My goal is to tell you what I think is at stake in Socrates’ defense as Plato depicts it. I shall use the Apology to get at why Socrates himself is difficult. By “difficult” I mean two things: why he is hard to figure out and why he is hard to take. In the Apology Socrates answers the charges made against him by the city of Athens. The word “apology” in the title does not mean saying you’re sorry for something. It rather has the meaning of a reasoned account given in response to criticisms and accusations. In other words, it is a defense. In Plato’s dialogue Socrates tries to persuade his listeners and judges that the accusations made against him are false. As Plato depicts it, the trial of Socrates reveals and dramatizes the perpetual conflict that exists between political life and the life devoted to radical questioning, between the city and the philosopher. It is a conflict that remains, perhaps, unresolvable.
As we read the Apology it is easy for us to side with Socrates. Our hearts are with him, as they always are when we witness a good man defending himself against unjust accusations. Socrates seems to us the hero of free thought -- the courageous Individual who stands up for his Right to Think against the tyrannical will of what used to be called the Establishment. Socrates is the “good guy” and Athens the “bad guy.” The city of Athens seems bad, unjust and ignorant, while Socrates seems good, just and wise. This impression is, I believe, not without its truth. But do we know why it is true? Do we know who Socrates is and why he lived the sort of life he did? Can we say what sort of goodness and wisdom Socrates possessed? Do we know, really know, why democratic Athens condemned Socrates to death? And what is at stake here for us, as individuals and as citizens of a democracy?
Let me back away from these difficult questions and make a simple observation: Plato’s Apology is a work of art. It is no less a work of art than Homer’s Iliad. It is not a report or chronicle of what the historical Socrates said at his trial but a philosophical reconstruction, an ideal. To be sure, we know that the trial did in fact take place and that Plato was present. We can reasonably assume that the historical Socrates said something like what Plato tells us he said. But the Apology was not written for the sake of historical information. Was it written, perhaps, as Plato’s tribute to his teacher? No doubt this is one motive behind its composition. If ever there was a flesh-and-blood man who deserved to be remembered, that man was Socrates, for surely he was one of the most interesting and impressive human beings who ever walked the face of the earth. But the dialogues have a higher and more useful purpose. They are designed to arouse, guide and sustain our thinking about the deepest and most interesting questions. It is precisely this sort of life, a life devoted to thinking and questioning, that we hear Socrates defending in the dialogue you have read for this evening.
The Apology of Socrates is one of the greatest books in our Western tradition. Like all truly great books, it transcends its historical origins. It goes beyond all specific times and places and speaks to individual human beings at all times everywhere. Plato wrote it, along with his other dialogues, so that the spirit of Socrates might speak to you. It is very important to remember this as you sit here this evening, on the threshhold of your education as young adults.
But what is the spirit of Socrates? What is the way of life that he practised and for which he stands accused in the Apology?
Before taking up this question, I must tell you that the Apology is a highly unusual Platonic dialogue. It is not really a dialogue at all. Apart from a brief interchange Socrates has with one of his accusers, the Apology is one big monologue. Plato does not tell us directly what Socrates’ accusers said; he limits the account to the speech of Socrates. This has an important dramatic effect: It makes Socrates appear both solitary and magisterial. He is alone, but he is also in charge, at least for a while. At the beginning of the dialogue Socrates says that he is not terribly good at making speeches. He is no rhetorician, he says, at least in his accusers’ sense of the term, but only someone who tells the truth (17B). And yet the defense he gives is a highly impressive piece of speech-making. Socrates, the lover of truth, is also a rhetorician. Now rhetoric aims at persuasion. So the question arises: Of what is Socrates seeking to persuade his judges? Is he simply trying to persuade them of his innocence? Or is he trying to show them that he understands far better than they do why he stands accused, why his way of life is fundamentally opposed to their way of life -- why, in short, he understands them better than they understand themselves?
As you recall, Socrates stands accused on two counts. He is accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and of atheism. Later in the dialogue we discover that this charge of atheism is seriously muddled. It is far from clear in the accusers’ own minds whether Socrates is to be charged with believing in new gods or not believing in any gods at all. Meletus, one of the men who have brought this charge against Socrates, is so angry that he seems either not to recognize or not to care about this confusion.
