Xenophon, “Apology of Socrates”

Xenophon, Apology of Socrates

for Glen Thurow, whose civility & graciousness I still marvel at, and for Peter Lund, who understands how personal the love of wisdom truly is

Plato’s Apology of Socrates takes crisis – all is lost, all could be lost – and performs nothing less than a resurrection. Plato himself watched as Socrates taunted the jury, the city of Athens, begging for death. The Apology is an introduction to the Platonic corpus, certainly, but it is so much more than that. It presents nothing less than the confrontation of philosophy by the city, and only philosophy proves itself worthy to speak to the ages. Socrates declares “the unexamined life is not worth living,” compares himself to a gadfly whose task is wakefulness itself, utterly humiliates those who brought up the charges, defies while obeying the will of Apollo, proves himself the truly free, maybe the only free, human being.

Why, then, do we need another Apology? What does Xenophon have to offer that shines forth as brightly? To be sure, Xenophon was not present in Athens when Socrates died, and he claims he gets his account of what happened from Hermogenes and others. More on this later. For now, it is notable that two related themes, not always in obvious concord with each other, course throughout his Apology. He begins it boldly, declaiming the name “Socrates” (it’s the first word in the Greek), then quickly retreats to “it seems:” “It seems to me worthy to remember Socrates.” What might be thought a trivial point about style hearkens to a much larger problem, as Socrates deliberated both on his defense (apologias) and the end of his life (tēs teleutēs tou biou). Xenophon, both proud of his teacher and unsure of how to do justice to him, mirrors Socrates himself. Regarding the city, there is the requirement of making a legal defense, justifying oneself before others, and separately, holding to one’s own understanding of one’s own life, one’s own ends.

Xenophon’s Memorabilia, a longer defense of Socrates, ostensibly proved Socrates’ justice. While conducting this proof, it did not hesitate to detail Socrates’ enormous eros for young, handsome men (Memorabilia I.3), his vast amount of scientific learning (IV.7), and his inspiring serious but seditious questions, such as “What is law?” (I.2). Any of this information would have been enough for Athens to condemn Socrates; it is all conspicuously absent from the work at hand. Instead, the same Xenophon wavering between pride and meekness in presenting Socrates focuses on Socrates’ megalegoria, his “big talking.” Xenophon tells us that yes, his speech matched his resolve, that Socrates did decide death to be better than life (Apology 1-2). This statement, radical as it is, is still far too simple for the shocking claims Socrates repeatedly makes in this short work.

RESOLVE (Apology 1-9)

Hermogenes, a pious companion of Socrates, asks Socrates whether he has given any thought to what he was going to say at the trial, after watching Socrates talk about everything else except that (2). Socrates replies that his whole life is the most noble preparation for a defense, as he has done nothing wrong (3). Hermogenes persists: innocent men have been put to death by juries, but speakers who excited pity or employed wit got away with their crimes (4). Socrates agrees most emphatically, but tells Hermogenes his daimonion twice prevented him from even thinking about a defense of this sort. The daimonion, “demonic thing,” was part of a key accusation against Socrates, that of his bringing new deities into the city. Notably, in Plato’s Theages, Socrates’ daimonion tells him not to take Theages as a pupil, and is credited in another case with seeing that one who was dissolute would indeed have a bad end.

After saying his daimonion interposed twice, Socrates outlines the following case for why he should die. God holds it better for him to die, as he will not concede that anyone has lived a better life than him up until now. He declares it pleasant to think about how he lived in a completely “pious” (hosiōs) and “just” (dikaiōs) manner, so pleasant that it fosters self-respect and the confidence and respect of others (5). Against this lies the trap of physical decay: it will destroy his ability to learn, withering his vision and hearing, and if he takes to complaining, what of his pleasure (6)? Maybe God is allowing him to die at the height of his powers, in the easiest way. People say that this sort of execution is not the worst thing, and one’s companions will be greatly moved, having been left only an image of his having a sound body and a soul disposed to gentle reasoning (7). If Socrates were to make a proper speech and continue living, his life would collapse in illness and old age, giving only distress and no pleasure (8). Having resolved this, Socrates told Hermogenes that he would not beg meanly for his life, instead not denying the blessings both god and man have given him, not accepting a longer but limited life when death would be preferable (9).

