The Apology of Socrates. How does a professed non-expert, non-academic person of the twenty-first century begin a meaningful inquiry into one of European philosophy’s most archetypal stories? It may be reasonable to assume that professional philosophers and academics have said or written all that can be, or at least needs to be, written about it.
And yet, I am motivated to examine the text and the subject matter from the perspective of my own particular perspectives. Perhaps it is the fact of being a non-expert, non-professional inquirer, that entitles me to the observations that follow. Well, I guess we shall see if I have some observations that are worth their own weight.
Before we get into the meat of this essay, I’ve posted a reading of Benjamin Jowett’s 1877 translation to the podcast. No doubt there are better and more professional dramatizations of the Apology available out there…but I hope that what I’ve put together is a modest credit to the podcast and worth a listen.
When I read translations of Plato, Epictetus or some other ancient work of literature (and indeed literary philosophy), I’m somewhat reluctant to spend much time worrying about whether the wording has been faithfully and accurately rendered. I want the text to be approachable and pleasant but I’m not looking for precision. I want the translator to get the situations and the context right more. If the picture is clear, I’m willing to forgive a certain loss of granularity. This is how I am looking at this work now. If I were attempting to work through a different kind of text, I might want far more granularity and be willing to let the overall clarity go. So we’re going to be looking at the overall situation and the rhetorical intents more than on how any single idea may have been phrased.
Let’s start with the basic question of what leads me to inspect Plato‘s The Apology Of Socrates at this time. Well first, I recently finished a reasonably detailed examination of the first Chapter of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I need to take a break from that. It seemed like a good idea to get as far away from the twentieth, and indeed this twenty-first, century as I could while maintaining some connection or perspective on Pirsig’s work and insights that may be useful in living the kind of life I want to live. Well it seems at though I can reasonably go back about 2500 years or so to Socrates, Plato and the Sophists.
One of my favorite history of philosophy books is titled The Story of Philosophy and was published by Will Durant in 1926. The first time I read it, I had a soft-covered edition. Currently I have a 1953 hard-cover edition put out by Simon and Schuster. I read it from cover to cover every few years. Not only do I continue to appreciate Durant’s writing style, the book contains a diagram that I find almost endlessly compelling. It provides a schematic and timeline of the relationships between various philosophers:
I’m mentioning this because the chart provides a simplified – and perhaps oversimplified – diagram to trace relatively contemporary thinkers and their perspectives back through centuries of time and layers of thought to earlier manifestations or iterations of the same or substantially similar ideas.
There’s a similar function if you look into anyone who appears, for example on Wikipedia,…you can find not only depictions and explanations of their life and thoughts but also links to who they influenced and who influenced them. And eventually you can trace these things back to their earliest knowable influence. If this were archaeology, it is a dig into the relics of an ancient civilization. Each layer of detritus revealing what it can. If this were geology, its the laying-bare of layers of sentiment as though they were layers of sediment.
None of this is to suggest that ancient roots of an ideology convey or substantiate any kind of validity to any given perspective. I’m not suggesting that a thought communicated by a long-dead person is either more or less supportable because its been around for a long time. Quite the contrary, there’s every reason to think that centuries of investigation and knowledge have provided any given thinker with access to more information to reach better conclusions. However, it is valuable to see how generations of thought evolve over time as one thinker after another tests and pushes at ideas. It’s also useful in the case of this particular work to see how some very human situations don’t actually seem to have altered in their fundamental character – though the particularities of the times may have.
These charts are interesting to trace the history of ideas that influence your own thoughts and perspectives and help to inform you where you are. Taking a comment from my observations of Zen and the Art – Pirsig’s narrator used the metaphor of dead-reckoning as his primary method of navigation yet still carrying a compass in his pocket for times when it may be needed. We can be comfortable and even confident with our ability to navigate our lives based on our own understanding of our thoughts, ideas, emotions and the rest of it. But sometimes it is handy to have a compass to lend some independent perspective on how far we’ve come. We can look at the events and issues of The Apology of Socrates and judge where we are relative to these things and also against the contemporary events and circumstances.
If Durant’s chart were to be updated to include a new layer at the bottom, I might suggest that lines be drawn from Bergson to Alfred North Whitehead and FSC Northrop and thereby to Robert Pirsig. Another line might connect Russell and Whitehead. Perhaps the names of James and Dewey would be accompanied by Charles Sanders Peirce. Perhaps also the name Thoreau might be pencilled-in. And all of that says nothing of the Zen (or more broadly, Eastern) names and lines that would need to be drawn. Nor the more conspicuous literary figures either.