Is Socrates guilty or innocent of these two charges? Let us begin with the charge that he corrupts the youth of Athens.
Socrates “teaches” through questions. By engaging people in serious conversation, Socrates shows and persuades them that they are not, as they supposed, wise. He purges them of their conceit or vanity, demonstrating along the way that it is indeed this conceit, this presumption of our own wisdom, that lies at the root of human evil. This purgation seems to be altogether good, especially for the young. How can we hope to become virtuous human beings, let alone wise political leaders, if, in addition to being ignorant of what we most ought to know, we do not know that we are ignorant? Such a condition would seem both wretched and dangerous.
Here is another reason why Socrates seems to improve rather than corrupt other people, young and old alike: In persuading others, he always aims at restraint rather than incitement. He is always trying to stop someone from doing something excessive and wrong. He is always a moderating influence. For example, in the Euthyphro, the dialogue that comes immediately before the Apology, Socrates tries (unsuccessfully) to prevent a young man from prosecuting his own father in the name of piety, and in the Crito, the dialogue that comes right after the Apology, Socrates prevents his faithful and well-meaning friend Crito from arranging Socrates’ escape from prison. On other occasions he tries to prevent ambitious men, like the notorious Alcibiades, from pursuing a political career before they have secured the health of their own individual souls. Along with this moderating influence on others, there is the fact that Socrates, as we are reminded in the Apology, stands up to the rulers when they plan to do something unjust, and refuses to take part in anything illegal, even though his life is on the line. He is, on such dangerous occasions, a good citizen.
But what about the charge of atheism? Does Socrates in our eyes -- for we too are his judges -- stand convicted or acquitted?
God, gods and spirits play a central role in the Apology. It is no accident that the last word of Socrates’ defense is theo, “god.” In directly addressing the charge of atheism, Socrates makes the accusation seem ludicrous. What a fool Meletus is! He can’t even tell the difference between believing in no gods and believing in new gods! Or maybe Meletus is playing a joke, as Socrates suggests at one point, and wants to see whether Socrates will be smart enough to “get it.” But the charge of atheism is no laughing matter, and fools like Meletus are dangerous in the extreme.
What does Socrates think about the gods and about divine things generally? Does he believe in gods, and if so which gods? Let us assume for the moment that the divine is by definition our highest authority, the absolute authority. We do not question what we take to be divine but simply follow and obey. What, for Socrates, is divine in this sense of the term? What, if anything, does Socrates simply follow and obey? Surely the gods of the city, the gods depicted in the poems of Homer, are inappropriate models for human behavior and cannot function as moral authorities. Indeed, the zealous Euthyphro, whom I mentioned earlier, justifies his prosecution of his father by an appeal to the fact that Zeus once punished his father! If the gods, who are above us, can do such things, then why can’t we? In the Republic Socrates lashes out against gods of this sort, gods tainted by human passions, and against the poets who sing of them. Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite and all the others -- these gods Socrates critiques and banishes from the truly just city. They are immoral, Socrates tells us, because they are changeable and deceptive. A real god would be unchanging and truthful.
We hear none of this in the Apology, that is, none of Socrates’ critique of conventional religion and the poetry that accompanies it. This happens very often in Plato’s dialogues: What is prominent in one dialogue is down-played or omitted in others, and even the very same topic is never treated in the same way twice. This apparent discrepancy among the dialogues has an extremely healthy effect: It forces us to think for ourselves and to take every dialogue on its own terms. There is no easy refuge in a clear and obviously consistent doctrine. Plato, like Socrates, refuses to be our professor and authority figure. He teaches us by constantly raising questions and by hiding what he ultimately thinks might be their answers.
Under the present circumstances it would hardly seem appropriate for Socrates to bring a critique of religion into his defense against charges of impiety and atheism. And yet we should not assume that Socrates omits such a critique on the grounds that it would surely condemn him to death. Socrates may be defending himself against unjust and false charges, but he is not fighting to save his life.
