Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Plato’s Apology.
Josiah Ober, edition of July 31, 2003
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Plato’s Apology presents a Socrates who is very well aware of these rhetorical conventions and audience expectations (he had “often” been present at trials of others: 35a) and more than willing to confound them. Socrates’ speech is a rhetorical masterpiece. But by its end he has not aligned himself with the democratic norms embraced by his fellow citizens. Instead, he has proved that his own political convictions are drastically at odds with popular views, and that his irritating, idiosyncratic everyday practice of examining his fellow Athenians (and finding them painfully wanting in wisdom), followed necessarily from his convictions. He has demonstrated that he is, by his own lights, a patriotic citizen who cares deeply about the good of his polis and one who consistently acts in what he sees as his city’s best interests; but he has also shown also that, in light of his own definition of patriotism, Socrates must be regarded as a uniquely patriotic Athenian. Moreover, given the problematic current condition of the polis, for Socrates “doing good” means acting as a social critic: questioning fundamental Athenian beliefs in conversations held in public and private spaces of the city.
By the end of the Apology, Socrates has shown (to his own satisfaction at least) that his accusers are fools, but fools appropriate to business as usual in the democratic state. He has established that he himself is a dignified private citizen rather than a pandering politician. But in the process he has also revealed that an active political life, one that included speaking out in the citizen Assembly, is impossible for a just man. Finally he has shown that true dignity was not a social matter at all, but rather an affair of the individual soul.
In sum, Socrates’ position initially appears quite analogous to the position claimed by the standard Athenian politician: both Socrates and politicians claimed to be civic-minded activists who sought to improve the polis. Yet “Socratic politics” rejects trying to persuade mass audiences and Socratic ethics is a matter of private conscience rather than social control. These points will have been securely established for a sympathetic reader; but they would be regarded as arrogant and potentially subversive assertions by unsympathetic jurors who regarded persuasive public speeches and social control as essential bulwarks of the democratic order.
The defense speech centers on Socrates’ distinction between “new” and “old” accusers. This structuring technique can be read as a variation on the standard Athenian legal tactic of dealing with both the facts of the matter (the new) and with the defendant’s reputation among the citizens (the old). The standard approach was to show that the current charges against me are at variance with my reputation: The prosecutor says I have done something wrong, but my fellow citizens’ knowledge about me renders it impossible to believe that I did what he says. Thus you jurors must weigh my opponent’s lying words against my reputation and you should judge me accordingly. If there are nasty rumors about me floating around, these are the product of my opponent’s slanders. Now Socrates at first seems to be playing by the usual rules. When responding to the “old charges” that he investigated things beneath the earth and in the sky, made the weaker argument defeat the stronger, and taught others to do likewise, Socrates’ denies them and appeals to general public knowledge regarding his activities:
“I offer the majority (hoi polloi) of you as witnesses, and I ask you to teach and advise (didaskein kai phrazein) one another; those among you who have heard me in conversation—there are many (polloi) of you—inform each other, please, whether any of you ever heard me discussing anything of that sort” (19d).
This call upon the jurymen-citizens to act as character witnesses for a defendant sounds pretty standard, but Socrates immediately introduces a strange note: “From that [asking each other] you will come to know the status of the other things that the multitude (hoi polloi) says about me” (19d). Rather than taking the expected line (by consulting public opinion you will learn that my current accusers are speaking falsely), Socrates asks the jurors to learn by individual investigation that the general opinion of the mass of citizens (hoi polloi) was false. He seeks, in effect, to establish a conversational, dialectical relationship among the jurors which privileges individual knowledge and rejects the general knowledge of the many en masse. The key shift is in the status of the highly charged term hoi polloi: “many of you” have heard Socrates and should inform your fellow citizens of what you know of him in order to falsify the slanderous claims of “the many” generally. In this short passage Socrates brings the positive, democratic marking of the term hoi polloi into competition with a negative, critical marking of the same term.
