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. If we’re unwilling to concede anything, like Euthyphro, then Socrates is merely wasting time. Again, we must take Plato’s portrayal with a grain of salt, but he comes across as genuine, not as a modern Philosophy grad student delighting in deconstruction for its own sake. Besides, Socrates’ poverty and unpopularity - enough unpopularity to find himself in court condemned to death! - indicates that he didn’t gain much of anything from his career, besides a handful of loyal friends and students, and a great deal of hostility.

So, for now, we’ll leave the discussion there. Next up will be Crito, and I do plan to get to that with less delay than that between Euthyphro and Socrates’ Defense.