Right from the start Socrates speaks in such a way as to make himself thoroughly hated by his accusers and judges. He reminds them that now as in time past it is he who is their judge and accuser, or rather that it is he who brings them before the court of philosophic cross-examination. Socrates tells us that he examines himself as well as others. But here in the Apology he puts himself above his accusers. He reminds them, in no uncertain terms, of why he has made enemies. He admits that he possesses the wisdom they lack, human wisdom, and draws attention to his power of getting others to reveal this lack in themselves. Even his claim to know that he does not know is a boast of sorts. It is the truthful but nevertheless insolent claim that he at least, perhaps alone of all men, knows what it means to be truly human and in need of wisdom. He insists that even if they let him off the hook this time, he would go right back to doing the very thing that landed him in court on this occasion. He must even quell the angry uproar this defiant statement provokes (30C). Socrates’ insolence, his claim to be better than other people in respect of human wisdom, extends to those who have come before the court; he rubs it in that he, unlike others, will not grovel and plead for his life. He is above the fear of death and therefore above the rest of us. And with a crowning gesture as comic as it is insolent Socrates asks “What, gentlemen of Athens, do I really deserve?” and answers “Why, to be provided for at the public expense!” This does not sound like a man fighting for his life. In fact, Socrates’ rhetoric seems to make it virtually impossible for Athens to do anything but put him to death.
While the Apology does not present an outright critique of conventional religion, it nevertheless does present a deeply problematic relation between Socrates and the gods of the city. You recall that Socrates divides his accusers into two camps. One is the camp of those who have recently brought Socrates before the court. But the other camp is more interesting -- and more lethal. To it belong those who have maligned Socrates from way back. Socrates calls these detractors “more terrible” than the others (18B). Why more terrible? Because they got hold of the opinions and souls of these recent detractors when they were still young and impressionable. In other words, the older maligners of Socrates are guilty of the charge Socrates now faces: They corrupted the youth of Athens, turned the souls of the young to ignorance, hatred and slander. The prime culprit here is the comic poet Aristophanes (19C), who, in his play entitled The Clouds, portrayed Socrates as a goofy scientist who poked his nose into matters that have nothing to do with being human. The reference to Aristophanes reminds us that the poets, the image-makers of the city, have enormous power over us and our opinions, especially when we are young. The fact that Aristophanes was a comedian shows that we can be corrupted by what we are made to laugh at.
It is in the context of discussing these older and more lethal detractors that we get our first glimpse of the problematic relation between Socrates and the gods. It seems that one of Socrates’ friends, Chaerephon by name, went to the oracle at Delphi and asked, “Is there anyone wiser than Socrates?”, to which the oracle responded, “No one is wiser.” So what does Socrates do? Does he say “Well, that’s that, the god must be right”? No, on the contrary, he sets out to investigate what the oracle meant. True, Socrates tells us that he did so “with considerable reluctance” (21B), but nevertheless, off he went -- to test the declaration of the god, that is, to find out not just what the god might have meant but whether what the god said was true.
Can we call this piety? However we answer, this much is clear: that for Socrates even the untested declaration of a god does not constitute knowledge. All claims to truth, all declarations -- even those of a god -- must be submitted to rational inquiry. We are reminded of what Socrates tells us toward the end of the dialogue, that even in the afterlife -- if there is an afterlife -- he would go around testing and inquiring into the opinions of all the dead poets and heroes (40E ff.). But why stop at the poets and heroes? Why should Socrates test the opinions of Orpheus, Homer and Odysseus and not go on to test the opinions of the gods themselves if, that is, they existed and he had access to them -- the opinions of Zeus, Aphrodite and even Athena? When the oracle responded, “No one is wiser than Socrates,” did the oracle mean “no human being,” or were gods too included?
As Socrates reminds us, the result of his conversations and inquiries is usually if not always a refutation. Someone is shown to contradict himself and thereby reveal that he didn’t know what he was talking about, that he was not wise. The case of the Delphic oracle is different. Here Socrates’ relentless questioning of others convinces him that the oracle was right after all, that indeed no one is wiser than he. Why is that? Because although Socrates, like other mortals, lacks wisdom, he at least knows that he lacks wisdom. So the oracle proved to be both meaningful and right. The point remains, however, that the oracle had to be inquired into; its rightness had to be proven. The oracle falls into the category of the poets. Socrates makes this point explicitly when he says that oracles, like poets, “say many fine things but know nothing of the things they say” (22C). What, then, is absolutely authoritative for Socrates? What does he finally trust beyond all else? Apparently, it is not the gods but philosophic inquiry, the testing of opinions, to which even the utterances of gods must be held accountable.