It has taken me years to realize the character of Socrates’ talk. Hermogenes, whose piety Xenophon attests for in his Symposium, is all of us. All of us want to be remembered as gracious and beautiful when we’re gone. We do not want to be thought ungrateful, and even if we have made mistakes in life, we hope our life can justify itself by its example, that someone can easily see what is holy and just in it. Obviously, there are vengeful, hateful people who are not quite “all of us,” who do not mind being remembered as destroyed by an unjust society. It is not hard to see their claim to justice, warped as it is. Socrates’ own “big talking,” of course, is ridiculous: old age is not the worst thing, not by far, and the decline of one’s physical powers does not mean people fail to hold beautiful images of one. Still, it is only ridiculous inasmuch Socrates carries the motivations we use daily to work for others and ourselves to an extreme. In this and its studious avoiding of anger, it appeases Hermogenes and points beyond itself. Socrates’ life, as noted above, wasn’t holy or just in any conventional manner. It was a life marked by eros, as John Koritansky once told me, a “lust for knowledge,” and as Strauss says, for those beautiful souls who can make something of knowledge, even if they’re simply an admiring audience. It was also, um, a life marked by eros simply. Is Socrates’ big talking a lie, only meant to outline a resolve told privately to Hermogenes and reconcile it with a speech given to Athens? I wonder if the two times the daimonion told Socrates not to meditate on his defense came from the thoughts provoked by Hermogenes’ own questions.

SPEECH (Apology 10-21)

Socrates professes incredulity that he does not worship the city’s gods. Everyone has seen him sacrifice at festivals and at public altars (11)! And how dare people call his daimonion a new divinity! It is a divine voice that tells him what is necessary for him to do (ho ti chrē poein). It speaks duty clearly: does it not compare with the “voice” of thunder, birds, or a priestess, which men also claim divine (12)? (Re: oracles. The oracle would ingest some sort of hallucinogen and start babbling; a priest would interpret the babbling; a poet would mold the interpretation into the sort of thing we recognize as a prophecy or divine wisdom).

The outstanding question is the status of human reason. Is reason divine? What is divine entails foreknowledge, and men hold the gods communicate this through omens, such as birds chirping or prophecies. Socrates claims his daimonion has advised him infallibly about his friends: does he not speak truly and piously (13)? Of course, one can say I am jumping the gun: the Athenians, hearing this, did not think about the status of rationality, but rather thought him a liar or professed envy that he was favored by the gods (14). What is remarkable is how Socrates has to believe, has to hold, that reason can work for him and advise him properly regarding the good life (13: what men speak/reason about divine voices is what they believe).

Socrates is not interested in introducing the court of public opinion to the fineness of this inquiry. That, in a strange way, one has to believe in order to know, in order to wonder and utilize one’s power and ask serious questions – well, let’s just say this has been reduced by people to the following sort of clumsy proposition. One must believe to know, therefore what we believe cannot be questioned, or else we know nothing. This is the essence of any kind of social order; Socrates’ famous knowledge of ignorance now appears as anything but humble, instead the most radical sort of claim over against any orthodoxy.

So Socrates works to make the jury put him to death. He says no less than Apollo has called him the most free, just, and reasonable man (14). This results in a bit of a tumult; Socrates continues by examining the utterance in detail, claiming it should not be believed otherwise (15). He points to his own continence making him the least “slave to his bodily appetites,” his justice in not desiring anything belonging to another, his wisdom in seeking to learn as much as he possibly can (16). He points to a reputation other than the one that put him on trial, whereby many come to him wanting to learn virtue or give him gifts for merely associating with him (17). And he then describes how he did not complain of scarcity during the siege, how he receives pleasure from his very soul, finally asking the jury why he does not deserve praise from both gods and men if he is correct on all these matters (18)?

