Commentary on Plato's
Apology of Socrates

It was one of the rules which, above all others, made Doctor Franklin the most amiable of men in society, "never to contradict anybody." If he was urged to announce an opinion, he did it rather by asking questions, as if for information, or by suggesting doubts.

Thomas Jefferson, letter to Thomas Jefferson Randolph (Jefferson's grandson), November 24, 1808.

Unless Plato had already written some short dialogues to illustrate Socrates' technique of questioning (like the Euthyphro), the Apology of Socrates is the earliest thing by him that we have. This would mean that it is the oldest extant document of Greek philosophy -- everything earlier (e.g. Parmenides) was lost and is known only through quoted fragments in later works, like those of Plato himself. There is something fitting in this. Socrates substantially refounded philosophy, and the Apology is still, all by itself, about the best introduction to Western philosophy that there is.

At the trial for his life in 399 BC, Socrates astonished his listeners by appearing, despite his vigorous defense, to deliberately provoke the jury and get himself found guilty and condemned to death. What he had said was then a matter of some curiosity, but there were no Greek court reporters, and of course no audio or video tape, so there was no official record, or news recording, of the trial. If Socrates' words were going to be remembered, the spectators were going to have to record them. This is what happened, and various versions of the Apology of Socrates were produced. Only two survive, Plato's and one by Xenophon.

A friend of Socrates, Xenophon also produced the valuable Recollections of Socrates (or Memorabilia). Unfortunately, Xenophon was not a philosopher, did not, I expect, understand Socrates very well, also, as he admits, was not at the trial, and did not try to reproduce the whole speech. Plato has his own presence at the trial affirmed by Socrates himself, who mentions Plato by name twice in Plato's Apology. Xenophon's Apology thus is an abbreviated and disappointing document next to Plato's, but it does tell us a couple of things that we might not know otherwise. These will be noted at the appropriate points in the course of Socrates' speech.

Now, although the word "apology" is the direct descendant into English of the Greek word apología, the meaning has changed. Socrates was not apologizing or making excuses. He wasn't sorry. The Greek word apología simply and precisely meant a defense, or a defense speech. This meaning has been preserved in English in some related words:  An "apologist" is still someone who argues a defense of someone or something, and "apologetics" is still a discipline or system of argued defense of something, usually a doctrine, cause, or institution. Socrates' speech thus might be translated The Defense of Socrates without the possible confusion over the modern meaning; but after long usage, it is hard to imagine calling the Apology anything else.

The meaning of "apologetics" has drifted somewhat. Calling someone an "apologist," or speaking of an "apologetic" or "apologia," now may imply an element of dishonesty, bias, or a distorted form of special pleading. This may have happened for a couple of reasons. (1) as "defense" and "defender" do adequate jobs of expressing the meaning of defense, "apologetic" is free to assume a slightly different meaning, perhaps because of (2) that "apologetics" is tainted by associations, e.g. with the traditional defenses of Christianity, that have become targets of skepticism or condemnation. An "apologist" may now be viewed as a kind of Sophist or hack. By the same token the neutral meaning of "dogma," as embodying religious doctrine, has became tainted with a sense of the arbitrary, the irrational, and the dictatorial.

The opposite of an "apologetic" is a "polemic," from Greek pólemos, "war." "Polemics" is the systematic attack on a doctrine, position, cause, or institution. A "polemic" is a particular such attack; and the "polemicist" does such an attack. Apologetics and polemics are easily combined, as we see in the Summa Contra Gentiles of St. Thomas Aquinas, who defends Christianity by attacking the "gentiles," i.e. Jews and Muslims.

Part of the tradition of the Apology is that it is the first complete text read in the formal study of Classical Greek. This was not the case with me, since my Greek professor at UCLA in 1968 decided that we should break with tradition and read the Euthyphro and Crito instead. I'm not sure that was an improvement on tradition -- more like variety for the sake of variety -- though that meant variety for the professor rather than for us students.

Although Socrates is on trial for his life, his prosecutors (Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon) are private individuals. There is no public prosecutor at Athens, no District Attorney. All actions are brought by private individuals, although they themselves might be politically prominent, or officials. If there is a murder, and basically no one cares about the victim, there might be no prosecution -- though the city did take an interest in murder cases, because of the pollution, and from an early date the Council of the Areopagus, the ancient senate of the aristocracy, undertook to protect the state from vengeful spirits.

It is also noteworthy in the Apology that Socrates never mentions a judge. All his remarks are addressed to the jury, and from the evidence of this text alone, we might not know whether there was a judge or not. We do know, however, even from the Euthyphro, that Socrates is in the court of one of the major officials of Athens, the "King Archon."

