Commentary on Plato, “Apology of Socrates” (Part 3)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Outline of Plato’s Apology, continued

28b-29b: Socrates’ second digression (the first was that of the Delphic oracle). This time he asks himself whether he is ashamed to die because of the life he lived. He compares himself to Achilles avenging Patroclus; Achilles was most certainly not afraid to die. But he does not mention the name of Achilles, and his version of events is very different from Homer’s (28c-d). Socrates’ “Achilles” is much more concerned with honor and justice than Homer’s; compare with Iliad XVIII, 95-104, where Achilles seems focused on more private concerns.

Socrates then discusses his own military service in comparison with his way of life. Related: it is either a Socratic or pre-Socratic joke, I can’t remember and can’t find the citation, that polis (city) derives from polemos (battle). Athena is the goddess of both wisdom and war. In any case, just as Socrates was commanded by generals in battles to hold his place (and he did so), Socrates was commanded by the god “to live philosophizing and examining myself and others” (28e). “In the first digression, the emphasis was altogether on his examining others. Is philosophizing the same as realizing one’s ignorance regarding the most important things?” (Strauss 44) The principle Socrates ultimately uses to justify himself:

…I do know that it is bad and shameful to do injustice and to disobey one’s better, whether god or human being. So compared to the bad things which I know are bad, I will never fear or flee the things about which I do not know whether they even happen to be good (29b).

“Courage” does not occur in Socrates’ discussion of Achilles; was Achilles “commanded” to go kill Hector? (Strauss 44) Something is strange about Socrates’ obedience in the battles he fought; all were pretty much Athenian defeats or inconclusive. The commanders, then, put their soldiers in situations where obedience would not produce the good, where soldiers would have to think for themselves in order to survive and be effective (West 80, note 51 is highly recommended).

29c-31c: Socrates’ third digression? It is hard to call this a digression since he is putting words in the mouths of the jurors, words specific to the trial. He begins the section by discussing Anytus:

…Anytus […] said that either I should not have been brought in here at the beginning, or, since I was brought in, that it is not possible not to kill me (he said before you that if I am acquitted, soon your sons, pursuing what Socrates teaches, will all be completely corrupted)… (29c)

The question put in the jurors’ mouths is whether Socrates can be let go, but told not to philosophize. Socrates emphasizes once again that his mission comes from the god, and he would rather obey the god than them. He talks about his exhorting many Athenians to virtue. He makes it explicit that Athens is about to commit a great injustice, and the famous metaphor of Socrates as gadfly to Athens as horse is in this section:

For if you kill me, you will not easily discover another of my sort – who – even if it is rather ridiculous to say – has simply been set upon the city by the god, as though upon a great and well-born horse who is rather sluggish because of his great size and needs to be awakened by some gadfly (30e).

Meletus represented the poets: quite ironic he had trouble answering promptly. Anytus is a tanner (artisan), but also the most powerful of Socrates’ accusers. Refuting Meletus was a matter of showing his inconsistency, an inconsistency that can be said to characterize the poetry/mass media the Greeks intake. Refuting Anytus at a higher level depends upon showing the good philosophy can produce. Politics provides immediate goods: done right, it takes care of necessities, emboldens and unites the citizens, establishes justice.  (It is not hard to think there is a political art, a political science.) In a sense, if we are talking about the four virtues central to Greek thought, wisdom, justice, moderation and courage, politics might have near-exclusive command over three of them, if not four (“wisdom” can easily be replaced by “prudence”). The only way Socrates can argue, therefore, is in a sense for a radical reconception of virtue. We are looking at a demonstration of philosophic courage all throughout the Apology; Socratic moderation is reflected both in his extreme continence and lust for wisdom (how could it be moderate to act ignorantly, even in the slightest degree?). Justice becomes more of a transpolitical matter (“do no harm”) rather than one which we could actually live by (“help friends, harm enemies” – see Book 1 of the Republic for more on this).

What y0u’re seeing in this section, I suspect, is that Socrates can’t really refute Anytus, not on the literal level (Strauss 49). Hence, the rhetoric is more strident, the issue of pay and poverty comes up. Socrates is very much in control of every word: this is easily the most lasting and powerful part of the argument, the part everyone throughout the ages remembers. But it is not going to save his life.

31c-34b: Socrates discusses the daimonion which kept him out of politics, then two examples where he had to get involved in politics, and finally whether he corrupted any of those in the Socratic circle.

The daimonion is connected with Socrates’ self-preservation; thus, it stops him from attempting to rule, as “no human being… will preserve his life if he genuinely opposes either you or the multitude and prevents many unjust and unlawful things from happening in the city” (31e). The oracle might not have been as concerned with Socrates’ preservation; it commanded him to irritate powerful people, to stand his ground as a soldier would (Strauss 46). Strauss argues that one can see this and what came before it as part of the second digression: a contempt for self-preservation became the complete vindication of self-preservation. There are two opposed (divine?) principles: “[the daimonion] acted as it were on the premise that life is good and death is bad while the Delphic command proceeds from the opposite premise” (Strauss 46). This is not an issue I want to explore much more; how exactly the daimonion has “divine” status – it was there well before Socrates received the oracle – is the key question.

The two times Socrates was charged explicitly with something political: once, he tried to prevent an angry mob from unlawfully executing generals that had won a battle (32b). The account is in Xenophon’s Hellenica, first book. Not only did the generals fail to recover bodies, but they might have let a number of people drown after the battle. A storm did hamper recovery efforts. Another time, the oligarchs wanted him to arrest a most just man and put him to death. He simply walked away (32d).

Socrates emphasizes how private his philosophic activity has been; he has not taught, not received money, and is not even responsible for those who have become upright (33a-b). Compare with 29c-30c, where he examines and exhorts people to virtue. The link seems to be the Delphic oracle, “the god,” who apparently communicated in more ways than just the oracle (33c). Socrates emphasizes the pleasure others take in seeing people who claim they have virtue being tested. He has cast his life, so far, in terms of duty. Socrates says that many relatives of those he has spoken in front of can vouch that he has not corrupted anyone. Many of them in fact want to aid him (33d-34b).

34b-35d: Socrates concludes his defense. He adds that he is not going to beg meanly, and bring his family and friends forth and try to elicit pity:

For I am old and have this name; and whether it is true or false, it is reputed at least that Socrates is distinguished from the many human beings in some way. If, then, those of you who are reputed to be distinguished, whether in wisdom or courage or any other virtue at all, will act in this way, it would be shameful (34e-35a).

Socrates is repeatedly described in Xenophon as anthropos, “human being,” and not aner,  a “real man.” The Greek word for courage is derived from aner; to be courageous is simply to be a real man. Again, in Xenophon, Socrates puts on a clinic on how to be a gentleman, how to be noble – notice how he acts in Xenophon’s Symposium, especially with regard to the jester who seems intent on bringing the party lower. How exactly nobility flows from wisdom is a serious question. Do note the relation between nobility, lawfulness and piety brought forth in 35b-d.

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