“Apology” by Plato (Notes)

“Apology” by Plato

Bring me the head of Socrates.


We walk in on Socrates on trial. Before he even starts explaining and defending himself, he calls his main accusers a bunch of lying twats. He even calls them lying twats for warning the crowd not be fooled by his sweet talk.

The first accusation is that he “makes the worse appear the better cause”. That’s rolled up together with “corrupting and deteriorating the youth”. The “adults” are pissed off at him because he’s been teaching the kids of Athens to call their elders hypocrites and morons for assuming that they know everything. He’s created a little army of youngsters putting everything in the city into question. They’ve made the uppity grown-ups of the city look like assholes. It makes sense that they’re pissed off – most people don’t like to be called frauds or assholes.

[Aside: The playwright, Aristophanes has written a play called “The Clouds” where a deadbeat farmer sends his kid to be taught by Socrates to manipulate his creditors in order to welsh on his debts. It doesn’t end well, the father burns Socrates’s think tank to the ground.]

Socrates isn’t a charlatan like the Sophists who just collect money for teaching people to argue with others. Socrates isn’t taking any money, so he can’t really be responsible for what the punks of Athens do.

We get to the meat of Socrates – his M.O. A long time ago, a buddy of his went down to the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle was a priestess in the Temple of Apollo (big Greek God) who claimed to be the voice of the God, Apollo. Anything from her was basically like God talking to you. If she said something, it was true, law, gospel, etc. His buddy asked who the wisest man in the world was. The Oracle replied, “Socrates”. Socrates didn’t really believe that but didn’t really want to contradict the God. So, he thought that the Oracle was giving him a test to go find wise men all over Athens and find out if the Oracle was right.

He met politicians. They weren’t wise at all. People would fall for their bullshit and the politicians quickly became enamored with themselves to the point where they started believing their own bullshit. He talked to them and saw all the flaws in their reasoning. He would try to follow along with them and discuss things with them logically. They would always end up pissed off at him and either get mad and go away or they’d threaten him. He made some pretty powerful enemies.

He went to poets. He always heard wisdom from them when they wrote poems about honor, virtue and all that. When he went to them for clarification, they’d end up lost in their own fluff – so much so that either they couldn’t understand their own words or just spout out bullshit that didn’t make sense or contradicted their previous words. He figured that if they did have anything wise to say, it surely didn’t sink in because they couldn’t understand their own nonsense. It must have been divine inspiration and not wisdom. He called them out on it and they got really mad at him for that.

He went to see artisans and craftsmen. They actually knew something – their crafts. But they usually would try to take that knowledge and give themselves way too much credit about being wise. They’d try to use their knowledge for other things and it didn’t really translate. They didn’t understand the limit of their knowledge. Socrates made sure that their ignorance was pointed out.

This little quest of his went on for years to the point where half of Athens was clamoring for his head. They all wanted to punish him for humiliating them and making the youth of Athens lose respect for them. Socrates figured that only the God of Delphi was wise. The only way he could believe that the Oracle was right was coming to the realization that only he understood that he didn’t really know much at all. He’s the only one who has accepted his ignorance. There’s no bullshit with Socrates.

Regarding the accusation of “corrupting the youth”: while he was out questioning all his targets, crowds would congregate while Socrates was working his magic and his interlocutors would look like complete dicks. It’s only natural for the young to rebel against the old. Socrates didn’t really corrupt them – the young just saw through the older people’s guises and enjoyed seeing them for what they were, as well as being taken down a peg or two.

Socrates addresses his main accuser, Meletus. He recounts the main accusation: Socrates is a bad dude. He’s messing with the kids’ minds and making them difficult to deal with. He doesn’t believe in the same gods as everyone else. He’s got his own set of gods. Socrates asks Meletus if he thinks of himself as an “improver” of the youth. Then he lays some Socratic method on him (Q&A session meant to get to the bottom of a subject).

S: So, you think you’re an improver of the youth?

M: Yes.

S: Who improves the improvers?

M: The law.

S: So, someone who knows the law improves the youth?

M: Yep.

S: All or just some?

M: All.

S: How about the audience here at this trial?

M: Them too.

S: The senate?

M: Yep.

S: The assembly?

M: Yep.

S: So, every Athenian?

M: Yep.

S: So, I’m pretty much the only asshole around here?

M: Pretty much.

S: Interesting. If everyone is good to a horse and there’s only one guy doing it harm, does that work the same way? Does the world have millions of horsecarers and have just one guy who harms horses? Usually it’s the other way around. The world grinds a horse down and there’s one guy to make it better through care. Getting back to the youth: if everybody in the city can improve the youth and I’m just the one guy fucking everything up, that’s a pretty nice situation. All of you can easily undo the “corruption” I’ve done to them. I’m not so sure that you’re right that everybody helps the young except me.

