Note: This Apology summary is part of an ongoing project to summarise The 60+ Best Philosophy Books of All Time.
Apology is an idealised account of three speeches given by the 70-year-old Greek philosopher, Socrates, in his defence against charges of impiety and corruption (for which he was narrowly sentenced to death in 399 BC by a jury of 501 fellow Athenians).
NOTE: Apology is a transliteration of the Greek apologia which means “defence”, not “apology”. The speeches are notoriously unapologetic, with Socrates proposing “free meals for life” as a more appropriate punishment than death for his “crimes”.
It has survived thousands of years for a few reasons:
First, Socrates is a pretty big deal. From Christian and Islamic philosophy to stoicism to the renaissance to the enlightenment to the scientific method and beyond, very little modern Western thought can’t trace lines of influence back to Socrates or one of his pupils (especially Plato, Antisthenes and Aristippus).
Second, Socrates wrote nothing down. So, despite Plato’s airbrushing, it’s one of the most faithful insights we have into who Socrates was and how he thought. (Another pupil, Xenophon, also recorded the Apology. The two largely overlap, though changes in Plato’s version cast Socrates in a slightly more heroic light.)
And finally, it’s short, punchy and beautifully written. Plato was an exceptional thinker, writer and dramatist. Even without the pedigree of its protagonist, Apology is a masterwork worth preserving.
My verdict? Apology is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. It offers a fascinating insight into a man who shaped the modern world (and the city-state and culture that shaped him in turn). And with most translations being (a) free and (b) under 10,000 words, there are few key philosophical texts more accessible.
Not sure where to start? Here’s my recommended translation.
NOTE: As above, Apology is often bracketed with Plato’s Euthyphro, Crito, Meno and Phaedo. These short dialogues use Socrates’s trial as a focus and Socrates as a character to explore some of Plato’s philosophical ideas but are much less clearly representative of Socrates’s own words and views than Apology.
And in the meantime, feel free to enjoy my Apology summary below…
Plato’s Apology consists of three speeches made by Socrates during his trial:
- The Defence Speech – Socrates defends himself against his accusers;
- The Punishment Speech – Socrates proposes a counter-punishment to death; and
- Final Words – Socrates makes his last statements to the court.
Let’s break them down…
The Defence Speech
Socrates opens by apologising for his poor speech-giving skills. He positions himself as a simple, honest man who talks in his own style and deals in facts, not pretty arguments.
He then tells the jurors he must make TWO defences, against his:
- First accusers – Who spread slanders and lies about Socrates before the trial; and
- Second accusers – The plaintiffs in the trial and their specific charges against him.
The first accusers are the hardest to deal with since:
- There are many of them and they’ve been active for a long time;
- Some jurors may have heard their slanders as impressionable children;
- There are no specific people to name or argue against; and
- Socrates only has a short time to try and neutralise their poison.
But, Socrates says, he’ll do his best to defend himself against both sets in turn.
Beginning with his…
DEFENCE AGAINST THE FIRST ACCUSERS
Socrates says his first accusers claim that he:
- Studies things he shouldn’t be studying;
- Twists wrong arguments so they sound right; and
- Teaches those things to other people.
Not one of these, says Socrates, is true.
Instead, these accusations stem from the fact that Socrates has upset a large number of ambitious and violent people (and their followers) by proving they aren’t as wise as they believe or claim themselves to be.
Why did he upset those people? Because Apollo’s priestess at Delphi claimed no one was wiser than Socrates. Which he couldn’t believe. So he decided to question wise people to try and understand what she meant.
The trouble? Those “wise” people couldn’t answer his questions. The politicians were embarrassed. The poets couldn’t explain their creations. The craftsmen mistook mastery at their craft for more general wisdom which they didn’t have.
In fact, Socrates realised that the wiser that people were thought to be, the more foolish they usually were. (And vice versa)
He realised that what wisdom he had was in knowing he knew nothing, while others thought or claimed to know things they did not.
And he realised that if he was the wisest of men, then it was only by being the least ignorant of his own ignorance.
The problem? Making influential people look foolish made Socrates deeply unpopular.
And so slanders and lies began spreading.
But here’s the thing… if you ask anyone to point to a specific example of these first accusations, they can’t do it.
Why not? Because they simply aren’t true:
- Socrates never claimed to know or study the things he’s shown others ignorant of;
- Socrates has only ever shown that “right” arguments are often wrong; and
- While there are teachers out there, Socrates is not one of them.
In fact, the young men who follow and imitate Socrates do so freely, at no cost and of their own free-will.
It is this defence against his first accusers that Socrates presents to the jury.
It is for this reason, he says, that he ultimately stands accused by:
- Meletus – To answer for the anger of the poets;
- Anytus – To answer for the anger of the craftsmen and politicians; and
- Lycon – To answer for the anger of the orators.
And it is at this point that Socrates turns his attention to his…
DEFENCE AGAINST THE SECOND ACCUSERS
Socrates says that his second accusers (the plaintiffs in the case) claim he:
- Deliberately corrupts the young; and
- Does not believe in the city’s gods.
Again, Socrates says, neither is true.
To begin his defence, Socrates makes Meletus and his accusations look foolish.
First, he asks leading questions that end with Meletus claiming Socrates is the only man who corrupts the young men of the city while all other Athenians improve them. Which, Socrates says, is clearly nonsense.
