Commentary on Plato, “Apology of Socrates” (Part 4)

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Outline of Plato’s Apology, continued

At 35d, Socrates strongly implies that he is being prosecuted for impiety. He has done a great deal of arguing to make the corruption charge the primary one. Strauss notes the corruption charge is “incredible,” but it is otherwise with impiety (Strauss 40).

Be that as it may, our provisional look at Socrates’ actual apology is complete. Now we turn to the counterproposal of punishment after he has been voted guilty, and the conclusion:

35e-38b: Socrates is surprised at the number of votes he got for acquittal. Given what is said in this section, it seems pretty clear he wants to be executed. He asserts that “privately” he gave each Athenian “the greatest benefaction,” and yet he is still amazingly poor (36c-d). Hence, he should be honored as Olympians are (36d-e). Socrates claimed earlier that he taught no one, and has repeatedly treated the Athenians as unjust and not concerned with virtue. How on earth has he benefited them like an Olympian? A champion athlete makes them “seem to be happy;” has Socrates made anyone genuinely happy? (36e, Strauss 49)

Moreover, Socrates takes aim at the way of deciding on punishment (37a: “if you had a law like other human beings, not to judge anyone in a matter of death in one day alone…”) and considers all the rest of the possible punishments – prison, a fine, exile and silence – worse than death (Strauss 49). The issue is admitting that he has led a life unjust in any way, as opposed to the best of all possible lives. We note that the philosopher is akin to the lawgiver in terms of punishment, with an (or perhaps several) ironic twist(s). In the Gorgias, Socrates discusses openly how it is of great benefit for him to be corrected if wrong.

A third and final digression of Socrates begins. He answers why he cannot accept exile and be silent in exile; this is not unrelated to the god’s task. At 38a, Socrates utters perhaps the most famous line in the Platonic corpus – “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The context is curious. He says it will not persuade the Athenians. Strauss argues that Socrates is exactly correct on this count; the story of the Delphic oracle was much more persuasive to his audience (Strauss 50).

38-42a: After Socrates is condemned to death, he addresses the condemners and those who voted for acquittal. This is a marked change from a world where there were only accusers and those convinced by the accusers.

He tells the condemners that he would have died soon anyway and that he indeed had the speeches available to convince them otherwise. Instead of explaining himself, though, he posits motives for them. They convicted him because he did not wail and lament and say the sort of things that would have pleased them (38d-e). He tells them that in both matters of law and war one should not try to escape death by any means (38e-e9a). Villainy is faster than death. Death caught the slower, Socrates, but those running faster have been caught by villainy (39a-b). Those running faster, to be sure, are the accusers. The condemners as a whole are not necessarily “convicted by the truth of wretchedness and injustice.” Yet all those who condemned, he prophesizes, will be refuted by those younger and harsher whom they have not seen (39c-d). All those who condemned him want to avoid giving an account of their own lives.

To those who voted for acquittal he wants to share stories (mythos is in one of the words he uses). He tells them the daimonion at no time opposed him in his going to the trial or making his speech. This means something good must be happening to him, and death could be good one of two ways – it could be a dreamless sleep (contrast with the story of the horse and the gadfly), which even in life no one complains about. Or it could involve going to Hades, inasmuch he was good, and not only avoiding punishment but getting to question people like Homer and Hesiod and Minos and Orpheus about whether they are really wise or not.

The gods show care for the troubles of a good man; he has therefore been released from his troubles. He exhorts all to bother his sons the way he bothered others: to make sure they are not merely reputed virtuous, to make sure they care for virtue in the first place. Can the philosophic enterprise be carried out by the city? Socrates: “Which of us goes to a better thing is unclear to everyone except the god.”

References

Strauss, Leo. “On Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Crito.” Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, ed. Pangle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. 38-66

West, Thomas G. and Grace West. Four Texts on Socrates. Ithaca: Cornell, 1987.

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