Socrates explicitly accepts the priority in time and in importance to his case of deep-set public opinion (old accusers over new: 18a-c), but he turns the standard rhetorical tactic on its head by pointing out the general congruity between the current charges and the opinion of himself that the citizenry has formed over time: he points out that the old accusation that “Socrates is an atheistic scientific investigator and a sophistical teacher” is the basis of the current charges of impiety and corruption of the youth. The new accusers (the prosecutor and his associates) form the tip of a much larger iceberg: the prejudice that had been building against Socrates for a very long time.
Socrates professes to believe that he is not seriously endangered by the visible new accusers, who, despite their rhetorical skill (17b, 18b), could be refuted by simple logic. Through cross examination Socrates shows, for example, that the lead prosecutor, Meletus, believes that the Athenian Assemblymen, Councilmen, and jurors all educate and improve the youth, while only Socrates corrupts them. This is shown to be illogical by an analogy with horse training: it is “of course” true that only one or a few men know how to improve horses through training while “hoi polloi, when they try to train horses, actually corrupt them and the same is true of all other animals” (25a-b). The fact that Meletus will not acknowledge the force of this argument for the “training” of the Athenian youth is taken to show that he has never given any thought to the subject of education (24e-25c). The problem with this line of reasoning, from the point of view of persuading the jury, is that most Athenian jurymen would be likely to agree with Meletus that the Assemblymen and so on did educate the youth through their decisions. Thus, according to Socrates’ implied horses=youths analogy, most Athenians are convicted along with Meletus of giving no care to the education of the youth. Rather than isolating his opponent, Socrates reveals that his opponent’s views are indeed in harmony with those of most Athenians. The juror who is persuaded by Socrates will also set himself against the ordinary wisdom of the mass of citizens.
Socrates has thus set himself a staggering rhetorical challenge: in order to be acquitted he must bring at least 250 individual jurors over to his side, after having reminded them in no uncertain terms that it is his opponent whose position is in conformity with popular opinion. Socrates must, in a very short time, persuade each juror to acknowledge that what he has learned since childhood about Socrates is fundamentally in error. This acknowledgment carries the burden of accepting that the way the citizens currently gain their knowledge about the affairs of the polis is faulty. Moreover, because of faulty knowledge, it is the citizens en masse who corrupt the youth of the polis and only a truly knowledgeable man might be able to improve them.
Having started off on this risky course, Socrates might be expected to show that the old accusations should properly be discounted because they were circulated by tendentious enemies and are incongruent with the core beliefs of democratic ideology. But Socrates makes exactly the opposite point: he admits that he cannot name his “old accusers” or identify the source of the long-circulating rumors which accuse him (18c-d). Thus the jury is left to suppose that the rumors had arisen spontaneously among the citizens as a result of his public behavior. This is the sort of spontaneous popular rumor that the public orator Aeschines (2.145), for example, would later claim had an almost divine status and completely legitimate role to play in the democratic city. Far from attempting to refute that sort of assumption, Socrates embraces the fact that in the opinion of most citizens he was an enemy to the ideals of the democracy and he states forthrightly that those who fell into popular suspicion were likely to be dealt with harshly: “But as I said before, a great deal of enmity has risen against me among many people (pros pollous), and you know very well that this is true. And that is what will convict me, if I am convicted—not Meletus, not Anytus, but the grudging slander and envy of hoi polloi. It has convicted many other good and decent men (pollous kai allous kai agathous); I think it will convict me; nor will it be surprising if it fails to stop with me” (28a-b).
The Athenian litigant, especially one accused of a crime against the public (like impiety), was expected to demonstrate his record of public duty and, preferably, to show that he not only performed the officially mandated services to the state but that he was an avid and voluntary public benefactor. Once again, Socrates seems at first glance to be playing along. He refers with obvious pride to his record of military service and underlines that it was service to the democracy: “When the commanders that you (humeis) elected to command me stationed me at Potidaea and Amphipolis and Delion, I remained there like anyone else, and ran the risk of death” (28e). This appeal to one’s sterling military record is a familiar rhetorical topos (cf. Aeschines 2.168-70). But Socrates’ statement is embedded not in a standard list of state services, but in an explanation of why Socrates would refuse to obey a hypothetical legal order forbidding him to pursue philosophy.