M: Um…

S: What about your neighbors? Good ones are good for you and bad ones are bad for you. Who on earth would want live next to an asshole?

M: Nobody.

S: So, am I corrupting the young on purpose or not on purpose?

M: On purpose.

S: Hmmm… I don’t believe I’ve ever corrupted anyone. If I have, that is, taught someone to believe, wouldn’t that have come back to bite me in the ass? Why would I do that intentionally? If I have done that, wouldn’t that have come back to get me? All those kids I’m accused of ruining have never done anything evil to me. If it happened, it must have been unintentionally. But according to the law it’s not illegal to do that unintentionally. If I had done something wrong, how come you or anybody else never came up to me and told me, “Socrates, you’re fucking up our kids. They’re turning into asshole and turning the city into a terrible place to live.”? You haven’t done that, nor has anybody else. That must mean it isn’t really a big problem. You must not be terribly concerned about it – you just want to set up a kangaroo court to get rid of me.

M: Um…

S: Anyway, you’re full of shit on that one. About the gods… I’ve heard three different accusations about that and they all seem to contradict each other. Let’s lay them out:

1: I teach the young to be improper towards the gods.

2: I’ve got my own set of gods and don’t believe in  everybody else’s gods.

3: I’m an atheist.

S: Which one am I really being accused of?

M: Atheism.

S: Fuck off! You say I have my own gods and then don’t believe in your gods. Bullshit. You’re only proving yourself to be the idiot I’m accusing you of being.

M: Um…

Socrates destroys the case against him but the trial goes on… Socrates says that he’s not afraid of death. He doesn’t know that it’s bad. He bases his actions on whether or not they are good or bad, not whether it pissed people off or not. The only thing he’s afraid of is disobeying the god’s mission given to him. To stop his questioning is worse than being put to death by the public. Being afraid of death is bad because it’s akin to saying you know what death is and that it’s painful. It’s the epitome of the pretense of knowledge and that’s what he’s devoted his life to destroying.

Socrates says putting him to death is more harmful to the city than to him. Doing injustice is worse than suffering it. And on top of that, he’s doing everyone a service by keeping everyone awake and questioning everybody in whether what they’re doing is good or bad. He’d be pretty hard to replace. Furthermore, what he’s doing is a charity because he doesn’t accept money for his service and has even gotten to the point where he’s neglected his own business affairs to keep Athens on its toes.

He claims that he hears a voice every now and again not to do things. It never says “do it.” It only says “don’t do it” to things that he shouldn’t do. The voice never tells him to stop performing his mission, as well as his acts of bravery. He’s stood up to injustice in the courts of Athens before, as well as in the time of the oligarchy. He figures that it’s worse not to the right thing that suffer the consequences of performing a just act. This is why he’s avoided politics. Far too often, you end up on the wrong end of a political intrigue or dispute and you end up in prison or dead. Courage is well in good but going into politics puts your life at risk for not much in return.

He doesn’t have any disciples. The dialogues he gets into are amusing and anyone is welcome to participate, or just watch and listen because they’re fun and educational. He doesn’t discriminate among the different classes – all are welcome. He doesn’t accept any money for this, so he shouldn’t have to bear the burden of whether the audiences end up being bad people.

The divine has led him down this path and he’ll be damned if he’s going to listen to the public’s wishes or those of the gods. The corruption of the youth charge is bullshit because he doesn’t have any accusers of people who have said that Socrates really fucked them up when they were young. Nobody can give any specific examples. He can’t be an atheist if he’s doing what the God of Delphi told him what to do. So, this lynch mob is based on a pack of lies.

He won’t beg for his life and he won’t change. That would go against being wise and brave, and it would be flat out wrong to do so. It’s better to try to convince the public he’s right rather than ask for mercy or leniency.

Socrates is found guilty. He’s actually surprised that he got as much support as he did. Rather than death, Socrates flippantly suggests that his punishment should be room and board in the Prytaneum – public center – for his good deeds. He feels he’s done no harm, on purpose or not. He won’t stop what he’s doing because it’s the only way to fulfill one’s potential as a human. “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates is sentenced to death. He condemns those who voted for his death. If they had only waited a little longer, they wouldn’t be responsible for his death because he’s old and would die soon anyway. Death isn’t really a bad punishment because being unrighteous and caving to the public’s demands would be worse. If they think Socrates is bad to them, wait until his followers go after them.

Socrates addresses his friend who voted for him. He wants to spend the last few moments of his life with them chatting about good and bad. His little voice in his head isn’t saying anything to him about stopping this martyrdom. He’s not afraid anyway. If death is like sleep, then it’ll probably the best night’s sleep he’ll ever have. If it’s the passing of your soul into another place, then he’ll meet lots of interesting people and learn a lot when he gets there. You can’t keep a good man down. He asks that the friends look after his kids and make sure that they focus their lives on doing the right thing than petty stuff like money. He’s a little excited to see what death is all about.

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