Socrates begins his apologia by calling the jury “men of Athens,” wondering aloud how his accusers have “affected” them. “As for me,” he says, “I was almost carried away in spite of myself, so persuasively did they speak. And yet, hardly anything of what they said is true.” Of all the things his accusers have said about him, he upholds, the most startling is that they have warned the jury to “be careful not to be deceived by an accomplished speaker” like Socrates. “That they were not ashamed to be immediately proved wrong by the facts, when I show myself not to be an accomplished speaker at all, that I thought was most shameless on their part,” he says, adding, “unless indeed they call an accomplished speaker the man who speaks the truth.”
Socrates’ defense—or apologia, in Ancient Greek—begins after his accusers have read the deposition outlining the charges against him. As such, Apology is only a partial document of the entire trial, though Socrates meticulously addresses each of his detractors’ arguments, thereby making it easy to intuit what they’ve said about him. By using the phrase “men of Athens” to address the jury, he also subtly reminds the jurors that they are representatives of the city’s inhabitants, thereby underlining their responsibility to uphold the interests of the city and its commitment to democracy. In turn, he underhandedly discourages them from siding with his accusers for biased reasons that aren’t based on what happens in the trial. On another note, it’s worth noting that Socrates takes issue with the idea that he’s an “accomplished speaker,” a small detail that helps him establish his commitment not to rhetoric and persuasion, but to the unadorned truth.
Socrates notes that if his accusers are insinuating that “an accomplished speaker” is someone who “speaks the truth,” then he should be considered an “orator.” “From me you will hear the whole truth,” he says, “though not, by Zeus, gentlemen, expressed in embroidered and stylized phrases like theirs, but things spoken at random and expressed in the first words that come to mind.” This, Socrates says, is because he believes in “the justice of what [he] say[s].” In turn, he has decided not to embellish his language in the name of persuasion, so he asks the jury not to judge him harshly for speaking like he’s “in the marketplace.” After all, he is seventy years old and has never appeared in court.
Socrates goes out of his way to establish that he won’t employ rhetorical trickery to confuse or persuade the jurors. To make this point, he calls attention to the fact that his mode of conversing is actually quite colloquial, the kind of language one might use “in the marketplace.” By emphasizing the simplicity of his oratory skills, then, Socrates encourages the jury to focus on what he’s about say rather than whether or not he’s being deceptive. His accusers, on the other hand, use “embroidered and stylized phrases.” In comparison to Socrates’s straightforward linguistic style, this affected manner of speaking seems dubious and disingenuous.
Socrates explains to the jury that he is going to address the accusations made against him by his “first accusers,” then those made against him by “the later accusers.” These first accusers, he explains, are going to be more difficult to argue against than “Anytus and his friends,” since they have been slandering him since the jurors were mere children. Indeed, these unidentified people have long upheld that “there is a man called Socrates, a wise man, a student of all things in the sky and below the earth, who makes the worse argument the stronger.”
In this moment, Socrates clarifies that there are two groups of people who have accused him. Unfortunately, the first group is a handful of unidentified men who have marred his name over the course of many years. The vagueness and anonymity of this group makes it hard for Socrates to provide a solid defense of himself, as he understands that finding the truth often means closely examining the specifics of a given matter. Since his earliest accusers are not present to answer his questions, though, he cannot interrogate them in his normal fashion, a dialectical mode of questioning now known as the Socratic Method.
Admitting the unfortunate fact that it will be difficult to persuade the jury, Socrates says he must nevertheless “obey the law and make [his] defense.” “Let us then take up the case from its beginning,” he says. “What is the accusation from which arose the slander in which Meletus trusted when he wrote out the charge against me? […] It goes something like this: Socrates is guilty of wrongdoing in that he busies himself studying things in the sky and below the earth; he makes the worse into the stronger argument, and he teaches these same things to others.” Indeed, Socrates notes that the jurors have surely seen this unfavorable representation of him in a play by the playwright Aristophanes, who portrayed him as someone “walking on air and talking a lot of other nonsense.”
