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Plato’s Apology, Part 1

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Part 1 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 paragraphs and points based on my notes. The quotes are from Plato and Aristophanes, Four Texts on Socratestrans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984). 

The first thing we need to be clear about is that Plato’s Apology of Socrates does not mean that Socrates was saying he’s sorry. The word apology is being used here in the sense of defense. Thus a better, less misleading title would be the Defense of Socrates or the Defense of Socrates to the Jury.

This is a marvelous text, and there’s good reason to think that most of it was probably said by Socrates in some form or another, because this text was written by Plato and circulated not long after Socrates’ death. We probably would have known if it fundamentally falsified what Socrates said. There’s also another version of the Apology by Xenophon which has a number of similarities, although it’s a much shorter text, and most of it is actually a report on what Socrates said rather than a transcription of the speech itself.

That aside, this is a very artfully crafted text. There’s no question about it. It has a number of different layers of meaning, like all of Plato’s texts. So, the original speech undergoes a kind of poetic transformation or fictionalization here. It not only reports the gist of what Socrates said to the jury, but it also teaches a larger philosophical lesson. The main philosophical lesson it teaches has to do with what is the relationship of philosophy to political life. How does philosophy justify itself to the city or to the populace as a whole?

This is an issue, because philosophy is an unusual thing. The Clouds shows just how odd and questionable philosophy seems from the point of view of ordinary human beings, how it seems both comical and destructive. Therefore, philosophy needs to give an account of itself. This is especially true in ancient Greece, because the ancient Greeks had a tendency to put philosophers on trial.

Anaxagoras, who is mentioned in here, was put on trial in Athens and went into exile to avoid a worse penalty. Anaxagoras was a teacher of Pericles and an insider in politics at the time and had a reputation for atheism and impiety. He was brought up on essentially the same charges that Socrates was brought up on. This happened maybe 50 years before Socrates’ trial. Anaxagoras, who was a foreigner anyway (he was from Clazomenae), quitted Athens and was not seen there again.

The Athenians also ran Protagoras, the great Sophist, out of town. Poor Protagoras, unfortunately, died—his ship sank as he left Athens, denying the world of any more Protagorean teachings.

Socrates is the third major philosopher who was put on trial by the Athenians, as far as we know. This is the only defense speech that we have. This is also the first philosopher’s defense speech that we have.

Let me just give up the big secret. The lesson that the Apology teaches about how philosophy justifies itself to the public is basically this: It can’t. At least, it can’t justify itself as philosophy. The clearest indication of this fact is just how systematically deceptive and sneaky Socrates is in his defense speech. Socrates is lying. But Socrates is really forced to lie, given the nature of his audience and the nature of the life that he’s trying to defend. So, let’s go through the text and catch out Socrates.

Let me tell you a little bit about the trial setting. Socrates was tried before a jury, although the jury and the judge were the same. There were 500 jurors, 500 judges. There was no separate judge. There were officials of the court who conducted the proceedings, but judge and jury were one and the same. They were 500 Athenian citizens chosen by lot. They could be just about anybody, really. They were his peers, definitely.

The Athenians had strange customs when it came to assemblies. Sometimes they would have to send people out with sticks to round up enough people to come to the assembly. Sometimes they would send out bailiffs with cords dipped in paint, and they would herd people along, and, of course, people would go because they didn’t want to get their clothes spattered with paint.

Five hundred of them had been herded in there, perhaps at the spur of the moment, not knowing they were going to go to a trial.

There were also paid jurors: men who were too old to fight in wars anymore. They were pensioners, war veterans, older citizens. One of the ways that the Athenians would give them pensions was to pay them to sit on juries.[1] There’s a wonderful comedy by Aristophanes, The Wasps, that centers around an old jury man who, because he’s so terrified by a prophecy that he’s heard, goes and convicts everybody who is brought up for trial. He’s quite jealous of his prerogatives, as the other old men are. They’re represented as wasps, so they come out on stage with large stingers attached to their rear ends. They’re a grumbly, crotchety old group, and it’s pretty easy to rile these guys up. So, Socrates doesn’t have the best audience, but it really is a cross-section of society.

