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Plato’s Apology, Part 2

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Part 2 of 2

Author’s Note:

The following text is based on a transcript by V. S. of a lecture on Plato’s Apology of Socrates. As usual, I have edited his transcript to remove excessive wordiness. I have also added a few lines and repositioned some paragraphs. The quotes are from Plato and Aristophanes, Four Texts on Socratestrans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984). 

[Socrates describes his heroic “labors” to refute Apollo’s oracle at Delphi by finding someone wiser than himself]: “After the politicians, I went to the poets, those of the tragedies and dithyrambs, and the others” (p. 70). He doesn’t mention comedy in particular, which I think is interesting. It could be included in “the others,” but he doesn’t mention it in particular and he says that none of these poets were wise, that none of them could give an account of what they were doing. But I think it’s so interesting that he leaves out comedy, because he leaves open the possibility that not all comic poets are so foolish and that leaves open the possibility of Aristophanes.

Socrates questions the poets, because people think that poets are wise. Years ago, on the way to class, a friend passed by a flyer that had the big word “EDUTAINMENT” on it. It was advertising a rapper called KRS-One and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys coming to talk about freedom of speech. He folded up the poster and took it to his class and said, “These are the kind of people Socrates would be questioning today.” Because here are some artists—let’s be broad-minded in our definition of art—claiming to be able, on the basis of their art, to speak of things that really aren’t art at all but things of broader cultural significance. It’s like Jane Fonda, who played a farmer’s wife in a movie, going to Congress to testify on the plight of farm families or Meryl Streep, who was in a movie about a nuclear meltdown, going to testify on nuclear things. As long as you forget the distinction between fantasy and reality they become experts.

In America, we’re especially bamboozled by the art of acting or the art of pretending. Who in their right mind would think that somebody whose entire life is a matter of pretending to be something that they’re not is an expert on the things they’re pretending to be?

There’s a Platonic dialogue called Ion where Socrates questions someone who is basically an actor. He’s a rhapsode, a person who makes his living by reciting Homer and acting it out. This guy claims that he is wise. So, Socrates says, “When you talk about chariots in Homer, are you wiser than a charioteer?” “Well, no . . .” “When you talk about generalship, does that make you wiser than a general?” “No . . .” Socrates just mercilessly goes through and shows that this guy doesn’t have any real wisdom at all, that he merely has the ability to pretend to be wise.

This is like Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan. She was so wonderful at pretending to be a sage on Start Trek: The Next Generation. You go talk to her, and she can give advice. But in real life, she seems to be a twit, and there’s something remarkable about the art of acting that even somebody who’s conspicuously silly can seem to be wise. Socrates was very disturbed by capacities like this. This would fall under the artists that he questioned.

Socrates’ argument is precisely this: rhapsodes, actors, poets, and so forth can give the appearance of wisdom through inspiration. They’re divinely inspired. They act through divine inspiration. They don’t act through art. They’re masters of appearances because they’re inspired to create appearances. They don’t have knowledge of things that are. There’s something disturbing about people who have such a mastery of appearances, because you feel that anybody with such a mastery of appearances might not necessarily be concerned about substance.

This is what concerned Socrates about art in general. Therefore, he was concerned with the moral status of art or any imitative faculty. There is some truth to that. It’s not to say that all artists are bad, but it is to say there are certain alluring forms of corruption that go along with appearance.

Art is a powerful technique. Just like any technique, it can be used for good or evil ends, and, therefore, it needs an additional supplement of wisdom to guide it. Socrates was primarily giving a critique of autonomous art, autonomous in the sense that it gave its own law to itself, or the notion of poets as legislators. He was saying there’s something deeply troubling about this because with all this technique and all this mastery of seeming, there’s not any necessary connection with the good in art. So, what art needs to justify itself is what everything needs to justify itself, really: it needs moral guidance. It needs wisdom.

The paradigms of art for Plato are really the dialogues themselves, which are great works of art, and they’re an interesting mélange of all the different artistic genres that existed up until that time, yet they’re infused with an orientation towards what is good. Whereas many artists of the time were preaching tyranny and glamorizing evil, like artists do today. You need to be morally critical of art.