Socrates clearly lays out the charges made against him so that he can systematically address each accusation. He applies this careful and methodical approach because he knows that it is difficult to defend oneself against unknown detractors. As such, he wants to show the jurors that he’s concerned first and foremost with finding the truth and doing so in a detailed, organized way. What’s more, when he says that he’s on trial because of his interest in “studying things in the sky and below the earth,” it becomes clear that his fellow Athenians are uncomfortable with the idea of someone who carefully examines their religious beliefs. In keeping with this, they are also wary of rhetorically cunning thinkers who are capable of advancing unconventional arguments. Given that Socrates is a philosopher who takes it upon himself to study the ways in which people think, it’s unsurprising that these Athenians would find his intellectual pursuits threatening.
Socrates insists that Aristophanes’s portrayal of him is inaccurate, since he doesn’t possess the knowledge that his character espouses in the play. Having said this, Socrates urges the jurors to speak up if they’ve ever heard him talk about the things Aristophanes claims he talks about. Going on, he says that he has never taught people for money. In a tongue-in-cheek manner, he says he has no problem with men who “can go to any city and persuade the young” and charge fees as they do so, but he himself does not possess the “knowledge” necessary to do this.
Socrates goes out of his way to differentiate himself from Aristophanes’s representation of him in a play entitled The Clouds, in which Socrates appears as an intellectual trickster who teaches young men how to argue convincingly against others even when their positions are weak and unsound. It is important for Socrates to establish the fact that he does not engage in this kind of activity, since many Athenians associate him with the Sophists—teachers of philosophy and rhetoric who charge exorbitant sums, take advantage of rich families, and turn their pupils into wordsmiths void of any true sense of morality. This, at least, is the unfavorable opinion held by Plato, though historians and scholars remain uncertain about whether or not all Athenians were this critical of the Sophists. Nonetheless, it’s important to understand that Socrates wants to separate himself from the Sophists in the minds of the jurors, as he insists not only that he doesn’t accept money for his teachings, but also that he isn’t clever enough to make a living in this manner. In turn, he again presents himself as someone who speaks and acts straightforwardly and without rhetorical embroidery.
Socrates posits that one of the jurors might wish to ask him, “But Socrates, what is your occupation? From where have these slanders come? For surely if you did not busy yourself with something out of the common, all these rumors and talk would not have arisen unless you did something other than most people.” Answering this, Socrates says that he has gained his reputation simply because he possesses “human wisdom.”
When Socrates anticipates this question from the jury, he emphasizes the extent to which his fellow Athenians are hesitant to embrace anything that is “out of the common.” Since he is a free-thinking philosopher who—by virtue of his “occupation”—studies the ways in which people think, it’s unsurprising that the jurors would think he engages in activities that are “other than [how] most people” behave. By highlighting this dynamic, he demonstrates just how hesitant these men are to critically examine their own beliefs.
As Socrates says this, the jurors begin to mumble and interrupt, but he tells them to calm down because he isn’t “boasting.” After all, the story he’s about to tell comes from “a trustworthy source.” “I shall call upon the god at Delphi as witness to the existence and nature of my wisdom, if it be such,” he says, explaining that his friend Chaerephon traveled to the Delphic oracle and asked, “if any man was wiser than [Socrates].” “The Pythian replied that no one was wiser,” Socrates says, explaining that when he heard about this, he asked himself, “Whatever does the god mean? What is his riddle? I am very conscious that I am not wise at all; what then does he mean by saying that I am the wisest? For surely he does not lie; it is not legitimate for him to do so.”
The Ancient Greeks believed that the god Apollo spoke directly through a priestess (the “Pythian”) who lived in Delphi, which they upheld was the center of the world. Socrates references the Delphic oracle because, as he states in this moment, the Pythian has asserted that there is no one wiser than him. This is important, as it contextualizes Socrates’ previous claim that he possesses “human wisdom,” which has gained him a certain reputation that his accusers are now using against him. By insisting that the Delphic oracle believes in his wisdom, Socrates ultimately casts himself as a pious man rather than someone who doesn’t believe in the gods.
Continuing his story about the Delphic oracle’s assertion that no one is wiser than him, Socrates tells the jury that he sought to “investigate” this information. To do this, he spoke to a politician he believed was wiser than himself, but he quickly discovered the man wasn’t, in truth, wise at all. “I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not,” Socrates says. “I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not. So I withdrew and thought to myself: ‘I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he is to this small extent.”
