This article is about the work by Plato. For
the article on Xenophon' work on the same subject, see Apology (Xenophon).
For other uses, see Apology (disambiguation).
(The) Apology (of Socrates) is Plato's version of the speech given by
Socrates as he defends himself against the charges of being a man "who
corrupted the young, did not believe in the gods, and created new
deities". "Apology" here has its earlier meaning (now usually expressed
by the word "apologia") of a formal defence of a cause or of one's
beliefs or actions (from the Latin apologia, from the Greek "apo" and
2 Socrates' accusers
3 The charges against Socrates
4 Part one
4.1 The verdict
5 Part two
6 Part three
7 Modes of interpretation
8 See also
Socrates begins by saying he does not know if the men of Athens (his jury) have
been persuaded by his accusers. This first sentence is crucial to the theme of
the entire speech. Plato often begins his Socratic dialogues with words which
indicate the overall idea of the dialogue; in this case, "I do not know".
Indeed, in the Apology Socrates will suggest that philosophy consists entirely
of a sincere and humble admission of ignorance, and that wisdom is really
nothing more than an acknowledgement of this ignorance.
Socrates begs the jury to judge him, not based on his oratory skills, in which
his accusers will surely surpass him, but based on his ability to speak the
truth. In fact, he will show that he is quite a skilled orator, and that the
beauty of his oration is in the truth he speaks. The entire dialogue is filled
Three men brought the charges against Socrates. They were:
Anytus, a prominent democrat and almost certainly the leader of the accusers,
whom Socrates describes as speaking on behalf of politicians and professional
Meletus, the chief spokesperson of the accusers and the target of much of
Socrates' attack, a fiery man with a beaked nose, and a representative of the
Lycon, about whom little is known; he was according to Socrates a representative
of the orators.
The groups mentioned here can be identified with those whom Socrates questioned,
and upset, in the early stages of his quest to find people who possessed
The charges against Socrates
Socrates summarises the formal charges against him as follows: "Socrates is
guilty of corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in supernatural
things of his own invention instead of the gods recognized by the State".
However, there was another set of 'charges' against him which Socrates
recognised as being more important, and dangerous, because they stemmed from
years of gossip and prejudice against him and hence were unanswerable. These so
called 'informal charges' Socrates puts into a legalistic form — an 'affidavit'
as he calls it: "Socrates is committing an injustice, in that he enquires into
things below the earth and in the sky, and makes the weaker argument the
stronger, and teaches others to follow his example". He says that these
allegations stem from a certain comic poet, namely Aristophanes.
The charges against him were typical of the charges against the sophists.
Socrates was wrongly associated with the sophists. It is noteworthy that a
sophist is, literally, a "wise person". Socrates will never claim to be wise,
but only to be able to love wisdom (philosophy).
The Apology can be divided into three parts. The first part is Socrates's own
defense of himself and includes the most famous parts of the text, namely his
recounting of the Oracle at Delphi and his cross-examination of Meletus.
Socrates begins by repeating the charges against him, but simply contradicts
them. He says he wishes he had the sort of wisdom the Sophists claim to have and
praises them for being so generous in selling such great knowledge at such a
humble cost (in fact, he says, his friend Callias had to pay only a year's worth
of his income to have his son instructed in this sort of wisdom).
He then tells the story of
Chaerephon, who went to the Oracle at Delphi, to ask if anyone in the land was
wiser than Socrates. When Chaerephon reported to Socrates that the god told him
there is none wiser, Socrates became disturbed. He then went on what he calls a
"divine mission" to find someone wiser than he and prove the god wrong.
In the beginning, this
pilgrimage involved questioning three main groups: politicians, poets and
craftsmen. He found that the politicians knew little, that poets had a source of
inspiration beyond themselves because others could explain their poems better
than the author, and that while craftsmen possessed knowledge of their
particular skill, they felt it gave them the right to claim knowledge in every
other area as well.
This task of questioning, known as the "Socratic Method", made Socrates
unpopular, especially as the young men of Athens began to mimic him. This was
compounded by the general view that Socrates was playing stupid by pretending
not to know the answers when in fact he did. Socrates interpreted his pilgrimage
as showing that true wisdom belongs to the gods — that of humans has no or
little value. The actions of young men who followed Socrates, Plato being one of
them, questioned the established people of Athens and led to one of the charges
Socrates has a three-pronged attack against this charge that he was corrupting
He asks Meletus whether the youth are corrupted or made better by various
classes of Athenian society. Meletus states that every faction improves the
youth with the solitary exception of Socrates, which is an obvious absurdity.
