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Topic #C30

Plato, Apology


16 November 2001
Scribes: Panteha Yektaeian and Sumeet Kashalani


These minutes were spoken on 19 November;

for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



Friday November 16ths  lecture on Platos Apology began with Professor Hutchinson noting that first some broad points would be made followed by some details.  The Apology, we were told probably stands in most for knowledge of Plato.  That is to say, it is the most well-known of his Socratic dialogues insofar as if one is to be acquainted with only one of his works this would tend to be the one.  Further, it has a great quality of plausibility, as it is persuasively written, thus standing as a successful piece of rhetoric (the poignant circumstances of the subject matter,  i.e. the trial of Socrates,  notwithstanding.


The piece stands as a counterpart to the famous quarrel and/or struggle between rhetoric and philosophy that served as the focal point in Gorgias, whereby the elderly sophist is bitterly attacked by Plato.  Gorgias merely highlights the extent to which the confrontation between rhetoric and philosophy remained a live issue for Plato.  Consequently, we (i.e. his readers) may have come under the impression that he was wholly opposed to rhetoric; however,  Professor Hutchinson was quick to point out that Plato only opposed  that type of rhetoric undertaken for the wrong purposes.  Nonetheless, the Apology begins with an assertion that it is not a piece of rhetoric, thus merely reinforcing the fact that it is.  However, it may be viewed as  that type of rhetoric aimed at servicing a good end.  The piece is an excercise in the exploitation of courtroom rhetoric by Plato through the mouth of Socrates.  At this point, it was noted that we should regard  the work as a piece of artifact rather than as something equivalent to a live broadcast of his trial on the BBC.  Indeed, the piece should not be regarded as the summum verite (i.e. the highest truth) and/or a realistic portrayal of the trial, but rather as Platos conception of philosophy.


Mention was then made of the other version of Socrates trial, Defense of Socrates, written by Xenophon, in comparison to which  Platos version is much more magnetic.  In fact the contrast between the two versions is analogous to the difference between a bad sketch and a good photograph.  In the latter version, Socrates employs persuasive and effective speech, winning with very few exceptions, the better ends of the argument.  Surely, Socrates is here much more successful than are his opponents.  However, Plato, and not Socrates, should be considered as the brilliant orator, for the latters speech is merely a reflection of the formers skill as a writer.  His skill as a rhetorician is also displayed in Gorgias  through Callicles fantastic speech regarding the law.


The point that the piece should be regarded as a literary text/document as opposed to an oral proceeding and/or historical text was once again reiterated, supported by the following two reasons. (1) the devices employed within the speech are indicative of forensic speech; (2) the first main section of the work--referred to as The Removal of Prejudice in the Greek text--, employs a standard device of defense utilized in courtrooms.  Then reference was made to the original impetus behind Platos writing of the piece.  The Apology was written in response to a piece entitled The Accusation of Socrates that had been circulating some time around 392-3 BCE intended as a direct attack against Socrates and his reputation by his adversaries.


The next topic of discussion concerned the differences and parallels between the defense speeches of the two versions.  The difference being that Socrates speech in Platos piece is much more elaborate.  Discussion of the parallels was left untouched as the following question by a student was raised: Should we consider Xenophons depiction of Socrates  as  generally more historically accurate and Platos as more speculative?

The professor responded by noting that the agendas  of  both writers should be regarded as aimed at securing a similar end, namely the exoneration of Socrates.  The following comparison was then given. Xenophons portrayal of Socrates while it attempts to pass itself off as the product of the formers personal reminiscence, actually   relies on various other texts.  In an attempt to dismiss the legitimacy of the nasty charges aimed at Socrates, Xenophon ends up glorifying him.  This glorification is the product of unhistorical practices secured through the modification of sources.  In essence, it is the product of literary and historical distortions, and should  be thought of as having served as a device of propaganda in the ancient sense.  Platos depiction seems to be more in keeping with Socrates views as he knew him vividly well.  Hence, we can assume that at least some of what Plato recounts about Socrates must hold true. However, Plato also stitches in some things, such as the inclusion of harmonics, the mysteries of mathematics, as well as Pythagorean elements.  In this way then, Platos portrayal may be viewed as creative and not necessarily speculative, accruing to a more abstract treatment of Socrates and his views.


We were then pointed to the use of another rhetorical device; that of the earnest insistence on  truth, as is the case with forensic/defense speeches.  In fact, as Professor Hutchinson pointed out,  it seems as though the word itself appears a thousand times throughout the text.  This is evidently a device employed by individuals fighting for their lives, and Socrates was in this way no different.  The attack upon the legacy of Aristophanes (19c) was clearly Platos insertion. In so doing, he secured an intellectually and structurally easy victory.  By seeking out a weak target one is able to blow it out by compelling  the accusers to defend their position.  In effect, it serves to force them into assuming  a defensive position.