When Socrates tests the Delphic oracle’s message, he learns that the only truly valuable kind of “human wisdom” has to do with a person’s willingness to acknowledge and accept his or her own ignorance. Indeed, the only reason Socrates is any wiser than his contemporaries is that he understands that he isn’t wise at all. In turn, he sets forth a model of wisdom that depends upon humility—something the politician to whom he speaks apparently lacks.
Socrates tells the jury that he proceeded in this manner, methodically visiting the wisest people in Athens. Speaking with each of them, he considered the “meaning” of their “reputation[s]” as knowledgeable men, only to uncover their profound lack of wisdom. “In my investigation in the service of the god I found that those who had the highest reputation were nearly the most deficient, while those who were thought to be inferior were more knowledgeable,” he says. After speaking with the politicians, Socrates visited the poets and found that they too have high opinions of their own knowledge and wisdom. “I saw that, because of their poetry, they thought themselves very wise men in other respects, which they were not,” he says. Because of this, Socrates explains, he realized that he had the same “advantage over them as [he] had over the politicians.”
Once again, Socrates suggests that only those humble enough to admit their own intellectual shortcomings are wise. Unfortunately, though, he has found that Athenian society celebrates the community’s various experts so much that they become vain and overly self-assured. In turn, they are unable—or perhaps unwilling—to recognize the fact that expertise in one area doesn’t necessarily lead to an all-encompassing sense of wisdom. Socrates, on the other hand, understands the depths of his own ignorance, and this makes him wiser than his fellow Athenians.
After visiting the poets, Socrates explains, he went to the craftsmen and found that they were more knowledgeable than him, since he knows very little about their work. However, he also saw that this knowledge led them to believe they were wise about other things about which—in truth—they knew nothing. As such, Socrates understood that he was wiser than them, since he at least recognizes his own lack of wisdom.
Yet again, Socrates emphasizes the importance of humility when it comes to assessing one’s own knowledge. Rather than letting expertise in a certain field lead to a prevailing sense of vanity and confidence, he suggests, one should continue to critically examine the nature of his or her wisdom.
“As a result of this investigation, men of Athens, I acquired much unpopularity,” Socrates says. Indeed, people began to slander him because they assumed he “possessed the wisdom that [he] proved [his] interlocutor did not have.” Socrates continues, “What is probable, gentlemen, is that in fact the god is wise and that his oracular response meant that human wisdom is worth little or nothing, and that when he says this man, Socrates, he is using my name as an example, as if he said: ‘This man among you, mortals, is wisest who, like Socrates, understands that his wisdom is worthless.’”
By this point in his defense, Socrates has asserted not only that he is the wisest man in Athens, but that all human wisdom is “worthless.” In turn, he intimates that only divine wisdom is valuable, thereby demonstrating his unfailing faith in the gods—an important thing to keep in mind as his apologia continues, since his piety is something he must prove to the jury.
Because he has dedicated himself to spreading the Delphic oracle’s message about wisdom, Socrates lives in poverty. All the same, a group of young men have started following him around and have begun questioning people in the way that he has demonstrated, ultimately unveiling ignorance throughout Athens. In doing so, they have enraged many important men, who subsequently believe Socrates is “a pestilential fellow who corrupts the young.” And yet, Socrates notes that none of these detractors can pinpoint how, exactly, he “corrupts” the young, and so they simply “mention those accusations that are available against all philosophers, about ‘things in the sky and things below the earth,’ about ‘not believing in the gods’ and ‘making the worse the stronger argument.’” These are the accusations that Anytus, Lycon, and Meletus have leveled against him on behalf of the politicians, the orators, and the poets, respectively.
Socrates makes a noteworthy point when he says that his detractors’ accusations are the same ones that people make against all philosophers. By saying this, he calls attention to just how uncomfortable people are around philosophers, since philosophers take it upon themselves to think critically about important matters. This, of course, often means challenging the prevailing structures of belief, which is why many Athenians are quick to accuse philosophers of corrupting the youth, since they are themselves unwilling to thoughtfully examining their worldviews. In this way, Socrates portrays his accusers as intellectually lazy and narrowminded.
