Commentary on Plato, “Apology of Socrates” (Part 1)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Note: If you find this of any use, please share it with others. The text that will be quoted is Thomas and Grace West’s translation in Four Texts on Socrates (Cornell 1987; full disclosure: Tom West is a professor of mine). The notes are excellent, and the translation is a fun read. The secondary source I am consulting is Leo Strauss’ “On Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Crito” (from Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, University of Chicago 1986), which is a cryptic and difficult essay. I do not profess to understand the Apology completely; the point of the following posts is to go over basics and bring forth a few interesting questions.

Preliminary Remarks

The Apology of Socrates is one of two texts at the foundation of Western Civilization, the other being the Bible. It is a meditation on the conflict between philosophy and politics. Politics can be said to be any concern with power; familial authority comes under fire implicitly (Strauss 39: it was the fathers who first slandered Socrates to the children now judging him), and those with more technical knowledge were found to exceed their bounds frequently (22c-23a). Philosophy can be said to be the desire for any knowledge whatsoever.

Therefore, a word of caution. This is the Internet, and many of you think that by posting in anarchist forums or attacking people of faith that you are actually standing up for “knowledge.” Some of you also think that the Western world is superior to all other civilizations because Christianity gave sound political teachings, which may or may not have influenced the American Founders, who have, in your mind, even sounder political ideas. It is true that modern orders more than ancient ones want knowledge to advance. It is true there are movements more readily identifiable with what may be termed “ignorance.” However, I know any serious student of this text needs to attempt to find self-knowledge and ask themselves what biases they have that might make them kill someone who asked questions. The conflict here, I suggest, is that fundamental. Man as political in any sense may be in tension with man as a learning being.

Outline of Plato’s Apology

17a-19a: Socrates says he is not a clever speaker. He speaks the truth, and he says the job of a judge is to determine whether what he says is “just” or not. This is not trivial: he is literally telling the city – this is a very large jury – to be just. He then makes a distinction which is not part of the official accusation, before saying anything like the official accusation. There are the “first accusers” and the “later accusers.” These first accusers, one of whom was Aristophanes, slandered Socrates. They said:

…there is a certain Socrates, a wise man, a thinker on the things aloft, who has investigated all things under the earth, and who makes the weaker speech the stronger (18b).

The jury has been hearing this slander since childhood (18c). Socrates emphasizes that he is fighting both sets of accusers (18d-e) but concludes that a defense speech “must” be made, for “the law must be obeyed” (19a). It is not hard to conjecture that Socrates does see his task as impossible, and finds the value of the defense speech questionable. He has “a short time,” whereas the slanders have occurred for “a long time.” In Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Xenophon himself steps forth to assert that virtue is only had through continual practice (Memorabilia I.2.11,21). Speeches are not enough alone, usually. Hiding within the opening of this section is an example of a deed:

They [the current accusers] are not ashamed that they will immediately be refuted by me in deed [ergo, dative of ergon, meaning “work”], as soon as it becomes apparent that I am not a clever speaker at all; this seemed to me to be most shameless of them – unless of course they call a clever speaker the one who speaks truth (17b).

A “deed” (work) could be one of two things, a lack of a proper speech (hence: not-speech), or the speech that tells the truth. If we take the latter possibility seriously, then the pursuit of truth could be like practicing virtue, inasmuch something is practiced. It would be vital that one was honest with oneself, of course, and that one understood one’s bounds.

Outline to be continued in Part 2…

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