Apology Review

The second book of the Last Days of Socrates is the Apology, which refers to the early definition of that word as a defensive explanation, rather than an admission of guilt and request for forgiveness. With the exception of a brief discussion with his accuser, Meletus, the text is effectively a transcript of Socrates' own defense. Adopting a philosophical position from the outset, Socrates requests that the jury do not allow themselves to be swayed by his eloquence, but rather to concentrate on the truth; obviously he has high opinion of his own speaking ability! He also asks for complete impartiality - that they treat him as a stranger, rather than a well known public figure.

Trying to define exactly what he is supposedly guilty of Socrates turns to an affidavit which states: "Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into thing under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others". This is effectively a claim that Socrates is a natural philosopher, but as a he points out he doesn't engage in physical speculations. As the claim certainly isn't true, Socrates concludes that the accusations must come from his practise of wisdom, as defined by a figure no less than the God of Delphi, whose Oracle declared that Socrates was the wisest of all men because he knew that he knew nothing.

This does not mean, of course, that Socrates was an idiot or a person who was wilfully ignorant. But rather it is the very philosophical position of radical doubt and recognition of the tenuous nature of knowledge. Rather than homo sapiens sapiens, the man who knows that he knows, Socrates is homo sapiens agnosia, the man who knows what he doesn't know. Apparently for people who hold themselves to be very pious this is extremely troubling, for such an admission requires them to look inside themselves to honestly discern what they do not know. Socrates of course didn't just do this passively, but actively sought people who had definite knowledge and, as the example of Euthyphro shows, there were none and Socrates told them as much as well.

Idle youth from the upper classes visited, enjoying the examinations of others and imitating him; "then those who are examined by them [the imitators] instead of being angry with themselves are angry with me... they do not like to confess that their pretence of knowledge has been detected". Socrates is therefore also accused of corrupting the youth, for the youth are now raising the question of what do people really know. Indeed, his accuser claims that everyone in Athens, with the exception of Socrates, is an improver of the youth and that he alone is their corrupter. Socrates argues that if he is a corrupter it is certainly unintentional, and as such he should be instructed not punished. We can note how difficult it is to "instruct" a mind like Socrates, given his method of inquiry. Somewhat later in the speech, Socrates points out that none of the youth that he has conversed with have brought charge against him - only those who do not know him; an early suggestion for an adversarial system based on actual victims.

Meletus then argues that Socrates is corrupting the youth through atheism, which is contrary to his indictment. Socrates says that he can hardly be accused of teaching of spiritual and divine agencies, if he does not believe in them - it would be like believing in horsemanship, but not in horses. Less one think that Socrates is being disingenious here, he is making a distinction between what is possibly best described as apatheism, a practical atheism which does not care of the existence of Gods (as Diderot wrote: "It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but not at all so to believe or not in God". This can be distinguished from those who do not know whether the Gods exist, but are still interested in the subject. Betrand Russell elucidated this difference in his essay "Am I An Atheist or An Agnostic" (1947)

"As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think that I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because, when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods."

Socrates also rejects the possibility that he should plea for clemency as he faces the death penalty. He rejects this on the grounds that one should, like the Greek heroes, "despise[d] danger in comparison with disgrace". Socrates is not afraid of death, having lived a military career in his youth (he is now seventy) and in any case is uncertain whether death is a good or a bad thing. As disgrace and dishonesty are more important to Socrates that the threat of punishment, he argues that like his military orders of old, the Gods have spoken to him - through his conscience - that the philosopher's mission is to search within himself and others and that he cannot desert this post.

Given the choice of obeying his conscience, the voice of the Gods, and the laws imposed by Athens, he must choose the former. If the people of Athens decide to punish him, they are punishing themselves: "For the evil of doing as he is doing - the evil of unjustly taking away the life of another - is greater far." Indeed Socrates argues that his presence is a gift of the Gods. He is a gadfly, that has awakened them and they are of ill-temper because they have risen from this slumber. For this reason Socrates notes that his conscience told him not to be involved in politics as he would have been killed quite early. Indeed, Socrates did hold a one-year term as a Senator, and was threatened even then as he argued that six general be tried individually, rather than collectively. Even when it was clearly unpopular, Socrates took a principled stance in favour of individual rights.

Completing his apology, the five hundred volunteer jurors cast their lot and by a margin of some thirty votes Socrates was convicted. A second round of voting took place to determine punishment, based on a proposal from the prosecution and a counter proposal from the convicted person. Meletus proposed the death penalty (clearly a delightful lad), Socrates suggested that based on the good he has done for Athens, his punishment should be retirement in the Prytaneum, a honour normally bestowed to retired Olympic athletes (it includes free meals in the Tholos, the state dining room), but ultimately settles on thirty minae. This was once considered an insultingly small amount of money, however more recent scholarship suggest that given Socrates' impoverishment it would have been the equal to eight year's wages. It is still more tempting - given his suggestion of a state retirement home - that perhaps he was willing and able to stir the jurors, ever the gadfly.

Unsurprisingly the jurors decide to kill him. Socrates suggest that perhaps if they waited a few years nature would have taken its course. He reminds the jurors that they will be remembered for killing a wise man, not that death itself is something that necessarily should be avoided, but rather unrighteousness. "And now I depart hence condemned by you to suffer the penalty of death, - they too go their ways condemned by the truth to suffer the penalty of villainy and wrong; and I must abide by my award - let them abide by theirs... If you think that by killing men you can prevent some one from censuring your evil lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and the noblest way is not to be disabling others, but to be improving yourselves".

For The New Seminary