Turning his attention to the accusations presented to the jury by Meletus, Socrates restates the deposition, saying, “Socrates is guilty of corrupting the young and of not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other new spiritual things.” First, he focuses on the claim that he has corrupted the young. To do this, he addresses Meletus directly, asking if he believes it is “of the greatest importance” that the young men of Athens “be as good as possible.” When Meletus says yes, Socrates asks him to identify who, exactly, improves the youth. “The laws,” Meletus answers, but Socrates urges him to identify a specific person, and Meletus momentarily finds himself at a loss.
Now that Socrates has defended himself against his unidentified “earlier accusers,” he employs his characteristic dialogic technique—now known as the Socratic Method—to cross-examine Meletus, ultimately attempting to straightforwardly unveil the flaws in his accuser’s rhetoric by asking simple questions. Interestingly enough, this is the same kind of conversational behavior that got him in trouble in the first place, since it is only through questioning important men that he has gained an unseemly reputation in Athens. Nevertheless, Socrates proceeds in his normal manner, thereby demonstrating to the jury that he believes wholeheartedly in finding the truth, regardless of whether or not people take issue with his methods.
Eventually, Meletus posits that the jurors “improve” the Athenian youth. “All of them, or some but not others?” Socrates asks, to which Meletus responds, “All of them.” In turn, Socrates asks, “But what about the audience?” When Meletus agrees that the audience also “improves” the youth, Socrates asks about the council and assembly members, and Meletus says both these groups also benefit the youth. “All the Athenians, it seems, make the young into fine good men, except me, and I alone corrupt them. Is that what you mean?” Socrates asks. “That is most definitely what I mean,” Meletus replies.
It’s clear in this moment that Socrates is working his way toward a certain point, though it’s not yet apparent what, exactly, he has in mind. And though he’s employing a rhetorical technique, there’s no denying that he’s only asking Meletus to clarify what has already been said. As such, he encourages his accuser to thoughtfully examine his own assertions. In other words, Socrates simply wants Meletus to speak clearly, and this indicates his desire to access the truth. In turn, it’s evident that Socrates isn’t using persuasive trickery to “make the worse argument the stronger,” but simply applying levelheaded intellectual pressure to Meletus’s argument.
Going on, Socrates asks if this same principal applies to horses. “[Do] all men improve them and one individual corrupts them?” he asks. “Or is quite the contrary true, one individual is able to improve them, or very few, namely, the horse breeders, whereas the majority, if they have horses and use them, corrupt them?” When Meletus can’t deny that this is true, Socrates reapplies the idea to humans, saying it “would be a very happy state of affairs if only one person corrupted [the] youth, while the others improved them.”
When Socrates says that horse breeders improve horses while the general population “corrupt[s]” them, he suggests that negative influences are abundant, whereas positive influences are unfortunately rare. If he himself were a bad influence on young Athenians, then, it would be highly unlikely that he’d be the only person to “corrupt” them. And in any case, he clearly doesn’t think he is a bad influence. Rather, he sees himself as equivalent to a horse breeder, in that he “improves” the Athenian youth in the same way that a breeder might “improve” a horse.
Continuing his examination, Socrates asks Meletus if “wicked” people harm others while “good” people improve the people around them. “Certainly,” Meletus says, and Socrates asks if anyone would “rather be harmed than benefited by his associates.” “Of course not,” Meletus says. “Do you accuse me here of corrupting the young and making them worse deliberately or unwillingly?” Socrates asks. “Deliberately,” Meletus answers. In turn, Socrates reveals the flaw in Meletus’s logic, since he has suggested that a person can be harmed by associating with wicked men. If Socrates were to “deliberately” corrupt the people around him, then, he would “run the risk of being harmed” himself.
Socrates uncovers Meletus’s faulty reasoning by simply asking him questions. In turn, it becomes obvious that Meletus has not fully thought through the implications of his accusation that Socrates “deliberately” harms the people around him. After all, if Socrates purposely corrupted his fellow Athenians, then he would be harming himself, at least according to Meletus’ assertion that a person can be negatively influenced by his “associates.”
