SHADOWS

PLATO'S SOCRATES: THE APOLOGY: THE CONSCIENCE OF A COMMUNITY

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. The Greek word apologia means "speech before." The Apology is Socrates' "speech before" the assembly, his "defense" speech. In Greek law courts, citizens served as their own defense attorneys (or prosecutors, if they were the ones bringing the indictment). There were many versions of Socrates' speech; many writers wrote "apologies": Xenophon the general wrote one version; most other versions did not survive. Given Plato's reverence for Socrates, we can trust that in Plato's version, he is presenting the true "essence" or true character of Socrates, even if all of the account is not "historically accurate." According to Plato, the Socrates' character and mission are more important than whether this or that word or action actually happened. It should be noted that the Apology is not a "dialogue" in the strict sense, in the manner of Plato's other dialogues. Socrates is doing most of the speaking. In fact, this is a sign that, to some extent, communication with his fellow citizens has broken down. Nor can Socrates hope to "educate" the whole crowd of 501 judges (citizens chosen to hear this case). Socrates generally educates others by cross-examining them one at a time.

2. Legal speech (using clever words in order to secure some private advantage, even to save one's life) resembles (to most people) but is not the same as Socratic speech (cross-examining in order to reach the truth). Socratic speech aims not at flattery and persuasion (getting another person to agree with you), but at the cooperative pursuit of insight into truth that one does not already possess. In a sense, Socrates is being put on trial for having put the city on trial -- citizen by citizen -- in the marketplace. Socrates has done to/for the citizens of Athens what they have failed to do to/for themselves -- accuse themselves of impiety and failure to improve the youth -- and cross-examine themselves regarding their attitude toward the most important things -- moral excellence or the health of the soul. From his enemies' point of view, Socrates is guilty of impiety for not endorsing the religious views found in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey; but Socrates views Homeric religion as impious. The Homeric gods and heroes are not all ethical models worthy of imitation. Moreover, the fact that Socrates encourages thinking, including thinking about conventional morality, traditional religious views, and other Athenian institutions makes him appear a subverter of social values and institutions, a corrupter of youth. Those who balk at examining established views generally react unfavorably when they hear that their young people are being taught to "think for themselves." (In this sense, educators are often accused of "corrupting youth.")

Question: What is the true purpose of education? To transmit social mores intact or to examine and reevaluate social norms? Why do upholders of custom view thinking as a threat?

3. Socrates is confronted by two "sets" of accusers: negative public opinion (prejudice against Socrates reinforced by the comic dramatist Aristophanes) and the three citizens bringing formal charges against Socrates -- Meletus (representing offended poets and traditional education based on Homeric literature), Anytus (representing the politicians and the craftsmen), and Lycon (representing the rhetoricians and orators). The two formal charges are impiety (not believing in Athenian gods) and corruption of youth. The old prejudices against Socrates are very similar to the formal charges. In fact, Meletus is basing his indictment on hearsay prejudice; he has probably not spoken face to face with Socrates before the trial. Impiety was a charge often used against political opponents, to have them banished, especially when no other charges could be plausibly brought.

4. The public caricature of Socrates (dramatized in Aristophanes' comedy -- "The Clouds") was that of a --

1) materialistic natural scientist (such as the philosopher Anaxagoras) who substitutes for the gods impersonal physical forces.

2) sophist (non-Athenian teachers who were paid to teach Athenian youths rhetoric and other practical skills); the sophists taught eristics or the skill of clever debate which aimed at winning arguments and legal battles at any cost and with little concern for the truth. The sophists were both scorned and sought after. Socrates' dialectical question/answer method was confused with the bellicose debate of the sophists.

3) a corrupter (as opposed to an educator or "improver") who taught young people irreligion and debate. Note: Such teaching would subvert civic order. The city is glued together by nomoi or customs (as indicated earlier by the philosopher Heraclitus).

The sophists, as foreigners, had no regard for Athenian custom. They taught the relativity of all customs. Moreover, the city was full of contentious debaters, especially in the law courts, whose concern was individual gain and not communal well-being or social harmony. Athenians thought Socrates was part of the problem (a sophist who taught young people to be contentious lawyers) -- the breakdown of social order. They did not see that he was bent on restoring social order, but on a better basis than Homeric religion, etc. Socrates was thought to be a radical who would subvert the order and the tradition of the polis (city) with his speech. They believed he was teaching dangerous new doctrines; he claimed to know nothing and to teach nothing.

5. In the Apology, Socrates responds to public prejudice in this way:

1) He was not a natural scientist. His life-consuming interest was people (ethics or politics); Socrates was a humanist.

2) He was not a teacher (if teaching means conveying bits of information or knowledge for pay); he did not claim to be an expert, and he did not take pay (his proof was his poverty).