As I have explained in other articles, my interest in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) has taken me down many different roads. Certainly ZAMM includes several direct and indirect references to Plato. But it also includes reference to, and draws significant inspiration from, Alfred North Whitehead – particularly his comment that all of [Western] philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. The chart in Durant’s book provides some perspective, on what Whitehead meant, how Pirsig’s philosophy may relate to other philosophies and why I think “footnotes” is such a relevant term for my explorations.
There are other works by Plato that are more directly connected-to, or aligned-with, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance than The Apology of Socrates. I’m thinking here of the Phaedrus dialogue and I expect to eventually complete an examination of Phaedrus, but The Apology of Socrates (along with Crito and Phaedo) seems to be Plato’s acknowledgment that all of Plato is a footnote to Socrates. For that reason, I’m going to start there and get to The Phaedrus later.
Further to this, the Apology of Socrates seems to be a text that is extremely relevant to contemporary events and society. My own recent review of the apology reminds me of certain evergreen concerns and situations that we encounter.
What is an Apology?
Currently, when we use the word “apology”, we usually refer to an expression of regret. Perhaps we have failed to fulfill an obligation or we have offended someone. As a Canadian, I’m very conscious of the stereotype that Canadians are often ready to be apologetic and it is in this sense of the word “apology” that the Canadian trope arises. Here in 2022, Canadians have plenty of cause to examine this stereotype and our national attitude toward many of the issues in this ancient story.
Given that Socrates was on trial for corrupting the youth and for not believing in the gods of his state, it would be reasonable, based on our contemporary understanding of the word, to assume that an apology by Socrates might be an expression of regret for his failings and/or offences. But it isn’t.
In the context of this text, the word apology uses an alternate meaning – which is a formal and reasoned argument, an explanation or defense of a theory or doctrine. While reading The Apology of Socrates, what we find is an address intended to defend Socrates against legal, and frankly – ideological, charges and accusations.
This is a significant difference in meaning, given that an expression of regret implies that an apology-offeror acknowledges, to one extent or another, not only the fact of a failing or an offence – but also some culpability (or blame) for that failing or offence.
An explanation or defense of a theory does not necessarily imply these things. The Apology of Socrates, in our more contemporary language might more insightfully titled The Justification of Socrates. And indeed, the secondary connotations of the word “justification” and it’s root, justice would give a title like that some added irony and punch.
Given that Socrates was on trial for corrupting the youth and for not believing the pervasive doctrine(s) of his day (i.e. not believing in the gods and ideologies of his fellow citizens), the distinction between the two potential meanings of apology is vital to a reading of the text and perhaps also to our experience of matters in our contemporary society which variously: require explanation ; require an expression of regret; mandate some form of culpability. It is a matter which Plato included in the final passages when he takes time to argue that he never intended any harm to his fellow citizens, though he was quite aware that he did offend him. We really should struggle with the relationship between intent and culpability.
Before we dig into that….
Who was Socrates?
I’m not going to offer any kind of historical perspective or thesis of who Socrates was within the context of Athenian society beyond what is available within the Apology. Not because it’s not an interesting subject, but because the Apology sets out the critical details that we need to know. I’m going to use contemporary language to drive home my points:
- Socrates was the child of blue-collar parents but was not himself one of these;
- Socrates was not a public official but had a history of military and public service;
- Socrates was not a journalist nor any kind of paid writer;
- Socrates was not a tenured professor; nor a professor emeritus;
- by the time of Socrates’ death, the family wealth was either modest;
- at the time of the Apology, Socrates was a septuagenarian
Based on these characteristics, it is clear, whether using ancient Athenian or modern standards, Socrates was not a member of the powerful circles of society but had nonetheless lived a reasonably comfortable life.
Socrates had influence and followers. People, particularly young people, listened to Socrates and enjoyed hearing him tear down the powerful who claimed to be wise. In essence, Socrates was a counter-authoritarian. That is not the terminology that Plato used to describe him, but that is what he was.
Socrates was not a professional comedian. He wasn’t a poet or satirist. But, people found entertainment in Socrates’ ability to pick apart the presumptions of those who would set themselves up as authorities. He was not merely a critic, in the contemporary sense because he didn’t set himself as an expert pointing out other people’s wrongs. He was a non-expert who recognized his own inexpert status without feeling that this non-expert status required that he concede authority to those who did perceive themselves as experts deserving of respect and deference.