Socrates upholds that if he is indeed spreading wickedness throughout Athens without meaning to, he shouldn’t be punished, but rather taught how to stop acting badly. “You, however, have avoided my company and were unwilling to instruct me,” Socrates says to Meletus, pointing out that “the law requires one to bring [to court] those who are in need of punishment, not of instruction.”
In this moment, Socrates suggests that Meletus is the one who has failed to uphold his moral responsibility, which is to “instruct” those who unwittingly spread wickedness throughout Athens. By making this implication, Socrates ultimately invites the jurors to consider the notion that he has been mistreated. Of course, he knows he has not “corrupted” the youth, but he proceeds as if he has in order to demonstrate to the jury that even if Meletus’ accusations were true, there would still be no reason to treat this as a legal matter.
Focusing on the claim that he doesn’t believe in the gods, Socrates asks if Meletus thinks he (Socrates) is an atheist, or someone who believes in “other” gods. Meletus clarifies that he thinks Socrates doesn’t believe in gods at all. In response, Socrates says, “Does any man, Meletus, believe in human activities who does not believe in humans?” Similarly, he asks if any man “who does not believe in horses” can believe in “horseman’s activities,” or if a person who believes in “flute-playing activities” can deny the existence of “flute-players.” Working his way to his main point, he says, “Does any man believe in spiritual activities who does not believe in spirts?” and Meletus says, “No one.” Socrates then reminds Meletus that he has said in his deposition that Socrates believes in “spiritual things.” This, Socrates upholds, means he must also believe in spirits.
Once more, Socrates encourages Meletus to clarify his accusations. Since Meletus admits that no one can believe in “spiritual activities who does not believe in spirits,” it follows that Socrates must believe in spirits. By establishing this point, Socrates methodically makes his way toward a defense of his religious faith and overall piety.
“Do we not believe spirits to be either gods or the children of gods?” Socrates asks. “Of course,” Meletus replies. In keeping with this, Socrates points out that Meletus has again contradicted himself. After all, if spirits are “gods or the children of gods”—and if Socrates believes in “spiritual things”—then he must surely also believe in the gods. Even if he only believed in “the children of gods,” this would still require him to believe in the gods themselves. Having unearthed Meletus’s contradiction, Socrates says, “This is what I mean when I say you speak in riddles and in jest, as you state that I do not believe in gods and then again that I do, since I do believe in spirits.”
It’s worth noting Socrates’s use of the word “we” when he says, “Do we not believe spirits to be either gods or the children of gods?” By using this plural pronoun, Socrates aligns himself with his fellow Athenians, suggesting that he shares their beliefs. What’s more, he takes a rather scolding tone, as if Meletus is the one deviating from the religious beliefs that prevail throughout Athens. Furthermore, by revealing Meletus’s contradictory argument, Socrates frames his chief accuser as incompetent and intellectually lazy and, thus, untrustworthy.
Addressing the jury, Socrates posits that he has sufficiently defended himself against Meletus’s charges, though he’s cognizant that his “undoing” will not be the result of Meletus or Anytus, but of the “slander” that has led to his unfavorable reputation. Regarding this, Socrates says, “Someone might say: ‘Are you not ashamed, Socrates, to have followed the kind of occupation that has led to your being now in danger of death?” This question, he upholds, is easy to answer, for he believes that “a man who is any good at all” should never take “the risk of life or death” into account. “He should look to this only in his actions, whether he is acting like a good or a bad man,” he says.
At this point in his defense, Socrates shows the jury the strength of his moral integrity, something to which he remains faithful regardless of what other people think. As a result, he remains unbothered by the possibility that he might receive a death penalty, for he believes that a person should only ask himself “whether he is acting like a good or a bad man.” Needless to say, Socrates is confident that he’s acting like a good man, and though this perhaps doesn’t align with what people like Meletus and Anytus think, he refuses to feel “ashamed” for the way he has chosen to comport himself.
Socrates insists that “wherever a man has taken a position that he believes to be best, or has been placed by his commander, there he must […] remain and face danger, without a thought for death or anything else.” This is because he believes that fearing death is the same thing as thinking oneself wise when one is not, since “no one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man.” And since it is a “blameworthy ignorance to believe that one knows what one does not know,” Socrates upholds that people should never assume death is a bad thing.
