Plato, “Apology”

In the Apology, Socrates defends himself, badly, against the charge of impiety stemming from the belief that he has corrupted the youth, denied the city’s gods, and introduced new divinities. On trial for his life, Socrates demonstrates the implausibility and ridiculousness of the charges and of those who have brought these charges against him, and slyly mocks the norms of the Athenian judicial system. It is both thrilling and frustrating to watch him destabilize the authority of those Athenians in whose hands his fate lays; we know it will end badly. Indeed, he is finally condemned to death. And yet, in his picture of himself as gadfly of Athens, Socrates suggests he could not have done otherwise.

Plato implies early on that these are stock charges of the time. Rumors had been spread that Socrates attributed natural phenomena to physical, rather than divine, causes, in the manner of the pre-Socratics. Also that he often made the weaker argument defeat the stronger, a reference to his portrayal in Aristophanes’s The Clouds. Apparently, these unfounded rumors were going around for some time. They must have been sufficiently prevalent for Aristophanes to make use of them without fear.

Now Socrates tears a strip off of Meletus by analyzing his argument (the method called elenchus) and showing how he contradicts himself. How could Socrates be an atheist who invents new gods? By the end, Socrates is essentially berating Meletus, arguing that he’s an impudent little creep who couldn’t care less for the good of Athens and just wants an irritant out of the way. Most likely some of this is Plato getting in a few good licks for his late teacher; but it’s hard not to feel bad for Meletus, who is made a fool of.

Not only does Socrates care about the good of Athens; he sees his continuous undermining of the mistakes by which they live to be good for them. He says that life without examination of oneself and others is not worth living. Thus God has given him the role of gadfly- irritating Athens, while driving it forward. The allusion to Io is striking and a bit inexplicable. But this is one of the few times that Socrates openly alludes to his method or how it might be perceived by others. He knows that he is a nuisance, and yet his daimon compels him to be a pest.

As for his particular wisdom, Socrates claims it consists of knowing how little he knows, recalling the theme of doubt we noted in the Euthyphro. Having been told by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi that he is the wisest man, Socrates set about questioning every wise man he could to find what their wisdom consisted of. He discovered that most were wise in one area by a sort of divine inspiration and tried to apply that wisdom to areas where they knew nothing. They did not know how little they knew. Socrates, in contrast, embodied a sort of intellectual humility.

The cliché, of course, is that people in my chosen profession exhibit the trait of intellectual arrogance like nobody else. I have certainly met a few (two) snide and supercilious academics in my time; however, I’ve met a great number who hewed closer to the “nerd” than the “snob” genotype: they’re obsessed with one, somewhat esoteric, topic, and nervous that everyone else will realize what a dim bulb they are in most other areas. If anything, a decade in academia has given me a surfeit of intellectual humility. If you have a few hours, I can detail for you the areas in which I am a dumb ass.

Of course, the point isn’t to be ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’; it’s to incessantly want to know more than you do. Socrates’s main point: A life without curiosity doesn’t count.

That means we should try to discover what other people think and what ideas they live by. Should we then point out to them when those ideas do not gibe with reality? The lesson of Socrates seems to be that, if you tell people the truth about their cherished myths, they’re going to kill you. For Socrates, it’s a price worth paying because he has attended to their souls as a holy scourge. His actions, although unfortunate, make sense because he believes in his divine mission and in the eternal soul that accomplishes its own mission by apprehending truth and denying untruth.

You have to care a great deal for other people’s souls, or at least hope that you and they will find truth together, to die for their benefit. Most of us recognize at some point or another that 99% of everything we, and everyone around us, believe is complete nonsense; but it’s maybe healthier to respond by drinking a few beers, venting on the Internet, and listening to old punk rock records. At any rate, you’re less likely to be killed.

1. I’ve been a bit lazy about these. What can I say? It’s summer. Gardening, going for walks, and making love to my wife have been more inviting than blogging. Understandable I’d say.

2. Of course, we’ll be getting to Crito and Phaedo ‘ere long. Stay tuned.

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4 thoughts on “Plato, “Apology”

  1. Dunno if you’d be interested, but here’s what my old professor had to say about the Apology: His main point, as I take it, is that Socrates really is guilty of impiety and that philosophy, by insisting that tradition, social conventions, myths, folk wisdom and such defend themselves against rational scrutiny, is incompatible with the city. Not sure I agree but it’s provocative stuff. Very Straussian.


  2. Heh.

    “Not sure I agree but it’s provocative stuff. Very Straussian.”

    Yeah, my prof gave about the same analysis, and he was a Straussian (had us read Persecution and the Art of Writing before we started in on Plato). In the end, I became very skeptical Straussian interpretation of Plato. See Ryle’s review of Bloom’s translation of The Republic at NYRB – pretty much sums up how I feel about the enterprise: it always seems to end being way over the top. It wouldn’t surprise me if among Strauss’s nachlass we were to find something along the lines of “Je ne suis pas un Straussian”….


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