I think for Plato a paradigm of great art would be something like Dante which is, in a sense, art that is ministrative to some higher notion of what is good rather than an art that says it is autonomous and it legislates for itself what’s good. Because often times with that kind of art, you find the glamorization of evil, and you find people who pass that off as an unimpeachable activity because of artistic integrity. Plato’s very much opposed to that. That’s what makes him nervous about art.

Every art as understood by the Greeks gives you power over contraries, meaning for instance that if you are a doctor it gives you power to cure or to kill. The same techniques, the same actions can do both. Thus there’s a kind of frightening moral neutrality about any technique. It’s not necessarily good just in and of itself. Autonomous technique is not connected with goodness. The power of public speaking can be used to delude people or to give people the truth.

The same is true of art. Art can be used to delude people, to glamorize evil, or to enlighten people and to orient the soul towards what is good. But in and of itself, art is not pinned down morally one way or another. No art is. No technique is. And that’s why you need wisdom, and, therefore, wisdom is different in kind because it’s always directed towards the good by its very nature. It’s not a technique that’s morally neutral. It’s the very opposite of moral neutrality. It’s the supplement that the arts need in order to be oriented towards doing good things.

If you look at what professions are, professions are a combination of technique and a moral orientation. Every profession has its code of ethics. Doctors, lawyers, architects, and so forth. This is in part why the professions have a certain dignity and status above mere techniques, because they recognize the great power of their techniques to do ill, and, therefore, they’re never taught without fusing them with a kind of moral code. So, you’ve got the Hippocratic Oath, for instance, that guides doctors.[1]

Then Socrates talks about questioning the manual artisans, saying (I paraphrase): “The manual artisans really do know something. They know their art. But the trouble is, they think their art, their expertise in one area makes them wise about all things.” He claims that they have a wisdom understood as art, but he disavows having any wisdom understood as an art. I really think that this is very important. In many of the dialogues, Socrates talks about wisdom on the analogy of certain arts. But as soon as you recognize that wisdom isn’t on the same level as the other arts, because it’s precisely wisdom you need to apply any art rightly, then the art analogy breaks down, and Socrates’ understanding of wisdom is not as a kind of art, which I think is extremely important. He again denies having wisdom understood as art here, but he doesn’t deny having another kind of wisdom which is important.

Socrates claims that “the young follow me of their own accord. Those who have the most leisure, the sons of the wealthiest, enjoy hearing human beings examined” (p. 72). Of course, they do, because it’s comical to see people’s self-pretensions punctured. “And they themselves often imitate me, and in turn they attempt to examine others.” Well, this is teaching, teaching by example.

Then Socrates talks about how Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon, his three accusers, represent three groups that he has punctured in their pretensions of wisdom: the artisans, the politicians, and the poets. In the very last line he says, “This is the truth for you, men of Athens. I’m hiding nothing from you either great or small in my speech nor am I holding anything back.” Again, by saying he’s holding back nothing great or small, or hiding nothing great or small, that doesn’t mean that he’s not hiding anything that falls between the great and small. It’s artfully placed there, which leaves open the possibility that there is a certain amount of concealment going on here. This is important to recognize because we see that he’s actually concealing things.

Then Socrates begins his attack on the new accusers. First he cross-examines Meletus about the claim that Socrates corrupts the youth. Basically, he says, “Well, who does the youth good?” Meletus’ answer is the laws. But that seems to imply that everybody in Athens do the youth good, except for Socrates. Socrates just laughs that off and says, “That’s preposterous that everybody else does the youth good except for me.” But that doesn’t really refute the charge that Socrates corrupts the youth. Meletus has made an extremely absurd claim that everybody benefits the youth but Socrates, and Socrates laughs at that. But Socrates still hasn’t refuted the claim that he corrupts the youth.

Also, in response to the charge of corrupting the youth, Socrates says, “Meletus, you’re so smart, whereas I at my great age am so ignorant, but apparently you think that I am not even cognizant that if I ever do something wretched to my associates I will risk getting back something bad from him. You think I’m so naïve that I’d think I could corrupt the sons of my neighbors and not expect anything bad to happen to me?” (p. 75). But there are people that naïve. One of them is Socrates in the Clouds right? “Surely I’m not that naïve.” But surely he could be.

