Commentary on Plato, “Apology of Socrates” (Part 2)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Outline of Plato’s Apology, continued

(see Part 1 for the first section of this outline, 17a-19a. Also: the actual charges against Socrates are not mentioned in the Apology. They are in Diogenes Laertius. Xenophon, Memorabilia I.1 differs from that indictment in one word only. See West 73, note 38 for more.)

19a-20c: Socrates states the slander as if it were a sworn statement, saying the formal accusation arises from this (after Meletus’ near-impossible to defend accusation at 26e, this is quite plausible). Socrates says the slander is “something like this:”

Socrates does injustice and is meddlesome, by investigating the things under the earth and the heavenly things, and by making the weaker speech the stronger, and by teaching others these same things (19b).

He denies the charges, but says “if anyone is wise in such things [those characteristic of science, not making weaker speeches stronger],” he does not want to “dishonor” that knowledge (19c). However, the many have heard him talking and never heard him talk about such things (19d).

Socrates’ restatement is significant because of “by teaching others these same things.” Compare with 18b, quoted in part 1 – that addition wasn’t there. The “teaching others” addition makes it look like twofold nature of the official indictment (roughly: not believing in the city’s gods and importing strange deities, and corrupting the youth) stems directly from this (Strauss 40). Socrates’ claim that the “many” can talk seriously about what he talked about is also curious; Socrates admitted earlier that he talked “elsewhere,” not just in view of everyone (Strauss 40, 17c-d).

He claims he does not educate, though education is “noble.” Gorgias, Prodicus and Hippias do educate, being sophists, and collect money and gratitude from their students even as they pull them away from the rest of the citizenry (19d-20a). A very short exchange with Callias is reported, where Callias, who has spent more money on sophists than any other, is asked what will make his sons “noble and good [kalos kai agathos; the term goes with “gentleman” to signify a “perfect gentleman”] in their appropriate virtue” (20b). Callias replies that he has hired a foreigner who charges five minae. From Xenophon’s Oeconomicus II:3 – five minae, a rather paltry sum, is Socrates’ entire wealth. Socrates calls the rate “modest,” and then says he has no knowledge of  the “virtue of a human being and citizen” to educate with, otherwise he would be proud (the term he uses is related to noble/beautiful. See West 68, note 24).

20c-24b: Socrates’ first digression; Socrates imagines a retort to what he has just said and answers it (Strauss 44). The retort, at 20c, is that if he had done nothing wrong, then this slander would not have arisen. To reply, the story of the Delphic oracle – which no one has ever heard before – is told. An associate of his, Chaerephon, went to the Delphic oracle and asked Apollo’s priestess if anyone was wiser than Socrates. The oracle said no. Socrates immediately doubted the oracle and started looking for people wiser than him. He interrogated the politicians who were reputed to be wise, then the poets, then artisans. No one was able to defend their reputation. He finds his task to be divinely ordained; his attempt to refute the oracle became a confirmation of it. It also made him a number of enemies who reached for the easiest slander they could.

Chaerephon is directly mentioned in the Clouds; he was an obsessive disciple of Socrates. He was also a committed democrat whom the jury would have known personally (21a). At the time of the Apology, he is dead; his brother has to vouch for the truth of the story. The story is strange. It is filled with impiety (who asks a god who is wisest? Socrates immediately challenges Apollo’s judgment?), and yet proves Socrates took the city’s gods seriously. Moreover, as Socrates notes, it points to a “certain wisdom,” a “human wisdom” perhaps (20d-e). We may be tempted to think human wisdom is nothing but this knowledge of ignorance, for Socrates says aloud that the knowledge of the sophists may be greater than human. Perhaps the only true knowledge is divine. The worthlessness of human wisdom comes to light, but does not make Socrates any less wise for having it. However, as the Apology progresses, we learn there is more than simply negative content to human wisdom (Strauss 42,  with especial emphasis on 44-45).

24b-28b: Meletus, the poet and initiator of the proceedings, on the stand. Meletus hesitates often before answering; at some points, like 25c, I think he can see that Socrates could conceivably get him to paint every single one of the jury as bad people according to his (Meletus’) reasoning. Meletus severely damages his credibility a number of ways, but the most notable failing has to do with trying to tarnish Socrates as an atheist (26e). The indictment did not charge Socrates with atheism.

Socrates restates the charges in this section yet again:

It is something like this: it asserts that Socrates does injustice by corrupting the young, and by not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other daimonia that are novel. The charge is of this sort (24b).

“Daimonia” are not the same conception of divinity as the Delphic oracle, and careful listeners have to wonder what Socrates has done to his own story. What he has done in terms of the charges is made “corrupting the youth” the primary charge; the impiety concerns follow from that (Strauss 43). Socrates is apologizing to the city, it looks like: he is talking aloud about what philosophy takes seriously, and whether it can be of value to the city, or only a detriment. The first accusation has become the present accusation, not because of slander, but because Socrates himself wants to address the tension he sees.

Re: the daimonion (from where we get the word “demon”) of Socrates, the “divine thing” he mentions in several other dialogues. It acts to restrain him or excuse him; its character is purely negative. See Strauss 46-47 for an excellent short discussion of how it relates to Socratic eros.

Outline continues in part 3…

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