Then there is the matter of Socrates’ spiritual advisor, in Greek his daemonion. This private spirit functions as a sort of conscience and guardian angel. It too raises questions about whether Socrates does not, after all, believe in new gods -- if he believes in gods at all. Earlier I raised the question, “What, if anything, does Socrates simply follow and obey?” One answer to this question is: “His spiritual advisor or conscience.” Socrates tells us that this inner, spiritual advisor, which he has had since childhood, never spurs him on but only holds him back (31D). It was this inner voice, says Socrates, that opposed his involving himself in politics. What is curious here is that whereas Socrates does examine and put to the test the Delphic oracle, he shows no indication of ever questioning the advice of his inner spirit. He trusts it implicitly, as though it were a god within him, a god that could never deceive. Is Socrates the only one who has such a spirit within him? Or perhaps it is just that the rest of us are too busy or too wilful to listen to that still, small voice inside us that says, “Don’t!”
But the most audacious and unconventional thing Socrates says about god and the divine is that this very act of asking questions about virtue, the act which has gotten him into trouble, is sanctioned by god! He claims that he was sent to Athens as a divine gift. Socrates is a gadfly. He is the gadfly of wakefulness, sent by god to Athens, whom Socrates unflatteringly describes as a big well-born horse that needs to be stung out of its lazy stupor. Here is what Socrates says: “I think the god fastened me upon the city in some such capacity, and I go about arousing, and urging and reproaching each one of you, constantly alighting upon you everywhere the whole day long” (30E-31A).
Can you imagine the judges’ response to that? The portrait is amusing, but it is also unpleasant and offensive. If you’ve ever been bothered by stinging flies, you know how annoying and painful they can be. They arouse our anger, not to mention a fierce desire to swat them to kingdom come. Now imagine someone who is constantly examining your opinions and revealing their inconsistencies. How would you feel? Would you not feel like a horse beset by stinging flies? It is easy to side with Socrates as we read the Apology -- easy up to the point that we ask ourselves: Would we fare any better in Socrates’ testing of our opinions than the politicians, the poets, the craftsmen and Socrates’ accusers? Would we really sit by dispassionately, without anger and hurt vanity, while Socrates dismantled our most cherished opinions? And what if our friends and admirers were there to watch? It is this destructive, annoying activity that Socrates says was his divine mission and his service to the city of Athens. If Socrates is a blessing, he is, it seems, also a curse.
Does Socrates really believe that he was sent to Athens by god? I do not know. Nor do I know what gods, if any, Socrates really believed in apart from his godlike, inner voice. But I do know this: that by presenting philosophy as a divine mission, Socrates held up self-knowledge and self-inquiry as a divine injunction, a duty imposed on man, not by man but by god. By connecting piety and self-examination in this way, Socrates the rhetorician can level his most grievous charge against Athens. For in killing Socrates, in swatting the gadfly of wakefulness, Athens would not only destroy the man who constantly brought conceited people to their senses but would also sin against the gods. Socrates has in effect completely turned the tables on his accusers: He has proven that it is they who are guilty of both corruption of the youth and impiety.
Let me make a new beginning at this point and turn from piety to knowledge.
Socrates makes it very clear in the Apology that genuine virtue depends on knowledge. We cannot become virtuous or teach others to become virtuous unless we know what virtue is. This is the knowledge Socrates calls wisdom. It is the knowledge that he, along with everybody else, lacks. Socrates tells us that he cross-examined the statesmen, the poets, and the craftsmen and handiworkers. He discovered that although they thought they knew what virtue was, in fact they did not. What Socrates is demonstrating is that there are no experts, no professionals, when it comes to virtue. If your pipes are clogged, you can call a plumber; if you get sick, you can see a doctor; and if you want to make out a will, you can consult a lawyer. But if Socrates is right, then when it comes to true virtue, virtue grounded in knowledge, there is no expert to be found.