Then Socrates addresses the charge that he brings in new gods and disbelieves in the old gods. First, he gets Meletus to formulate his disbelief in the gods of the city as a disbelief in any gods at all. Then, as soon as Meletus does that, Socrates says, in effect, “Well, Meletus, you also assert that I believe in a daimonion, right?” “Yes.” “Well, can you ever have daimonions without daimonia? Aren’t daimonia the offspring of gods? It would be like believing in mules without believing in horses and asses, because mules are the offspring of horses and asses just as daimonia are the offspring of gods and mortals. If I believe in daimonia, I must believe in gods.”

Notice that this doesn’t establish that he believes in the gods of Athens, and that’s really the charge: he doesn’t believe in the gods of the city. But by getting Meletus to change the charge to “he doesn’t believe in any kind of gods,” Socrates can then show that he’s inconsistent when he says that he brings in new gods, because how can you believe in new gods when you don’t believe in any? But Socrates hasn’t actually refuted or even dealt with the claim that he disbelieves in the gods of the city, because he can believe that his daimonion is the offspring of a foreign god. Socrates gives the impression of disputing and refuting, but he hasn’t actually accomplished that.

It’s such a systematic pattern throughout the Apology that you start thinking: this is a systematic pattern for a reason. Plato is trying to show us the political predicament of philosophy, what position philosophy is forced into if it’s ever hauled up before the bar and forced to justify itself publically. It can’t truthfully justify itself. It can’t justify itself by telling the truth, so it’s forced systematically to be deceptive.

One question we can raise is: “What is Socrates defending in the Apology?” The title is Apology of Socrates, but the “of” here is ambiguous in English just as the genitive is in Greek. Is it Socrates’ apology for Socrates, or is it Socrates’ apology for something else? The question is, does Socrates end up defending himself here? If he’s defending himself, he’s doing a pretty lousy job because, although he refutes the charges and he attacks the charges, he does so in such a way that he angers his judges to the point where they convict him and they condemn him to death.

For instance, before Socrates is convicted, he talks about why he never got involved in politics and says to the audienc (I’m paraphrasing): “You do injustice. You, the demos, do injustice, and if I were to oppose you because I’m a good man, then you would destroy me.” What does that imply about the audience? Well, they’re bad men. He’s pointing to the audience and saying, “You are bad men, and if I ever got involved with you you’d destroy me, because I’d have to oppose you at every turn because you do injustice.” That’s not designed to ingratiate himself. And he says this near the end of the speech before they’re going to vote. Then after they vote to convict him he says, “I propose as a counter-penalty to death you give me free meals at public expense,” which is an outrageous thing designed to do nothing more than get them angry at him.

Socrates’ behavior here indicates that whatever he’s defending, he’s not defending himself, because if he is defending himself, then he’s not a very clever speaker, but we know that he’s a very clever speaker.

So, what is he defending in this defense? He’s defending philosophy. But he’s also defending philosophy in such a way that it shows you the difficulties of defending philosophy in a public context.

But Socrates does state the real defense of philosophy, after he’s been convicted, namely, that without philosophy, life isn’t worth living, that without wisdom we are lost, that none of the good things in life are necessarily good for us unless we have the wisdom to use them properly. Therefore, no matter what fate you have, if you’re in fortunate circumstances, if you have all the benefits that life may have to offer, if you don’t have the wisdom to use them properly you’re just screwed. In that sense, life isn’t worth living without wisdom because you’re really just at the mercy of fortune. The best you can hope for is to luck out, to be in a fool’s paradise if you don’t have wisdom. But most people are not in fool’s paradises, and most unwise people end up suffering more than they otherwise need to. Some of them are better off dead perhaps. Socrates is pretty harsh on that point.

But he does think that people are better off dead than fools. He’s serious enough about this to accept this himself, because to claim that you’re better off being dead than being a fool is, as he understands wisdom, to be equivalent to claiming that you’re better off dead than being vicious, because virtue is identical to wisdom for him. Virtue is practical wisdom. He himself says he would rather be dead than vicious, and this is why he says that he will not do any harm to any others even though they might be trying to do harm to him. The reason being that he’s better off dead as a victim of injustice than to live on at the expense of doing injustice, because doing injustice is going to corrupt his soul and make him into a bad person whereas no matter what your enemies do to you, they can’t make you into a bad human being. They can’t corrupt your soul. They can kill you, but they can’t make you into a monster. He’s serious enough about that that he’s willing to die rather than do certain things. This is one of the things that is so impressive about Socrates later on in the Apology. He’s constantly saying, “Look, there are things worse than death; namely, villainy.”

