Although Socrates is quite convincing in his apologia, he insists that he is not using rhetorical trickery to deceive the jury. Rather, he simply follows each accusation to its logical conclusion, which often contradicts some previously established assertion. By questioning Meletus and forcing him to grapple with the incongruities that exist within his arguments, Socrates uses a simple form of dialectical rhetoric that ultimately advocates for the unadorned pursuit of honesty and truth. Indeed, rather than using complex modes of persuasion, he straightforwardly thinks through each line of thought in order to assess its veracity. At the same time, though, this is in and of itself a clever rhetorical move, as Socrates’s seemingly unassuming investigations invariably confound Meletus and reveal his deceitfulness. And yet, unlike his detractors, Socrates has no ulterior motives, meaning that his rhetorical calculations are in the service of a greater good, which has only to do with uncovering the truth. In turn, Socrates implies that the only truly rhetorically sound—and just—argument is that which genuinely strives to find the truth.
Socrates begins his defense by calling attention to the manner in which his accusers use language and rhetoric. “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,” he says. This attention to language is exactly the kind of observation he is accustomed to making, as he has made a name for himself by traveling through Athens and forcing supposedly wise men to apply a higher level of scrutiny to their own thoughts and words. When he says that he “was almost carried away in spite of” himself, he addresses the fact that skilled speakers can often convince listeners to forget their own beliefs. Even Socrates—who has ample reason to disagree with what Meletus and his other accusers have said—can’t help but get swept up in the dizzying logic of his detractors’ statements.
Interestingly enough, he points out, this is exactly the kind of confounding rhetorical finesse of which he himself stands accused. “Of the many lies they told, one in particular surprised me,” Socrates says to the jury, “namely that you should be careful not to be deceived by an accomplished speaker like me.” In this moment, Socrates intimates that Meletus and his cronies are themselves guilty of using persuasive techniques to trick people into getting “carried away in spite of [themselves].” In turn, Socrates begins his defense by highlighting the inherent hypocrisy of his accusers and their manipulative ways.
In order to establish that he—unlike his accusers—doesn’t use complex rhetorical devices to confound or deceive his interlocutors, Socrates makes a point of clarifying the nature of his persuasive skills. To that end, he says it is false that he is an “accomplished speaker,” expressing his surprise at the fact that his accusers don’t mind being proved wrong by his simple way of addressing the jury. “That [my accusers] 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.” It’s critical to note that Socrates calls his accusers “shameless” for not minding that they will be “proved wrong by the facts.” By saying this, he implies that any argument that can be falsified this easily is something that should bring shame and dishonor to a person. In turn, his listeners—and Plato’s readers—are forced to consider that the apparent persuasiveness of his accusers’ arguments has nothing to do with the veracity of their claims. “From me you will hear the whole truth, though not […] expressed in embroidered and stylized phrases like theirs,” Socrates adds, suggesting that his accusers use rhetorical techniques that have nothing to do with “truth” and everything to do with “style.”
At certain points in his defense, Socrates addresses Meletus directly, asking him a series of questions in order to uncover the flaws in his arguments. For example, he addresses the fact that Meletus has accused him of not believing in the gods “in whom the city believes,” asking Meletus to clarify whether or not he thinks Socrates doesn’t “believe in gods at all.” In response, Meletus confirms that this is what he means, and so Socrates asks, “Does any man believe in spiritual activities who does not believe in spirits?” When Meletus answers by saying no man can believe in “spiritual activities” without believing in spirits, Socrates says, “Now you say that I believe in spiritual things and teach about them […] But if I believe in spiritual things I must quite inevitably believe in spirts.” Going on, he gets Meletus to admit that Athenians commonly consider “spirits to be either gods or the children of gods.” “Then since I do believe in spirits, as you admit, if spirits are gods, 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,” Socrates adds, ultimately revealing the contradictions embedded in Meletus’s claims.