The way that the trial was conducted is that the accusers made their speeches first. There were three accusers, Meletus, Anytus and Lycon, and each gave a speech. Then Socrates got to give his defense speech. Then the jury voted on whether to convict or not, and they voted to convict. Then the leader of the accusers, Meletus, got to propose a penalty, and he proposed the penalty of death. Then Socrates got to give another speech proposing a counter-penalty. Then the jury voted again on what penalty to accept, and then Socrates got to say a few last words no matter what the outcome was, whether he was convicted or not convicted. We have only Socrates’ portions. None of the accusers’ speeches have come down to us.

In the first paragraph, Socrates says that after hearing his accusers, he can’t believe what he has heard. They spoke so persuasively that he didn’t even recognize himself. Yet he knows that what they said was completely untrue. Now he’s going to speak, and he’s going to speak in precisely the opposite way. Instead of speaking falsehoods in a clever way, he’s going to speak nothing but the truth, and he’s going to do it in a way that you would expect from a man who is a foreigner to law courts. He’s going to do it in a kind of halting fashion because he’s not a professional speaker. He’s not a clever speaker at all.

Socrates says of his accusers, “They’re not ashamed that they will be immediately refuted by me in deed” (p. 163). What Socrates is alerting us to is the fact that sometimes deeds can refute speeches. This is a general principle for reading all of Plato’s dialogues.

Jacques Derrida accuses Plato of what he calls logocentrism, which means he’s focusing on words. The Greek word for words is logoi, and Derrida claims there’s an insidious over-focus on logoi for Plato. But actually, if you read Plato’s dialogues, they’re clearly not logocentric at all, because all of the logoi, all of the speeches, have to be read in relation to all of the deeds that are narrated. The meaning of the Platonic text comes about as the total effect of the speeches and the deeds working together. So, you have to look at what’s done as well as what’s said.

Socrates’ first little speech is to say that he is not a clever speaker. But in the very fact of saying that he’s not a clever speaker he really is demonstrating that he’s mastered one great old-fashioned rhetorical trope. Imagine Senator Leghorn stands up and gives a long speech eloquently crafted by his speech writer. Then Senator Blowhard stands up and says, “Well, you know, I can’t compete with Senator Leghorn’s high-flown phrases and his fancy intellectual justifications, but let me tell you what my momma used to tell me.” Then he comes out with some homespun, cracker barrel stuff.

Of course, he’s demonstrating that he’s a terribly clever speaker using one of the oldest tricks in the rhetorician’s book: pretending to be a non-clever speaker, just an ordinary guy who’s saying the first thing that comes into your mind. That’s a very clever technique of speaking. It’s a kind of jiu-jitsu move where you use the strength of your opponent against him, and you throw him by highlighting how clever he is, thereby making the audience think, “Yeah, I’m being bamboozled by these guys, but this guy’s going to tell it to me straight.”

At the very beginning, then, we see something problematic: Socrates is using rhetoric in the very act of denying it. That’s an important fact.

There’s another sense in which Socrates’ halting speech is not a refutation of the charge that he is a clever speaker. For just because he chooses to speak haltingly does not mean that he can’t speak more eloquently. A clever speaker can choose to speak haltingly, but a poor speaker cannot choose to speak cleverly.

So, to sum up: a halting and naïve manner of speaking is a clever rhetorical trope in itself, and even if it weren’t, speaking in that manner does not refute the claim that Socrates could speak better, since he could simply be acting naïve and pretending not to have talents he actually possesses. As we shall see, Socrates has a reputation for precisely this sort of dissimulation.

Socrates also portrays himself as being naïve. He’s just arrived at the law court. He’s foreign to the ways of these things. I really think that this is to remind us of how Strepsiades is quite knowledgeable of the law courts but completely out of place when he arrives at the Thinkery. Socrates is by now an old man just like Strepsiades. Just as Strepsiades arrives at the Thinkery and announces himself as he would at the law courts, Socrates arrives at the law court and says, “I am foreign to the way of speaking here, and I will speak as I have always spoken.” Which would be the way of the Thinkery, basically. So, there’s a nice comic reversal.

