Plato's 'Apology'

Socrates On Trial For His Life

Bust of Socrates. Sting/Wikimedia Commons

Plato's Apology is one of the most famous and admired texts in world literature.  It offers what many scholars believe is a fairly reliable account of what the Athenian philosopher Socrates (469 BCE - 399 BCE) said in court on the day that he was tried and condemned to death on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. Although short, it offers an unforgettable portrait of Socrates, who comes across as smart, ironic, proud, humble, self-assured, and fearless in the face of death.

 It offers not just a defense of Socrates the man but also a defense of the philosophical life, which is one reason it has always been popular with philosophers!

The text and the title

The work was written by Plato who was present at the trial.  At the time he was 28 years old and a great admirer of Socrates, so the portrait and the speech may be embellished to cast both in a good light.  Even so, some of what Socrates' detractors called his "arrogance" comes through. The Apology is most definitely not an apology: the Greek word "apologia" really means "defense."

Background: Why was Socrates put on trial?

This is a little complicated.  The trial took place in Athens in 399 BCE.  Socrates was not prosecuted by the state--that is, by the city of Athens, but by three individuals, Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon.  He faced two charges:

1) corrupting the youth

2) impiety or irreligion.  

But as Socrates himself says, behind his "new accusers" there are "old accusers." Part of what he means is this.

 In 404 BCE, just five years earlier, Athens had been defeated by its rival city state Sparta after a long and devastating conflict known ever since as the Peloponnesian War. Although he fought bravely for Athens during the war, Socrates was closely associated with characters like Alcibiades who some blamed for Athens' ultimate defeat.


Worse still, for a short time after the war, Athens was ruled by a bloodthirsty and oppressive group put in place by Sparta, the "thirty tyrants" as they were called.  And Socrates had at one time been friendly with some of them.  When the thirty tyrants were overthrown in 403 BCE and democracy was restored in Athens, it was agreed that no-one should be prosecuted for things done during the war or during the reign of the tyrants. Because of this general amnesty, the charges against Socrates were left rather vague.  But everyone in court that day would have understood what lay behind them.

Socrates' formal refutation of the charges against him

In the first part of his speech Socrates shows that the charges against him don't make much sense. Meletus in effect claims that Socrates both believes in no gods and that he believes in false gods.  Anyway, the supposedly impious beliefs he is accused of holding--e.g. that the sun is a stone--are old hat; the philosopher Anaxagoras makes this claim in a book that anyone can buy in the market place.  As for corrupting the youth, Socrates argues that no-one would do this knowingly.  To corrupt someone is to make them a worse person, which would also make them a worse friend to have around.

Why would he want to do that?

Socrates' real defense: a defense of the philosophical life

The heart of the Apology is Socrates' account of the way he has lived his life.  He recounts how his friend Chaerephon once asked the Delphic Oracle if anyone was wiser than Socrates.  The Oracle said that no -one was.  On hearing this Socrates claims to have been astounded, since he was acutely aware of his own ignorance.  He set about trying to prove the Oracle wrong by interrogating his fellow Athenians, searching for someone who was genuinely wise.  But he kept coming up against the same problem.  People might be quite expert about some particular thing such as military strategy, or boatbuilding; but they always thought themselves expert on many other things, particularly on deep moral and political questions.

 And Socrates, in the course of questioning them, would reveal that on these matters they didn't know what they were talking about.

Naturally, this made Socrates unpopular with those whose ignorance he exposed.  It also gave him the reputation (unjustly, he says) of being a sophist, someone who was good at winning arguments through verbal quibbling. But he stuck to his mission throughout his life.  He was never interested in making money; not did he enter politics.  He was happy to live in poverty and spend his time discussing moral and philosophical questions with anyone who was willing to converse with him.

Socrates then does something rather unusual. Many men in his position would conclude their speech by appealing to the jury's compassion, pointing out that they have young children, and pleading for mercy.  Socrates does the opposite.  He more or less harangues the jury and everyone else present to reform their lives, to stop caring so much about money, status, and reputation, and start caring more about the moral quality of heir souls. Far from being guilty of any crime, he argues, he is actually god's gift to the city, for which they should be grateful.  In a famous image he likens himself to a gadfly that by stinging the neck of a horse keeps it from being sluggish. This is what he does for Athens: he keeps people from becoming intellectually lazy and forces them to be self-critical.

The Verdict

The jury of 501 Athenian citizens proceed to find Socrates guilty by a vote of 281 to 220.  The system required the prosecution to propose a penalty and the defense to propose an alternative penalty.  Socrates' accusers propose death.  They probably expected Socrates to propose exile, and the jury would probably have gone along with this.  But Socrates won't play the game.  His first proposal is that, since he's an asset to the city, he should receive free meals at the prytaneum, an honor usually given to Olympic athletes.  This outrageous suggestion probably sealed his fate.

But Socrates is defiant. He rejects the idea of exile.  He even rejects the idea of staying in Athens and keeping his mouth shut. He can't stop doing philosophy, he says, because "the unexamined life is not worth living."

Perhaps in response to the urgings of his friends, Socrates eventually proposes a fine, but the damage was done. By a larger margin, the jury voted for the death penalty.

Socrates is not surprised by the verdict, nor is he phased by it.  He's seventy years old and will die soon anyway. Death, he says, is either an endless dreamless sleep, which is nothing to fear, or it leads to an afterlife where, he imagines, he will be able to carry on philosophizing.

A few weeks later Socrates died by drinking hemlock, surrounded by his friends.  His last moments are beautifully related by Plato in the  Phaedo.