There were nine archons (árkhon = ruler, regent, commander) in the classic constitution at Athens. Six were judges, the Thesmothetae. The other three were the Eponymous Archon, after whom the year was named (Athenian dates were in the form "the year so-and-so was Archon"), the Polemarch, who was the commander-in-chief, and the King, who succeeded to the religious duties of the original Kings of Athens. One of these duties was to preside over court cases involving religion. That included murders, which involved the pollution of spilled blood, and accusations of impiety. That is why Socrates was in the King's court. He was accused of impiety.

The King Archon, the judge, is not mentioned by Socrates because he has almost no power. Most of the power in the courtroom is in the hands of the jury, which is said to be 501 jurors. There is no screening of jurors. The jury is pretty much any free adult male citizen who shows up. The comedy The Wasps by Aristophanes is about an old man who amuses himself by getting on a jury every day, and by voting everyone guilty. The jury has all but absolute power. At the same time, there was not much in the way of rules of evidence. The prosecution and defense could say pretty much whatever they wanted. Thus, ironically, Socrates, who in a sense was put to death for practicing free speech, nevertheless had more freedom of speech at his trial than most defendants do in the courts of the United States of America, where judges can prohibit defendants from making certain kinds of defenses (e.g. that the law under which they are charged is unjust or unconstitutional -- if the modern jury rules on considerations of Constitutionality or justice, they are practicing what is called "nullification"). All Socrates had to worry about was how to appeal to the jury, but he then made his defense in such a way as to antagonize the jury instead.

The procedure of the trial is that the prosecutor or prosecutors make their speeches, accusing the defendant, then the defendant makes his defense speech. This is where the Apology begins, as we can tell, since Socrates initially comments on what he has just heard from his prosecutors. After the defense, the jury votes innocent or guilty. Only a bare majority is needed, though, as Socrates mentions, the prosecution is fined if it does not get a fifth of the vote. In this case, Socrates is barely (by 30 votes) found guilty. Then we get what today is called the "penalty phase of the trial." The prosecution proposes a punishment it thinks is fitting, in this case death. Then Socrates proposes a counter-penalty. The jury again votes to pick which penalty to impose. Socrates is condemned to death. The final part of the Apology, then, is what Socrates has to say after that vote, after he knows that he is sentenced to die.

Greek words here are rendered with their accents, but êtas and ômegas, i.e. long e's and o's, are shown with a circumflex, just to indicate length, unless they otherwise have an acute or grave accent, which is then shown instead. Greek accents indicated tones, just like in Chinese, except that a polysyllabic Greek word usually only has one tone. Acúte accents were rising tones, gràve falling, and circûmflexes rising and falling. Iota subscripts are not, regretfully, indicated. Consult the full treatment of The Pronunciation of Greek.

This commentary is largely based on lectures given on the Apology at Los Angeles Valley College from 1987 to 2009, using the G.M.A. Grube translation, in different editions [Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, Hackett Publishing Company, 1981, pp. 24-44]. The original commentary was written up and posted on line while I was on sabbatical in the academic year 1999-2000, and it has been updated at intervals since then. Some comment and complaint will be made below about Grube's translation (which was also altered, badly, in later editions), but it does seem to me overall a fine rendering. Although it may be possible to read this commentary independent of the Apology itself, it would probably be better to have read the text first.

The Defense (17a-35e)

The Sentence (35e-38c)

Last Thoughts (38c-42a)

History of Philosophy

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Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Commentary on the Apology of Socrates, Note 1;
The Olympic Games and the Other Panhellenic Games

The Olympic Games were the first and the most important of the four Panhellenic Games. The other three games were the Pythian, at Delphi, the Isthmian, near Corinth, and the Nemean, at Nemea near Argos. These were also the "stephanitic" games, where competition was only for a crown (stéphos), not for some other kind of award, like money. Like the Olympics, the Pythian Games were only held every four years, but the others were held every two years, meaning that victories there were less prestigious. But then the Nemean and Isthmian Games also provided valuable training in the years before the Olympic and Pythian Games. Where the Olympic Games were supposed to have begun in 776 BC, the Pythian began, or joined the cycle, in 586, the Isthmian in 580, and the Nemean in 573.

The actual crowns for these stephanitic games were made of leaves and small branches of particular plants. For the Olympic games, these were from the olive; for the Pythian, the laurel; for the Isthmian, pine or parsley (or celery); and for the Nemean, parsley. Although we think of the Olympic games as the most prestigious, it is definitely the laurel crown that is now remembered as the most symbolic of victory. Indeed, the laurel has a strong tie to the god Apollo in Greek mythology. Daphne (Greek for "laurel) as it happens was a nymph who attracted the attention of Apollo (perhaps as the result of some mischief by Eros). This was unwelcome attention, and Daphne fled, calling on her father Peneus, a river god, for help. He changed her into a tree, whose leaves Apollo then adopted as his own symbol. Since Athena created the olive tree, its association with Zeus at Olympia seems less direct.