Then Socrates makes a distinction between two sets of accusers: the first accusers and the later accusers. The first accusers are characterized as follows. He says:

They got a hold of the many of you from childhood and they accuse me of persuading you although it is no more true than the present charge, but there is a certain Socrates, a wise man, a thinker of the things aloft, who has investigated all things under the earth, who makes the weaker speech the stronger. (p. 64)

Now, this is a reference, clearly, to the portrayal in the Clouds. Later he says, “I don’t know their names unless one of them happens to be a comic poet” (p. 65). Then, later on, he explicitly refers to Aristophanes and the Clouds. So, the old accusers really are just Aristophanes, although another play mocking Socrates was premiered at the same time as the Clouds. And he’s arguing that Aristophanes, not he, has corrupted the youth, and the youth have been corrupted by seeing this play or hearing about this play, and Socrates has got a bad reputation entirely unjustifiably.

First he will refute the old accusers, namely Aristophanes, and then he’ll refute the new accusers, Meletus, Anytus, Lycon.

He spends all of his time talking to Meletus here, because Meletus was put up to the task of prosecuting Socrates. After the Athenians regretted what they had done to Socrates, they put Meletus on trial and executed him. What of the two guys that put him up to it? Well, they escaped. Anytus went into exile, and I don’t know what happened to Lycon.

Socrates throughout is trying to portray himself as pious, because he’s been charged with impiety. This brings us back to the Euthyphro. It’s very interesting to compare Socrates’ views in the Euthyphro about piety with his professions about piety here in the Apology. For instance, if you look at the Euthyphro and raise the question “Is Socrates pious?” you can say yes and no.

You can say yes, Socrates is pious, in the minimal sense that the Greeks accepted which is that he was orthopractic, that he went through all the motions with everybody else. He went to all the festivals, paid the conventional respects to the gods, and so forth. That was good enough to be a good religious person as far as the Greeks were concerned. And Socrates certainly went through all the motions. You see him swearing oaths to the gods. He goes to all the festivals. He pays his dues, and that’s that.

But one could ask if Socrates was pious by a more rigorous standard, namely did he believe in the gods of the city. Well, there are some subtle indications that he didn’t. He says that he can’t believe that the gods would do anything bad. Well, that virtually eliminates all of the stories that the Greeks told about the gods, because they were a mischievous crew. He also says that we know nothing about the gods, which implies that what we think we know about the gods really isn’t knowledge, which is equivalent to saying that the Greek views of the gods are false. So, he’s very impious in that sense.

But then there’s another sense in which he’s even more pious than believing in the gods, because he believes that anything divine would have to be good, that true divinities would have to measure up to an objective standard of what is right. He has this notion of an objective or natural right which can serve as a criterion above the gods themselves by which you can judge the gods good or ill. Socrates thinks that notion of what is right by nature is worthy of the highest form of respect or piety. So, in a sense, he’s even more pious than the most pious Greeks, because he believes that no gods can do bad things. He thinks it’s impious to say that the gods do evil.

Socrates is quite quick to reject the notion of piety that Euthyphro offers: the pious is what is dear to the gods. He thinks that’s a preposterous notion. However, in the Apology, Socrates says, “Nevertheless, let this proceed in whatever way is dear to the god, but the law must be obeyed and the defense speech must be made” (p. 65). Here Socrates is acting pious, but he’s acting pious by a standard of piety that we know he himself rejects.

This is a very clear indication that the kind of speech that he’s giving here is not entirely forthright or honest, but that this is entirely accommodated to public opinion and that it requires a certain falsification of his own beliefs. But this is what philosophers were forced to do when they were forced to justify their activity to the public at large.

