Plato’s Apology

After returning from my Balkan adventures, I can now return to the serious business of using Plato to teach reasoning.  Let us turn to the Apology.  You probably all know that the Greek apologia means something like justification or defense argument rather than apology.  It is Plato’s reconstruction (or imaginative recreation) of the speech Socrates made in his own defense.  Once again, let me be clear that I am not very interested, in this discussion, in any of the usual questions, such as:

“Is this really anything like what Socrates said?”

“Is Socrates guilty or innocent of the charges?”

“What are the motives of his accusers?”

“Why is Socrates so undiplomatic?”

We shall go through the work very quickly, without even my usual summaries, looking primarily at the kinds of arguments he uses to defend his own philosophy.  Then we can use that as a base for looking at one or two other early dialogues, perhaps one middle dialogue, and then on to the Seventh Letter.

I’ll keep my remarks in this post, adding on to them on a regular basis, until it disappears from the main page, in which case I’ll put up a Part II.

Then let us begin with Socrates’ powerfully ironic introductory remarks.  Don’t expect the briliant oratorical performance my accusers have warned you about.  This is just plain old Socrates with the simple language of the market place.  He is an Athenian Rick Perry, without cue cards or teleprompter, though, in the interest of full disclosure, he does have the most brilliant speechwriter who ever put words in his master’s mouth.

The “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking” introduction is the most ancient of wheezes, and it is designed to encourage the jury to let down their guard.  Later on, Aristotle will speak of the different kinds of appeals an orator can make, for example, the rational appeal (based obviously on reason and logic), the emotional appeal, which aims at swaying the subrational emotions of an audience, and the ethical appeal, which is not an appeal to moral principles but tries to use the character of the speaker as a tool.  If he is none to be a man of violent temper, he might say something about his bluff honesty, incapable of telling or suffering a lie.  The character Socrates/Plato sketches is of a plain man of the streets, unfairly accused of monstrous things, a guy like you and me, someone to have a beer and shoot the breeze with.  It’s an excellent start and hits the right note.  “Me, an intellectual?  Not on your life!”

Rather than defend himself from the beginning against the accusers’ actual charges, Socrates says he will first take up the old tittle-tattle against him.  This, too, is very effective, because he assumes quite rightly that the jurors have formed a negative impression of him.  Since childhood, everyone has heard tell of:

“one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about  the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse  appear the better cause. These are the accusers whom I dread; for they  are the circulators of this rumor, and their hearers are too apt to fancy  that speculators of this sort do not believe in the gods.”

Here, Socrates is claiming not to belong to either category of intellectuals who might plausibly be accused of atheism or impiety:  1) The Ionian “physicists” (from Thales to Anaxagoras) who sought natural explanations for the universe and 2) Sophists who taught people to argue successfully in court or at the assembly, and “make the weaker/inferior  cause defeat the stronger/superior cause.  What he is disclaiming is any affinity with either Anaxagoras, the impious mentor of Pericles, or Protagoras and Gorgias.

In order to distinguish himself from the Sophists, he says he does not take money for his teaching.  Is that, really, a crucial distinction?  In the popular mind, perhaps it was, but like the Sophists, Socrates undermined conventional views of religion, morality, and politics.  Naturally, Socrates would claim–and I think quite rightly–that he was attempting to find a higher and purer foundation for both than was offered by conventional cults and Homeric mythology.

A juror might retort, however, that purity of motives and refusal to take money are not the issue.  What if Socrates took away traditional morality from his students and failed to inculcate the higher morality and religion?  If the result was Jack the Ripper, doesn’t he bear some responsibility?  This, too, then is a question to ponder.  How far does an intellectual’s responsibility for his students go?



To be continued . . .

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