It makes sense that Socrates would begin with the statesmen or politicians. They, after all, claim to embody virtue and to teach it through their example. But what about the poets? Most people would say that poetry is all about story-telling, beauty and the expression of feeling -- that it has nothing whatsoever to do with either morality or knowledge. Socrates disagrees. For him the poets, no less than the politicans, claim to know what it means to be fully human and virtuous. I believe Socrates is right. The poets (which today would include movie-makers) give us our ideals, our heroes and our standards. We love these image-makers, not just because they say or show things beautifully but because they succeed in making these things seem profoundly true. We love the poet because he seems to be a wise man.
The craftsmen are in a sense the most interesting group in Socrates’ list -- interesting because they are the least prestigious. They are not exalted beings like the statesmen and poets. And yet, they too think they know what virtue is, what it means to be fully human, when in fact they do not. Why is that? Why are the craftsmen conceited?
The craftsmen represent what we broadly term technology, that is, the knowledge of how to do or make something. The word “technology” comes from the Greek word techne, which means art or craft, any sort of know-how. By cross-examining the technicians, Socrates is able to reveal a deep-set human prejudice: Human beings tend to think they know everything -- including how to live -- just because they are good at doing or making something. The things done or made do not have to be on a grand scale. They needn’t be something like putting a man on the moon or cloning. The problem has to do with technical proficiency as such. By being technically proficient at something, we feel our power. We also feel that this power derives from what we know. And we feel that the knowledge must be genuine because, after all, “It worked, didn’t it?” Human life depends on the practise and cultivation of technology. And it is only human to admire someone who is good at doing or making something. But however necessary technology is, and however admirable the technician, technology for Socrates is also an obstacle and threat to self-knowledge. It is a threat because it seduces us into thinking that know-how is the same as knowledge, that being effective is the same as being wise.
This brings me to the most often quoted sentence from the Apology: “The unexamined life is not worth living” (38A). It is probably the single most important statement we read in all the Platonic dialogues, perhaps in any philosophic text. Some people would claim that it is the most important statement in any book whatsoever.
Let us note the context in which it comes up in the Apology. Socrates is wrapping up that part of his speech in which he suggests alternatives to the death penalty. He brings up the possible solution that he would be allowed to live if only he would live quietly, without examining people’s opinions. He proceeds to tell the judges that such a compromise would be totally unacceptable. Indeed, it would be disobedience to the god he serves. Socrates adds, by way of an insulting fact, that they would never believe him if he said that the examination of himself and others in matters related to human virtue is in fact the greatest good for man and that the unexamined life is not worth living (37E-38A). You realize what Socrates is telling his judges: He is telling them that the lives they have lived and continue to live are not worth living. He is telling them that they are dead.
The statement of Socrates brings us back to my earlier question: What is at stake for us, as individuals and as citizens of a democracy, as we read and think about Plato’s Apology? What is at stake is nothing less than the best human life. It is interesting to observe where we use this word “best” in our contemporary culture, and where we don’t use it. We speak of the best car, the best computer, the best clothes, the best job, the best school, the best movie of the year, and most of us have what we call a “best friend” -- but who speaks of the best life? Who in our society would dare to speak of ranking lives at all? The ranking of lives goes completely against our modern sensibilities. Lives, we think, are not higher or better than other lives; they are just different. Everyone, we say, is entitled to his own opinion. Surely everyone is entitled to his own life, his own way of living. Is this not what a democracy stands for -- the individual’s right to lead whatever life he happens to choose? Is this not what we mean by freedom?
Socrates’ statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” sums up his response to this way of thinking, this refusal to rank. Examination presupposes that human lives, human ways of living, are not all of equal value and worth; that some are better than others; and that one life might be highest -- if only we knew what that life was. Socrates does not, in this dialogue, go into what an actual ranking of lives might be. He does not say where a particular kind of life, for example the life of a politician or poet, stands within the hierarchy. Nor does he come right out and say that only the examined life is worth living. I have no doubt that Socrates considers his own statement a topic of possible examination. I’m sure he would welcome the opportunity to test both the examined and the unexamined life. This gives rise to a most telling paradox: If it turned out, in this examination of lives, that an unexamined life was worth living, we would know this only because we had examined it!