Is Socrates sacrificing his life for philosophy? He’s sacrificing his life for the sake of his soul, in a sense. He’s willing to die because he’s not willing to live under just any old conditions. He’s not willing to live in a condition where his soul is corrupted or where he has to compromise himself.

Note that he’s willing to compromise in a sense by not fully speaking the truth. But in the Republic there’s a distinction made between two kinds of lies. One is a lie you tell somebody else and the other is a lie you tell yourself. Whatever Socrates is willing to do, he’s not willing to lie to himself or deceive himself. “The lie of the soul is the most hateful thing,” he says. He’s willing to deceive others, but he’s not willing to corrupt his own soul.

Socrates also believes deception can be used as a tool for the helping of other people, so he doesn’t necessarily believe that by deceiving people he’s corrupting their souls. Notice how he deals with Euthyphro using false premises. He’s asserting false premises: “Euthyphro, if you can’t define piety, you don’t know what it is.” Well, that’s really not true, but Euthyphro believes it, and Euthyphro is better having been wrestled into submission, having accepted this false premise. He ends up a better man, and Socrates thinks it’s quite often the case that you can inoculate people against doing bad things by deceiving them in the proper way. So, he doesn’t think he’s corrupting others by deceiving them. He’s not willing to engage in activities that corrupt himself or others, and he’d rather die than be forced to do that.

Near the end of his initial speech, he says, in effect, “I’m not going to flatter you. I’m not going to beg. I’m not going to bring my family out here, and I’m not going to tell you the things you want to hear. Why? Because the person who tells you what you want to hear rather than what’s good for you to hear is a flatterer not a friend, and flatterers are corrupters.”

In Gorgias, Socrates gives a beautiful analogy of a wise man who practices the true political art and tells people the truth and tries to help their souls, exhorts them to care for their souls. In the democracy that he lives in, if such a man were put on trial he would be in the same situation as a doctor if he were brought up before a jury of children and his accuser were a pastry chef. The pastry chef says, “I give you good things to eat and he gives you painful shots and yucky potions and things like that.” Of course, the doctor is not going to be able to acquit himself because he hasn’t flattered the tastes of these children and corrupted them. He’s been bettering them, but they don’t like it, whereas the pastry chef feeds them all sorts of delicious things that are making them ill.

And this is the situation that Socrates is in right now. He’s the doctor accused before the jury of children by the pastry chefs of Athens, the people who make flattering mind-candy that corrupts the people. He’s not going to corrupt them by pandering to them, flattering them, begging, or things like bringing his children forward to curry sympathy. In the Wasps, there is a parody of this where the dog is being accused of eating the cheese, and she brings her puppies in and they whine and wail so she’s acquitted. The old father, once he’s forced to stay home from the law courts, turns his whole house into a law court and puts the dog on trial for stealing the cheese. It’s quite comical.[2]

So, Socrates has “refuted” the new accusers in a very slippery fashion as we’ve become accustomed to seeing now.

Socrates then deals with the question “Aren’t you afraid of death?”

Perhaps then someone might say, “Then are you not ashamed, Socrates, of having followed the sort of pursuit from which you now run the risk of dying?”

I would respond to him with a just speech. “What you say is ignoble fellow if you suppose that a man who is of even a little benefit should take into account the danger of living or dying but not rather consider this alone whenever he acts: whether his actions are just or unjust and the deeds of a good man or bad? For, according to your speech, those of the demigods who met their end at Troy would be paltry, especially the son of Thetis [namely Achilles, who constantly risked death over honor].” (pp. 78–9)

The fact of the matter is that what’s genuinely heroic is a human being who is willing to put his own physical survival at risk for what he considers to be right or just, and this is Socrates’ ethic too. So, he’s saying, “I’m just as heroic as Achilles.” It’s ignoble for people to be too concerned about saving their own butts. But again, Athens by this time has been thoroughly corrupted, in part by its politicians, the demagogues like Pericles. Socrates talks about this in the Gorgias, how they flattered the populace and corrupted them in many ways. “This is the way it is, men of Athens, in truth, whenever someone stations himself holding that it is best or whenever he is stationed by a ruler there he must stay and run the risk as it seems to me and not take into account death or anything else compared to what is shameful” (p. 79).

