Commentary on Plato's Apology (17-26a)

The First and Only "Socratic Dialogue"
In most collections of Plato's dialogues it is usually the Apology which begins the book, and rightly so, for the Apology is the dialogue which recounts an important, indeed, perhaps the single most important event in Plato's life. The event recorded in the Apology is very likely the event which is the seed from which the Platonic corpus was to grow and so the seed from which Western Philosophy was to grow as well. I want to say that had this event not taken place, it is unlikely there would be any Platonic dialogues at all. But perhaps I am wrong; perhaps the seeds of Plato's philosophical journey had been sown long before the event "recorded" in the Apology took place. Certainly most of Plato's dialogues consist of accounts of discussions and conversations that, if actual, would have taken place long before the event in question. So there certainly could have been a Platonic corpus even without THE event. But it does seem unlikely. Less likely still is that the dialogues we have would have been the same in the absence of Socrates' defense before his fellow Athenians.

As my heading reveals, I regard the Apology as a Socratic, rather than a Platonic, dialogue. For in Apology, Socrates speaks more as himself than in any other Platonic dialogue.  Indeed, Apology is not really a Platonic dialogue at all (in not being apoetic, e.g.) but rather a combination of Socratic autobiography and impassioned self-defense of Socrates' way of life. More than any other Platonic dialogue, we find the Apology offering us a Socrates who is doing something different from, and much more important than, teaching others by asking them questions and offering criticism of their answers (although he does some of that too). In the Apology, Socrates offers us his raison d'être, along with the raison d'être for the so-called Socratic method. For this reason then it is clear that in the Apology, we find a Socrates who "begins at the beginning". Thus the Apology marks a proper beginning for anyone interested in the Platonic corpus.

The Beginning of Apology
Plato’s Apology begins with what appear to be Socrates' opening remarks to defend himself against the charges of impiety and corrupting the youth before his fellow Athenians in an Athenian court. (There are, of course, a variety of academic divisions of the dialogue. I will ignore them here for the most part. I will simply plow through the dialogue as I see fit). These opening remarks reveal that Socrates is responding to those who have already pleaded their case for Socrates being impious and a corrupter of the youth, although it will be some time into the dialogue that all of this information is set out. The opening remarks are important and instructive, however, and are as follows:

I do not know what effect my accusers have had upon you, gentlemen, but for my own part I was almost carried away by them -- their arguments were so convincing. On the other hand, scarcely a word of what they said was true. I was especially astonished at one of their many misrepresentations; I mean when they told you that you must be careful not to let me deceive you -- the implication being that I am a skillful speaker. . . . [In fact] I have not the slightest skill as a speaker -- unless, of course, by a skillful speaker they mean one who speaks the truth.

. . . My accusers, then, as I maintain, have said little or nothing that is true, but from me you shall hear the whole truth -- not, I can assure you, gentlemen, in flowery language like theirs, decked out with fine words and phrases. . . . It would hardly be suitable, gentlemen, for a man of my age to address you in the artificial language of a schoolboy orator. (17 a-c).

Now for anyone who doesn't worship at the feet of Socrates, these opening remarks would be regarded as, one, the usual (and useless) tripe of any convicted person (all who are accused claim to be innocent, don't they?!) and two, as exhibiting a case of Socratic irony or cluelessness, viz., when Socrates suggests that his accusers' warning to avoid being deceived by Socrates is misplaced, since Socrates traffics only in the truth, never deception. The claim that my accusers are liars, or are telling falsehoods, goes hand in hand with claiming that I am telling the truth. But the key matter, of course, is who is telling the truth and this is not to be established by being given Socrates' own view of the matter. As for Socrates' contention that his accuser's misrepresent his skills as a speaker, some have seen it as ironic (i.e., such that "something contrary to what is said is to be understood"). And some have criticized those who see it as ironic. This debate matters not.

What's important is that Socrates has done nothing more here than contend he is no deceiver and that anyone who suggests otherwise is a liar. No doubt there is a sense in which Socrates truly believes this. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that Socrates is completely unaware that many in Athens regard him as a skillful speaker or as capable of deceiving people, in some sense. If he has no clue about his reputation in Athens, he's been talking to people without hearing or seeing them. The bottom line then is that Socrates is, in a perfectly legitimate sense, a skillful speaker who can and does deceive people. (More on this below; in particular, I am not claiming that Socrates is guilty of deceiving people in the same way that dishonest salespeople deceive people, or in the way that liars deceive people. Nor am I claiming that Socrates is always aware that he is deceiving people.

The primary way in which Socrates deceives people, I assert, is by contending that his elenchus has shown that they are not virtuous, or don't know or care what virtue is, etc. Since Socrates' claims rest, I believe, on faulty ideas about virtue, and what knowledge of virtue involves or requires (not to mention occasionally using questinable techniques in arriving at a refutation of his interlocutors' claims), they are deceptive. Again, more on all of this as I go. If I am correct, Socrates' promise to offer the jurors nothing but the truth is already in trouble.).