Socrates then suggests that since Meletus does not have enough interest in the
young to find out how they might be improved, he should not have brought such a
charge against Socrates.
He argues that if he set out to corrupt the young men around him, he would be
one of the first to suffer harm at their hands. What sane person would do this?
He would be setting up a bad community instead of the good one Meletus admits
everyone would prefer.
If he did this intentionally,
Socrates argues, he could be rightfully accused of acting in an ignorant way.
This leaves one possibility, if someone has been corrupted. This is that
Socrates acted unintentionally; in which case he should be taken aside by the
judges and shown the error of his ways.
Socrates then proceeds to deal with the second charge, that he is an atheist who
believes in strange spiritual things. He continues to question Meletus on this
Socrates begins his defence by
backing Meletus into a corner. Meletus argues that Socrates is actually an
atheist: he believes in no gods at all. In doing so Meletus, as Socrates points
out, contradicts the wording of the charge.
This allows Socrates greater room to attack Meletus. All he has to do is prove
he believes in one divine being at least, and the revised charge will be
disproved. He does this through analogy. Does anyone, he asks, believe in human
activities without believing in humans? In equine matters without believing in
horses? In musical activities but not in musicians? Similarly, no one believes
in divine activities without believing in divine beings. Obviously, if Socrates
is being accused of believing and teaching supernatural things, he must believe
in supernatural beings, and not be an atheist. Also, while he does not mention
it, Socrates is referring to his daimon, a negative or checking impulse which
bars him from certain courses of action. This, treated with suspicion, is linked
by Socrates to Apollo.
Socrates repeats his claim that it will not be the formal charges which will
destroy him, but rather the gossip and slander. He is not afraid of death,
because he is more concerned about whether he is acting rightly or wrongly.
Further, Socrates argues, those who fear death are showing their ignorance:
death may be a great blessing, but many people fear it as an evil when they
cannot possibly know it to be such. Again Socrates points out that his wisdom
lies in the fact that he is aware that he does not know.
Socrates states clearly that a lawful superior, whether human or divine, should
be obeyed. If there is a clash between the two, however, divine authority should
take precedence. "Gentlemen, I am your grateful and devoted servant, but I owe a
greater obedience to God than to you; and as long as I draw breath and have my
faculties I shall never stop practising philosophy". Since Socrates has
interpreted the Delphic Oracle as singling him out to spur his fellow Athenians
to a greater awareness of moral goodness and truth, he will not stop questioning
and arguing should the people forbid him to do so, even if they were to withdraw
the charges. Nor will he stop questioning his fellow citizens. "Are you now
ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and
similarly with reputation and honour, and give no attention or thought to truth
and understanding and the perfection of your soul?"
In an highly inflammatory
section of the Apology, Socrates claims that no greater good has happened to
Athens than his concern for his fellow citizens, that wealth is a consequence of
goodness (and not the other way round), that God does not permit a better man to
be harmed by a worse, and that, in the strongest statement he gives of his task,
he is a stinging fly and the state a lazy horse, "and all day long I will never
cease to settle here, there and everywhere, rousing, persuading and reproving
every one of you."
As further evidence of his task, Socrates reminds the court of his daimon which
he sees as a supernatural experience. He recognises this as partly behind the
charge of believing in invented beings. Again Socrates makes no concession to
his situation. He would have been well aware that many if not most in the
courtroom would have viewed this with utmost suspicion.
Socrates claims to never have
been a teacher, in the sense of imparting knowledge to others. He cannot
therefore be held responsible if any citizen turns bad. If he has corrupted
anyone, why have they not come forward to be witnesses? Or if they do not
realise that they have been corrupted, why have their relatives not stepped
forward on their behalf? Many relatives of the young men associated with him,
Socrates points out, are presently in the courtroom to support him.
