Plato’s Apology – Socrates Isn’t Sorry

The first reading in the ten year list is Plato’s Apology. It describes the defense and sentencing portion of the trial of Socrates. This is an interesting first reading because it gives us a warning about the potential results of all of this reading and talking.

I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to say that Socrates is convicted and gets the death penalty. (Sorry if I ruined it for anybody.) Still, that death penalty makes me think twice about whether or not all this pursuit of knowledge is a good idea. If Socrates, who was supposed to be pretty brilliant and a good talker can’t get himself acquitted, then what good is this to me? I mean, it is not like he was caught with bank bags in one hand and a smoking gun in the other.

No, Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth, being an atheist, and making the stronger argument the weaker. Socrates quotes the indictment against himself as follows: “Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who search into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches these things to others.”

A large part of his defense is that his only wisdom is that he knows that he knows nothing. Socrates says the reason so many people are mad at him is that he went to people he though were wise – politicians, poets, and craftsman – to find out what it would be to be wise. What he found out is that they were as foolish, or more foolish, than he is. His only advantage is that he doesn’t make any pretense of actually knowing anything. He just asks a lot of questions.

That may be the sum total of being wise, but I hope it doesn’t take me ten years of reading great books to figure it out. Maybe there is more to it than that. We’ll find out.

Despite mounting a vigorous defense and saying that he never took money to teach and that people came to him to talk, he is convicted by a 30 vote margin. His accusers ask for the death penalty, and Socrates is given a chance to say what his penalty should be.

Well, for teaching the youth about what is wrong and right and helping others realize they are ignorant, he thinks he should get free lodging like an Olympic champion and perhaps a state pension. Since he realizes that the court is not likely to grant him this, he sets a small fine that his friends have guaranteed to pay.
Plato does not tell us the margin of the second vote that condemned Socrates to death, though I am told that the margin for death was much wider than the one that convicted him. I guess Socrates’ egotism got in the way. He didn’t really apologize afterall.

Well, he did and he didn’t. An apologia in ancient Greek means a defense, not saying you are sorry.

Socrates has basically said “my crimes were good for all of you because they educated people on right and wrong, so you should reward me.”  

I’ve often wondered whether this defense would fly in a modern court if I were to punch some jerk on the bus or the street.

“Really, your honor, I should be given a reward and a medal for reminding this fool of his manners.” Now, I don’t get into fights, so I haven’t tested this, but it’s in my back pocket.

The real problem with getting into a fight is that you can get killed. Though Socrates says that shouldn’t dissuade us from following the right course of action.

 “[A] man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying;  he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of a good man or of a bad.”

The problem is if the only thing I know is that I am ignorant, I guess I can’t really say that I am acting the part of a good man in punching jerks. So, I had better hold my temper for the time being.

Still, in all of this, Plato has left us with an excellent bit of rhetorical defense. Whenever you find yourself on the wrong side of an argument, simply declare victory and retire by saying that your opponent has made the worse appear the better cause.

 If you want to know more about the trial of Socrates beyond what you have read here, there is an interesting site with additional resources at:

 Next time, we’ll take a look at the aftermath of the trial, when we read Plato’s Crito and find out what happens when Socrates’ friend tries to bust him out of jail.

 Coming Next Time: Plato’s Crito – Run, Socrates, Run!


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