Note: The Greek word Απολογια that is the basis of the English word “apology” denotes not a statement of regret, but rather an argued defense. The title of each book in English is often “Apology,” and I may refer sometimes to this word rather than the word “defense.”
Now that I’m finally done reading the pre-Socratics, it’s time for me to return to the central figure of Socrates himself. Socrates is, of course, far better attested than any of his contemporaries, thanks to the tireless efforts of Plato–about whom, it has been said, that western philosophy is simply a series of footnotes him.
Unfortunately, there is every indication that Plato’s Socrates is really a mouthpiece for Plato, rather than vice versa–and the same to some extent is true of Xenophon’s Socrates, too. In terms of establishing something approaching a “historicity” test, the earlier Socratic dialogues of Plato are held by mainstream scholarship to be more historical than his later dialogues. Xenophon is not held to be directly reliant on Plato, for the most part. This means that where Plato–especially his earlier works–and Xenophon agree, we can conclude that we are probably getting close to the “historical” Socrates–to the extent that Socrates is recoverable at all. (Similar problems exist with the historical Jesus and the gospels, of course, about which scholarship has conventionally held that a source–which may have been oral rather than written, and which is known as “Q,” was–along with the Gospel of Mark–used by the writers of both Matthew and Luke when writing their gospels. This is the dominant solution to the so-called “Synoptic Problem,” and it has much to recommend it.)
There were other sources for Socrates, but most of these exist only in fragments, nowadays–with one notable exception: Aristophanes, who lampoons Socrates in his play Clouds. The portrayal of Socrates there is largely satirical, as well as unfair, but there are some historical nuggets to be gleaned from it.
Xenophon’s Defense of Socrates, true to Spartan form–for Xenophon was exiled from Athens and lived the life of a country gentleman in Sparta–is shorter than the Athenian Plato’s work of the same name. Xenophon was probably fighting with the 10,000 when Socrates was executed, and so he gives us the name of his source, Hermogenes, and then covers the time leading up to the trial, the trial itself, and the reaction to the death sentence. Plato’s Defense of Socrates focuses exclusively on the trial itself, and Plato presents a much fuller defense speech than Xenophon does.
In a nutshell, Xenophon’s Socrates is convinced that he will die, and so there is no point making any real struggle against this. Xenophon makes this acceptance of the unavoidability of death into a kind of programmatic thesis statement, right at the beginning of his Defense, and proceeds to support it throughout the brief piece. In fact, Xenophon’s Socrates sees his death sentence as a blessing, since he will be spared the troubles and indignities of old age: deafness, blindness, weakness and senility. Xenophon’s Socrates says that “the divine” opposed him when he sought to make a good speech to persuade the Athenian jury of his innocence, or at least, his worthiness to escape serious punishment. Consequently, his actual speech in his own defense is very short, resigned to his own death–and, frankly, provocative.
Xenophon’s Socrates brings up what the Dephic oracle said of him, namely, that he was “the most free, upright, and prudent of all people”–but then Socrates says that this compliment is nothing compared to the Delphi’s words regarding Lycurgus, the founder of Sparta’s laws. To the Athenians recovering from the Peloponnesian War, this was a raw reminder of their sufferings, and to hear their enemy’s history extolled in this way must have goaded them.
Furthermore, Xenophon’s Socrates claims that he has a direct link to “the divine” in a way that other men do not; I was reminded, at this point, of Jesus’ claim that “I and the Father are one.” In both cases, the statement that an individual–whether Socrates or Jesus–had a privileged and unique access to the divine was the cause of their respective downfalls at the hands of their critics.
To conclude this discussion of Xenophon’s Socrates in that writer’s Defense, I would like to point out that Socrates rebuffs the charges against him: namely, that he did not recognized the gods of the city or corrupt the young. Socrates says that he often could be seen at the sacrifices to the Olympian gods, and he also says that no one can say that any young people became drunkards, lazy, or womanizers because of him–and he was an acknowledged ascetic (as even the seemingly-hostile Aristophanes grants).