Socrates asks, "Is there anyone who understands human and political virtue?" Virtue means moral and social excellence, how to be a good Athenian citizen, how to cultivate moral order in one's own life and in the city -- to find one's place, to find one's "post" within the social context. Can a foreigner teach a young Athenian how to become a good Athenian? The highest knowledge, according to Socrates, is the knowledge of what is best for oneself and the city -- what is just (dike, Greek word meaning justice or right), what is the proper arrangement and prioritizing of one's own life and what is the proper arrangement of citizens in the city -- where each one is doing what he ought to do. Socrates says, "But the truth is that I have no knowledge of the kind." Socrates, unlike the pretentious citizens who were offended by his lines of questioning, did not pretend to have the answers; he did not pretend to know what is best. Socrates believes that there is a best (standard for human conduct and political rule); but he does not claim to possess that standard. He sees himself as a seeker.

6. Human wisdom vs. divine wisdom: God knows what is best. Human beings, if they are wise, know that they are not gods and that when it comes to the highest human values (such as the knowledge of justice), humans know little or nothing. Human beings are wise if they realize the extent of their ignorance (humility and readiness to inquire). Socrates' friend Chaerephon consulted the oracle at Delphi. Inscribed above the temple to Apollo at Delphi are the words: "Know yourself." How can Socrates be an atheist if he has accepted the oracle at Delphi (the god Apollo)?

Question: According to the oracle at Delphi, no man was wiser than Socrates. Explain the ambiguity of this statement (the oracle generally gave ambiguous answers).

7. Self-knowledge is different from "knowledge of information." It is "ethical" knowledge. Socrates' attitude is predominantly ethical/practical. Self understanding means self-improvement. Not only must one know what it means to be a human being in the best sense (ideal) and understand one's own character (and how it falls short of the ideal), but to know better means to do better (knowledge is virtue). One must transform one's own character in the light of one's vision of what is best. True knowledge or human wisdom is not abstract information or facts that fill the brain. It is knowledge that transforms character, brings order to a disorderly life, refines attitude, makes one better. One can know many things and still not know how to live well (how to be just). Knowledge as information vs. knowledge as humanizing and liberating (see the Crito).

8. Socrates examined the unexamined lives of others. He cross-examined the politicians, those whose concern was supposed to be the common good. Ideally, the political person (politeia means public things) is one who knows what is good for the city, what order or structure is best, and then uses this knowledge to bring about what is best (justice) in the city. Politics means social reform. Self-deception is the pretense of feeling good about oneself on the basis of what one thinks he knows (empty self-confidence) is contrasted with self-examination (knowing and being what one is -- sturdy humility). Negative dialectic leads the other away from pretended knowledge (arrogance) to wise ignorance (humility). Positive dialectic would go on from there to actual knowledge of something (see Plato later). Plato attempts to go beyond wise ignorance to knowledge of real essence, order, and structure. The "conversion" from vain ignorance to wisdom could be diagrammed in this way:

(1) One begins with the pretense of knowledge -- not knowing, yet thinking that one knows.

(2) When questioned by Socrates, one begins to realize that he did not really know what he was talking about. When so "humiliated" and made to see the contradictions in his views, he might either (depending on the quality of his character) admit that he doesn't really know and be therefore disposed to inquire or learn (the attitude of wise ignorance) or he might resist facing the truth about himself and attack Socrates rather than himself.

(3) Steps 1 and 2 are called negative dialectic, a process of purging the soul of false opinions. With step 3, inquiry begins; one seeks the truth through positive dialectic, questioning and answering, in order to reach a positive insight. At step 3, one might learn or know a great deal, but without knowing that one knows. One is "right," but without knowing that one is right. One possesses "right opinion."

(4) Here, one not only knows, but knows that he knows. This is wisdom in the highest sense, a wisdom that Socrates believes that humans do not possess regarding the most important ethical questions, what is the best life and how is one to live it (what is justice).

Plato seems to be less "humble" in this respect. Plato believes that such wisdom is attainable by human beings, although there is some doubt whether Plato himself ever purported to possess it. Plato, like his master Socrates, was primarily a seeker, a dialectical thinker, rather than a system-builder who believed he had all the answers.

