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The Trial of Socrates: Plato’s Apology


"Socrates is guilty of criminal meddling, in that he inquires into things below the earth and in the sky, and makes the weaker argument defeat the stronger, and teaches others to follow his example."

"Socrates is guilty of corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in deities of his own invention instead of the gods recognized by the state."

A. Outline

1. The Speech of Defense (17a-35d) (Classic Philosophical Questions: 15-33) 

  • Introduction (17a-18a)
  • Statement (18a-19a)
  • Refutation of the Old Accusers (19a-24b)
  • Refutation of Meletus (24b-28a)
  • Socrates’ Divine Mission to Athens (28a-34b)
  • Peroration (34b-35d)

2. The Counterpenalty (35c-38b)

3. Epilogue (38c-42a)

B. Athens in 399 BCE: Conditions that Contributed to Socrates’ Trial:

1. Political atmosphere
2. Traditional anti-intellectualism; confusion of Socrates with the Sophists; Aristophanes’
The Clouds

Socrates (in the basket) being ridiculed in The Clouds
Photo: Steven S. Tigner

3. Socrates’ anti-democratic associations
4. Socratic cross-examination of democratic politicians
5. Socratic stress on expertise seen as elitist and anti-democratic
6. Socrates’ Spartan, ascetic appearance an aesthetic affront to Athenian tastes
7. Suspiciousness of Socrates’ poverty and apolitical lifestyle

C. Prosecutors: Meletus, Anytus, Lycon

1. Motives?
2. Anytus: interpreted by many to be main instigator of charges:

  • Man of great political influence at time of trial
  • Mindless, fanatical hatred of Sophists
  • Once cross-examined by Socrates (Meno, 89e-95a)

D. Formal Charges: 3 Distinct Components

  • Socrates does not recognize the traditional gods of the city-state (Greek: polis)
  • Socrates introduces new divinities (Greek: daemôn)
  • Socrates corrupts the youth of Athens

E. Socrates’ Defense

1. The Problem of Interpretation:

a) Dominant view: insincere irony and arrogant defiance not intended as a serious response to his accusers

b) Minority view: genuine defense guided by moral and philosophical commitments:

  • Obey law
  • Avoid injustice
  • Divine mission must be maintained

2. Refutation of Old Accusers: Longstanding Slander and Prejudice

  • Deceitful, sly, clever man (sophos)
  • Natural philosopher who arrogantly scoffs at the mythical gods
  • Practices, and teaches others, to make the weaker argument appear stronger (Sophistic)
  • Aristophanes’ The Clouds

3. Refutation of Meletus

4. Socrates’ Divine Mission and the Delphic Oracle:

  • Free men from their naïve and conceited pretense of wisdom
  • Educate and exhort men to care for the soul
  • Free men from their existential and ethical bondage to material things
  • Urge men to strive for virtue

F. Historical Excerpts on Socrates’ Trial

Xenophon Memorabilia Book I. 1 and 2:

I have often wondered what arguments Socrates' prosecutors could ever have used to prove to the Athenians that he deserved to forfeit his life to the State. The charge against him ran like this: "Socrates is guilty of not paying respect to the gods whom the state respects, of introducing new divinities, and of corrupting the young."…. He did not hold discussions on the nature of the Universe, as most of the others did…. As for himself, he was always discussing human problems…. Socrates believed that the gods know everything—word, deed, and silent thought alike—and that they were present everywhere, and that they gave signs to men about all human affairs.

"But," said the Prosecutor, "Kritias and Alcibiades were associates of Socrates, and they wrought the greatest harm to the state. Kritias was the most rapacious and violent of all in the oligarchy, while Alcibiades was the most intemperate and insolent of all the democracy…."

"But," said the Prosecutor, "Socrates taught his companions to abuse their parents by persuading them that he made them wiser than their parents and by claiming that according to the law it was possible for a son, if he proved his father insane, to imprison even his own father…. The Prosecutor also said that Socrates claimed that the only men worthy of honor were those who knew their duty and could explain what they knew. Socrates, he said, also maid the youth think that other men were of no account in comparison with himself, for he persuaded them that he was the wisest man and the most competent in making others wise….

2. Diogenes of Laertes, Lives of the Philosophers, "Socrates":

These were his words and the deeds of his life, to which the Pythian Priestess was referring when she gave her famous answer to Chaerophon, "Of all men living, Socrates is the wisest." This was the cause of the envy in which he was held, above all because he would challenge those who thought highly of themselves, making them out to be fools, as he treated Anytus, according to Plato in the Meno. Anytus could not endure being ridiculed by Socrates, so he stirred up Aristophanes and his friends against him. Later Anytus helped persuade Meletus to lodge a charge of impiety and of corrupting the youth against Socrates. The charge was lodged by Meletus, and the speech was given by Polyeuctes, according to Favorinus in his Miscellaneous History. The speech was written by Polycrates the Sophist, according to Hermippus; others say that it was by Anytus. Lycon the demagogue had made all the necessary preparations.

Antisthenes, in his Successions of the Philosophers, and Plato in his Apology, say that there were three accusers: Anytus, Lycon and Meletus. Anytus was roused to anger on behalf of the craftsmen and politicians, Lycon on behalf of the rhetoricians, and Meletus on behalf of the poets; for all three of these classes had felt Socrates' lash.

Favorinus, in the first book of his Memorabilia, says that the speech of Polycrates against Socrates is not authentic, because he speaks of the rebuilding of the walls of Conon—which, however, did not take place until Socrates had been dead six years. This is certainly the fact. The indictment in the case, still preserved, says Favorinus, in the Metroon [the Athenian state records office], stated:

This indictment and affidavit is sworn out by Meletus: Socrates the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece is guilty of refusing to acknowledge the gods recognized by the State and of introducing new and different gods. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death.

3. Justus of Tiberias, in his book entitled The Wreath, says that in the course of the trial Plato mounted the platform and began, "Though I am the youngest, Men of Athens, of all who have risen to address you—", whereupon the jurymen shouted, "Get down! Get down!"

G. Socrates' Comments on his Sentence

Not much time will be gained, O Athenians, in return for the evil name which you will get from the detractors of the city, who will say that you killed Socrates, a wise man; for they will call me wise even although I am not wise when they want to reproach you. If you had waited a little while, your desire would have been fulfilled in the course of nature. For I am far advanced in years, as you may perceive, and not far from death. I am speaking now only to those of you who have condemned me to death. And I have another thing to say to them: You think that I was convicted through deficiency of words—I mean, that if I had thought fit to leave nothing undone, nothing unsaid, I might have gained an acquittal. Not so; the deficiency that led to my conviction was not of words—certainly not. But I had not the boldness or impudence or inclination to address you as you would have liked me to address you, weeping and wailing and lamenting, and saying and doing many things which you have been accustomed to hear from others, and which, as I say, are unworthy of me. But I thought that I ought not to do anything common or mean in the hour of danger: nor do I now repent of the manner of my defence, and I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live. For neither in war nor yet at law ought any man to use every way of escaping death. For often in battle there is no doubt that if a man will throw away his arms, and fall on his knees before his pursuers, he may escape death; and in other dangers there are other ways of escaping death, if a man is willing to say and do anything. The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death. I am old and move slowly, and the slower runner has overtaken me, and my accusers are keen and quick, and the faster runner, who is unrighteousness, has overtaken them. And now I depart hence condemned by you to suffer the penalty of death, and they, too, go their ways condemned by the truth to suffer the penalty of villainy and wrong; and I must abide by my award - let them abide by theirs. I suppose that these things may be regarded as fated, —and I think that they are well.

Source: The Internet Classics Archive | Apology by Plato