Socrates does, however, admit to having a kind of private access to “the divine,” which was the root of the charge that he brought in strange new deities to the city. Furthermore, he admitted to persuading young people of the city to listen to himself, rather than to their parents, since he was (as he described it) a leading expert on education. These were the two grounds for his conviction and subsequent death penalty.
In contradistinction to Xenophon’s plain and peaceable, if self-assured picture of Socrates is the character drawn by Plato in his on Defense of Socrates. This Socrates is far wittier than Xenophon’s Socrates, and has rather more to say of an actual philosophical nature. This Socrates says nothing about the avoidance of old age as a reason to die now. Rather than giving up with a very brief speech, full of resignation and provocation, he goes all out with a full-throated defense of his methods, though without the slightest hint of (in the English meaning) an apology for them.
Two of the charges in Plato are the same as those in Xenophon: namely, that Socrates introduced strange new gods to the city, and that he corrupted the youth of the city. But Plato has another charge brought against Socrates by Meletus, the private citizen who took it upon himself to prosecute Socrates in the Assembly: that of outright atheism.
First, though, the corruption of youth. Plato’s Socrates here says pretty much what Xenophon’s Socrates does: namely, that he is an expert on education, and as a specialist in this area, he ought to be trusted like specialists in other areas, e.g. wagon-building or ship-building.
Socrates refutes the more interesting charge of atheism (made, not only here in a legal way by Meletus, but also more creatively by Aristophanes in Clouds) by saying that he believes in divine things, which “everyone knows” are the “sons and daughters” of the main deities, so that if Socrates believes in divine entities, then he necessarily believes in gods, just as much as men who acknowledge the existence of mules must believe in horses and donkeys. Socrates then shows how this charge contradicts the other, namely, that he has brought in new gods. Curiously, Socrates does not come right out and say “I believe in Zeus, Hera, and the like, as they are described in Homer.” He only says the equivalent of “What? You mean that I don’t believe in the sun and moon as gods like everybody else?”
In regards to this last point about bringing in strange new deities to the city, Socrates elaborates:
Someone may wonder why I go about in private, giving advice and busying myself with the concerns of others, but do not venture to come forward in public and advise the state. I will tell you the reason of this. You have often heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything
This is a direct parallel to what Xenophon’s Socrates says when he speaks of “the divine” that stopped him from working on his defense speech–except that Socrates doesn’t say that this “divinity,” or “sign” stopped him this time.
Now it is possible to read this not as being about a privileged access to the world of the divine, but rather as a general statement about conscience. In that case, it looks like Socrates’ statement about believing in things “divine” is really a kind of subterfuge, a kind of spirituality without religion as it were.
But the idea that individuals could have individual consciences was apparently considered very dangerous in the context of the polis that was Athens. Athens had in the last century fought off the gigantic Persian empire twice, succumbed to Sparta in a long and violent war, and suffered the installation of an oligarchic junta that was loyal to Sparta and disastrous for Athens. After having finally ousted the junta (known as “the Thirty”) and returning to full democracy, Athens needed unity. But Socrates brought a kind of unwanted individualism–and the simple fact was that so many of the members of Socrates’ circle were either dangerous demagogues or members of the Spartan-controlled oligarchy (especially, respectively, the powerful Alcibiades, who was the prime suspect in a series of blasphemous attacks on the cult of the Elysian Mysteries, and Critias, the murderous leader of the Thirty, who had once written a play that shocked with the accusation that religion was a mere tool to keep people from disobeying law). Even Plato himself was a relative of Critias.