Then he talks about how when he was sent off to battle for Athens he did his duty properly. He said, “I stayed where they stationed me and ran the risk of dying like anyone else, but once the gods stationed me, as I supposed and assumed, ordering me to live philosophizing and examining myself and others, I have not then left my station because I fear death or any matter whatever” (p. 79).

Then Socrates makes some very interesting knowledge claims here. He says, first of all, that people who fear death are really pretending to be wiser than they are, because they claim to know that death is a bad thing.

Now, that’s really not exactly true, because people who fears death can simply fear the fact that they don’t know what death holds for them. It’s not necessarily that people who fear death fear it because they know that they’re going to be roasted slowly on a spit for all eternity. People fear death because it’s an unknown.

But Socrates apparently doesn’t, and this is something very interesting about him. This is something interesting about his philosophical temperament. He’s not afraid of the unknown. He’s constantly searching for what’s unknown.

There’s a nice opposition to this in the Republic when Socrates describes the guardians as “philosophical dogs.” They’re watchdogs. That means they bark at strangers and are friendly to things that are close to them, which is very peculiar to call philosophical. The reason he calls them philosophical is not because their natures are philosophical, but because their natures are given to them by the philosophers who train them.

What’s pointed out in that claim that these dogs are philosophical is really that philosophers aren’t like watchdogs. They don’t bark at things that are unfamiliar to them and nuzzle everything that’s close. In fact, they tend to be hard on the things that are close to them, those things that are familiar, and to be constantly interested in things that are strange and unknown.

There’s a constant quest, not necessarily for the new, but for the true. And sometimes what is true isn’t very novel after all. Novelty is never an index of truth. So, I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily innovative, but what they are is open to things that are strange and different, and they’re open to things that are strange and different precisely because they recognize that the things close at hand are not entirely good or true.

If you’re totally satisfied with the things at hand, you don’t look for anything new, which is like a watchdog, right? Dogs love their masters and bark at strangers. And philosophers don’t necessarily love their masters and are not afraid of what is strange at all. In fact, they search it out. Socrates, by implication, isn’t afraid of death because it’s an unknown. It may be that he’s intensely curious about it precisely because it’s unknown, which is unusual for human beings.

But then Socrates goes on: “But I, men, am perhaps distinguished from the many human beings also here in this, and if I were to say that I am wiser than anyone in anything, it would be in this: that since I don’t know sufficiently about the things in Hades, so also I suppose that I do not know” (p. 80). Meaning that he knows that he doesn’t know. “But I do know,” he says (here’s a knowledge claim from Socrates who’s supposed to know nothing), “that it is bad and shameful to do injustice and to disobey one’s better, whether god or human being. So, compared to the bad things which I know are bad, I will never fear or flee the things about which I do not know whether they even happen to be good.” So, he’s saying, “Look, I know that being evil is bad, but I don’t know that being dead is bad, and therefore, given the choice, I’d prefer to die, because death might be a profit.” Whereas he knows that evil certainly isn’t, which is a strong knowledge claim.

Then Socrates deals with the suggestion that he might stop philosophy in exchange for his life: “Socrates, for now we will not obey Anytus, but we will let you go. But on this condition: That you no longer spend time on this investigation or philosophize, and if you are caught still doing this you will die” (p. 81). Well, Socrates is not going to accept that condition for getting off. He says:

If you will let me go then, as I said, on these conditions I would say to you, “I, men of Athens, salute and love you but I will obey the gods rather than you and as long as I breathe and am able to, I will certainly not stop philosophizing and I will exhort you and exclaim this to whomever of you I happen to meet and I will speak just the sorts of things I am accustomed to. ‘Best of men! You are an Athenian from the city that is greatest and best reputed for its wisdom and strength. Are you not ashamed that you care for having as much money as possible and reputation and honor that you neither care nor give honor to prudence and truth and how your soul will be the best possible?’” (p. 81)

This is his constant claim. You’re putting money and reputation ahead of the quality of your own soul, which is not to say that money and reputation are bad but simply that they’re not the highest things to pursue and certainly not things to pursue at the expense of your own moral corruption. Prudence means practical wisdom, truth means truth, and the care of the soul: these are the highest concerns that people should have.

