In his apologia, Socrates suggests that the truth—along with the Athenian judicial system—ought not to be denigrated by deceit and frivolity. However, he also suggests that “a man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public life.” This is because he believes it’s nearly impossible to “survive” as an honest person while participating in public affairs, thereby hinting at the fact that, though he respects the importance of the surrounding democratic institutions, he doesn’t think Athens has succeeded thus far in holding itself to its own standards. Nonetheless, he abides by the jury’s conviction, ultimately demonstrating his willingness to adhere to the current judicial system despite its many flaws. In this way, Socrates proves that it’s possible to be staunchly critical of something and nevertheless believe in it. In fact, his actions hint at the fact that criticism and disagreement are actually indications of just how much a person cares about something, since only those who are truly committed to a certain worldview or institution are willing to take the time to examine it thoughtfully.
When Socrates first begins his defense, he makes a point of addressing the jury as the “men of Athens.” In doing so, he reminds his listeners not only that they are his fellow citizens, but that they have been assembled to determine what’s best for their polis, Athens. To understand the significance of the jurors’ duty to Athens itself, it’s helpful to consider editor John M. Cooper’s footnote, which appears at the beginning of Socrates’s defense in Hackett Publishing’s 2002 version of the text. “Jurors were selected by lot from all the male citizens thirty years of age or older who offered themselves on the given day for service,” Cooper writes. “They thus functioned as representatives of the Athenian people and the Athenian democracy. In cases like Socrates’, they judged on behalf of the whole citizen body whether or not their interests had been undermined by the accused’s behavior.” In light of this, it makes sense that Socrates goes out of his way to remind the jurors that they are representatives of “the Athenian people,” since this is a subtle way of encouraging them to consider the fact that they are the backbone of the city’s democratic system. After all, democracy is a mode of governance that allows for disagreement and free thinking. As such, Socrates frames his attempt to challenge the city’s most complacent intellectuals as nothing more than a free-thinking effort to improve Athens—something the jurors should understand, since they themselves are also presumably working to maintain a healthy democracy.
Just before Socrates receives the death penalty, he explains why he hasn’t called in witnesses to speak on his behalf and why he hasn’t broken into tears and apologized for his actions. Simply put, he respects the process of judgment and the pursuit of truth too much to denigrate it by doing anything other than honestly presenting his case. “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, and this he has sworn to do,” he says. “We should not accustom you to perjure yourselves, nor should you make a habit of it.” In this moment, Socrates acknowledges that using emotionally manipulative tactics may very well have made it easier for him to escape this trial unharmed. However, he believes that doing this would not only demean himself, but put the jurors in “a habit of” going against all that their polis stands for: justice according to the law. This is something he’s unwilling to do. Rather, he would prefer to abide by the honest assessment of the jurors—despite what they may decide—because this is the only way to respect the system of governance in which he and his fellow Athenians currently exist.
It's worth noting that there is much debate in the scholarly community about whether or not Socrates believed in democracy. Many uphold that he was against this mode of governance because of the grave misgivings he expresses in Plato’s The Republic. However, others believe these ideas belong more to Plato than to Socrates himself, since The Republic was written long after Socrates’s death. In Apology, on the other hand, Socrates is critical of the ways in which his fellow Athenians are running the democracy, but he isn’t necessarily critical of democracy itself. Simply put, his criticism can actually be read as an indication that he wants this mode of governance to succeed.
In Apology, Socrates does not hesitate to express his doubts about the current state of affairs, and this is the exact kind of thinking that led to his trial in the first place, since he refuses to shy away from criticizing what he sees as imperfect. As such, he now voices his opinion that the present political climate is unfit for honest individuals. Explaining why he has neglected throughout his life to accept a role as an orator or other official, he says, “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.” Going on, he says that honesty is incompatible with the way public officials are expected to behave. “Do you think I would have survived all these years if I were engaged in public affairs and, acting as a good man must, came to the help of justice and considered this the most important thing?” he asks. “Far from it, men of Athens, nor would any other man.” By saying this, he asserts that the men currently running the polis do not consider justice “the most important thing.”
In this way, Socrates maintains that Athens is corrupt and failing to live up to its potential as a just and honest democracy. And yet, he still has no qualms about accepting the jury’s conclusion to sentence him to death, thereby suggesting that he respects this model of governance at least enough to abide by it even when he knows it is flawed. In turn, he demonstrates that respecting something does not preclude one from criticizing it, and vice versa.
Democracy, Judgment, and Justice ThemeTracker
Democracy, Judgment, and Justice Quotes in Apology
I do not know, men of Athens, how my accusers affected you; as for me, 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 the many lies they told, one in particular surprised me, namely that you should be careful not to be deceived by an accomplished speaker like me. 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—unless indeed they call an accomplished speaker the man who speaks the truth. If they mean that, I would agree that I am an orator, but not after their manner, for indeed, as I say, practically nothing they said was true. From me you will hear the whole truth, 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, for I put my trust in the justice of what I say, and let none of you expect anything else.
This is my first appearance in a lawcourt, at the age of seventy; I am therefore simply a stranger to the manner of speaking here. Just as if I were really a stranger, you would certainly excuse me if I spoke in that dialect and manner in which I had been brought up, so too my present request seems a just one, for you to pay no attention to my manner of speech—be it better or worse—but to concentrate your attention on whether what I say is just or not, for the excellence of a judge lies in this, as that of a speaker lies in telling the truth.
Either I do not corrupt the young or, if I do, it is unwillingly, and you are lying in either case. Now if I corrupt them unwillingly, the law does not require you to bring people to court for such unwilling wrong doings, but to get hold of them privately, to instruct them and exhort them; for clearly, if I learn better, I shall cease to do what I am doing unwillingly. You, however, have avoided my company and were unwilling to instruct me, but you bring me here, where the law requires one to bring those who are in need of punishment, not of instruction.
[…] if you said to me in this regard: “Socrates, we do not believe Anytus now; we acquit you, but only on condition that you spend no more time on this investigation and do not practice philosophy, and if you are caught doing so you will die”; if, as I say, you were to acquit me on those terms, I would say to you: “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 […].”
Indeed, men of Athens, I am far from making a defense now on my own behalf, as might be thought, but on yours, to prevent you from wrongdoing by mistreating the god’s gift to you by condemning me; for if you kill me you will not easily find another like me. 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. It is to fulfill some such function that I believe the god has placed me in the city. I never cease to rouse each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long and everywhere I find myself in your company.
Quite apart from the question of reputation, gentlemen, I do not think it right to supplicate the jury and to be acquitted because of this, but to teach and persuade them. 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, and this he has sworn to do. We should not accustom you to perjure yourselves, nor should you make a habit of it. This is irreverent conduct for either of us.
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. I did not think then that the danger I ran should make me do anything mean, nor do I now regret the nature of my defense. I would much rather die after this kind of defense than live after making the other kind.
It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death. Slow and elderly as I am, I have been caught by the slower pursuer, whereas my accusers, being clever and sharp, have been caught by the quicker, wickedness. I leave you now, condemned to death by you, but they are condemned by truth to wickedness and injustice. So I maintain my assessment, and they maintain theirs.