Second, he leads Meletus into admitting that wicked people harm those nearest to them and no one willingly seeks harm. Therefore, Socrates must either be an idiot for seeking harm willingly (which, Socrates says, no one will believe) or he corrupts those nearest to him unwillingly (which is not a matter for the court).
Third, he leads Meletus into claiming that Socrates is an atheist who corrupts the young by teaching them new spiritual ideas. However, notes Socrates, a man who believes in spiritual ideas must believe in spirits and spirits are gods (or their children) and so Meletus’s claims are incompatible. Socrates cannot possibly be an atheist AND teach spiritual ideas (which implies a belief in gods).
These three arguments, Socrates says, are enough to prove:
- That Meletus’s accusations are badly thought through; and
- That Socrates cannot possibly be guilty of them.
(Note: The ruthless contempt of Socrates’s delivery gives, perhaps, a better taste of why he was so unpopular with his contemporaries than the arguments themselves.)
But Socrates isn’t done yet…
To finish his defence, Socrates vaunts himself as a dedicated public servant.
Socrates is a “gift from god”. His fact-checking philosophy is a public service that stings Athens out of complacency. His examinations help all Athenians (regardless of wealth and status) achieve excellence individually (and, thus, as a group) by keeping them honest about what they do and don’t know.
His entire concern is for Athens. He does not work for himself, but for wisdom and the city. He lives in poverty and has never charged a fee for this work. He has avoided politics since fighting for justice and being popular seldom go hand in hand. (Like that time he was the only one to fight for the lives of 10 generals illegally put to death by the council to appease public anger for their military failure.)
There is no chance of him changing his ways. The mark of a hero, of true excellence, is to always do the right thing regardless of the risk to one’s self. And Socrates is determined to keep doing what is right, no matter the cost. (Like that time he refused to obey the Thirty Tyrants and conspire in the deaths of his fellow Athenians.)
And he is not afraid to face danger or death in the line of his duty. Socrates didn’t abandon his commanders during the three military campaigns in which he defended Athens. And he won’t abandon wisdom, either, by fearing death, since, for all we know, it could be a great blessing.
Conclusion? If the jury convicts him, they had better be prepared to put him to death.
But if he is guilty, then why have none of the men who have learned from him realised the error of their ways and condemned him? Why haven’t their friends or relations stepped forward to do the same? Let Meletus bring them forward now if he can.
Why would so many support someone so guilty unless Meletus is obviously lying?
Socrates won’t shame the city by telling sob stories begging the jury for pity – as so many have before him. Instead, he exhorts them one last time to listen to the facts, not to pretty arguments or their emotions.
He reminds them to award justice according to their oaths and the law.
And with that, he rests his case.
The Punishment Speech
After his defence speech, Socrates is voted guilty by a narrow (30 votes) margin and the trial moves on to sentencing.
NOTE: Under Athenian law, every jury voted twice. First, on the issue of guilt. Second, on the issue of punishment. Both the defendant and the plaintiffs put forward a suggested punishment and the jury then voted between them.
Socrates begins by saying that although he expected the guilty verdict, it’s notable by how slim a margin it passed.
Turning to punishment, he suggests that what really deserves as a reward for his hard work on behalf of the city are free, state-sponsored meals.
When that fails to find sympathy, he first notes that a trial involving a death sentence should run for multiple days instead of just one, to give time to present proper arguments and avoid emotional decision making.
Next, he considers alternative punishments – prison, exile, silence or a fine.
He concludes that he’s not prepared to give up his freedom, his citizenship (after all, who else would put up with him?) or his philosophy (see above).
And while Socrates maintains that he doesn’t deserve punishing at all, he grudgingly proposes a large fine of 3,000 drachmae, to be guaranteed by his followers (including Plato), instead of the smaller 100 drachmae fine which would be more appropriate to his impoverished estate.
NOTE: The daily wage for a skilled day labourer was one drachma.
NOTE: In Xenophon’s account of the Apology, Socrates refuses to offer an alternative to his suggestion of free-meals.
The jury votes for death and Socrates shares a few last thoughts on the outcome.
To the jurors who voted him guilty, Socrates remains unrepentant…
First, he stands by his integrity and his decision, unlike the plaintiffs, not to betray his principles or pander to the jury.
Second, he predicts that sentencing a wise old man to death is a pyrrhic victory. Not only will it tarnish the city and jurors’ reputations, it was also pointless. They have only slightly shortened a life that would have ended soon anyway and, with the seeds of philosophy planted, many will simply now rise where before there was one.
And finally, he concludes by advising that the secret to not failing tests of one’s excellence lies not in avoiding or silencing those tests but in the pursuit of excellence itself; by preparing for those tests as best as you possibly can.
To the jurors who voted to acquit him, Socrates makes two requests…
First, he asks them not to worry, since death may in fact be a blessing. It’s either like a long night of dreamless sleep or it’s a ticket to meet, test and keeps company with many legendary inhabitants of the underworld. In either case, it is not something to be feared.
Second, he asks them to look after the philosophical education of his sons, when they have grown up; to give them the same training Socrates gave to them; to make sure they don’t value money over excellence or think they are somebody when they are nobody.
He bids them a final philosophical farewell: “Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the god.”
And with that, the Apology ends.
These Apology quotes come from TANQ – The Art of Living‘s growing central library of thoughts, anecdotes, notes, and quotes.
“To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.”
“Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.”
“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.”
“Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the god.”
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Enjoyed this Apology summary? You might enjoy the rest of the books on this list of The 60+ Best Philosophy Books of All Time.