Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, May 02, 2016

PLATO: The Apology (Politics)

Socrates was on trial for his life and served as his own lawyer.  Depending on the reader’s point of view Socrates was (a) a terrible lawyer or (b) a brilliant one.  The charges against Socrates fall into two categories: political and religious.  The political charges seem vague to modern readers.  “Socrates is guilty of needless curiosity and meddling interference, inquiring into things beneath Earth and in the Sky, making the weaker argument the stronger, and teaching others the same.”  Socrates went to trial for this?  Even though these charges may seem vague to us, they weren’t vague to the Athenian jurors.  His accusers thought Socrates was guilty of trying to sabotage the whole Athenian political order.  Far from being a hero, Socrates was, in their view, a dangerous traitor to his country.  If Socrates’ goal was to get off then he made a terrible defense.  He mocked his accusers and left no room for jurors who might have voted for his acquittal under certain conditions.  “Would it not be possible for you to live in exile, Socrates, if you were silent and kept quiet?”  Socrates will make no deals because, as he publicly proclaims, “to do so would be to disobey God, and therefore I cannot do it.”  He won’t go away and he won’t be quiet.  Socrates informs the jurors that “God has fastened me to this City.  I rouse you.  I persuade you.  I upbraid you.  I never stop lighting on each of you, everywhere, all day long.”  This is an inspiring speech but it’s a terrible legal defense if you’re trying to get off in a capital crime case.    

Now here’s the argument why The Apology of Socrates was a brilliant strategy.  Socrates may have concluded from the start that he was doomed.  This “trial” was just a showcase to go through the motions of a proper legal proceeding.  Nothing Socrates could do or say would get him off.  So he decides from the beginning to use his trial as a platform to teach philosophy.  Socrates tells a story about the oracle at Delphi.  He could have just gotten right to the point but first he mentions a man named Chaerephon.  Socrates addresses the jurors with these words.  “You surely knew Chaerephon.  He was my friend from youth, and a friend of your democratic majority.”  Note how Socrates says “your” democratic majority.  A good defense lawyer would reject using divisive language in persuading a jury to let a client go free.  But Socrates’ primary goal isn’t to be set free.  He wants to use this opportunity to teach the Athenians about justice.  He wants to expose their ignorance, knowing full well what the consequences will be. 
Aristotle believed happiness is “an activity of the soul in conformity with a rational principle.”  To achieve happiness we need “a target to aim at to hit the proper mark.”  The “proper mark” for Aristotle is the highest good and “this good, one should think, is politics… since all knowledge and every choice is directed toward some good, let us discuss the aim of politics, (i.e. the highest good attainable by action).”  This statement helps put Plato’s Apology in perspective.  Socrates describes the danger of going into politics when he says “be well assured, Gentlemen of Athens, that had I attempted long since to enter political affairs, I should long since have been destroyed; to the benefit of neither you nor myself.  Please do not be angry at me for telling the simple truth.  It is impossible for any man to be spared if he legitimately opposes you or any other democratic majority… He who intends to fight for justice, if he is to be spared even for a little while, must live a private rather than a public life… do you think I would have lived so long if I had been in public life and acted in a manner worthy of a good man, fighting injustice?”  Plato thought this was the reason why so many good people stay out of politics and Socrates made this prediction: “This is what will convict me, if I am convicted; not Meletus, not Anytus, but the grudging slander of the multitude.  It has convicted many another good and decent man; I think it will convict me; nor is there reason to fear that it will end with me.”  Socrates was right about that.


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