What Socrates does tell his judges is that a life without self-examination is no life at all. By talking with various people in the marketplace, the gymnasium and elsewhere, Socrates has given himself an education -- no doubt the most important education of all. He has made it his business not to pursue a professional career but to study the human soul day in and day out. The many conversations he has with others give him the continued opportunity to look into and examine himself, to keep himself in shape as athletes do. Now what sort of lives did the people Socrates talked to live? Unexamined lives. So when Socrates says that the unexamined life is not worth living, you must bear in mind that he speaks not as an arm-chair philosopher, a mere intellectual, but from extensive, first-hand experience of non-philosophers.
Why is the unexamined life not worth living? To address this question, let us recall the humorous image of Socrates as a gadfly and Athens as a big, spoiled, lazy horse. The real trouble with Athens is not that she is bad but that she doesn’t take pains to find out what is good. Athens ignores the inscription found on the temple to Apollo at Delphi: “Know thyself!” She assumes that she already knows herself, that she is wise. Now Socrates does not oppose Athens with any new laws or new religion. He advocates no social, political or religious revolution. He seeks to transform the city, true enough; but he does so on a private basis, by trying to convert other individual citizens to his own knowledge of ignorance and quest for wisdom.
Without philosophic inquiry, we too, like Athens, are sleepy horses with no idea of what it might mean to be really alive. We cling to our opinions in order to remain asleep. So sleepy-headed are we that often we don’t even know what our opinions are, let alone whether or not they are true. We do not know that we are asleep. It takes a jolt to wake us up. That jolt comes from being exposed to Socrates, from having some opinion of ours, some piece of presumed wisdom, refuted. We are forced to think, really think, only when the crutch of opinion is utterly smashed. The point of this smashing is not to annihilate the opinion. It is first of all to make us aware that that’s what dominates us -- unexamined opinions. The second point is that now, once we see our opinion refuted, we might be transformed into lovers of wisdom, into human beings who, persuaded that they lack wisdom, make it their business to pursue it through continued searching and questioning.
The conflict between Athens and Socrates, between the city and the philosopher, is really the conflict between the love of opinion and the love of inquiry. For Plato we human beings don’t just “have opinions.” We are steeped in opinion like birds in the air, fish in the sea, worms in the ground. Opinion is our element, our way of looking at everything and our way of life. To borrow an image from the Republic, opinion is our dwelling-place -- our cave.
Now it is impossible not to have opinions. Everybody, including Socrates, has opinions. What Socrates seems bent on destroying is not having opinions but being opinionated, that is, clinging to our opinions out of prejudice, vanity and sheer laziness. So the question naturally arises: Why should opinion and the examination of opinion be such a big deal? Why should the quality of a human life be measured by the quality of our opinions?
The answer to this question is easy: Because everything we do, every choice that we make, every piece of advice we give to family member and friend, is ultimately the result of an opinion, of something that seems to us to be true. There is no escape from the practical, real-life consequences of opinion. Nothing in human life is untouched by it. And at the bottom of all our opinions is an opinion about what is the best way to live, an opinion about the good, even if that opinion is that all opinions are equally valid and all ways of living equally good. If we do not consciously, actively form this opinion about the highest good, then, not to worry, one will be given to us -- by parents, teachers, our friends, laws and customs, political correctness, the advertising industry, the popular culture, movies, the music we listen to and the poets we love. Does the situation sound dire? It is dire. I say all this to remind you that the stakes are huge in the Apology and in whether the unexamined life is, or is not, worth living.
As Socrates tells us in the Republic, democracies are in love with freedom. Lovers of freedom do not like to be told that one way of life is better than another. The democratic individual believes that freedom consists in making his own choices, regardless of what those choices are. No one tells him what to do, what to think or how to live -- at least that’s what he tells himself. But what is such freedom in the end? Can we really call a human being free if he simply follows the whim of his passions? Or if he has never given serious thought to how a human being ought to live? Can we call a person free if he is uneducated, if he has never thought about and questioned the vast intellectual, cultural and political tradition of which he himself is the product and heir? Does freedom make any sense without thinking and questioning? Perhaps this is the main reason why the unexamined life is not worth living -- because without self-examination, without a critical and persistent inquiry into ourselves and our opinions, we might as well be slaves.