Now let’s skip forward to after Socrates has been found guilty, but before he’s condemned to death. This is his counter-penalty speech where he poses as a counter-penalty to death that he be given free meals at public expense for the rest of his life, which was designed to outrage, and indeed did outrage, his audience. He can’t think of any other counter-penalty that he could accept. He couldn’t accept paying a fine because he has no money, so some of his friends put up money, and that’s the counter-penalty that he ends up actually proposing. He couldn’t accept exile, and he talks about why it wouldn’t work for him anyway. He couldn’t accept prison:

Perhaps then someone might say, “By staying silent and keeping quiet, Socrates, won’t you be able to live in exile for us?” It is hardest of all to persuade some of you about this. For if I say that this is to disobey the god and that because of this it is impossible to keep quiet, you will not be persuaded by me on the ground that I am being ironic. And, on the other hand, if I say this even happens to be a very great good for a human being, to make speeches every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me conversing and examining, both myself and others, and that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being, you will be persuaded by me still less when I say these things. (p. 92)

This is a rich passage, but what he’s basically saying is this: “Look, I’ve tried to persuade you that philosophy is a good thing because it’s dear to the gods.” Namely, to the god Apollo. We’re going to look at the story he gives earlier about how he began to philosophize because he heard the Oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi said that no man was wiser than Socrates, and Socrates decided that it could not be true and went out to test the oracle, which is in itself a rather impious act, although he represents it as a terribly pious mission that he’s given by the god himself.

So Socrates told the story of the mission that he’s on from Apollo, and it didn’t fly. They didn’t believe him. If they believed it, clearly they couldn’t have convicted him of impiety because he’s constantly talking about his piety towards Apollo, and they couldn’t think philosophy is impious if they thought Apollo was the guy who’s behind it. So, they clearly didn’t believe the story. Or at least the people who convicted him didn’t believe the story. And probably many of those who didn’t convict him didn’t believe the story either.

Socrates is not believed because he has a reputation for being ironic. Now, for the ancient Greeks, irony is a kind of dissimulation, a kind of dishonesty, a kind of phoniness in which a person pretends to be less or to know less than he really does. For a Greek of noble aspirations, irony was considered the only vice that a good man should have. The reason why irony is a vice of the noble is that noble people don’t like to flout their nobility in front of their inferiors. It’s considered low class, nouveau riche.

It’s the nouveau riche who drive the big expensive cars and have flashy clothes and big houses. Why? Because they don’t have the good taste, the magnanimity, to hide their wealth from their inferiors. They like to lord it over others. They’re horrible employers and bosses. Whereas the blue blood types, the more tasteful wealthy people, treat it as a matter of pride to soft peddle the distinctions between them and people who are poorer than them or who are in some way inferior to them in the social hierarchy. So, the old fashioned wealthy person does not flash his wealth in front of people whom it might make feel envious.

The same goes for other forms of superiority. If you’re smarter than somebody, you don’t use big words to make them feel inferior. If somebody is uneducated or lacks a certain cultivation of taste, you don’t try to dazzle them by showing that you are more educated or have better taste. You don’t talk about your Harvard education, and especially you don’t talk about your Harvard education while pretending to be modest about it.

Fawlty Towers with John Cleese as Basil Fawlty, the owner of a small English hotel, is one of the greatest comedies of all time. There’s an episode called A Touch of Class where Basil puts an ad in Country Living, which is the magazine of the landed aristocracy. And this fellow checks in claiming to be Lord Melbury. He’s just an impostor, but Basil is fooled and acts like a total lickspittle. He’s so nervous having this peer of the realm there that he does all kinds of incredibly embarrassing things.

At one point, Lord Melbury is about to sit down, and Basil pulls the chair back, and Melbury sprawls on his back on the floor. Lord Melbury gets up and dusts himself off. Basil is mortified and apologizes profusely. Lord Melbury says, “Think nothing of it. These things happen all the time.” It was just perfect, because that’s exactly the kind of magnanimous lie that the nobility are used to telling. Well, it is not nothing. It’s an act of utter stupidity, and Basil should be ashamed of it. But he’s bigger than that. He doesn’t want to make Basil feel his full smallness, and so he tells a magnanimous lie.

