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Following his trial in 399BC, The Apology of Socrates is Plato’s account of Socrates’ unsuccessful attempt at defending himself against the accusations of corrupting the youths of Athens. It has been written in the first person, from Socrates’ point of view, twice mentioning the presence of Plato. There have been other accounts, one being by Xenophon, though Plato’s version is commonly considered to be the most accurate. However, it is important to note, that in this instance, the word apology, has been derived from the Greek word apologia which means defense, or a speech made to defend. Thus, Socrates aims to defend himself and his actions, not to apologize.
Plainly spoken, Socrates displays a sense of humor throughout the dialogue. To begin with, he addresses the claims laid against him by his accusers, claiming that they are falsehoods, but promising the men of Athens (his jury), that they shall hear from him the whole truth. Socrates then sums up the accusation made against him by the ‘slanderers’, drawing a parallel to a theatrical comedy of Aristophanes in which a character named Socrates talks a great deal of nonsense about matters which Socrates himself claims he does not know much or little about.
Following this, Socrates goes on to explain why he has come to have so many enemies. He does this by giving an account of the time when his friend Chaerephon visited the oracle at Delphi, asking if anyone was wiser than Socrates. The oracle replied that none was wiser. Astonished when he heard the answer himself, Socrates immediately determined to repudiate the oracle’s claim by finding a man who was indeed wiser. He began by seeking out a politician whom many considered wise, only to discover that he wasn’t really wise at all, although he was considered wise by many, particularly by himself. When Socrates tried to explain to him that although he thought himself wise, he wasn’t really so, the man was not too pleased. And so it went, from one person to the other, until Socrates finally concluded that, in contrast to those who know nothing, but think they know, his wisdom lies in not knowing, nor thinking that he knows. Needless to say, this investigation did not strengthen his popularity.
Calling upon Meletus, his main accuser, Socrates proceeds to prove him a fool before the jury by asking him a series of questions that cause Meletus to contradict himself, no doubt in an attempt to cast doubt on Meletus’ claims against Socrates. He discusses the possibility of being sentenced to death, claiming that if the men of Athens decide to do so, they will injure themselves far more than they will injure him. He adds that he is unlikely to alter his ways, not even if he were to die many times, and that he shall never cease from teaching philosophy – that his chief goal is to persuade everyone not to be selfish or to think of material goods first, but to care about wisdom and truth, and the improvement of the soul.
Once the jury has found Socrates guilty, he is asked to propose a penalty. After considering a number of options, he eventually settles on thirty minae, though he jokingly claims that he can only afford to pay one.
The jury then sentences Socrates to death, where after Socrates suggests that had they shown a bit more patience, nature would had done the job for them, for he is after all seventy years of age. He claims that he was found guilty, not because there was anything wrong with his defense, but because he did not appear wailing and lamenting as the jury might have expected. It would have been out of character for him to do so, and as he says, he would rather die having spoken according to his own manner than according to that of others. He elaborates on this by saying that death can be easily enough avoided if one is willing to say and do anything. That the difficulty lies not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness. But though he will suffer the penalty of death, his condemners will suffer the penalty of villainy and wrongdoing.
Considering the inevitable, Socrates says that death is not something to be feared, but to be gained, for it will either be an eternal darkness in which he may sleep undisturbed, or it shall be another place where all the dead are, and that would indeed be something to look forward to, for who would not enjoy the opportunity to converse with Orpheus, Musaeus, Hesiod and Homer?
Socrates’ death has been described at the end of Plato’s Phaedo. He was given a poison and then instructed to walk about until his legs felt numb. After laying down, the man who administered the poison, pinched his foot, verifying that Socrates could no longer feel his legs. The numbness then crept slowly up his body until it reached his heart.