Like other Athenian litigants, Socrates claims to be a selfless benefactor of the polis in that he had exhausted his private resources in the pursuit of the public good (23b-c, 30a, 31a-c). Because he does what is good for his fellow citizens (astoi) for whom he feels regard, friendship (humas…aspazomai men kai philo: 29d) and a special closeness due to kinship (mou engutero este genei: 30a) despite the danger to which this exposes him, Socrates claims to be a benefactor of the Athenians. But the standard rhetorical claim was based on the transfer of material goods from the private estate of the litigant to the polis. By contrast, Socrates claims that he should be rewarded for inflicting therapeutic pain upon his fellows. He famously explains his benefaction to the polis as analogous to the good done by a gadfly to “a large and well bred horse, a horse grown sluggish because of its size and in need of being roused… I rouse you. I persuade you. I upbraid you. I never stop lighting on each one of you, everywhere, all day long. Such a one will not easily come to you again, gentlemen… Perhaps you will swat me, persuaded by Anytus that you may lightly kill. Then you will continue to sleep out your lives, unless the god sends someone else to look after you.” (30e-31a)
Socrates’ equine metaphor is tongue-in-cheek (geloioteron eipein: 30e), but recalls the point of his earlier horse-training analogy when refuting Meletus: the mass of Athenian citizens, like their children, can best be regarded as a lazy beast in need of being disciplined by the rare individual who understands what is in fact good for them. On this reading, popular ideology is no better than a state of sleep, popular opinions are mere dreams. The people only come awake, and then momentarily, when stung by Socrates. Left to their own devices, dreamers have no hope of properly running the affairs of the polis, much less of improving it. Once again, this is a hard pill for many jurors to swallow.
The peroration of his first speech gave Socrates one last chance to confound the expectations of his judges. An Athenian defendant would often wind up his plea to the jury with a family tableau; the display in court of young sons, relatives, and friends was an expression of solidarity with the citizenry as a kinship group and reminded the jury of the consequences to the polis of removing the head of a family. Socrates pointedly refuses to engage in this touching ritual (34c-e).Moreover, instead of simply saying “I won’t be bringing on my three sons,” Socrates pointedly reminds the members of the jury that they themselves, as litigants, may have used the tableau tactic (34c). He then claims that such behavior in his case would be shameful (aischron) and offensive to his personal reputation (doxa) and that of the polis. Why? Because he is regarded as a superior sort of person and distinct from hoi polloi (34e-35a). Furthermore, it would be impious, since attempting to invoke pity might seem to be a way of urging the jurors to foreswear their oath to judge according to the evidence (35b-d). Here, Socrates overtly sets himself up as morally superior to hoi polloi, the ordinary men who made up the jury: cowardly behavior in which you indulge is shameful for a distinguished man like me. He establishes a separate standard of dignified behavior for himself that is far removed from the democratic notion of citizen dignity as protection against verbal or physical insult by the powerful.
Democratic dignity was regarded by the Athenians as a collective possession of the citizenry, guaranteed by the collective political will of the people—as expressed especially in judicial decisions. It is the will of the many exercised in defense of the honor of the individual citizen who might be incapable of holding his own against a powerful and arrogant man. Socratic dignity by contrast is adherence to a personal standard of virtue: the self-willed determination of the one good man to avoid shaming himself and, by extension, his polis by refusing to “stage these pathetic dramas” (35b). Moreover, Socrates denies the central, if unofficial, role of the court as an agent of social control. Socrates claims that the only legitimate approach for a juror who would not impiously foreswear himself was to judge the matter at hand against a fixed standard of justice. While most jurors no doubt regarded justice as a paramount concern, they defined justice as the good of the democratic polis. That good demanded that judges take into account a litigant’s standing as a citizen. And that standing was demonstrated, in part, by his integration into a network of kin and friends.