Socrates’s ideas about mortality are directly related to his convictions about wisdom. Simply put, he never wants to make any assumptions about matters about which he knows nothing. This, of course, is precisely why the Delphic oracle has dubbed him the wisest man in Athens—he does not presume to know things he does not know. In addition, this perspective also relates to Socrates’s dedication to finding the truth, since his reluctance to assume death is bad illustrates his staunch unwillingness to adopt uninformed or intellectually lazy worldviews.
In keeping with the fact that he doesn’t fear death, Socrates tells the jury he will not change his behavior if he is acquitted, even if he’s set free on the condition that he stop encouraging Athenians to interrogate their beliefs. Indeed, if he were acquitted under these circumstances, he would say, “Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy […].”
Once again, Socrates impresses upon the jurors the strength of his own moral integrity. Even though this apologia is a chance to placate his accusers and possibly avoid the death penalty, he refuses to “cease” practicing philosophy, for he believes that in doing so he is serving “the god” (Apollo). By saying this, he not only expresses a sense of ethical responsibility, but also refutes the accusation that he is impious, since he sees his philosophical practice as a religious endeavor.
Socrates reiterates that he isn’t afraid of death, saying that Meletus can’t possibly harm him. In fact, he believes Meletus only risks harming himself by “attempting to have a man executed unjustly.” In keeping with this, Socrates suggests that he isn’t delivering this defense for his own sake, but for the sake of the jury, since he wants to “prevent” them from “wrongdoing.” Indeed, he doesn’t want the jurors to condemn him and thereby “mistreat the god’s gift” that he represents. “I was attached to this city by the god—though it seems a ridiculous thing to say—as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly,” Socrates says.
Comparing himself to a “gadfly” that “stir[s]” a horse, Socrates acknowledges the fact that many of his fellow Athenians see him as nothing more than a nuisance. However, he also suggests that he is a necessary nuisance, since he takes it upon himself to improve those around him. Unfortunately, his efforts are sometimes difficult to appreciate, since he encourages people to recognize their own shortcomings. Nonetheless, he upholds, having someone like him is a “gift” from “the god,” and because he is so pious, he refuses to stop treating his fellow citizens in this manner.
Socrates tells the jury that Athens will not easily find another man willing to encourage people (against their will) to improve. What’s more, he admits that it might seem odd that he has never accepted a public position, but this is because he has a “divine or spiritual sign” that has always “prevented” him from “taking part in public affairs.” This sign, he explains, keeps him from doing that which he should not do. In keeping with this, he explains that he would have “died long ago” if he had become a politician, since “a man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time.”
When Socrates says that “a man who really fights for justice must lead a private” life, he hints at the fact that the current political climate in Athens is unfit for morally upstanding individuals. If someone like him—with a strong moral compass and an unyielding sense of honor—cannot “survive” as a public official, then this must mean that Athens is failing to uphold the democratic values of justice and morality.
Socrates tells a story about the end of the Peloponnesian War, when Spartans won control of Athens and installed an oligarchy run by the Thirty Tyrants. “When the oligarchy was established,” he says, “the Thirty summoned me to the hall, along with four others, and ordered us to bring Leon from Salamis, that he might be executed.” Rather than obeying, though, Socrates simply went home while the other four Athenians captured Leon. He did this, he explains, because his primary “concern is not to do anything unjust or impious.” He knows he would have been executed for this if the oligarchy hadn’t fallen shortly after the event took place.
During the Peloponnesian War—which took place between 431 and 404 BC—the Delian League (from Athens) fought against the Peloponnesian League (from Sparta). Eventually, the Spartans overtook Athens and installed an oppressive oligarchy known as the Thirty Tyrants. Even under the cruel and unyielding governance of the Thirty, Socrates refused to betray his ethical convictions. By telling this story, Socrates shows the jury how thoroughly committed he is to maintaining his moral integrity.
