Main Ideas of Plato's "The Apology"

by Chuck Robert

Plato wrote The Apology based on a speech that Socrates gave at his trial, where he was charged with not accepting the gods endorsed by the government and creating his own gods, and of corrupting the youth of Athens. The "apology" was not Plato's, but was given by Socrates. More importantly, the term "apology" did not refer to the modern concept of apologies, where someone expresses regret and remorse for an action. Rather, "apology" refers to the older Greek conception, which roughly means a defense.

Context

In the time of Socrates, many teachers charged students to learn the art of rhetorical persuasion. Socrates was alarmed that these teachers didn't concern themselves with the truth, but only with seeking to persuade the audience to accept a particular viewpoint. Socrates felt the greatest people in society would pursue virtue when they knew what was virtuous. Since they did not understand virtue, they sought wealth and material power instead.

Socrates' Defense

Socrates is often credited as being the father of Western philosophy. Socrates claimed that he was wise because he did not know very much, and that his wisdom lay in knowing that he did not know very much. He attempted to expose the foolishness of purported wise men by questioning them persistently. This made the "wise men" angry and eventually led to Socrates's downfall.

Verdict and Punishment

The jury found Socrates guilty, but asked him to choose a penalty for himself. Socrates originally joked and stated that he deserved a feast as a reward for the benefits he brought to the state. He then offered to pay a fine, but the jury rejected this punishment. After sentencing Socrates to death, Socrates told the jury that they were hurting themselves more than him.

Elenchus

The Apology also explains how the elenchus -- the Socratic method of questioning -- works. Socrates engaged in dialogue with a proclaimed sage and sought to understand the sage's knowledge through persistent logical questioning. The Apology is the only one of Plato's records of Socrates that is a monologue, since Socrates explains his method of inquiry. Normally, he would stick to questioning others to expose the flaws in their ideas.

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