Now I’ve mentioned several disparate things that may deserve to be tied-up together and I’m going to do that in a few moments, but before I dig into those problematic themes…I have a brief motorcycle-themed interlude that I’m calling….
What Would Socrates Ride?
I’m going to allow myself a frivolous and frankly ridiculous line of speculation at this point. What Would Socrates Ride (WWSR)? Socrates didn’t leave Athens, except during his military service, so he wouldn’t have needed nor probably been interested in big touring bikes, adventure bikes or dirt-bikes. Although it is tempting to wonder if Socrates might have appreciated a side-car rig. So let’s set those aside. I think we can also discount supersports for similar reasons. I’m tempted to suggest that Socrates would have done well on an old Aermacchi or a Vespa125 Supersport (or even better a 250 GTV). But these don’t honestly sit well.
What actually comes to mind, in fact is some kind of road-owning trike. The kind of rig that Billy Connolly rode in his exploration of the United States: Billy Connolly’s Route 66. An unapologetically kicked-back chariot to brave political predators and take up residence in the Prytaneum.
Now that we have Socrates thundering along on a suitable ride…let’s get back to those problematic themes that I suggested needing tying-together. To recap, what we have in The Apology of Socrates is a play about the justification of a child of blue-collar society who happens also to be a non-professional critic of the powerful and the presumptive ideologies they profess. Socrates is a counter-authoritarian – one whose goal is not to oppose authority but instead to limit it’s ascent.
Well here in 2022, there may well be renewed reason to consider our attitudes toward those serious-minded individuals who do not hold themselves out as authoritative experts but feel there remains a vital need to limit the relentless ambition of the powerful. There may be plenty of reason to ask ourselves if Socrates position that it is better to know that you don’t know than to proclaim that you do know when in fact you don’t. I expect those are quite enough hints why examining The Apology of Socrates in 2022 is an important feature of Zensylvania,
With that slight diversion satisfied, let’s get back to the matter of culpability.
Near the end of the Apology, Socrates states that he did not intentionally wrong anyone. That is not the same as saying he did not intend to offend anyone.
Socrates’ position seems to be that offending others, if it is the result of an attempt to do them good, is not a wrong. Seeking truth and exposing over-reaching or un-supported authoritarianism is not, in Socrates’ view – anything that carries culpability.
Socrates was trying to “right” others – even if it offended them. And this is an important point. Are we culpable for offence when it is not intended? Are we capable of offense when it is intended?
Are we culpable for our influence on others when we speak publicly? To what extent are we the stewards of our effect on others, whether those effects are intended or not? For Socrates it was a matter of death. Today it may be the matter of a person’s career and livelihood – that is to say the ritual/symbolic public death (the equivalent of banishment, the ancient origins of “cancel culture”) that is achieved via financial and social ruination.
What Was Socrates Accused-Of?
The trial of Socrates suggests that some citizens in his state felt that he was culpable for not believing in the gods of his state and for corrupting the youth. These are such distant accusations, that it is valuable to restate them in something more familiar and precise.
Not believing in the gods of his state. Buried within this accusation is an accusation of atheism. That is a red-herring which Socrates uncovers in the text. More accurately, Socrates is accused of not following the pervasive and authoritative doctrines(s). Implied by this accusation is a failure to submit to the public claims to authority and wisdom if he found them to be insufficient.
The accusation of “corrupting the youth” is a veiled objection to Socrates’ freedom of speech. The real suggestion is that Socrates has communicated things that some of his contemporaries do not approve and that this has a negative effect on the community, Particularly the youth.
But what Socrates was on trial for – the technical crimes he was charged-of are not fully and earnestly the reason Socrates was on trial. Early in the work he establishes that his accusers aren’t earnestly concerned with these matters. They have feigned a concern with these things in order to be able to attack Socrates.
What Was it that Led to Socrates Being on Trial
Socrates was on trial because he failed to
- defer to;
- submit to;
- acquiesce to;
the claimed wisdom and authority of people who claimed to be wise and authoritative experts and leaders. More problematically, he openly challenged and exposed others to ridicule.
Socrates’ story is an ancient version of “I won’t behave as you want me to.”
