43 pages 1 hour read



Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Apology”

Apology, also known as The Apology of Socrates, is a philosophical dialogue written by the Greek philosopher Plato chronicling the trial of his mentor Socrates in 399 BCE. After finding Socrates guilty of impiety and corrupting the youth, the Athenian jury sentenced him to death. Socrates carried out his own execution by drinking a mixture of poisonous hemlock. Although Plato likely took modest artistic liberties in the work, many historians believe Apology to be a roughly accurate record of the speech Socrates delivered in his defense at trial. The work therefore endures as both a historical document and a valuable depiction of the voice and philosophy of Socrates, who left behind no written works of his own. Its Greek title, Apologia, translates to “defense” and therefore in no way suggests that Socrates is apologetic for the actions that led to his trial.

This study guide refers to the 2002 edition of Plato’s Five Dialogues published by Hackett Publishing.

Apology is divided into three parts. In the first part, 71-year-old Socrates addresses and defends himself against the two charges brought before the 500-person jury. The first charge is for asebeia, or impiety, stemming from accusations that Socrates introduced new gods and rejected the old. The second charge is for corrupting the youth of Athens, who regularly follow Socrates around as he confronts men of wealth and status with their ignorance. His formal accusers are Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon, three prominent Athenians of the type Socrates frequently skewers in public. Before addressing these accusers, Socrates acknowledges that he has long faced similar charges in the court of public opinion, thanks to works published years earlier by the playwright Aristophanes that branded Socrates as dangerous, impious, and corrupt. Socrates claims that these accusations are far more injurious than the ones before the court because they long ago poisoned the jurors’ minds against him.

Socrates attributes his negative reputation to “a certain kind of wisdom” (25). Elaborating on this, he explains that his old friend Chaerephon once asked Pythia, the oracle of Delphi, if any man is wiser than Socrates. Pythia replied no, confounding Socrates, who believes he is not very wise at all. To refute the oracle, Socrates calls upon numerous men of wealth and status who are considered wise in Athenian society. He concludes that while he knows no more or less than these men, he is wiser because, unlike them, he has no illusions about his own lack of wisdom. Socrates says, “[S]o I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know” (26). Socrates routinely explains to these individuals their own ignorance, making him extremely unpopular among the Athenian elite and therefore subject to the accusations brought before the court.

In response to the charge of corrupting the youth, Socrates points out that young, wealthy men of Athens follow him around of their volition. They find great joy and entertainment in watching Socrates utilize his trademark method of interlocution and interrogation to expose prominent older men’s ignorance. The young men also emulate Socrates, interrogating older elites themselves. Although Socrates views this as a public service, he points out, “The result is that those whom they question are angry, not with themselves but with me” (28).

Socrates then addresses his accusers directly—specifically Meletus, who Socrates says is a plaintiff acting “on behalf of the poets” (28), another target of the defendant’s acerbic wit. He interrogates Meletus, baiting him into a series of logical fallacies that cast doubt on his accusations. For example, Socrates argues that he could not have corrupted the youth on purpose because corrupted individuals harm those closest to them—meaning Socrates himself. Regarding the charge of atheism and impiety, Socrates maneuvers Meletus to contradict himself by admitting that Socrates believes in spirits and demigods, even though he is an atheist. Socrates says, “[W]hat man would believe children of the gods to exist, but not gods?” (32).

Socrates then acknowledges the very real possibility that the jury may put him to death. He forcefully rejects any anxieties over his mortality, explaining, “No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils” (33). Socrates adds that if the court were to spare his life on the condition that he cease practicing philosophy, he would choose death. To him, challenging the citizens of Athens to examine and improve their lives is a holy endeavor of utmost importance, and thus to kill him would harm Athens far more than it would harm himself.

In support of the importance he places on his work, Socrates points out that he is not materially compensated for his efforts to educate the populace, unlike the sophists whom his accusers and many in the jury oppose. Nor is Socrates a man of political ambition; he explains, “A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time” (36).

To illustrate the impossibility of living a just life as a public servant, Socrates describes his time serving on the Athenian council during the period between 404 and 401 BCE. In the wake of Athens’s loss in the Peloponnesian War, Sparta installed a brutal and tyrannical oligarchy in place of the nation’s democratic institutions. Under this regime, Socrates engaged in civil disobedience when he refused orders to retrieve the former general Leon of Salamis for an unjust execution.

Socrates ends his defense by refusing to beg the jury for mercy, even if it would improve his odds of acquittal. To do so, he argues, would be to extend a harmful precedent by which defendants are acquitted according to their behavior and attitude at trial, not according to the law. With his initial defense over, the jury deliberates and delivers a guilty verdict. Meletus recommends that his punishment be death.

In the second part Socrates delivers a sentencing plea in response to Meletus’s call for the death penalty. He wryly suggests that a more fitting sentence for a lifetime of providing moral education to his fellow Athenians is to be fed and feted in the Prytaneum, where feasts are given to honor returning war heroes. Although he will accept whatever punishment is given—death, imprisonment, or exile—he cannot justify any of these outcomes because he believes he did no wrong. Moreover, he is too poor to pay any fine over one mina, though he says his friends, including Plato, will front him up to 30 minas. Unpersuaded, the jury sentences Socrates to death.

In the last part Socrates is afforded a final statement to the jury. He reiterates his belief that Athens does more harm to itself than to him by condemning him to death. Moreover, Socrates references his daimonian, a lesser deity that counsels him against unethical behavior; at no point, he insists, did his daimonian intervene to prohibit him from practicing philosophy. He also reflects on the nature of death, concluding that it is either a dreamless sleep or a chance to converse with dead Olympian heroes in the underworld; either way, he welcomes his fate. In closing, Socrates says, “Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the god” (44).