Socrates’ accusers

Socrates goes on to distinguish between his "earliest accusers" and his "later accusers". The earliest accusers include "a great many people", who have "for a great many years", filled the jurors' minds (from childhood on) "with untrue accusations" against Socrates as follows:

There is a wise man called Socrates who has theories about the heavens and has investigated everything below the earth, and can make the weaker argument defeat the stronger. (18b).

Socrates also claims that those who make these "untrue accusations" are his "dangerous accusers, not only because of their number, their anonymity (Aristophanes notwithstanding) and the length of time they have been spreading their lies but also because such wise men are thought by all to be atheists. The later accusers are Anytus, Meletus and Lycon, who claim Socrates is impious (believes in false gods or no gods at all) and by his teaching corrupts the youth. Socrates begins his defense by dealing with his earlier accusers, as follows:

You have seen it yourselves in the play by Aristophanes, where Socrates goes whirling round, proclaiming that he is walking on air, and uttering a great deal of other nonsense about things of which I know nothing whatsoever . . . [and] I take no interest in it. . . . The fact is that there is nothing in any of these charges, and if you have heard anyone say that I try to educate people and charge a fee, there is no truth in that either.

. . . I happened to meet a man who has paid more in Sophists' fees than all the rest put together -- I mean Callias . . . . So I asked him -- he has two sons, you see -- . . . whom do you intend to get as their instructor? Who is the expert in perfecting the human and social qualities? . . . Who is he, and where does he come from . . . [a]nd what does he charge? Evenus of Paros, Socrates, said he, and his fee is five minas. . . . I should certainly plume myself and give myself airs if I understood these things, but in fact, gentlemen, I do not. (19c--20c).

Socrates is here defending himself against the charge that he is either a natural scientist type of wise man or a Sophist (paid teacher of virtue) and although he is neither scientist nor Sophist his defense seems a bit odd, for it is dubious that many Athenians took him to be either. Socrates is, in short, attacking something of a straw man. Socrates moves closer to the point when he offers to explain to the jurors why he has attained a certain sort of "false notoriety", and offers to explain what he has done that has led so many to misrepresent his activities and beliefs.

Socratic Wisdom

At 20d, Socrates claims that his reputation is due to "nothing more or less than a kind of wisdom", a human wisdom. However, Socrates "shall call as witness to [his] wisdom, such as it is, the god at Delphi." (20e). Socrates then relates the story about his friend Chaerephon going to the oracle at Delphi and asking: Is there anyone wiser than Socrates?, and getting the answer, No one. Once Socrates was told the story by Chaerephon, he felt obliged to "check the truth" of the oracle's decree. So he hunted up a man with a reputation for wisdom (a politician), gave a thorough examination to the man, which examination convinced him that the man was not wise at all. However,

. . . when I began to try to show him that he only thought he was wise and was not really so, my efforts were resented both by him and by many of the other people present. (21d).

Socrates walked away from the encounter reflecting that he was certainly wiser than the politician but that neither he nor the politician had any knowledge worth boasting about. However, Socrates reflected that he, unlike the politician, was conscious of his ignorance and this made him wiser than the politician. Socrates' wisdom then consists of his not thinking he knows what he does not know. (21d). So long then as Socrates doesn't think he knows what he does not know, no one will be wiser than him, for this is precisely what Socratic wisdom comes to, i.e., not thinking you know what you do not know.

This sort of experience was repeated, says Socrates, when he questioned poets and then followed that up with examination of skilled craftsmen. In the case of both, however, Socrates admitted that "they understood things which [he] did not" but both groups were guilty of thinking they knew things which they did not know. This led Socrates to conclude that "this error more than outweighed their positive wisdom." Socrates goes on to claim that the effect of his work aroused a great deal of hostility toward him and led to "various malicious suggestions, including the description of [Socrates] as a professor of wisdom." (23a). Socrates contends that the description is due to the fact that when he succeeds in disproving another person's claim to wisdom, bystanders think he knows everything about the subject in question. But the truth, says Socrates, is that "real wisdom is the property of God" and "human wisdom has little or no value" (23a). Socrates concludes that the oracle only uses his name as an example, as if to say that "the wisest of humans is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless." (23b).

Socrates also claims that he is on a mission from God (yes, like Jake and Elwood) to prove to those who think they are wise that they are not wise. He says that his mission has kept him too busy for either politics or his own affairs and that he has been "reduced to extreme poverty".

Finally, Socrates says another cause of his unpopularity is that "a number of young men with wealthy fathers and plenty of leisure" have attached themselves to Socrates and enjoy watching him performing his elenchus, so much so that they take up the practice themselves, questioning others a la Socrates. The "victims" of these young men blame Socrates for filling the young men with false ideas. According to Socrates, "[i]f you ask [his critics] what he does, and what he teaches that has this effect, they have no answer . . . ." (23d). As such, says Socrates, his critics do nothing more than offer the "stock charges against any philosopher", including that of making the weaker argument defeat the stronger. Socrates also claims that Meletus offers his complaints on behalf of the poets, Anytus on behalf of the craftsmen and Lycon on behalf of the politicians and orators.