If one of you disputes it and asserts that he does not care, I will not immediately let him go nor will I go away, but I will speak to him and examine and test him and if he does not seem to me to possess virtue but only says he does then I will reproach him saying that he regards the things worth the most as the least important and the paltrier things as the more important. I will do this to whoever, younger or older, I happen to meet, both foreigner and townsman, but more so to the townsman inasmuch as you are closer to me in kin. (p. 81)

Which I think is interesting. He does recognize a certain partiality to his own.

He continues:

Know well then that the god orders this. And I suppose that until now no greater good has arisen for you in the city than my service to the god. [I’m God’s gift, right?] When I go around, I do nothing but persuade people, younger and old, not to care for bodies and money before nor as vehemently as how your soul will be the best possible. I say not from money does virtue come but from virtue comes money and all good things for human beings both privately and publically. (p. 81)

Now, that’s a strange claim. All the other good things come from virtue, but virtue doesn’t come from all these good things. That’s a very peculiar claim when you think of just how many people prosper out of vice. But what Socrates is going to say is they really aren’t prospering, because even though they might have all kinds of good things, the vicious activities that they have engaged in to get them have precisely led to their moral corruption, and their moral corruption means that they don’t have the wisdom to use these things rightly to lead a happy life, and this is the sense in which the good things in life come from virtue. Meaning that none of the things in life that are apparently good are going to really be good unless you’ve got the wisdom, the virtue to use them properly, and if you have all these good things at the cost of corrupting yourself you’re not going to be made happy by them. You might feel good a lot, but, again, happiness for the Greeks does not mean well-feeling but well-being. It means a state of harmony and health of the soul. It’s possible to be in a state of pain physically and still have harmony and health in your soul, and it’s possible to be in a state of pleasure physically and to be in a state of disharmony and mental or spiritual disease.

The question is: which is the most important? If you could do it, you’d have both, right? You’d be happy physically, and you’d have well-being spiritually. But if you have to choose, you choose what is the most important it’s the healthy soul. So, that’s the sense in which he’s saying that.

Of course, the Athenians don’t like to hear that and they make a fuss over it. Socrates says, in effect, “If you kill me, this will hurt you more than hurts me. Why? Because I’ll be dead, but you’ll be villains. You won’t have harmed me spiritually. You’ll just kill me and I’m 70 years old. I’ll be dead anyway soon. ” And he’ll die well whereas they’ll become villains and they’ll think that they have gained something but they’ll have really lost something and just made themselves worse men.

At the center of the page, he brings in this famous metaphor of the gadfly that illustrates his activity.

Though I, men of Athens, am now far from making a defense speech on my own behalf as someone might suppose, I do it rather on your behalf so that you do not do something wrong concerning the gift of the god to you by voting to condemn me. Or, if you kill me, you will not easily discover another of my sort who, even if it is rather ridiculous to say, has simply been set upon the city by the god as though upon a great and well-born horse who is rather sluggish because of his great size and needs to be awakened by some gadfly. Just so, in fact, the god seems to me to have set me upon the city as someone of this sort. I awaken and persuade and reproach each one of you and I do not stop settling down everywhere upon you the whole day. Someone else of this sort will certainly not easily arise for you men. If you obey me, you will spare me, but perhaps you will be vexed like the drowsy when they are awakened, and if you obey Anytus and slap me, it would easily kill me. Then you would spend the rest of your lives asleep unless the god sends you someone else in his concern for you. (p. 82)

Then Socrates talks again about how he stayed out of politics, “It might seem to be strange that I do go around counseling and being a busybody in private, but that in public I do not dare to go up before your multitude to counsel the city” (p. 83). Then he says that the daimonion began for him in childhood and always counseled him against this. But I don’t think it began in childhood. But again, Socrates is defending his whole life. He’s not doing a “Yes, but . . .” defense. He’s not saying “Socrates 1” and “Socrates 2.”[3]

In effect, Socrates accuses the jury of being corrupt:

Now, do not be vexed with me when I speak the truth, for there is no human being who will preserve his life if he genuinely opposes either you or any other multitude and prevents many unjust and unlawful things from happening in the city. Rather, if someone who really fights for the just is going to preserve himself even for a short time it is necessary for him to lead a private rather than a public life. (p. 83)

And the life of philosophy has always been an essentially private life because it recognizes that there aren’t many philosophers. There are more of them than there are of us, we’re not going to persuade them all, and they tend to get irritated when people go against their cherished falsehoods and illusions. Therefore, philosophers who go around with sandwich boards declaring that the world is corrupt end up being swatted sooner than poor Socrates. The loose shingle gets nailed down.