I neither know nor think that I know… the vast majority of evidence of Socrates behaviour is from Plato and there’s no reason to believe that Plato was an impartial witness. It seems hardly likely that Socrates didn’t think that he knew…or he wouldn’t have developed a dialectic method and habit designed to tear into other peoples. ideas. The practical evidence is that he did think that he knew when someone else was wrong…there are no dialogues by Plato of the many time that Socrates had conversations with people who knew what they were talking about.
It is possible that Socrates wasn’t just disrespectful, but also discourteous….have a go at others, entertain the kids. But no hint that he was productive.
Socrates’ product o output is not characterized by Plato as friendly and persuasive mentorship. Socrates’ trade was derision and humiliation. Who were his friends…the rich kids. Oh great…..A kind of Falstaff…..no?
For those who study philosophy, Plato’s use of the gadfly metaphor is a favorite. The goading questioner.
Socrates’ claim to be a gadfly is compelling today because we can readily imagine an irritating biting, stinging insect. It was even more compelling in 399 BCE. Socrates’ gadfly is in fact a metaphor drawn from the Greek theology of his day – what most of us call Greek mythology today.
Bellerophon was one of Greek mythology’s favorite characters. He was a slayer of monsters. His greatest feat was killing the Chimera, a fire-breathing monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s and a serpent’s tail. Bellerophon was the character that captured and rode Pegasus, the winged horse. His divine assistant was Athena, who provided a magic bridle. Bellerophon was such a big deal that he eventually got too big for his britches and decided to ride Pegasus to Mount Olympus to be among the gods. The gods (i.e. that is to say, the authoritarians), didn’t appreciate it. Bellerophon was being arrogant. He presumed too much. So Zeus sent a gadfly to sting Pegasus which soon had Bellerophon falling off his winged horse and falling back to earth. Fellerophon, who had been blinded after falling into a thorn bush, lived out his life in misery, “devouring his own soul”, until he died.
Pegasus, by the way, completed the flight to Olympus where Zeus used him as a pack horse for his thunderbolts. So it didn’t end so well for the winged-horse either.
Nobody seems to be clear on what happened to the gadfly.
Socrates claim to be a gadfly is a kind of culturally-appropriate and theologically-grounded explanation of his role within his society. In justice, he should not be considered guilty of standing outside the pervasive doctrine when he is able to place his behaviour within that doctrine. It was a clever ploy to escape the charge of rejecting his society’s gods. Even though it didn’t work.
It didn’t work because the trial was never about the gods – it was about not showing deference and respect to those who set themselves up as authorities.
Politicians , philosophers, poets, artisans
Socrates makes clear that he knew he was irritating to just about everyone he encountered. It didn’t seem to matter who you were: poet, artisan, politician – Socrates didn’t mind having a go at you. As a character in a story, someone like that is valuable rhetorical device for exposing information. In real life, however, a person like this can be a pain in the ass and unwelcome company. So, in the spirit of considering all sides of the story – it is worth a thought or two about Socrates as a prospective family member or neighbour.
Socrates is a fellow who seems to be living off some kind of inheritance or other laid-away wealth. There’s little or no evidence that he has any practical occupation that requires his attention. In the apology, he claims that trying to find someone wiser than himself has been a full-time occupation. He does seem to have spent a bit of time in public service and feels comfortable grilling whomever he pleases with the goal of showing them just how smart they aren’t. And he knew it was annoying.
So how do we feel about someone in this position. No real job, just goes around grilling everyone. Socrates was as comfortable wiggling out the pretentious wisdom of politicians, poets and average workers. Of the latter, he says, ..because they were good workmen, they thought that they knew all sorts of high matters. Socrates, or perhaps in this case, Plato, seems to be suggesting that good workmen ought not to be getting above their pay-grade with opinions about high matters. I’m not going to spend any time exploring how this comment relates to matters Plato delved more extensively in The Republic, but we can acknowledge that the connection is there. Noble lies and all the rest of it.
Sooner or later, someone who has nothing better to do than prove just how smart everyone else isn’t is going to find some trouble. The snidely good advice that you ought to do something to improve yourself rather than wasting your time being annoyed by someone who pointed out your deficiencies doesn’t is no real kind of obstacle to taking a metaphorical or literal poke at the self-righteous arse.
Well, some folks decided they’d had enough of Socrates. They availed themselves of the opportunity to take a poke. Socrates says that …a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying , he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong… and is Socrates right to make it his occupation to, usually rudely, point out others’ deficiecies? Well in contemporary society we have comedians and we generally appreciate their work unless j(or until) we’re the target of it.