Question: Explain why negative dialectic must precede positive dialectic. What happens when this method of education is used to examine opinions about religion, morality, and social values?
9. Socrates interrogated the poets. The poets say wise things without understanding what they say and without self-understanding; they are "inspired" to say things which may help or harm fellow citizens. Poets are not educators because they do not know what is best for human beings. Homeric literature contains a mixture of good and bad advice, opinions that both educate (the Greek word for education -- paideia -- means nurture, upbringing, rearing) and corrupt. Poets do not understand the meaning of improvement or corruption -- as Meletus the poet shows in the answers he gives Socrates, answers that show Meletus' desire to protect his vested interest (yet poetic works -- such as Homer's -- are used as the basis of education). Meletus' answers show that he is not concerned with improving (educating) youth. He is more concerned with protecting his vested interest in poetry and religion; he doesn't know what would make a human being better or worse; he wants to maintain belief in the Homeric gods (his idea of piety) and teaching Homeric ideals (his idea of education). Meletus is reckless and impudent; his soul is dominated by feeling rather than reason. He gives crazy answers to Socrates' questions because he loses his temper.
Question: Why do you suppose Socrates was so hard on the poets, including Homer? What often happens when a moralist confronts works of literature? Imagine what it would be like if the plays of Shakespeare were used in our culture as the foundation of ethical and religious education.
10. Socrates questioned the craftsmen. The craftsmen have real knowledge; they have techne or know-how. But they are so proud of their technical knowledge that they get carried away and begin to believe they are knowledgable in all things, including the best way to run a city and to conduct one's life. About training horses, coaching athletes, or building ships -- there are few experts. But strangely enough, when it comes to training young people in moral excellence or bringing about justice in the city, everyone thinks himself an expert. But knowing how to make an orderly human life or knowing how to make an orderly city is far more difficult than knowing how to make shoes, ships, etc.
Question: Why does competence or success in one field often lead to the belief that one is wise about many things? Discuss the benefits and the pitfalls of confidence or self-esteem.
11. Implied in Socrates' speech is the view that there is an interrelation between person and context; one simultaneously improves both himself and his community. Insofar as one finds his place in the city, he brings order to at least that place. Conversely, one corrupts oneself and the city together. Self-improvement=social reform. But self-improvement requires self-understanding, i.e., knowledge of what is best for oneself. At the same time, social reform requires knowledge of what is best for the community (as a whole). Thus, since self-improvement and social reform are interdependent, self-knowledge and knowledge of social justice are also interdependent. In other words, for Socrates, ethics is inseparable from politics (as the individual good is inseparable from the common good).
Question: Do you agree with these views? Why or why not?
12. Socrates' mission is to help people get their priorities straight. Every human being has a particular place and function in society, a particular role, a post. The purpose of self-scrutiny is to discover the difference between where and who we are and where and who we should be -- to find our place. Arrogance (the Greek word hybris) is anti-social ignorance of one's place. Piety is knowing one's place in relation to God. Justice is knowing one's place in relation to other human beings. Socrates' post is to annoy and badger and cross-examine his fellow citizens, to function as a kind of "conscience" to keep his fellow citizens honest with themselves, to burst their bubbles, to deflate their egos. Socrates is a gadfly on the sluggish steed (a fly biting the sleepy horse of the body politic), an alarm clock in the sleeping city. He cannot leave his post. In a sense, a person is his post (his place before God and among men). The city needs Socrates. Socrates' defense of himself and his mission is at the same time a defense of the city as it should be -- cross-examining itself in matters of justice and injustice. If the city puts Socrates to death, it will be making itself worse.
Question: Explain in your own words Socrates "post" or mission. Why could he not abandon his post? In more general terms, what is the "post" or "place" of thinking in anyone's life? Further, what is the relation between the thoughtful or questioning person and the community in which he lives? Should everyone "philosophize"?
13. For Socrates, death is less to be feared than committing an injustice. Injustice he knows to be evil. Death (and afterlife) he knows nothing about. In the Apology, Socrates asserts (dialectically) that death is either an eternal dreamless sleep (and therefore a welcome rest) or it is an exit to an afterlife in pleasant communion with the gods. In the Apology, Socrates claims to be ignorant of "life after death." But he does "know" that it is pernicious to corrupt one's soul by committing injustice. If the city puts Socrates to death, it will be harming itself in two ways: it will be corrupting itself by commiting the injustice of putting to death an innocent man and it will be corrupting itself by getting rid of its social conscience, the voice of reason. Socrates believes that the real victim of injustice is the perpetrator of it; he harms the other person only superficially (in body), whereas he harms himself to the marrow (corrupts his own soul). Socrates may or may not converse with the souls of Achilles and other heroes of Troy after death. The implication is that the Homeric heroes were great, but perhaps misguided. They might need some cross-examination concerning their ethical opinions (which are, by the way, the ideals of the poet Homer).
Question: Discuss the view that doing wrong injures the wrongdoer more than it injures the victim. What is presupposed in this view? Keep in mind that Socrates believes that human beings are composed of physical bodies and nonphysical (spiritual) souls.

Questions for Discussion:

1. What does Socrates mean when he says, "The unexamined life is not worth living"? Explain what Socrates means and does not mean by knowledge. Describe various possible relations between life and thinking, including one Socrates would agree with.

2. Describe the place (post) of the lover of wisdom in the unjust city. Describe the place (post) of the lover of wisdom in the just city. Could there ever be such a city -- where every citizen would be functioning as he should?

3. Explain how Socrates' "midwifery" contains both aesthetic and practical components.

4. What happens to gadflies in America? How would Socrates interrogate a presidential candidate?

5. Do you agree with Socrates' approach? Why or why not?

6. Summarize as briefly as possible what you believe are the chief lessons that we can learn from the life and teaching of Socrates.

7. Examine the following opinions/presuppositions from a Socratic "point of view" as well as from an opposing point of view. With which do you agree? Why?

A. It is dangerous to think too much.
B. Morality is subjective and relative.
C. Wrongdoing is self-destructive.
D. We must accept things as they are.
E. Self-reform and social improvement are interdependent.
F. To learn is to transform one's attitude.

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Copyright 1996 - 2013 © Gordon L. Ziniewicz

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.