Earlier I observed that it is easy to read the Apology as a conflict between the “good guy” Socrates and the “bad guy” Athens. But we must not let our admiration for Socrates blind us to what a problematic figure he really is. Nor should we be blind to Athens’ side of the story. What is a city to do, I ask you, with a private individual who goes around undermining its authority, cross-questioning its citizens and denigrating its most revered leaders? Aristophanes was in a sense right, even if it was for the wrong reason: Socrates doesn’t mind his own business. Or rather, he minds his own business by minding everybody else’s business. On the one hand, Athens is a democracy and grants far more freedom of speech to its members than would a monarchy or an oligarchy like Sparta. Socrates himself remarks in the Republic that philosophy, as he practises it, is possible only in a democracy because only a democracy would be so tolerant.
But on the other hand a democracy is still a political community, and political communities have their standards of behavior, their laws, their gods and their heroes. Communities are impossible without some sort of authority. The Athenian democracy could have just let Socrates alone on the grounds that, after all, “everybody’s entitled to his own opinion and way of life.” The fact is that Athens was not that corrupt, not corrupt to the point of moral apathy. She took Socrates seriously enough to prosecute him and, what’s more, to prosecute him on genuinely serious charges. I wonder which is worse: a society that considers corruption of the young and impiety a serious political offense punishable by death, or a society that is morally shocked by nothing and, instead of encouraging what that society regards as the best way of life, seeks only to promote a diversity of so-called “lifestyles?”
Let me say one more thing in defense of Athens. It has to do with the charge of corrupting the youth. What if Athens could put aside her anger and tell Socrates something like this: “Socrates, this knowledge of one’s own ignorance sounds good. But what if there is no knowledge of virtue beyond and outside of the opinions human beings are given by our laws and customs? What if our laws and customs are the only thing that gives human life its goodness and stability? What if questioning the city’s way of life only serves to confuse human beings and cause them to feel placeless, uprooted and upheaved? What, then, Socrates, is the good of questioning?” You realize, of course, that if Athens were right about this, then Socrates would be guilty of corrupting the youth: Questioning would be the greatest evil and the greatest threat to the stability of human life. Can Socrates defend himself against this charge? I leave that for you to decide.
Throughout the Apology philosophy is portrayed with extreme seriousness. As Socrates presents it, philosophy is the act by which we come to realize our deficiency of wisdom. In this realization we are purged of our conceit. We no longer pride ourselves on knowing what we in fact do not know. We are, so Socrates would have us believe, made better. To put this another way, Socrates in the Apology highlights the business of philosophy in so far as philosophy relates directly to politics as the transformation and improvement of human beings. Socrates is the gadfly sent to Athens by the god to make sure that Athens is awake, awake to the fact that she is not who she thinks she is.
Does this answer the question that is the title of my talk? Does it tell us who Socrates is? What I would say is this: It tells us who Socrates is in relation to the city of Athens but does not tell us completely who Socrates is. It is a partial answer. What, then, does the Apology leave out or at least down-play in its depiction of Socrates? An adequate answer to this question requires a reading of other Platonic dialogues, some of which you will read later in the year. For now let me suggest, very briefly, what in the Apology is missing from its portrait of philosophy.
I shall get right to the point: The Apology, in its sober, moral-political depiction of philosophy, leaves out pleasure, wonder and desire. We hear about how necessary philosophy is to our pursuit of virtue, how without philosophic inquiry we are blind to our lack of wisdom. But this lack of wisdom, for the philosopher, is also a love. That is what the word “philosophy” means -- love of wisdom. Socrates engages in philosophy not just out of duty but out of desire and passion -- a passion for the truth, for inquisitive conversation, and for those rare moments of genuine insight that we sometimes enjoy and signal by saying “Ah hah!” Philosophy is awakened in us through the passion of wonder. We look around us and find many things that excite our wonder. We wonder what makes a plant grow. We look up at the sky and wonder what makes the stars and planets move. If someone tells us about gravity, thinking to dispel our wonder, the mystery only becomes more pronounced: We wonder how one body can act upon another body without touching it. It is a pleasure to think about such things and to explore why things are the way they are. It is a pleasure to think. Thinking involves work, that is true, but such work, for those who find their world interesting, is a labor of love.