Socrates is ironic in that sense, but his irony is not hiding his social superiority, because he doesn’t really have that (he’s rather quite poor), but instead hiding what he considers to be his intellectual superiority. That means he talks down to people or pretends to know less than he really knows. The problem is that when Socrates denies that he knows something, often people just take this as a magnanimous lie, and so Socrates is in a bind, because if he didn’t have a reputation for irony he could get away with it, but as soon as he gets a reputation for irony then every disavowal he makes is treated as a lie, as a falsehood, and is disbelieved even if it is true.

Also, if people know that you’re being ironic they realize there’s an implied social insult. They realize that you’re talking down to them and they get angry about that, too. So, Socrates is in trouble because of his reputation for irony.

He’s widely hated. People think he’s a S.O.B., and he really is a S.O.B. sometimes. He’s really rough and very unfair sometimes to the people he deals with.

Socrates has told the story about how philosophy is dear to the gods. We know from the Euthyphro that that standard cuts no ice with Socrates. The trouble is, though, that nobody believes it when he says it, because they know he’s being ironic, or they think he’s being ironic. So, Socrates in effect says, “Well, you didn’t believe that one, so try on this one.” And he says, “The unexamined life isn’t worth living.”

That’s the real reason for doing philosophy. The real reason is that philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, is intrinsically good. Life without it is not worth living. You’re better off dead than being a fool is Socrates’ view. It’s a very harsh view considering how many people he thinks can be wise. But, the fact is that he says, “I’ll persuade you still less if I tell you this.”

So, this is Socrates’ bind. The truth about philosophy is far less persuasive than his falsehoods about philosophy, and his falsehoods aren’t persuasive either because he’s got a reputation for irony. But this, in a nutshell, is an indication of the political predicament of philosophy. Philosophy cannot persuade the vast majority of human beings that it is a worthwhile activity because, in effect, it says your lives aren’t worth living unless you pursue philosophy. That’s a pretty harsh message. No one wants to hear that.

So, one has to come up with a more accommodating falsehood or a magnanimous lie, namely that philosophy is dear to the gods. But with Socrates that’s not going to be believed anymore, so he can’t justify philosophy. The point is that to justify it he has to fib, but even the fibs don’t work anymore. This is just an indication that philosophy, and the interests of philosophy, are to some significant extent at odds with the interests of political life, and, therefore, in order to accommodate philosophy to political society one has to misrepresent it. This is an important lesson that the Apology teaches.

Socrates’ fate is really brought about by the fact that he was not adequate in accommodating philosophy to political life. He wasn’t ironic enough and, of course, the reason why he wasn’t ironic enough is that he didn’t learn the importance of this until his middle age.

If there’s truth to the Socrates of the Clouds, we know that the Socrates of the Clouds doesn’t have any irony at all. He has superficial security mechanisms at the Thinkery, but, of course, the mechanisms go by the wayside as soon as somebody as inappropriate as Strepsiades shows up and says, “I want to be a student.” They have an open admissions policy.

This is the trouble: philosophers have to fib in order to accommodate philosophy to politics, but Socrates didn’t learn that lesson early enough, and so he’s dogged by this reputation that was formed by the Clouds and by his earlier life. Even though he radically changed the way that he did philosophy, his reputation’s finally caught up to him at the end of his life, at the age of 70, and he’s on trial for corrupting the youth and being a blabbermouth.

The thing is, though, that Socrates is not the blabbermouth that he was in the Clouds, but, of course, when you hear somebody talking you don’t hear the things that they don’t say. So, Socrates is still out there talking in the market place and in the gym and you think, “Well, there’s Socrates again holding forth.”

When a person undergoes a transformation from somebody who is suicidally frank to somebody who is more circumspect in what he says, you don’t hear the silences in his conversations unless you’re highly attuned to what’s going on. Of course, just your average person who knows Socrates by reputation is not going to be that well attuned. Socrates does give an indication of how his daimonion does play a role, though, in his refusal to be as frank as he used to be in the Clouds.

Aristophanes, I think, changed the way Socrates did philosophy. I am very certain about that. I think the play probably antedated the friendship that they had, and that, in a sense, Socrates became friends with Aristophanes after he saw that there was a certain amount of truth in the portrayal in the Clouds.

