Unit 1: What Is Philosophy?
An Introduction to Plato’s Apology
Heather Wilburn, Ph.D.
Western philosophy begins in Ancient Greece, with a range of thinkers pushing the status quo to delve into topics that affect us as human beings. This chapter provides a brief overview of how philosophy developed in the west by looking at some key elements of Plato’s Apology.
In the western world, rational thinking begins in Ancient Greece. It arises as an alternative way to understand the world in comparison to myth. Myth gives anthropomorphic explanations of the world and refers to gods, magic, and the like. Rational inquiry in Greece begins by giving physical and natural explanations of things and using law, predictions, and scientific thinking instead of myth.
With respect to myth, everything in nature is thought to have powers and to be alive: water, air, sun, and the like. The basic way to understand the world at this time (i.e. think Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and the early Greeks) was that all events were the result of some spirit’s action. For instance, a mythic explanation of a tsunami might be that the god Poseidon was angry, whereas now we give a rational and physical explanation of such. Some gods and goddesses were good and benevolent and others were not. Furthermore, the deities could be influenced by prayer and ritual (if you have read Homer, you can easily see multiple human characteristics attributed to the gods). Essentially, myth gives order and understanding.
However, around 600 BC there was a transformative shift in thinking. The early Greek philosophers (i.e. generally referred to as natural philosophers and PreSocratics) did not assume that everything was alive. Instead, they gave physical and natural explanations of things. These early Greeks were seeking a unifying principle that could explain all things.
The Greeks referred to this more rational approach as philosophy (i.e. the love of wisdom) and they began applying this rational approach to all questions: reality, society, morality, thinking, knowledge, and human nature. You can consider this way of thinking as an emphasis on our cognitive capacities as human beings. This really grounds what we think of as the humanities in the west and it is reflected in various artifacts from these cultures (e.g. the great epics, drama, poetry, the classical style in visual art, conceptions of justice, democracy–Athens was the first democracy in the world–, beauty, education and the list goes on).
There was an additional group of thinkers in Ancient Greece. They were a group of “teachers” known as the sophists. They would visit wealthy families and teach young men the art of persuasion. Sophists believed that truth and morality are relative to the individual. As such they did not believe in ultimate truths—they did not believe that rational inquiry could lead to objective truths (i.e. the capital T truths, if you will). Essentially, they analyzed the method of reasoning and argumentation, which would help young men enter politics and secure a successful civic life.
However, the idea that beauty, justice and wisdom lie in the eye of the beholder actually ties with the sophists’ view, not Socrates or Plato’s view. Both Socrates and Plato defended the view that there’s objective truth and morality.
As the story goes, Socrates was Plato’s mentor in the sense that he learned what a philosophical life looked like. He goes on to open the first university in the west–The Academy. Aristotle, who would go on to tutor Alexander the Great, was a student and later a critic of Plato’s. Plato’s writings feature his mentor Socrates as the spokesperson for various topics of inquiry and discourse, including justice, piety, beauty, and immortality. In other words, Socrates is the main character in Plato’s written works.
Plato’s works are delivered in the form of dialogues. The first time you read a Plato text, it can be a bit disorienting. Yet, once you realize the importance of tracking Socrates and the speakers, it is an interesting way to experience philosophical ideas. It is almost as if you are an observer of a conversation that is unfolding. Additionally, the dialogue form is likely a nod to the importance of “doing” philosophy–trying to obtain a higher understanding of things via conversation. Conversation involves questions of inquiry, a gap of understanding, or an attempt to clarify something vague or ambiguous. Through a process of questioning, answering, challenging, responding…repeat…repeat…understanding. As Hannah Arednt puts it, thinking in this way grounds the object of inquiry in the way that a root grounds a tree. The philosophical world refers to this specific type of philosophical thought as “dialectical” and as the “Socratic method.”
This method uses a process, which most often begins with Socrates asking a question of one of his peers. After an answer or definition is given, Socrates gets his peer to agree to a statement, which contradicts their original statement. Next his peer offers up an alternative definition, which is closer to the truth, but is still shown by Socrates to be faulty. This process might go on until an acceptable definition is reached or it is felt not profitable to continue with the discussion. This is the very technique that he used to point out the ignorances of his fellow Athenians and his followers imitated, winning Socrates many enemies. Ultimately, this landed him in court.
Let’s turn now to the essay that traces his appearance in court, which is recorded by Plato in a work titled, his Apology. The actual title is in Greek, so this is translated to English. However, apology in English involves something like atonement. The Greek word translates more appropriately to defend. So, in this text, Socrates is being charged with corrupting the youth and impiety; however, the impiety charge eventually shifts over to atheism. The Apology is Socrates’ defense of the charges he’s facing.