Socrates concludes this part of the Apology by reminding the jurors that he will
not resort to the usual emotive tricks and arguments. He will not break down in
tears, nor will he produce his three sons in the hope of swaying the jurors. He
does not fear death; nor will he act in a way contrary to his religious duty. He
will rely solely on sound argument and the truth to present his case.
Socrates is found guilty: 280 jurymen voted against him, 221 voted for him.
In this section of the Apology, Socrates antagonises the court even further. It
was the tradition that the defendant could speak again before the jury decides
on a suitable punishment.
He points out that the vote
was comparatively close: had only 30 more voted for him, he would have been
found innocent. He engages in some dark humour by suggesting that Meletus be
fined for not meeting the statutory one-fifth of the votes (in order to avoid
frivolous cases coming to court, plaintiffs were fined heavily if the jurors'
votes did not reach this number in a case where the defendant won). Since there
were 501 jurymen, the prosecution had to gain at least 100 of the jurors' votes.
Taken by itself however Meletus' vote (as representing one-third of the
prosecution case) numbered only 93 or 94. Regardless of the number of
plaintiffs, it was their case that had to reach the requisite one-fifth. Not
only that, the prosecutors had won.
Socrates's alternative punishment did not make him any more popular. He first
proposes, as a benefactor to Athens, free meals in the Prytaneum, one of the
important buildings which housed members of the Council. This was an honour
reserved for athletes and other prominent citizens.
Socrates considers imprisonment and banishment before settling on a fine of 100
drachmae, presumably on the basis that money meant nothing to him. This was a
small sum when weighed against the punishment proposed by the prosecutors and
gave the jury little choice but to vote for the death penalty. Socrates'
supporters immediately increased the amount to 3,000 drachmae, but in the eyes
of the jury this was not an alternative.
The jury decided on the sentence of death.
Socrates' punishment speech angered the jurors. 360 voted for the death penalty;
only 141 voted for a fine of 3,000 drachmae. Now Socrates has to respond to the
verdict. He first addresses those who voted for death.
He claims that it is not a lack of arguments that has resulted in his
condemnation, but rather his unwillingness to stoop to the usual emotive appeals
expected of any defendant facing death. Again he insists that the prospect of
death does not absolve one from following the path of goodness and truth.
Socrates prophesies that younger and harsher critics will follow him and submit
them to an even more telling examination of their lives.
To those who voted for his acquittal, Socrates gives them encouragement: He says
that his daimon did not stop him from conducting his defence in the way that he
did as a sign that it was the right thing to do. As a consequence, death must be
a blessing. Either it is an annihilation or a migration to another place to meet
souls of famous people such as Hesiod and Homer and heroes like Odysseus. With
these, Socrates can continue his task of questioning.
Socrates concludes his Apology with the claim that he bears no grudge against
those who accused and condemned him, and in a remarkable show of trust asks them
to look after his three sons as they grow up, ensuring that they put goodness
before selfish interests.
Modes of interpretation
Three different methods for interpreting the Apology have been suggested. The
first, that it was meant to be solely a piece of art, is not widely held, in
spite of Plato's reputation as an artist.
A second possibility is that the Apology is an historical recounting of the
actual defence made by Socrates in 399 BCE. This seems to be the oldest opinion.
Its proponents maintain that, as one of Plato's earliest works, it would not
have been fitting to embellish and fictionalise the memory of his master,
especially while so many who remembered him were still living.
In 1741, Johann Jakob Brucker
was the first to suggest that Plato was not to be trusted as a source about
Socrates. Since that time more evidence has been brought to light supporting the
theory that the Apology is not a historical account but a philosophical work.
Apparent inconsistencies back this notion. (For example, it would have been
absurd to ask the oracle of Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates if Socrates
had not previously dealt in philosophical matters — contrary to Socrates' own
Luis Noussan-Lettry has proposed important existential and phenomenological
frameworks for interpreting the philosophy of the Apology. Concerning all the
early works of Plato, especially the Apology and the Crito, he has said that it
is best to first establish the theme of the piece and then interpret every
passage in light of that theme. Echoing Kant, he calls this progression from the
historical (and inadequate) interpretations to the thematic interpretation a
For Noussan-Lettry, the Apology is important because, if read correctly, it
brings the reader directly to the Socratic method and makes the Platonic themes
immediately comprehensible without recourse to pedagogy. To read the Apology is
to take part in a dialogue.