There may be a truth that …if you kill me you will not find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadly, given to the state by the god; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life…...but then again, how much wisdom does it take to be aware that the Socratic method doesn’t really work.
It’s arrogant and is more likely to lead to a bloody nose (literal or metaphorical) on the practitioner than a thankful embracing of self-improvement by the subject.
Refuses to Whimper and Snivel
Some of the most powerful and compelling lines in The Apology of Socrates is when the character declares that he is unwilling to cower, snivel and pander to evade punishment by the court. While there are two significant passages, the second is I think the better:
…I had not the boldness or impudence or inclination to address you as you would have liked me to address you, weeping and wailing and lamenting and saying and doing many things which….are unworthy of me…I would rather die having spoken after my manner than speak in your manner and live.
In a person’s life, it is probable that they will face moments when some person or persons in authority are standing before them in what can only be termed confrontational judgement. At those times, that authoritarian carries the courage of their power and position. For most of us, those situations will not be life and death matters, as thye were for Socrates. Perhaps more common scenarios might be an employer in some disciplinary moment, a police officer when handing out a ticket for some minor infraction, or a teacher, journalist or some other public official when dispensing some social expectation. Whichever it may be, who is not aware that some of these authority-dispensers expect sniveling compliance and not dignified rejection of such behaviour?
Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
I cheated in that heading. It should say “Lila”, “Metaphysics of Quality” or even “Robert Pirsig” rather than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But ZAMM is the more familiar reference and I’ve used it for that reason and also because Zensylvania promises to spend time on motorcycle zen.
In Lila, Pirsig describes a community outlier in the character of the “Brujo”. This is a person who is both a member of the community and an outsider. A member of the community who is also a challenger to the established traditions and authorities of the community. The brujo may be sensitive and suited to a possible future of the community rather than its present. I suspect that Pirsig viewed himself as a “brujo”. Socrates is a kind of “brujo”.
Socrates describes having visited an oracle who set him on his journey to prove that he is not wisest man and in the end determines that the only wisdom is knowing that you don’t know much -if anything at all. In ZAMM, Pirsig’s oracle-visit moment occurs when a member of the faculty asks Pirsig if he will be teaching “quality’. Pirsig slams up against something that he’s supposed to be teaching but can’t. So Pirsig, if we’re to believe that his books are genuinely based on his life, found himself in a Socrates-like predicament. Even if Pirsig’s character’s felt themselves to be aligned with the Sophists rather than with the Academics.
It may surprise anyone who hasn’t read ZAMM that the book seems to spend far more time on questions of pedagogy and a questioning of academic authority and beaurocracy than it does on motorcycle maintenance.
Always when considering ZAMM, its essential to recall that it is a book about maintaining your self. The Apology of Socrates presents a kind of ultimate ideological dilemma for any idealist to consider. Socrates key declarations:
- I’d rather speak in my own manner and die, than live and speak after yours;
- An un-examined life is not worth living;
- Authoritarians need their loyalty challengers – the alternative is worse;
There are plenty of ideologically-oriented people out there who will argue that a person must have a metaphorical hill they’re willing to die on.
The vast majority of ZAMM is the story of the Phaedrus character – a character who was so un-able to maintain himself that he was treated with electro-convulsive shock therapy and had his personality liquidated. The story is told by the un-named narrator who appears to have rather better at self-maintenance – to the extent that he managed, in the final pages of the book, to re-integrate the ghost of his earlier identity and to achieve a kind of reparation of the alienation from his son. Pirsig’s narrator doesn’t drink the hemlock. So true to his thesis that we don’t have to pick between the dualistic horns of bull-headed dilemma. Dying by our own word or living by someone else’s aren’t the only options. There may be choices other than kool-aid on the one hand and hemlock on the other.
A life may well be worth living regardless of the examination.
The Apology of Socrates remains an extraordinarily relevant text for anyone that may wish to examine the ideological disputes of their day. Indeed, it is an “evergreen” text that will remain a pervasive and persuasive text. Largely because it appeals to a kind of romantic idealism – it carries a certain bittersweet disappointment in “the times that we’re in”. Disappointment in the fact that these will always be the times that we’re in. There will always be cabals making exclusive and exclusionary claims to authority and wisdom; there will always be individuals who refuse to blindly and deferentially capitulate to the claimed authorities. Whether we call them gadflies or brujos hardly seems to matter.
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