Furthermore, Socrates also finds a contradiction in Meletus’s statement that he (Socrates) corrupts the youth of Athens. “[Meletus] says that I am guilty of corrupting the young, but I say that [he] is guilty of dealing frivolously with serious matters, of irresponsibly bringing people into court, and of professing to be seriously concerned with things about none of which he has ever cared,” Socrates says. In this this way, he once again shames Meletus for setting forth flawed arguments aimed not at finding the truth of a matter, but at disseminating slander. Whereas Socrates himself only uses persuasive techniques in order to help his interlocutors better understand their own viewpoints, Meletus employs faulty rhetoric for ignoble purposes. And considering that Socrates’s arguments remain the only ones that are both persuasive and logically sound, it’s easy to see that the only solid form of rhetoric is that which concerns itself first and foremost with uplifting the truth.
Rhetoric, Persuasion, and the Truth ThemeTracker
Rhetoric, Persuasion, and the Truth 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.
What is the accusation from which arose the slander in which Meletus trusted when he wrote out the charge against me? What did they say when they slandered me? I must, as if they were my actual prosecutors, read the affidavit they would have sworn. 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. You have seen this yourself in the comedy of Aristophanes, a Socrates swinging about there, saying he was walking on air and talking a lot of other nonsense about things of which I know nothing at all.
One of you might perhaps interrupt me and say: “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. Tell us what it is, that we may not speak inadvisedly about you.” Anyone who says that seems to be right, and I will try to show you what has caused this reputation and slander. Listen then. Perhaps some of you will think I am jesting, but be sure that all that I shall say is true. What has caused my reputation is none other than a certain kind of wisdom. What kind of wisdom? Human wisdom, perhaps.
I went to one of those reputed wise, thinking that there, if anywhere, I could refute the oracle and say to it: “This man is wiser than I, but you said I was.” Then, when I examined this man—there is no need for me to tell you his name, he was one of our public men—my experience was something like this: I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not. I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not. As a result he came to dislike me, and so did many of the bystanders. 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 to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” After this I approached another man, one of those thought to be wiser than he, and I thought the same thing, and so I came to be disliked both by him and by many others.
Finally I went to the craftsmen, for I was conscious of knowing practically nothing, and I knew that I would find that they had knowledge of many fine things. In this I was not mistaken; they knew things I did not know, and to that extent they were wiser than I. But, men of Athens, the good craftsmen seemed to me to have the same fault as the poets: each of them, because of his success at his craft, thought himself very wise in other most important pursuits, and this error of theirs overshadowed the wisdom they had, so that I asked myself, on behalf of the oracle, whether I should prefer to be as I am, with neither their wisdom nor their ignorance, or to have both. The answer I gave myself and the oracle was that it was to my advantage to be as I am.
As a result of this investigation, men of Athens, I acquired much unpopularity, of a kind that is hard to deal with and is a heavy burden; many slanders came from these people and a reputation for wisdom, for in each case the bystanders thought that I myself possessed the wisdom that I proved that my interlocutor did not have. 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.” So even now I continue this investigation as the god bade me—and I go around seeking out anyone, citizen or stranger, whom I think wise. Then if I do not think he is, I come to the assistance of the god and show him that he is not wise.
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.
Does any man, Meletus, believe in human activities who does not believe in humans? […] Does any man who does not believe in horses believe in horsemen’s activities? Or in flute-playing activities but not in flute-players? No, my good sir, no man could. If you are not willing to answer, I will tell you and these men. Answer the next question, however. Does any man believe in spiritual activities who does not believe in spirits? — No one.
Thank you for answering, if reluctantly, when these gentlemen made you. Now you say that I believe in spiritual things and teach about them, whether new or old, but at any rate spiritual things according to what you say, and to this you have sworn in your deposition. But if I believe in spiritual things I must quite inevitably believe in spirits. Is that not so? It is indeed. I shall assume that you agree, as you do not answer. Do we not believe spirits to be either gods or the children of gods? Yes or no? — Of course.
Then since I do believe in spirits, as you admit, if spirits are gods, 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.
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.