The Olympic, Pythian, and Nemean Games were held in the Summer, but the Isthmian were in the Spring.
the Four Stephanitic Games,
the 75th Olympiad
0481 BCZero Year, -480 AD
1480 BCJuly-AugustOlympic Games
2479 BCJuly-AugustNemean Games
478 BCApril-MayIsthmian Games
3July-AugustPythian Games
4477 BCJuly-AugustNemean Games
476 BCApril-MayIsthmian Games
1July-AugustOlympic Games
This introduces a bit of a complication in keeping track of the Games, since many Greek cities, such as
Athens, began their year in between the Spring Games and the Summer. Other Greek calendars, such as that used by the Hellenistic Seleucid Kings, began in the Autumn, which would make the task here simpler. However, the table addresses the reckoning as it would have been done at Athens.

The table distinguishes between the Greek years of the Olympiad and the calendar years BC. The table also includes the year 0 of the Olympiad, which would be year 4 of the previous Olympiad, since this simplifies calculation.

To determine the Olympiad, we need to convert the BC year into an AD year. This is done by subtracting 1 and making the number negative. Thus, 481 BC is -480 AD. Divide this by 4 and add 195:  -480/4 = -120, + 195 = 75. So 481 is year 0 of the 75th Olympiad. With 2004, we already have the AD year, so we just divide by 4 and add 195, so it is year 0 of the 696th Olympiad. As noted in the text, this is the year in which the modern Olympics are now held. 2005 is the 1st year of the Olympiad, when the Games would originally have been held.

The Winter Olympics are now held two years later than the Summer Games, as in 2006, which would be the 2nd year of the 696th Olmpiad. Since the Winter Olympics are thus offset from the Summer Olympics, as the Pythian Games were offset from the Olympic, the authorities might consider renaming the Winter Olympics the Pythian Games and carrying the torch for them, not from Olympia, but from Delphi. With Mt. Parnassus in the background, Delphi would be more suitable for the mountain venues of the Winter Games. There is not much elevation in the land around Olympia.

A striking feature of the ancient Olympic Games is that deaths in the competition were not considered unfortunate. Indeed, since boxing matches did not end until one contestant yielded, a particularly stubborn competitor might fight to the death. Today, deaths in athletic contests are viewed with alarm, even horror, with suggestions that sports like boxing be abolished because of the potential for fatal injuries. The Greek attitude was very different. Athletic contests and games had a ritual origin. Games are mentioned for the funeral of Achilles in the Iliad. As such, there was always an overtone that games were substitutes for sacrifices, even human sacrifices. An athlete who then dies in the competition is himself, unintentionally, an offering to the god. He is fortunate, and the event renders the Games themselves particularly auspicious. This is an attitude whose character today is hard to recover. Of course, the Romans developed the practice into deliberate killing during their Games, with very little left of its religious origin. The Games became no more than a spectacle for public entertainment. But the auspicious nature of an accidental death in religious ritual was not confined to Greek religion. The Chinese had annual "dragon boat" races in honor of various river gods. As with the Greeks, it was not at all a bad sign if a participant died during the races.

Eponymous Archons of Athens

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Commentary on the Apology of Socrates, Note 2

The Underworld is supposed to have five rivers:  the Acheron, "Woe," Cocytus, "Wailing," Lethe, "Forgetful," Phlegethon, "Fire," and Styx, "Hateful." The Styx is clearly at the border of the Underworld, since the dead are ferried across it into Hades. Otherwise, there is not a very clear geography or function for all the rivers. Plato could use the Lethe in his own vision of the afterlife, where each person, before rebirth, would drink of the river and forget all they knew. This complemented his theory of knowledge as Recollection. In Dante's Divine Comedy we get an elaborate version of all this. The Acheron is at the top of Hell, outside the First Circle, surrounding all of it. The Styx occupies the Fifth Circle, surrounding the City of Dis, which is Nether Hell. The Phlegthon, which burns, is part of the Seventh Circle. The Cocytus forms a frozen lake, the Ninth Circle, surrounding Satan. The Lethe is not actually part of Hell but flows out of Purgatory, down through the Earth, and empties into the Cocytus. If souls were coming up out to Hell to be reborn, as in Plato's cosmology, this arrangement would make some sense. But in Dante's world, there is no regular traffic along this river -- souls neither leave Hell nor journey to it from Purtagory -- so the mythical quality of the river is rather wasted. I don't remember any reference, but I am under the impression that the waters of the Styx are supposed to be black. The Phlegethon, as fire, must be red. Some Mediaeval Christian texts do speak of the Acheron as white. Blue I have assigned to the Cocytus by default; and green seems appropriate for the Lethe because of a much later association with the drink absinthe.

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