Socrates' account of the origin of his notoriety reveals, I think, not only that many Athenians regard him as a bothersome old fool capable of making the weaker argument defeat the stronger argument but also why they do so. As such, Socrates pretty much admits that the old slanders and misrepresentations against him are not slanders or misrepresentations at all but are pretty accurate. (Is a juror supposed to believe that all politicians, poets and craftspeople are really as ignorant as Socrates claims to have shown they are? Is a juror supposed to believe that the bystanders who became angry with Socrates were too blind to see the legitimacy of Socrates' techniques and arguments?). 

Socrates admits that spectators became angry with him. Surely they did so because they believed that Socrates had not in fact established that his interlocutor was not really wise and that Socrates' techniques were not aimed at truth so much as refutation. And Socrates admits here that his main goal, in the name of the god at Delphi (Apollo) of course, is to refute his opponents so as to reveal that human wisdom has little or no value. Socrates and his community are obviously at odds over the matter of the worth of the Socratic mission from God. He sees himself doing God's work (which must, by definition be good and right!) while the community regards him as a crazed old man who is positively deluded about the force of his arguments and the worth of his mission. It should be appreciated, however, that Socrates has not provided the jurors any reason to doubt the accuracy of the "slanders" against him, and so no reason to agree with him that the popular characterizations of him as a "philosopher", "free thinker", or "someone who makes the stronger argument the weaker" are "misrepresentations" of him and his work. On the contrary, it seems that a right thinking juror who hears Socrates claiming to have "disproved" the claims of wisdom of politicians, poets and craftsmen, and admitting to have earned the ire of bystanders, would and should conclude that perhaps there is truth in the characterizations of Socrates as the purveyor of an "unjust logic".

This point seems to have been missed or ignored by many a commentator on the Apology, most of whom are inclined to be sympathetic and more to Socrates' characterizations of his work and its results. To take a notable example, C.D.C. Reeve in his Socrates in the Apology (all Reeve references here will be to this book, unless otherwise noted), does his best to try to convince the reader of the sincerity of Socrates' disclaiming any knowledge of science and oratory attributed to him by Aristophanes in the Clouds.  While Reeve makes a convincing case for Socrates' sincerity, his arguments are rendered irrelevant by his claim that "Socrates' disclaimer of oratory should not be taken to extend to the elenchus or its unintended inculcation through practice." (Reeve, p. 19). While this conveniently allows Socrates' disclaimer to be sincere, it also renders the disclaimer of no import to the jurors. For the jurors (whether rightly or wrongly, it matters not), the question of whether Socrates is or is not a practitioner of "unjust logic" just is the question of whether he does or does not buttonhole people and try to refute their answers in an attempt to reveal their "ignorance", i.e., it's a question of whether or not Socrates practices the elenchus. Since Socrates freely admits that he does so, the jurors have no choice but to hold that Socrates is a practitioner of "unjust logic". Indeed, from the jurors' perspective, if Socrates does refuse to include his elenchus within the boundaries of oratory (as Reeve claims) then his disclaiming any knowledge of oratory will appear to be nothing more than verbal sleight of hand, a sneaky way of trying to deny that he is a practitioner and teacher of "unjust logic", someone who tries to make the weaker argument defeat the stronger. In short, Socrates' disclaimer will serve as wonderful example to the jurors of precisely the sort of thing that Socrates disclaims any knowledge of, or ability to do. Is it any wonder they will find him guilty?!

Be this as it may, interesting questions can be raised about Socrates' claim that "human wisdom has little or no value" and his claim, "the wisest human is he who realizes that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless". It surely doesn't take a Ph.D. to appreciate that these claims sound odd. The first phrase sounds odd in that it seems to allow that there is such a thing as "human wisdom" and yet says it has little or no value. This is like saying there is something called human happiness and it has little or no value, or that there is human good but it has little or no value, etc. But if these are accepted then what is one to say of human ignorance, human sadness and human evil? It seems right to say they have no value but then why prefer human wisdom to human ignorance, or happiness to sadness or good to evil?

Surely the value of human wisdom far exceeds the "value" of human ignorance. Socrates' other claim suggests that humans are not capable of genuine or true wisdom and so have none. Putting them together we get something like: Human wisdom isn't really wisdom (or Wisdom) at all and so is of little or no value. This sounds right, or at least better than either one alone, whether one agrees with it or not. Thus, I will interpret Socrates' mission as based on his belief (which he gets from the god at Delphi, of course) that human wisdom isn't really wisdom (or Wisdom) and thus is of little or no value. In this form, Socrates' key belief, the belief on which he based his later life's work, has a very obvious Platonic flavor.

Like Plato, Socrates can be read as saying that human wisdom is a pale shadow, a poor imitator of the real deal and the sooner we appreciate this the better off we will be. (I'm not sure why we'll be better off or how this "knowledge" of the uselessness of human wisdom will help us. It seems to me to suggest just the opposite of what Socrates thinks we ought to be doing, i.e., it suggests that the search for "real wisdom" (Wisdom), and so virtue (or Virtue), is futile. If so, wouldn't we all do better turning our backs on "the examined life" and focus on having fun?! And could any conclusion be more at odds with Socratic doctrine?!).

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Last modified September 16, 2011
JAH, Professor
Dept. of Philosophy