Type Source
Date BC 0390
Tags philosophy, Kilobook Project


Plato's Apology of Socrates describes Socrates's defense against the charge of impiety for which he was eventually sentenced to death. Once again, I read Grube's translation.

Socrates begins his defense by disclaiming any skill at speaking, except insofar as a speakers skill lies in speaking the truth, and begs the indulgence of the jurors that they allow him to speak in the way he is accustomed to do. He indicates that, apart from defending himself from the present charge brought against him by Meletus, he must first defend himself against his earlier accusers who have for many years spoken against him, and so poisoned the minds of the jurors against him.

Socrates insists that he does not teach, and has no wisdom that may be taught, but offers an explanation for the source of these "slanders" against him. He recounts that his friend Chaerephon had once gone to Delphi and asked the oracle whether any man was wiser than Socrates, and the oracle replied that no one was wiser. Socrates was very confused by this, he said, for he knew that he was not wise at all. So, he set out to test what the oracle had said, seeking out men said to be wise that he might point out a man wiser than he.

Socrates was not to succeed in this endeavour, however. With each man he approached, he would find the same: that they were not wise at all. He would think to himself: "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."

Socrates made enemies as he proceeded to seek out and test men said to be wise, showing each in his turn his own ignorance–the wiser in repute, the more deficient in fact. After testing the politicians, he sought the poets, but found that they were not wise either–that evidently they composed their great works not through wisdom, but by inspiration, like seers and prophets. Despite this, he said, the poets thought their talent and inspiration made them wise in many matters of which they knew nothing. Craftsmen, too, thought that their expertise in a craft granted them wisdom in other matters of which they were ignorant.

Moreover, he claims, bystanders who heard him pointing out the ignorance of these men reputed for their wisdom falsely assumed that he possessed the wisdom that he proved they lacked. So, he acquired an undeserved reputation for wisdom. He speculates that the oracle meant that "this man among you, mortals, is wisest who, like Socrates, understands that his wisdom is worthless."

Socrates then addresses the charges that Meletus laid against him: that he corrupts the young and does not believe in the gods of the city, but in other spiritual things. For the first, he asks Meletus whether he means that all the Athenians improve the young, and that he, Socrates, alone corrupts them; Meletus agrees that this is what he means. This, Socrates dismisses as absurd: "it would be a very happy state of affairs," he says, "if only one person corrupted our youth, while the others improved them." He dismisses this, saying that it is obvious that Meletus has never had any concern for the youths of the city, and had never given them any thought. For the charge that he willfully corrupts the youth, Socrates notes–and Meletus agrees–that men are harmed if they keep bad company, and so he, Socrates, could not possibly intentionally corrupt the youth, whose company he keeps, for he would thereby be harmed; Meletus has already agreed that no man wants to be harmed.

For the second charge, he again asks Meletus to clarify, whether he means that Socrates believes in other gods than those of the city, or whether Socrates believes in no gods at all. Meletus indicates that he means the latter. Socrates once more gets Meletus to agree that no man can believe in spiritual activities without believing in spirits, and that spirits are either gods or children of gods. Since Socrates was charged with believing and teaching spiritual matters other than concerning the gods of the city, Socrates states that it is clear that Meletus has spoken a contradiction–has charged Socrates with believing in no gods and believing in gods.

For the remainder of Socrates's defense, he defends that he pursues philosophy. He is concerned, he says, with the improvement of men, and seeks to teach them to seek first for the good of their souls, before they seek wealth or other things. He says that he "was attached to this city by the god . . . 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."

Socrates says that he will continue to do as he has done, though he may risk death, for no one should fail to act rightly out of fear of death, nor indeed should anyone fear death, for they do not know it to be an evil. Socrates does not beg and plead for his life, for he regards such actions as unworthy–that for men regarded as superior to behave like that would be a disgrace. Yet, he says, he has seen men "doing amazing things as if they thought it a terrible thing to die, and as if they were to be immortal if you did not execute them." Such acts, Socrates argues, should not stay the hand of the jury. Rather, he says to them, "you should make it very clear that you will more readily convict a man who performs these pitiful dramatics in court and so makes the city a laughing-stock, than a man who keeps quiet."

