Monday, February 2, 2009

Great Books: Plato's Apology

Apology by Plato
Time: generally thought to have been written by Plato in the first decades of the 4th century BCE.
Place: Athens, Greece
Great Ideas: Wisdom, Truth, and Life and Death

The unabridged text to Plato’s Apology can be found online at

Plato’s Apology is an account of the public trial of his teacher, Socrates that famously resulted in a death sentence. Even as Apology avoids Plato’s more familiar dialogue form in favor of a monologue delivered essentially in soliloquy to the reader, Socrates’ defense, as Plato describes it, is not typical of a man working diligently to save his own life. The question of whether Apology was read in its time as an journalistic account of a recent historical event, a polemical screed against those who had wronged an influential teacher, or a meticulously crafted piece of propaganda ignores the possibility that it may have been read, at once, as all three and more, against the complex cultural background of 4th century Athens and beyond. Given that knowing Plato’s own intention for writing the piece is impossible, it seems prudent to acknowledge the indisputable historicity of Plato’s eyewitness account of Socrates’ trial while recognizing that he, like all writers, was in possession of a particular worldview and a particular agenda through which his interpretation of what he saw must have been filtered. For this reason, we should remember that it is ultimately Plato who addresses the Great Ideas here, regardless of how much the doctrine considered is informed by that of his teacher.

Apology is broken into three sections; the first, Socrates’ defense, being considerably longer than the second, the Penalty Phase and the third, Socrates’ final rebuttal to the court. The monologue begins after the prosecution had already made its case and Socrates is called upon to defend himself against charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and being, at once, loyal to foreign gods and an atheist. Plato opens this defense by invoking the first of the Great Ideas that dominates Apology, Truth. Having heard the jury warned against his gifts as an orator, Socrates contrasts his relentless quest for the Truth against the tools of persuasion which his accusers suppose are the source of his influence. Truth is also unique among the Great Ideas central to this piece in that it is presented as something that humanity can actually understand, whereas Wisdom and the meaning of Death, if they can be said to exist at all, are property, if not, properties of the Divine.

Socrates begins his defense in earnest by segregating his accusers into two camps and the distinction between them begins an explicit conversation within Apology about the tension between the spoken and written word. Though his life has been placed in jeopardy by a very real set of angry folks in the here and now, Plato shows Socrates as addressing his reputation among Athenians as the most difficult obstacle to overcome in clearing his name.

"Far more dangerous are the others, who began when you were children, and took possession of your minds with their falsehoods, telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above and searched the earth beneath and made the worse appear the better cause. The disseminators of this tale are the accuser whom I dread; for their hearers are apt to fancy that such enquirers do not believe in the existence of the Gods." [18:13-21]

The importance of Truth takes a greater precedent in the second half of his defense when he addresses the specific charges facing him. It is clear from the manner in which Socrates presents his own defense that he is more concerned with uncovering truth than he is in proving his innocence. Should his Socratic method of inquiry reveal that he was, in truth, corrupting the youth and, in truth, magically encouraging both the worship of strange gods and atheism, one gets the impression he would demand for the harshest penalties allowed under the law. Yet, even after the guilty verdict is rendered and Apology moves into its second phase of Penalty Negotiation, Socrates is portrayed as unwilling to cede the moral ground to his now vindicated accusers that the Truth affords him, willing only to admit that he “sought to persuade every man among you that he must look to himself and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his personal interests and to the state before looking to the state’s interests…What shall be done to such an one? Doubtless some good thing [36:26-33].”

It seems only natural that the reenactment of a trial should be interested, if not fixated, on a quest for Truth. Socrates, in contrast, spends more of his defense talking about Wisdom, his star character witness who never shows up to testify but whose presence is amplified by its absence. In answering the critics of his reputation, Socrates tells the jury a story that demonstrates his piety but also implicates the Gods in his endless quest for Wisdom, the very same quest that earned him enough enemies in Athens to lose his life over words. A friend, he explains, went to the Oracle at Delphi and asked if any man were wiser than Socrates to which the Oracle responded that there was, in fact, none wiser. This declaration from the Oracle (an historically difficult assertion to prove as true or false from this distance) presents Socrates with a moral dilemma that involves both Truth and Wisdom. As Apollo is a God and cannot lie, then his assertion that there is no man wiser than Socrates must be true. Socrates, who insists that he is the bearer of no wisdom beyond that which comes from knowing that one has no wisdom, devises an ingenious solution to his problem by deciding that he will question men who are considered wise by reputation and, when he finds one, present him to the Oracle as a rebuttal of their claim.

Hilarity ensues as Socrates goes through a wide-range of purportedly wise people and finds none that convince him of their wisdom or impress him with their anger at being so exposed. Socrates’ very premise ranges over absurd ground. Suppose that he is successful and finds a wiser man to present to the Oracle. What, then, has he proven along with the idea that Gods cannot lie? He would have proven that either that Gods may not lie but their knowledge is not infallible or that the Oracle itself was an imperfect instrument of Apollo’s valued advice for mortals below. He is lucky, given this logical extension of his premise, that he is unable to find anyone in possession of wisdom, thus sanctifying not only his quest to continue his practice of inquiry (as Apollo has instructed in presenting him with his paradox) but his piety in obeying the Gods over the protestation of the aggrieved parties.