Socrates says that if the jurors believe he has harmed or “corrupted” them, they should stand and make their feelings known. When no one rises, Socrates says this is because he hasn’t harmed anyone. He also points out that there are many men listening who know him well and would not hesitate to condemn him if he had treated them badly. Indeed, he sees Crito and Crito’s son Critobulus in attendance, as well as Apollodorus and Plato, all of whom are close acquaintances who could speak accurately about his character. He then addresses the fact that he is not crying and pleading with the jury, as many people do when they are brought to court. This, he explains, is because he doesn’t think it’s “right” to do such things, believing that the men who act this way “bring shame upon the city.”
Many scholars and readers of Plato believe Socrates disapproved of democracy (this is largely based on the opinions he expresses in Plato’s The Republic). However, it’s worth considering this moment, in which Socrates refuses to manipulate the jury by crying and pleading for their forgiveness. On the one hand, this refusal indicates that he thinks democracy is a system that is subject to emotional manipulation and, as such, is inherently flawed. On the other hand, his assertion that people who manipulate the jury “bring shame upon the city” suggests that he believes acting this way disrespects the values for which Athens stands. This, it seems, indicates a certain reverence for what Athenian democracy could be, though it’s obvious Socrates doesn’t think his contemporaries are properly enforcing or living up to this standard. Regardless, it’s clear that Socrates is critical of democracy—whether or not this means he completely disapproves of it as an effective mode of governance remains unclear (at least in this text).
Socrates says he thinks it’s wrong to “supplicate the jury” with tears and hysterics. “It is not the purpose of a juryman’s office to give justice as a favor to whoever seems good to him, but to judge according to law,” he says. Furthermore, he states that people like him shouldn’t behave this way in court because doing so might put the jurors in the “habit” of perjury. “This is irreverent conduct for either of us,” he says. Refusing to do anything other than speak truthfully, then, Socrates expresses his satisfaction with the way he has defended himself, at which point he concludes his speech by saying, “I leave it to you and the god to judge me in the way that will be best for me and for you.”
Again, scholars debate whether or not Socrates believed in democracy as an effective mode of governance. And though nothing in Apology provides a definitive answer regarding this debate, it’s worth noting that his unwillingness to let the jurors perjure themselves in court suggests that he wants to help his fellow Athenians operate as a just and honest governing body. Furthermore, his willingness to let himself be judged “in the way that will be best” for everyone involved indicates that—despite his misgivings—he respects the current system enough to abide by it.
After Socrates finishes his initial defense, the jury pronounces him guilty, and Meletus “asks for the penalty of death.” At this point, Socrates is given a chance to argue in favor of whatever penalty he thinks is fairest. He begins by saying that he isn’t angry at the jury for finding him guilty, adding that he’s impressed by how close the vote was. Turning his attention to Meletus’ request that he be put to death, he says, “So be it. What counter-assessment should I propose to you, men of Athens? Clearly it should be a penalty I deserve, and what do I deserve to suffer or to pay because I have deliberately not led a quiet life but have neglected what occupies most people: wealth, household affairs, the position of general or public orator or the other offices, the political clubs and factions that exist in the city?”
When Socrates considers what penalty he should receive, he delivers a tongue-in-cheek summary of what he has done to “deserve” punishment, reminding the jury that he has “neglected” to live “a quiet life” full of “wealth” and cushy governmental positions. In turn, he subtly suggests once more that he is being prosecuted simply because he has lived a life that is “out of the common.” Indeed, Meletus and his cronies are made uncomfortable by Socrates’ unconventional ways of thinking and behaving, which is why they have sought to destroy him.
Reminding the jury that he has tried hard to help Athenians improve themselves, Socrates suggests that what he really “deserve[s]” is not a penalty, but a reward. As such, he glibly says he should be allowed to eat in the Prytaneum (a great hall where Olympian victors often dined). “Since I am convinced that I wrong no one, I am not likely to wrong myself, to say that I deserve some evil and to make some such assessment against myself,” Socrates adds.
This is perhaps the first and only time in his defense that Socrates actually advocates for himself, though he is of course being facetious, since he knows the jury will not reward him. And yet, he’s also being serious when he says he won’t purposefully “wrong” himself, as this would go against his views. Even in jest, then, Socrates demonstrates the strength of his moral integrity.