The jury, though, gives its verdict of guilty, and Meletus asks for the penalty of death. Socrates indicates that he regards this as an injustice, and says that he will not argue the penalty, for he would not claim to believe himself deserving of any punishment. Rather he says, "if [he] must make a just assessment of what [he deserves], [he assesses] it as this: free meals in the Prytaneum," for he has been their benefactor, and deserves it far more than an Olympian victor. At length, Socrates offers as penalty a fine of thirty minas, which Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Apollodorus bid him, and offered to pay.

The jury will not have it, though. Socrates is sentenced to death. He says that they "will acquire the reputation and the guilt . . . of having killed Socrates . . . [although] if they had waited but a little while, this would have happened of its own accord," for Socrates is old and has not long to live in any case. Though he has been caught by death, Socrates says that his accusers have been caught by wickedness. To those who convicted him, he prophesies that vengeance will come upon them immediately after his death; that many men, who he had held back, will now come to test them, and they "will be more difficult to deal with as they will be younger."

To those who voted for his acquittal, Socrates says that death shall do him no harm. If death is as dreamless sleep, it shall be better than the majority of days of his life, and if otherwise it is a change to another place, he will be in good company, and will spend his time with other men who died though an unjust conviction, and may test men there, as he did in Athens, to see who is wise and who is not.

At last, Socrates exhorts his accusers: "when my sons grow up, avenge yourselves by causing them the same kind of grief that I caused you, if you think they care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue, or if they think they are somebody when they are nobody. Reproach them as I reproach you, that they do not care for the right things and think they are worthy when they are not worthy of anything. If you do this, I shall have been justly treated by you, and my sons also."

He leaves, saying: "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."

I have perhaps given too extensive a summary in some respects, while omitting much that might have been worthy of inclusion. Enough of that, though.

Of course, as with Plato's other works, there is no reason to assume that this is truly how the event in question happened. I would say, rather, that Plato believes this is the best, truest defense of Socrates, and perhaps how Socrates, too, would have wished to defend himself. However they may match in the particulars of the defense, the outcome is the same–Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to die. It is a foregone conclusion, for in the intervening 2400 years, Socrates's fate has become well-known.

Knowing then, as Plato did when he wrote the Apology, that Socrates is to die, much of what he says seems to be less a defense, and more reproach of his killers. Little wonder, if Socrates had given such a defense, that he was found guilty: at every turn he demeans and insults his accusers, members of the jury among them. Too, Socrates raises himself up as a spectacular man, a gift to the city from the god, such as they will not see again, unless the god favors them despite their foolishness.

Socrates says that "if it were the law with us, as it is elsewhere, that a trial for life should not last one but many days, you would be convinced, but now it is not easy to dispel great slanders in a short time." Evidently Plato felt that such trials should last many days, for he certainly felt that it was an injustice to kill Socrates. Too, Plato, through Socrates, has expressed that he feels the jurors, rather than judging on the facts, decide guilt or innocence based on how well the defendant speaks, whether he begs, and their own emotions.

Well, I agree with these things. No less true is it today than two and a half millennia ago, that men are not all sound judges, unmoved by emotion, nor any less true that care ought to be taken when deciding a trial for life–more care than we do take, even now. Evidently, it is a rather profound kind of ignorance, when a person indicates that he feels that such failures belong to recent days alone–people have changed surprisingly little, for all else that we have done these 2400 years.

Character Type
Socrates Main
Name Role
Plato Author


Relation Sources
Contained in
  • The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy, Eighth Edition (2018-09-17)
Discussed in
  • The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy, Eighth Edition (2018-09-17)