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Topic #C30

Plato, Apology


16 November 2001

Scribes: Jamieson Hunter and Mark Renneson


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



         Before looking directly at the text, Professor Hutchinson suggested that Apology is a work that is well-known, even outside of scholarship.  He elaborated, saying that not only is the Apology considered an example of pure Platonic thought, but that it is often read for its literary value.  As it offers a clear, plausible and persuasive account of the trial of Socrates, those who are not scholars can still appreciate the work.  This account is not fully historical, however, as embellishments and literary devices have been added by the author to engage the reader deeply in the work.


         We can be quite certain that this is not a direct transcript of the trial for several reasons.  The first, is that Xenophon’s version of The Apology is dramatically different as it excludes many of the allusions and literary devices used by Plato.  One of these devices is Plato’s quarrel with contemporary books.  In the part of the text, known as the “removal of prejudice” a battle of the books ensues as Socrates refers to the his degrading portrayal in Aristophanes, The Clouds (line 18 c).  He goes on to allude to Accusations of Socrates (392-2 BCE) in which he again was misrepresented.   According to Dr. Hutchinson, we can be quite certain that this attack is mounted by Plato, not his teacher.    


         It has been suggested that Apology is a thoroughly rhetorical work.  This is supported by Socrates claiming that he will not be engaging in courtroom rhetoric (line 17d and following).  When this statement is made, professor Hutchinson suggested, one can usually assume that what follows will be a long and persuasive argument.  While some may consider Plato’s use of rhetoric hypocritical, professor Hutchinson pointed out where, he believes, this argument is wrong.  In the Gorgias, Plato (through Socrates) shows the famous sophist that teaching and employing rhetoric is fundamentally dangerous, especially when one does not accompany it with virtue.  The reason that Plato is able to employ rhetorical skills in Apology is because the oratory art is used to pursue a philosophical, thus noble end.  So, professor Hutchinson suggested, Plato was not opposed to rhetoric, but rhetoric that served the wrong purposes.


         A student then asked if we have reasons to believe that Xenophon’s portrayal of Socrates is more historically accurate, whereas Plato’s is more speculative?  The answer to this was possibly, but probably not.  It was suggested that each author was attempting different tasks.  Xenophon, on one hand, was trying to exonerate his friend from the misleading and damaging charges brought on by others.  To do this, Xenophon tries to give a personal, historical account of Socrates.


         Plato, on the other hand, was heavily interested in the unsolved problems of the universe.  Questions concerning the ideal world, mathematics and astronomy were strong themes in his work.  Nevertheless, it is clear that Plato knew Socrates well.  He delivers Socratic thought with such precision and conviction that we must believe his accounts to be largely true.  Therefore, Plato’s portrayal of Socrates is not so much speculative, but creative.


         Another questionable portion of the dialogue resides in Socrate’s account of Chaerephon’s visit to the oracle of Delphi.  Both Xenophon and Plato report the oracle of giving the answer ‘no’, but where the problem lies, is in the question the oracle was asked.  According to Xenophon, Chaerephon asked if Socrates was the most generous, liberal-minded, just and self-controlled person in Athens.  According to Plato, the question was, is there anyone wiser than Socrates.  This is relevant, as part of Socrates defense in Plato’s Apology resides in the fact that the oracle proclaimed him to be the wisest of all Athenians.


         Professor Hutchinson then moved on to describe some trickery on the part of Plato.  In line21 c - 236 Socrates explains that it is due to the will of the god that he goes about town philosophizing.  Apparently, the oracle ordered him to perform these tasks, and as all good Athenians know, it is wrong to disobey the gods.  This is a slight of hand on Plato’s part, as the god had not been consulted until well after Socrates began his activities.


Several students then put up their hands to ask the question “is it possible that Socrates was given orders from a god before the account in Apology.?”  The answer from Prof. Hutchinson was no.  If he had received previous instructions from the oracle, he would have used it in his defense rather than the journey made by Chaerephon.  Had he been given divine orders from a private god, that too would go against the laws of Athens and justify his persecution.  Therefore, Plato found it necessary to portray this order as coming from the public oracle at a time previous to his actions. 


The lecture then moved to the content of Socrates’ speech.  It was suggested to us that while Socrates could have easily avoid the penalty by showing remorse for his actions and capitulating to the jury, he chose instead to rile up its members. 


One aspect where Plato and Xenophon are in agreement is in Socrates’ fearlessness of death.  In Plato’s account, Socrates gives a clear rationale for why he has nothing to fear (line 40 d).  He believes that death will either be similar to a dreamless sleep, where all of eternity will seem like one night, or, that death will unite him with heroes of the past, in which case he would die again and again. 


To conclude the lecture, selections from position papers were read aloud and contrasted.  The first, claimed that Socrates appeared to be mentally ill, as he wandered about the city in poverty, with no job or direction other than his search for impractical knowledge.  In the next, the author suggested that what Socrates should have been doing, was using his knowledge to attain employment, and provide for his family as all members of society did.


The final paper came to the defense of Socrates.  It claimed that, historically, it is not uncommon for the pursuers of truth to be shunned by society.  As most people as satisfied with their blissful ignorance, Socrates had little room to maneuver.  Rather than face the truth of their ignorance, most people are content to lead mundane lives without the onslaught of penetrating questions that essentially make waves in the framework of society.  And, according to the position paper, Socrates was not so ignorant of this fate.