Now for Socrates the world that most evokes wonder and inspires thinking is the human world. To Socrates human nature, the human soul, is endlessly fascinating. He investigates it all day long by talking with people. He does this not because he has to, not just because serious conversation is a moral service to the individual and the city. He does it because he wants to, because such intellectual engagement with a fellow human being furthers his own love of wisdom, his own quest for self-knowledge. Furthermore, such engagement makes possible what is perhaps the highest kind of friendship. Such friendship consists, not in the sharing of intimacies, but in the sharing of discourse, intellectual adventure and insight.
But this human world that Socrates finds so fascinating points beyond its own humanness. What I mean is that the question of moral virtue leads inevitably to questions of a higher, more theoretical order. In the Apology Socrates shies away from these higher questions, as well he might in presenting a public defense of philosophy before the city of Athens. And yet the questions are there, just beneath the surface of what Socrates does talk about. We have already encountered some of them. We have seen, for example, that the Apology compels us to ask “What is the divine?” but does not raise the question explicitly, let alone develop possible answers.
Then there is the question “What is knowledge?” Surely, this question must be asked, given the close connection in the dialogue between knowledge and virtue, and yet it is not asked in the Apology. And what about the human soul, which I have referred to several times in this talk? How can I know what it means to have a virtuous soul if I don’t know what a soul is? Is my soul the same as my character or my personality? Is it my mind? Is my soul mortal or immortal? All these questions -- and many, many more -- are implied by what Socrates says in the Apology but never explicitly raised. Are you interested in these questions? If so, then you must go on to read other dialogues by Plato.
In the Apology Socrates keeps his feet on the ground. He emphasizes the human-orientedness of philosophy and avoids what Plato dramatizes so powerfully in the Republic -- the philosophic ascent from the concern for moral virtue to the contemplation of changeless being. In the Apology philosophy is presented as the highest form of piety: Socrates asks questions because the god commands him. But in the Republic and other dialogues, philosophy is itself divine or at least semi-divine. It is not the willingness to follow and obey a god but the impulse to be a god in the act of divine contemplation, the contemplation of unchanging truth. It is only when we turn to these other dialogues that we feel the full impact of what it means for Socrates to be above the city.
In a way Socrates points to this ascent beyond the merely human, beyond politics, toward the end of his defense. As you know, the Apology culminates in a discussion of death. Earlier in his speech Socrates said that if he were to fear death, he would be guilty of the very conceit he was arguing against -- the conceit of thinking that he knew what he in fact did not know. Now, at the end, turning from his judges to his friends, he addresses their fear of death. He tries to persuade them that death is one of two things. It is either a state of perpetual unconsciousness, in which case it would be like the best night’s sleep you’ve ever had; or it is a change of habitation, a voyage to the land of the fabled dead, the land of heroes, demigods and great poets. In either case, death would be a blessing. Ironically, it is in this discussion of death that Socrates comes closest to speaking about philosophy as a form of pleasure. “The greatest pleasure,” he says, “would be to pass my time in examining and investigating the people there, as I do those here, to find out who among them is wise and who thinks he is when he is not” (41B). This kind of death is actually Socratic heaven! It is a life in which Socrates can go around minding everybody else’s business and not get killed for it. In short, it is a life of unencumbered inquiry, a life purged of politics. That is why it is pleasant.
Who is Socrates? He is the world’s greatest Asker of Questions. He is the man who would rather die than cease to ask questions. When most people ask questions, it is because they want answers -- and fast. We all want to move forward and make progress, to be “at the cutting edge.” We feel insecure until we have answers, and we do not like it when someone unsettles the beliefs and opinions that form the basis for our ambitions and plans. But Socrates dared to be an eternal beginner. He dared to compel other human beings to go back to their starting-points. He kept asking ridiculously simple questions like “What is virtue?” and “What is knowledge?” -- questions that no one could ever answer without contradicting himself. Socrates took evident pleasure in propounding problems, paradoxes and enigmas. Unlike most of us, he knew how to dwell with what was truly questionable, how to keep a question alive as a question and to resist the temptation of quick answers and professionalism. He was also the human being who found being human more interesting and thought-provoking than anything else in the world.
But the time has now come for discussion. Let me take this opportunity to wish you all the best in your studies here at SLU. I hope that you will never stop asking questions, that you will often ask “What is at stake?” in the books you read, and that you find Socrates perpetually inspiring and -- difficult.