The meaning of the word dithyramb (22b) was then asked by a student, to which the professor responded something to the following effect: that which  refers to songs composed to (choral) accompanyment; a poetic composition devoid of (not meant to have) any intellectual content.     


The last portion of the lecture concentrated on explicating the rhetorical trick the story of the oracle had intended to serve.  In Xenophons version, the question posed at the oracle at Delphi is whether Socrates is the most generous, just, liberal-minded, most self-controlled (i.e. demonstrating the possession of inner strength) and most free of all--although the notion of free is a concept with which Aristotle and not Plato deals.  At the end of Phaedo, Socrates is praised for possessing these same qualities.  In the Apology, the question posed is whether there is anybody wiser than Socrates, to which the oracle responds no.  The abstract conception of wisdom as a virtue is that of a virtue among other virtues.  In the Apology all virtues are reduced to the one virtue of wisdom, which is in turn characterized by a state whereby one knows that one does not know.  This interpretation of wisdom along with the story of the oracle serves to justify the content and the impetus behind Socrates undertaking as a teacher of knowledge.  In other words, it gives him licence to go around button-holing people in an effort to reveal to them their lack of wisdom.  That he is bound by God to follow this calling merely further justifies his actions. This, however, the Professor exclaimed, is clearly a trombone, a sly.  Socrates had already been doing/practicing this (i.e. giving so-called birth to peoples knowledge) before Chaerophon ever asked the oracle at Delphi such a question, therefore it serves as no defense.  This is not a coherent story Professor Hutchinson went on to conclude.


To this a student remarked whether perhaps his divine inner voice may be regarded as having called upon him to undertake this task.  Couldnt this be regarded as a veritable calling from the Gods?  The professors rejoinder was to say that while he certainly had access to it (i.e. inner voice)  it would not have proven useful as a defense.  Since it was impiety for which Socrates was being tried, to have acknowledged the idea of a private god as opposed to the public one, the one  worshipped and accepted  by the whole city, would have  been  to substantiate the validity of the very accusation he was attempting to undermine and/or dismiss.


A comment made by another student added to the professors clarification.  The divine inner voice theory he contended is not well supported since this voice is limited to warning Socrates only  against impending disaster and is not directed towards encouraging him in  the undertaking of any action.  This runs counter to the idea of being commanded by the gods. Following this commentary the professor then stated that in both the Xenophon and Plato versions, Socrates was not successful, not only does he display odd behaviour, but in both instances he antagonizes the jury. Moreover, one is left to wonder where is inner voice had gone, and why it had not prevented his death.


Finally, some insightful points adding to Professor Hutchinsons arguments were cited from two position papers.  Before reading from the first one, the professor stated that Socrates stance is not simply one of not wanting to grovel but of being inflammatory. Accordingly, the first paper called into question Socrates wisdom. Socrates strikes me as mentally ill; hes dillusional. It went on to argue that human wisdom should allow for practicality, something the student found  Socrates lacking in. S/he could not find justification behind Socrates  failure to fulfill his role as an adult member of the family, forcing his wife and three children to live in poverty, because he heard voices from the gods.  As further support for this view Professor Hutchinson proceeded to read  excerpts from sections 14 and 15 of the Loeb edition of  Xenophons Socrates Defense:


             Hermogenes further reported that when the jurors raised a clamour at hearing these words, some of them disbelieving his statements...Socrates resumed:.. Once on a time when Chaerophon made inquiry at the Delphic oracle concerning me, in the presence of many people Apollo answered that no man was more free than I, or more just, or more prudent

When the jurors, naturally enough made a still greater tumult on hearing this statement, he said that Socrates again went on: And yet, gentlemen, the god uttered in oracles greater things of Lycurgus, the Lacedaemonian law-giver, than he did of me.  For there is a legend that, as Lycurgus entered the temple, the god thus addressed him: >I am pondering whether to call you god or man. Now Apollo did not compare me to a god; he did, however, judge that I far excelled mankind. ( Socrates Defense in Xenophon in Seven Volumes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.)


declaring that it is indeed  clear that Socrates is not all together there; he incited tremendous fuss with his lack of tact and indiscretion.


The second postion paper articulated upon human natures aversion to truth seeking. The student went on to point out that not only do we rarely like to be proven wrong to ourselves, but especially to others in public. To be proven wrong in a public forum is especially humiliating as it reveals our ignorance.  S/he then eloquently summed up the point by quoting (something similar to the) following from a Bulgarian poet: The man who loves truth has no homeland, no friends, no family, he is a monster.