It is Socrates’ almost Taoist interpretation of Wisdom, though, that proves his greatest obstacle in infecting the jury with the urgency of his mission. Wisdom, it seems, is apparently in such short supply among mortals that is nearly impossible to describe. Though he invokes its absence relentlessly throughout his defense, Socrates offers very few insights as to what Wisdom might look like so the jury (or the reader) might know whether or not they might have some, thus refuting his argument. His final interpretation of the Oracle’s meaning offers a more descriptive passage on its nature, asserting that “God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the Wisdom of men is worth little or nothing” [23:5-7].

Later, in expounding the virtues of doing what is right over what is safe, he insists that “the fear of death is the pretense of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being a pretense of knowing the unknown” [29:6-9]. One might infer from this statement that the Socrates divides reality up into two categories, the knowable and the unknowable and assigns mortal knowledge to the former and divine wisdom to the latter. Whatever portion of the jury was present to pass judgment based on the merit of the arguments presented (a portion we are led to believe may have been quite small) might have found it difficult to acquit Socrates on the basis that no form of mortal wisdom exists whatsoever. By tying his fate into that philosophical argument instead of refuting the otherwise ridiculous charges he was facing, Socrates offers up his life as a wager that humanity (as represented by Athenians serving as his jury), when confronted with Truth about Wisdom, will recognize it as such and spare him accordingly. This makes for an excellent moment to recall that this is Plato, a masterful writer, creating a sympathetic fictional character based on someone well-known to the public. Socrates was dead before Plato began shaping even the first words of Apology and we must not ignore his influence on our interpretation of a foregone conclusion, namely Socrates’ execution.

As this trial is a capital trial, questions about Life and Death become progressively important; receiving at first only a few token acknowledgments in Socrates’ defense before taking greater precedence in the negotiation over his punishment and, finally, an almost central role in his capitulation to a sentence of death. It isn’t until Socrates is nearly finished with his defense when he describes the ideal life as one not wasting, “thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul” [30:8-12]. While cagey in his initial defense about precisely how one might enact said improvement or by what criteria it might be measured, Socrates elaborates further in his Penalty negotiation phase, noting that “daily discourse about virtue…is the greatest good of man and that the unexamined life is not worth living” [38:2-5].”

With the threat of a death sentence looming, Socrates is inspired to comment more directly on death and dying. Proclaiming the dignity of his defense at the expense of his freedom, Socrates exhorts the jury, explaining that the “difficulty, my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness” [39:6-8]. Consoling those on the panel who voted against his conviction and then against the death penalty, Socrates mentions for the second time the presence of an inner oracle that tells him the difference between right and wrong. Though it is now obvious that he was fated to die, Socrates proclaims that his inner voice never once told him of an impending wrong, leading him to believe that “what has happened to me is a good and that those of us who think that death is an evil are in error” [41:1-4]. It is only through the authority of his inner (perhaps divine) voice that Socrates is able to defend this claim as, by his own admission, what happens to us beyond death is unknowable and in his worldview, the province of divine wisdom and not mortal knowledge.

In surveying the two possibilities that his knowledge and his belief present, death is either a permanent and absolute unconsciousness (which he sees as akin to a good night’s sleep that never ends) or death is journey to a place where Divine wisdom reigns in place of its feeble mortal counterfeit. Both, in his humble estimation, seem alluring in comparison to the tragedy that has befallen him right here on Earth and Socrates resignedly accepts his sentence noting that “[t]he hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die and you to live. Which is better God only knows” [42:3-5].

Plato’s account of Socrates’ final hours on Earth continue into Crito and Phaedo but it is the unique narrative qualities of Apology that makes it stand out among the three. By having Socrates address the jury (and thus the reader) directly, Apology enjoys an urgency quite unlike the greatest portion of Plato’s writing. It is a compelling story beyond its historical significance; a man of great virtue and careful deliberation arguing for his life against a government of laws that finds itself at odds with his socially subversive message. It is also a familiar story that we will hear again (in quadruplicate) in the Trial of Jesus before Pilate though Plato is, in nearly every way, a more reliable narrator than the authors of the Gospels. There is also a provocative parallel between Socrates and Plato and Paul and Jesus that can already be seen, from this vantage, in Apology. Socrates and Jesus were both informal teachers that, for whatever reason, disdained to write down their message in favor of transmitting it orally. There is little evidence that either man was illiterate so the decision to speak, rather than write can be assumed to be one of choice and not of necessity. In both cases, it was the hearsay nature of what they’d said and done, coupled with their unwillingness to argue for their life on the merits of the cases presented against them that doomed them both to execution. Finally, the only reason that we have the ability to ponder on the virtue of their lives and deaths today is because a writer seized upon the vacuum of permanence left by their oral teaching and bound it into written form for the ages. The precariousness of this transaction invites one to wonder how many other oral teachings, perhaps no less profound, perhaps no less transformative, never found a way to pen or chisel and remains suspended somewhere back there in time.

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