Sharply, he turns to Meletus, one of the accusers, after painting himself more continent and virtuous than any other Athenian, including those who may have been starving during the siege:

[D]o you maintain that I corrupt the young by such practices? And yet surely we know what kinds of corruption affect the young; so you tell us whether you know of any one who under my influence has fallen from piety into impiety, or from sober into wanton conduct, or from moderation in living into extravagance, or from temperate drinking into sottishness, or from strenuousness into effeminacy, or has been overcome of any other base pleasure.” (19)

Socrates asks Meletus if the youth have fallen away from piety, or become intemperate, extravagant, drunkards, or effeminate because of his influence. Of course, the corruption charge against Socrates concerned his alienating the youth from their fathers. Like Socrates’ claiming to speak more piously than most, the actual substance of the charges is not being addressed. Socrates was accused neither of atheism nor fostering immoderation.

Meletus recognizes that Socrates is not addressing the charge: “But, by Heaven! said Meletus: there is one set of men I know,—those whom you have persuaded to obey you rather than their parents” (20). Socrates admits his responsibility, but argues thus: regarding health, people listen to physicians, not their parents; in the legislature, the most prudent are trusted, not one’s relatives. Regarding education, is Socrates not also an expert? And don’t the Athenians elect generals for their expertise?

Meletus’ response reveals the heart of the Socratic critique: “Yes, Meletus had said; for that is both expedient and conventional (nomidzetai)” (20). Generals are elected based on their knowledge not because of any value knowledge or learning possesses itself, but because it seems easier, and because electing them is a conventional matter. Meletus’ response makes perfect sense to the jury, and it would make perfect sense to us if we are holding the letter of the law against someone. It also condemns the jury. Not knowledge itself, but why one believes anything has become the issue. Socrates, for all his “big talking,” is clear about what he believes and the evidence for it. Athens, its regime, and its laws all hide behind its opinion of itself, whether that opinion hearkens to traditional roots or its present power. The wrong estimation of oneself impedes knowledge; Socrates’ “big talking” is not wisdom itself but also not a cover for the pursuit of wisdom.

One could rightly say that Socrates is not entirely forthcoming: we are not witnessing a public deliberation as much as the plea that philosophy, particularly natural philosophy, can coexist with civic institutions. While that is a noble thought, it is simultaneously advanced and put aside by the last words of the defense Xenophon wishes to quote. Socrates, after hearing Meletus affirm the value of the expedient and conventional, wonders why he is being brought up on capital charges when others who are excellent in their fields are given honors. Is Socrates not supreme with regard to education? Is education not the greatest good human beings can have? On the one hand, that Athens will put Socrates to death but philosophy began thriving shows that this apology worked. It was a plea that reached the ears of others. On the other hand, Socratic supremacy in education is the culmination of a long list of things he has claimed about himself. To wit: a divine voice attends him, with which he speaks piously and truly, knowing what to do; he is continent and just, able to care for himself and not need the beneficence of others; he is wise inasmuch he does not stop learning; others wish to learn from him and reward him. The temptation is to see education as a public good, good for many, one that incidentally happens to make Socrates’ life better. But I surmise Xenophon himself is interested in the “big talking” because he wonders about Socrates himself.

THE MAN HIMSELF (Apology 22-end)

Xenophon as narrator reemerges. He first wondered about Socrates’ “big talking,” where Socrates declared death to be better for him than life. Now he says that much more was said at the trial, but he has chosen not to report it, as he has shown that Socrates never wanted to appear impious or unjust, that Socrates wanted to appear moderate before both gods and men (22). If we doubt that Socrates “big talking” about facing death has anything to do with his not appearing impious or unjust, Xenophon emphasizes the link between the two. He returns his narrative to Socrates believing that the time had come for him to die. Socrates, asked to name a penalty, refused to name one, as that would be an admission of guilt (23). When his friends wanted to smuggle him outside of prison, he asked them if they knew any place beyond Attica inaccessible to death (24).

Xenophon continues to give us Hermogenes’ reports. Socrates after the trial said that the witnesses who bore false witness against him perjured themselves, and that those who instructed the witnesses must feel impious and unjust. As for himself, he remains of sound mind, as he was not found guilty of the charges in the indictment. He was not shown to have sacrificed to, sworn to, or believed in new deities (24). His example to the young, his continence, did not corrupt them, and other laws whose violation demands the death penalty, such as robbing temples, robbing houses, enslaving others, treason were absent from the indictment (25). He remains steadfast in mind because of the enormity of the injustice he faces: he will not be remembered badly, but only those who condemned him. He compares himself to Palamedes, put to death unjustly by Odysseus for his wisdom (26). Only now, as his final public words, does he say that he did no harm and made no one wicked, but rather gave profit through conversation without recompense, giving every good he possibly could. This is what posterity will remember (26).