When viewed through the historical prism of an Athenian juryman’s expectations, Socrates’ speech (as reported by Plato) is revealed as a real shocker and Socrates’ professed amazement at the relatively high number of positive votes (some 220, as against some 280 for conviction: 36a) seems warranted. The Apology is a demonstration of an “alternative” and openly critical use of the ordinarily democratic genre of courtroom rhetoric. Rather than employing speech to demonstrate conformity with and submission to a democratic ethos that emphasized equality among citizens and their collective wisdom, Plato’s Socrates employs it as a form of provocation and cultural criticism:
“Perhaps you think, Athenians, that I have been convicted for lack of words (aporia logon) to persuade you, that I thought it right to do and say anything to be acquitted. Not so. It is true I have been convicted for a lack; not a lack of words, but lack of bold shamelessness, unwillingness to say the things that you would find it most pleasant (hedista) to hear—lamenting and wailing, saying and doing many things I claim to be unworthy of me, but things of the sort you are accustomed to hear from others. I did not then think it necessary to do anything unworthy of a free man (aneleutheron) because of danger; I do not now regret so having conducted my defense; and I would far rather die with that defense than live with the other.” (38d-e)
Socrates follows this overt rejection of conformity with a prophesy: The Athenians are killing him in a vain attempt to free themselves from his stubborn insistence that they examine their own beliefs, but following Socrates’ death they will be pursued by younger, fiercer, more numerous critics. Thus, he suggests, the prudent response to Socratic criticism is not to kill the one gentle critic they now have, but to take care to make themselves into better people (39c-d). That is, each Athenian must abandon his illogical, ideological, democratic convictions and seek to find better, more logically consistent alternatives.
This section, and the text as a whole, make it clear that Socrates saw his own fierce, biting criticism of the status quo, both before and during the trial, as “doing good”: being a social critic is his duty to his god, himself, and his polis. Socrates believed himself assigned to the country of his birth as a beneficial gadfly and the speech in his “defense” can be regarded as his last, best sting. Socrates, as depicted in Plato’s Apology, never sought out a mass audience but he chose to employ his trial in a final attempt to educate his fellow citizens. Although Socrates doubted his own ability to persuade his judges, we must suppose that because he did address the jury (rather than keeping a dignified silence) he kept open the possibility that he might succeed in educating some or all of them. Socrates’ use of the trial as an educational opportunity is in line with his self-description as a good citizen and public benefactor. If Socrates had been convinced that his fellow citizens were ineducable, if he had been concerned only with improving his own soul, he would have had nothing to say at a public trial. The fact that Socrates did offer a defense proves that he sought to improve his polis: proves that Socrates was, in short, both a philosophical social critic and a citizen.
The Apology presents Socrates as a highly patriotic citizen who attempted to improve his fellows through beneficial provocation and criticism of popular ideas. Socrates avoided addressing the Assembly, but he carried out his critical obligations in public places as well as in private houses. The trial speech itself represents a sincere attempt to employ public rhetoric for the purposes of mass education. Socrates’ speech also projected the likely outcome of openly engaging in social criticism: the death of the dissident at the hands of those he attempted to improve. Plato’s dialogue Crito, which continues the story of the last days of Socrates, reiterates the central themes that “democratic knowledge” was tantamount to ignorance, that it was a philosopher-citizen’s duty to criticize ignorance, and that fatal consequences could attend the public practice of dissent. The setting of the Crito is the public prison of Athens; Socrates is awaiting his execution and Crito is attempting to persuade him to cooperate in a prison escape that has been planned by Socrates’ friends. But, in stark contrast to what we moderns have come to accept as the standard prison-escape plot, Socrates refuses to move unless Crito can prove that escaping prison would be a just thing to do.
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