The reason why I think that happened is that there are so many elements of Aristophanes’ philosophy, if you will, that you can tease out from between the lines of the Clouds that are exemplified in Socrates and Plato that you have to say Socrates learned a lot. The fact that they’re portrayed as getting along very nicely eight years after the Clouds came out in the Symposium is good evidence that a real bond formed between the two of them.

After Socrates has been condemned and he’s giving his parting shots, he says, “But the sign of the god [his daimonion] did not oppose me when I left my house this morning nor when I came up here to the law court, nor anywhere in the speech when I was about to say anything although in other speeches it has often stopped me in the middle while I was speaking” (p. 94). So Socrates admits that sometimes he does not say everything that he thinks. Also, there’s a connection between the daimonion and Socrates’ ability to moderate his speeches.

You don’t see a daimonion in the Clouds, and you don’t see any moderation in his speeches, but if you look at what he says in the Theages, that his daimonion is identical with his knowledge of eros, of erotic things, and if you look at the Symposium and Phaedrus where the knowledge of erotic things is identified with knowledge of care of the soul and character, then you realize that Socrates’ daimonion refers to his ability to divine the nature of people’s characters and to accommodate what he says to the person he’s saying it to, which is a skill he lacks in the Clouds. I think that’s an important indication that Socrates is not a blabbermouth. But once you get stuck with that reputation there’s no way of getting unstuck with it.

Socrates is forced in the Apology into a very dishonest kind of defense, because he’s been accused of being interested in natural philosophy (investigating things below the earth and above the heavens), he’s been accused of teaching how to make the weaker speech the stronger, and so forth. All the things in the Clouds. There’s some reason to think that these charges might all have been true at one time, but it’s not true of Socrates anymore.

If Socrates were to give an honest defense, it would be basically this: He would say to his accusers, “Yes, you’re right. But I am no longer the same Socrates. You mistake me for an earlier incarnation of myself.” Now, that kind of defense never flies, and I’m sure that any lawyer would tell me that it’s probably not a good idea when your defendant is on the witness stand to begin by saying, “Yes, the prosecution is right. I am guilty. But, I’ve got a very good explanation, and I’m not that way anymore.” Because, believe me, given the way attention spans work, the only thing people are going to remember is the frank admission of one’s guilt, and the “but” is going to sound like special pleading, and they’re going to say, “Yeah, sure, sure, sure . . .” So, Socrates can’t give an honest defense of his life. He has to give a dishonest defense in which he defends his entire life against the charges.

So, how does he do it? He just issues a blanket denial that he’s ever investigated nature; he gives a blanket denial of ever teaching the art of speaking, and so forth. He admits that he pisses people off, but that’s not what he’s on trial for. He’s saying, “I haven’t done any of the things you’ve accused me of, but I do realize that I’ve really, really irritated a lot of you, and a lot of you hate me.”

Socrates spends a lot of time refuting the charges as they are posed in the Clouds. And then he turns to refuting the present charges, which are not formulated in terms of “he investigates nature and makes the weaker speech the stronger,” but instead formulated as “Socrates does not believe in the gods of the city, he invents new gods, and corrupts the youth.” For his refutation of those charges, he first assimilates those charges to the Clouds charges, and then denies them. But when he deals with the charges of the actual indictment he deals with them in a very, very slippery way. He issues a series of what we’ve learned from President Clinton are non-denial denials: “That accusation is false.” What’s false? Is it the claim or the point or just the formulation? There are a lot of tricky things going on here.

Let’s look at it more systematically now. Socrates states Meletus’ accusation: “Socrates does injustice and is meddlesome by investigating the things under the earth and heavenly things, by making the weaker speech the stronger and by teaching others these same things” (p. 66). Now, that’s not exactly Meletus’ charge. Diogenes Laertius has quoted the actual indictment, and Socrates in the Euthyphro actually states it more accurately, which is the claim that he is a maker of gods. That he brings in new gods, doesn’t believe in the old ones, and corrupts the youth. So, here we see him trying to assimilate what Meletus is saying to the older charges which are easier to refute, because he just says that play was false.

