Sunday, January 27, 2008

Plato's "The Apology"

Read "The Apology" for a reading group last week. Unlike the Platonic dialogues, "The Apology" consists of speeches given by Socrates at his trial, though there is a short dialogue, more like a cross-examination, between Socrates and his accuser Meletus. There are three main speeches. The first is Socrate's self defence. The second, given after he was found guilty, proposes a counter-penalty to the death sentence (Socrates proposes outrageously that he be fed by the City in the Prytaneum, as is fitting for a poor man who has served his City well). The third speech was made after his death sentence by drinking hemlock had been confirmed.

I enjoyed reading the well-known phrases in their original context, here translated by R. E. Allen in his The Dialogues of Plato. Vol. 1:

About prejudices inculcated in us since childhood--"Again, there have been many such accusers, and they have now been at work for a long time; they spoke to you at a time when you were especially credulous--some of you children, some only a little older--and they lodged their accusations quite by default, no one appearing in defense. But the most absurd thing is that one cannot even know or tell their names . . . For it is impossible to bring any one of them forward as a witness and cross examine him. I must rather, as it were, fight with shadows in making my defence, and question where no one answers.

*

For to fear death, Gentlemen, is nothing but to think one is wise when one is not; for it is to think one knows what one does not know.

*

If you kill me, you will not easily find such another man as I, a man who--if I may put it a bit absurdly--has been fastened as it were to the City by the God as, so to speak, to a large and well-bred horse, a horse grown sluggish because of its size and in need of being roused by a kind of gadfly. Just so, I think, the God has fastened me to the City. I rouse you, I persuade you, I upbraid you. I never stop lighting on each one of you, everywhere, all day long. Such another will not easily come to you again, Gentlemen . . .

*

Perhaps someone may say, "Would it not be possible for you to live in exile, Socrates, if you silently kept quiet?" But this is the hardest thing of all to make some of you believe. If I say that to do so would be to disobey the God, and therefore I cannot do it, you will not believe me because you will think that I am being sly and dishonest. If on the other hand I say that the greatest good for man is to fashion arguments each day about virtue and the other things you hear me discussing when I examine myself and others, and that the unexamined life is not for man worth living, you will believe what I say still less.

*

It is not difficult to escape death, Gentlemen; it is more difficult to escape wickedness, for wickedness runs faster than death.

*

But the Sign of God did not oppose me early this morning when I left my house, or when I came up here to the courtoom, or at any point in my argument in anything I was about to say. . . . What do I take to be the reason? I will tell you. Very likely what has fallen to me is good, and those among us who think that death is an evil are wrong.

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