One should wonder why Socrates’ “big talking” continues. He has convinced the jury to put him to death, which benefits him personally, and other than reiterating that he has done nothing impious or unjust, he need not talk about the state of his mind, his bestowing continual benefits, his doing no harm. Hermogenes, in his continual attempt to thank the gods, can see Socrates as pious, as a man who lives up to his word, nothing less. It is easy to miss, ironically enough, the most obvious thing: Socrates’ private resolution and public speech were a defense against the charges, only indicting civic character at points and implying the larger question of whether the city’s laws, its morals, were doomed to fail. With these last words, with his proclaiming himself of stronger character than any shame the city could induce, he has inverted the situation entirely. The city itself is on trial, and with it, all conventionality: all religions that ask for killing in the name of god; all attempts to tell me Trump isn’t an ignorant racist bigot who people want to lie to themselves about; all laws and traditions that, no matter how benign, contribute to our taking everything for granted.

Strauss notes that the last three anecdotes of the Apology do not come from Hermogenes and do not prove Socrates’ piety. When he saw others weeping for him, the implication being he shed no tears for himself, he questioned them. Why are they weeping now, when he was condemned to death by the very fact he was born a man? As it stands, there are no more blessings to be had, but only troubles: they ought to be cheerful he will avoid such troubles (27).

Apollodorus had other thoughts: “But, Socrates, what I find it hardest to bear is that I see you being put to death unjustly!’ The other, stroking Apollodorus’ head, is said to have replied, ‘My beloved Apollodorus, was it your preference to see me put to death justly?’ and smiled as he asked the question” (28).

Finally, Socrates uttered a prophecy. The son of one of the accusers, Anytus, was dissatisfied, and Anytus himself was rather smug after Socrates had been condemned to death. Socrates held that the low occupation of Anytus’ son would discontent him, as the son had a healthy soul. Xenophon tells us that yes, indeed, Anytus’ son became a drunkard and worth nothing: perhaps the child would have been better off spending time with Socrates (29-31). Not long after this, Xenophon calls Socrates a “man,” not merely a “human being” (34). Did Socrates, in uttering this prophecy, indirectly do his opponents harm? Did he display manly virtue?

The three anecdotes illustrate all too well the Socratic thought, that which underlies the love of wisdom. All men must by nature die, and must make this life count for something; to be thought unjust is a terrible thing; to ignore one’s own nature, the nobility of one’s soul, only because of the expectations of others is the worst thing. Xenophon ends not by calling Socrates courageous, but by spelling out that Socrates reasoned, made a decision, and stuck to it, not wavering in his resolve or cheerfulness (32-33). He himself cannot forget Socrates, nor refrain from praising him. Socrates was wise and of tremendous character, and this much is worthy to be believed: if anyone truly cares for virtue and has made contact with Socrates, that man is most worthy to be called happy (34).


Most of this discussion is indebted to Leo Strauss’ short essay, “Apology of Socrates to the Jury,” in Xenophon’s Socrates, South Bend: St. Augustine Press, 1998, pages 129-140. I have eschewed footnotes for the sake of a cleaner essay. Notable things I borrowed from Strauss: the emphasis on megalegoria, the distinction between what Hermogenes reports and the other anecdotes, Palamedes being executed for wisdom (cf. Memorabilia IV.2.33), Socrates as aner, “manly man,” and whether this constitutes doing harm to others. There is much more than this, of course, but these are weighty ideas for which I cannot claim origination.

Quotations of the text are from the Perseus Project. The Greek/English edition they have provided is cited below:

Xenophon. Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 4. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd., London. 1979.


A few have asked if I get paid for making posts like this. Perhaps I do, but I do not have access to the Swiss bank account where that money more than likely resides.

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