Not wanting to ask for imprisonment because he knows it to be “evil,” Socrates considers the penalty of exile. This prospect, he explains, does not suit him either, since he can reasonably assume he will be treated the same anywhere he goes. Indeed, he upholds that if the Athenians cannot “endure” his philosophical and moral examinations, then no one else will tolerate him, either. And though one might think he could simply leave Athens and lead a quiet life, he reminds the jury that “the greatest good for a man [is] to discuss virtue every day.” As such, he would not remain quiet if he were to leave Athens, “for the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Once again, Socrates demonstrates that he doesn’t fear death. After all, it would be rather easy, it seems, for him to avoid the death penalty by suggesting that he be banished from Athens. However, he knows he’ll never stop upholding and enforcing his values, and so he makes his peace with the idea of dying for these values, upholding that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Unwilling to accept imprisonment or exile as punishments, Socrates considers the idea of a fine, saying he would “assess the penalty at the amount [he] could pay” (since he doesn’t care about money), but he is poor and would only be able to afford “one mina of silver.” However, he proceeds by saying that Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Apollodorus have urged him to set the penalty at thirty minas, since they will “stand surety for the money.” “Well then,” he concludes, “that is my assessment, and they will be sufficient guarantee of payment.”
It’s worth mentioning here that this is the second time Socrates has mentioned Plato by name. In this case, he makes it clear that Plato is among his supporters who are willing to financially vouch for him. Despite the fact that Socrates sets this penalty, though, it’s clear he doesn’t truly see it as a punishment, since he isn’t—and has never been—concerned with money. Indeed, he has already gone out of his way to establish this while proving to the jury that he isn’t a Sophist.
Once again, the jury votes, this time sentencing Socrates to death, at which point Socrates is allowed to deliver his final remarks. “It is for the sake of a short time, men of Athens, that you will acquire the reputation and the guilt, in the eyes of those who want to denigrate the city, of having killed Socrates, a wise man, for they who want to revile you will say that I am wise even if I am not,” he says. Still, he doesn’t regret how he has defended himself. “I was convicted because I lacked not words but boldness and shamelessness and the willingness to say to you what you would most gladly have heard from me, lamentations and tears and my saying and doing many things that I say are unworthy of me but that you are accustomed to hear from others,” he says.
Once again, Socrates suggests that trying to manipulate the jury by acting hysterically is shameful and disrespectful of the entire judicial process. This is why he stands by the manner in which he has delivered his defense. Indeed, he is so committed to presenting the truth that he refuses to “supplicate” his detractors, who he insists will soon feel “guilt[y]” for needlessly killing one of their fellow citizens.
Socrates tells the jurors who voted for his acquittal that he would be happy to talk to them about what has just happened. “A surprising thing has happened to me, jurymen—you I would rightly call jurymen,” he says, going on to explain that throughout his life his “familiar prophetic power” or “spiritual manifestation” often stopped him from doing things. However, it did not hold him back from coming to the courthouse or speaking freely before the jury today. This, he upholds, means what he has done is “right.”
Although Socrates has been found guilty of—among other things—impiety, it’s clear that he is strongly devoted to spirituality and, thus, the gods. This is made evident by the fact that he references the “spiritual’ and “prophetic power” that guides him, ultimately holding it up as proof that he has done the right thing by allowing himself to be sentenced to death.
Socrates once again considers the nature of death, saying it’s either a total lack of perception or “a change and a relocating for the soul from here to another place.” In either case, Socrates says, he will be content. After all, he doesn’t fear nothingness, and he’d be happy to pass the time in the afterlife “testing and examining people there” in the same way he has done in Athens. Going on, he states that he isn’t angry at the people who sentenced him or at his accusers. The only thing he asks is that his fellow Athenians “reproach” his sons if they ever “care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue.” Having said this, he states that the hour of his death has arrived. “I go to die, you go to live,” he says. “Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the god.”
Again, Socrates appears unfazed by the fact that he is going to be put to death. This is unsurprising, considering that he doesn’t think death—an unknown—is something a person should consider when contemplating whether or not to do the right thing. In keeping with this, his only concern is that his fellow Athenians make sure his sons embody this kind of virtue. What’s more, his parting words not only reiterate the fact that death is an unknown, but also hint at his concern that the jurors—who have acted immorally—have ultimately harmed themselves by sentencing him to death.