Thus Socrates dispenses with the charges against him. The real reason he has been arraigned on a capital charge, he asserts, is because the Delphic Oracle had declared him the “wisest” of men. And this is a notable difference from Xenophon’s version. But Plato’s Socrates knows that he doesn’t know much, and so he goes around asking people who are esteemed wise various questions that are designed to trip them up and make them realize that they are not actually so wise after all. Plato’s Socrates, then, is wisest of all only because he knows he is not wise. Socrates asserts something that most likely got him in trouble here: namely, that this was his special mission from “god”–his personal divine, as it were. He likens his “divinely-sanctioned” activities in Athens to those of a gadfly sent to sting into action a lazy and slow horse.
Socrates describes himself in terms very reminiscent of the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible. (Not “foretelling,” as so many people think of prophecy, but “forth-telling,” which is the far more accurate characterization.) Think Isaiah going head-to-head and “speaking truth to power” to King Ahaz, or Jeremiah rhetorically skewering King Jehoiakim or King Zedekiah for their wickedness. Socrates himself uses the term “prophesy” here quite explicitly, and thus claims the mantle of a religious prophet. It seems a desperate stroke, sure to annoy everyone present. And thus, I think that the editor of the Penguin Xenophon edition I am using (Xenophon: Conversations of Socrates, edited by Robin Waterfield) claims correctly that Socrates was, in fact, guilty as charged under proceedings that gave him due process.
So much for the charges and Socrates’ attempts at rebuttals. Ancient Athenian custom allowed a convicted defendant to propose an alternative penalty. Plato’s Socrates, facing the death penalty, argues that what he really deserves is to be fed and housed at public expense in the Prytaneium with the heroes of the day, the winners of the races and other contests. But then Socrates says that a fine will do, and mentions a sum of thirty minae that his friends have promised to allow him to use. This seems like a partial hedging of his bets, and it is a quite different picture than what we get in Xenophon, where Socrates refuses to propose anything realistic at all. (Funny that bit about the thirty minae: it parallels in number the thirty pieces of silver promised and delivered to Judas for his betrayal of Jesus in the New Testament.) But Socrates still refuses the possibility of exile, and furthermore says that he will continue his personal mission of being a stinging gadfly to Athens. As his conviction and then death sentence are spoken, Sophocles–and this is surely Plato here–promises that his work will continue, and that the next wave of stinging flies will be far severer than he was.
Plato’s Socrates then leaves the trial with these words, on the subject of death:
Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good, for one of two things: – either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain . . . . Now if death is like this, I say that to die is gain*; for eternity is then only a single night. But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead are, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this? If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, he is delivered from the professors of justice in this world, and finds the true judges who are said to give judgment there, Minos and Rhadamanthus and Aeacus and Triptolemus, and other sons of God who were righteous in their own life, that pilgrimage will be worth making. What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again. I, too, shall have a wonderful interest in a place where I can converse with Palamedes, and Ajax the son of Telamon, and other heroes of old, who have suffered death through an unjust judgment; and there will be no small pleasure, as I think, in comparing my own sufferings with theirs. Above all, I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too! What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions! For in that world they do not put a man to death for this; certainly not. For besides being happier in that world than in this, they will be immortal, if what is said is true.
*I think the translation here was likely influenced by the English rendering of Philippians 1:21: “to die is gain.” I wonder slightly if Paul (or whoever wrote Philippians) were consciously echoing Socrates.
On a personal note, what a lovely line!–”eternity is only a single night.”
Plato’s Socrates is then, a very different creature from Xenophon’s. Where in Xenophon, Socrates is simply a virtuous and helpful man, in Plato, he is a prophet, a kind of Cassandra from Troy, someone who loves humankind and is rejected by it–though only on the narrowest of margins, for had thirty out of five hundred people changed their votes, he would have lived. Plato’s Socrates is a preacher of the doctrine of humility who argues that it is vitally important that we do not have puffed-up opinions of ourselves–we must not, he says, think we are something when we are nothing. Similarly, we must learn to think for ourselves, rather than simply accept what we are taught. For these germs of modernity and decency, Socrates was executed.