He actually deals with the issue of “does he bring in new gods, does he disbelieve in the old gods and does he corrupt the youth?” But let’s look at his attack on the old accusers first. He says, “It is something like this. [And it’s not much like this, actually.] For you yourselves used to see these things in the comedy of Aristophanes. A certain Socrates was carried around there claiming that he was treading on air and spouting much other drivel about which I have no expertise either much or little.”

This “much or little” is a phrase that recurs throughout the text, and I don’t like the translation. I actually wrote to the translator and said, “this is the only thing I can really criticize about your translation.” The Greek is mega and mikron, and you really could translate that as great and small. The reason why I think great and small is better is that it brings to mind the Clouds where Socrates is shown investigating things great and small. Gnats’ anuses and fleas’ feet and also the courses of the heavenly bodies and the whole earth and so forth.

But he doesn’t investigate the middle-sized things, namely the realm of human things about which he’s conspicuously ignorant and in which his behavior is conspicuously foolish. This “much or little” or “great or small” phrase recurs constantly here. He has no expertise “great or small” about these things, which is not to deny that he has any medium-sized expertise.

“And I do not say this to dishonor this sort of knowledge.” He’s not attacking natural philosophy, if anyone is wise in such things, but he just says that he has no share of what they know, the great and the small, and then he says, “I offer the many of you as witnesses and maintain that you should teach and tell each other, those of you who have heard me conversing, and there are many such among you. Tell each other, then, if any of you ever heard me conversing about such things either great or small.” He says, “There’s no evidence of this.”

There probably was some evidence, but he’s simply asserting there isn’t. Maybe he’s depending on the fact that those who heard the Socrates of the Clouds 25 or so years before might not all be around anymore. And also those who are accustomed to listening to him at close quarters might not be inclined to accuse him. But his defense is simply to say, “Let somebody come forward and accuse me of this.” And no one does. At least no one does then. But it’s a pretty weak defense. “I didn’t do it and let someone accuse me of doing it.” That’s all he’s really saying in his defense. But that’s not what he’s on trial for. Other accusers have come forward with other accusations, and he needs to deal with them, not Aristophanes.

Then he denies the charge of educating people. His denial of education is always formulated in this way: “I never educated anybody for money.” Well, did you educate anybody for free? That would be the logical question, right? That’s an important question to ask. Socrates denies that he ever educated anybody, but then later on he admits that all kinds of people came to him, and he was happy to speak in front of them, and if they went off and imitated him then that was their own business. Well, that sounds like educating someone to me. It’s very clear that he’s trying to change people’s minds, because he says that he’s going around constantly exhorting people to better themselves. Isn’t that education?

The denial that he educates for money is a very narrow denial. It’s like President Clinton denying that he had an affair with Jennifer Flowers that was twelve years long. He denied having a twelve year affair. Well, was it eleven years and eleven months? Maybe so. Maybe that was the truth. But when you put it at twelve years it wasn’t exactly accurate, so “that accusation is false.” It’s tricky, and it’s essentially deceptive. It’s dishonest.

And Socrates, by denying education but always formulating it as “education for money,” is leaving open the question, “Did you educate people for free?” He tacitly admits to educating people later on in the text. So, again, we catch him being deceptive, the little weasel

When he says he has a reputation for going around and testing people who have a reputation for being wise to show them that they’re not wise, that’s one thing. But he also claims he goes around and exhorts people to take better care of their souls and to leave off the unimportant things. That’s something different. That really is what I would call education. I spend a lot of time doing that with my students.

Moreover, educating people about their ignorance is educating them. Teaching them a lesson. “OK, Socrates, you didn’t educate anybody. Did you teach them any lessons?” Well, yes! He did. He certainly taught them a lesson, lessons that they didn’t want to learn often times.

When Socrates denies educating people he denies specifically that he is a Sophist. He denies that he has an art or a techne of teaching people how to be virtuous, and he denies that he does it for money. However, that’s not equivalent to denying that he does it for free, and it’s not equivalent to saying that he has a non-art or a non-technical way of trying to produce virtue.