Therefore, if you’re going to lead a life pursuing wisdom and the care of the soul, you have to do it privately. It doesn’t mean you ignore everybody around you, but it does mean that the benefits that you do to others are on a personal face-to-face basis rather than a political basis. Socrates always dealt with individuals. He didn’t stand before the multitude and harangue them or sermonize. You can’t really accommodate your speeches very well to a mass of people, because there are all different types. You can only really benefit a person if you do it face-to-face.

One of the ways that he denies that he has corrupted the youth is he says, “OK. If any of you have been corrupted by me, raise your hand.” Well, even if they had been corrupted, they’re certainly not going to do that, and he takes the absence of anybody as proof that he hasn’t done any harm, which is just an extraordinary bit of face on his part.

One last thing. After Socrates has been condemned he mentions one more service that he has performed for Athens:

I affirm you men who have condemned me to death that vengeance will come upon you right after my death and much harsher, by Zeus, than the sort you give to me by killing me. For you have now done this deed supposing that you will be relieved from giving an account of your life, but it will turn out much the opposite for you as I affirm. There will be more who will refute you whom I have now been holding back. You did not perceive them, and they will be harsher inasmuch as they are younger and you will be more indignant. (p. 93).

So, he’s saying, “Look, there are people that I’ve been holding back.” And who would these sorts of people be?

It’s people like Euthyphro. You see what Socrates does in Euthyphro. Euthyphro was a loose cannon. He claims to be wiser than everyone else and he has all kinds of destructive and goofy ideas, and Socrates has exercised a moderating effect on him. Through many of the dialogues, Socrates is seen exercising a moderating effect on people who would otherwise be extremely damaging and corrupting. There are certain intellectual, or pseudo-intellectual, types who are very harmful, and Socrates has been spending his time reining such people in. Without him around, they are going to be running loose. The Athenians think that they’ve gotten rid of a gadfly, but actually he’s been doing things that preserve them from far more insidious forms of philosophizing that are now going to have freer reign in his absence, and I think that’s a very interesting point.

The more mature Socrates’ activity in part is precisely to limit or pull back people who behave like the Socrates of the Clouds did—corrupters of the youth. Of course, the Athenians don’t know that, because they don’t see that happening. But if you look carefully at the interaction between Socrates and Euthyphro, you see that is precisely what Socrates is trying to accomplish. He’s reining in a corrupter, a father beater, rather than egging him on, and that’s an unappreciated service that he’s done to the city that they’re not going to be able to benefit from anymore.


[1] This is why the whole assisted suicide debate I think is so dangerous, because on the surface it looks like an attempt just to add another thing to the physician’s bag of tricks. But really what it does is it transforms medicine from a profession understood as having a preset ethical goal, namely to do no harm, be a sort of zealous advocate for the patients’ continued existence, to a morally neutral activity that dispenses death or cures according to the conscience, I guess, of the doctor, I guess, but more often it’s going to be the imperative of the insurance adjusters, hospital administrators and the state. That’s not a small transformation. That’s a total revolution.

[2] Socrates says that real judges judge on the basis of what is right and not on the basis of what flatters them, but, of course, they don’t have the real judges here. Professional juries are a bad thing, but professional judges are a very good thing. Part of what you hope happens when a person becomes a judge is that it’s a sign that they have a certain amount of knowledge of the law but also a certain amount of equity, a certain amount of wisdom on how to apply the law rightly to keep their eye on what is right. You can have a better chance of appealing to those people often times than an ignorant jury.

[3] Aristotle modifies Socrates’ view a little bit, and I think it makes it better, because Socrates argues that if you know what is good, you do it, and Aristotle says that it is all too often the case that we know what’s good and don’t do it, so how to explain this fact. His account of it actually ends up being in some subtle way consistent with Socrates, because he says it’s possible for human beings, due to their passions to, in a sense, not know because they’ve put what they do know out of their minds, and, therefore, they do wrong even though they always know better in some sense.


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One Comment

  1. rhondda
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this. It is certainly not what I was taught about Socrates via Christian scholars. I had to read it a couple of times and think things through. What you say makes a lot more sense to me than the sentimental hero worship I got. None of them could do what Socrates did, nor can I. However, he has become a different kind of hero for me. Good cheer.

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