This is something that is very important. In many of the dialogues, you find Socrates denying that wisdom is an art. If he’s teaching people to be virtuous, but not by means of an art, then denying that he has an art of teaching virtue is not equivalent to denying that he teaches virtue. So, again, there’s a very specific nature to what he’s disavowing here, and it doesn’t exclude things that he’s actually doing. He denies education, but only insofar as he interprets education as Sophistry, meaning, again, the claim of an art of producing virtue and doing it for money.

Then he goes on and says, in effect, “I’ve been slandered, and you think that where there’s smoke there’s fire. So, maybe I should tell you the source of this slander.” Then he tells the story about his mission from god and how he’s god’s gift to Athens. Here Socrates disavows teaching again. “As for myself, I would be pluming and priding myself if I had knowledge of these things, namely what the Sophists do. But I do not have knowledge of it, men of Athens.” Then he goes on, “Perhaps then one of you might retort, ‘Well, Socrates, why are you up there? Where did these slanders against you come from?’” And he says in the next paragraph:

Now, perhaps I will seem to some of you to be joking. Know well, however, that I will tell you the whole truth. For I, men of Athens, who have gotten this name, this reputation, do nothing but a certain wisdom. Just what sort of wisdom is this? That which is perhaps human wisdom, for probably I really am wise in this. With those of whom I just spoke might perhaps be wise in some wisdom greater than human [namely the natural philosophers and the Sophists] or else I cannot say what it is. For I, at least, do not have knowledge of it, but whoever asserts that I do lies and speaks in order to slander me. (p. 68)

Now, what Socrates is avowing here is a human wisdom, anthropine sophia. Human wisdom in a very literal sense. The wisdom that he denies is a more than human wisdom, an art of producing virtue and knowledge of things great and small. That’s what he denies, but he doesn’t deny knowledge of the human soul and human character, and he doesn’t deny knowledge of the human world or knowledge of middle-sized things. Not great, not small, but medium-sized things where we live. He actually is claiming that he’s got a certain human wisdom about that. This, of course, caused the jury to get angry at him.

Then Socrates offers a witness, namely the god Apollo at Delphi. He tells a story about his friend Chaerephon, who is dead now and can’t be called to testify. That’s convenient, but Socrates does say that Chaerephon’s brother is there. Chaerephon, of course, appears as his companion in the Clouds. Chaerephon went to the oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi and he asked, “Is there anyone wiser than Socrates?” And the oracle said, “No.” Socrates, when he heard about this, was shocked because he thought that:

When I heard these things, I pondered them like this. Whatever is the god saying and what riddle is he posing? For I am conscious that I am not at all wise either much or little.” [I would translate that as “I am not wise in anything great or small.” That would be a better way of putting it and that would clearly bring in the sense of denial of natural philosophy.] So, whatever is he saying when he claims I am the wisest? Surely, he is not saying something false at least, for that is not sanctioned for him.” (p. 69)

Well, there he goes again. Socrates is getting into trouble when he’s saying that the god can’t lie. The Greek gods could lie. He’s claiming that this god can’t lie, and that itself is a deeply impious claim, because it’s equivalent to saying that the most cherished views about the gods, that they are tricky and clever, is false and that the gods are subject to some higher power that commands them not to lie.


1. Now, this was a problem. This is not a good institution when you think about it; paying jurors. The clearest way that we can maybe appreciate the problems of paid juries is by using an analogy of paid politicians. We all know the difficulties of paid politicians and what they represent. In the United States, we have random lottery jury selection. We don’t have professional jurors, and the idea is that you probably, through random selection of jurors, get better people and people who are less likely to be corrupted by conflicting motivations than you get with professional politicians. So, that’s another consideration. Some of these guys were paid to sit on the jury.




  1. Donar van Holland
    Posted January 30, 2014 at 3:31 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this article. Your lectures are quite engaging indeed! I wonder if you could post the sound recordings too, like you did with other lectures? I love to listen to them while driving. I wonder if you would like to have audio versions of the articles posted on Counter-Currents? I could make recordings of them. Though I am not a native speaker, I guess it would still be a good way to give access to the wealth of material on this website.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted January 30, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      The audio lecture has been posted and is linked at the beginning of the transcript.

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