Socrates’ philosophy activity is traceable to the Delphic Oracle. This oracle is where everyone would go to find answers from the god Apollo. If you’ve read Oedipus the King, this is the same oracle that informed Oedipus’ of his tragic fate.
In the text we are reading, Socrates points out that someone on the jury is likely wondering what led to these accusations if they are not true. Socrates gives an account of how he began living a philosophical life, examining life and values, and, essentially, why he does what he does. All of this began with the Oracle at Delphi.
So, initially his pursuit begins by trying to show the god wrong, but then comes to understand his activity as a service to the god—as assisting the god when he encountered someone who thought he was wise, but was not.
Socrates sees this service to one of the maxims at the Oracle at Delphi, “know yourself.” In literature, this maxim, which is inscribed at the courtyard at the Temple, has a few different interpretations, two of which are very much related to Socrates’ philosophy: a directive to those who believe they know more than they know & a warning to not pay attention to the opinions of the masses. In the Apology, Socrates makes his famous claim: “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Socrates’ interpretation of the Oracles’ announcement and his subsequent activity also plays rather nicely in his defense against the charge of atheism/not believing in the gods of the state. If he was an atheist or did not believe in the gods of the state why would he dedicate his life activity—his services—to the gods?
Remember the two charges that he is facing: corrupting the youth and impiety. As I noted earlier, the second charge regarding Socrates’ disbelief in the state religion quickly turns to the accusation that he is an atheist. Socrates easily refutes this by pointing out that just as people who believe in the existence of human things must also believe in the existence of human beings, people who believe in divine agencies, must also believe in gods. In the indictment, one of the prosecutors, Meletus, swore that Socrates teaches and believes in divine agencies other than those of the state. Socrates led him straight into a contradiction, demonstrating he didn’t understand the charges he was pushing.
With respect to the first charge, corrupting the youth, Socrates defends himself by getting Meletus to admit that the whole of Athens—everyone in the city-state—improves the youth with the exception of Socrates, which is their sole corrupter. First, Meletus cannot name even one person that improves the youth, yet in all other fields of human inquiry we leave it to experts to “improve” something. This gives rise to the following question: do we need experts to train or improve our young? It would seem that we would need experts if such improvement was a matter of knowledge. But is this the sense in which the horse trainer has knowledge? There seems to be two senses of knowledge at play here: wisdom and technical skill. This distinction is worth considering as we move through Plato’s readings.
Another point worth considering is that the first accusation implies Socrates is a teacher, which is why he denies such during the opening statements. Thus, the question arises: is he a teacher or does he just question? What is the difference between teaching and questioning? Questioning can open you up to the premises and evidence regarding the things taught to you. From this type of reflection and questioning one can learn how things are related and fit into the bigger picture.
In the second part of Socrates’ defense regarding the charge of corrupting the youth, he argues: Bad people have a harmful effect upon those they are in contact with. No one prefers to be harmed. Hence, Socrates cannot intentionally have a bad influence on his close companions, since by spoiling their character he would run the risk of being harmed by them in return. I wonder if you think this a valid point? What would we say about criminals and other people who harm others?
Another question I encourage you to think about is this: would you agree with Socrates’ point that if he does corrupt the youth it must be unintentionally, which would not be a crime. If something is done wrong unintentionally the correct course of action would be advice and correction, not punishment.
If we think about these last two points it would seem that bad things are done unintentionally, which, in turn, would mean that wrong-doers should be reeducated and rehabilitated. Essentially, it would seem that we could only do bad things knowingly if we thought that such bad acts would not harm ourselves. Plato, in other dialogues, gives an argument that evil actions are in fact harmful to the evil doer.
While these points refer to the specific charges that Socrates is facing there are some other elements of the text that are worth considering. The first is the theme of death and why it is that Socrates seems willing to die for his principles or what he believes is right.
Death and Wisdom:
At one point in the text, Socrates indicates that fearing death amounts to thinking one is wise when one is not. This is because it assumes that one knows something about death when such knowledge is impossible to obtain. All of your experiences come from life and living, not from death. Death is the end of experience, so it cannot be experienced; it cannot be faced. Thus, it is presumptuous to think that I possess some knowledge about death. In this sense, perhaps Socrates is wiser than his neighbors (and the oracle was right); he knows that he knows nothing about death and recognizes his limitations as a human being.
Part of human wisdom is admitting that we do not know and cannot know everything, which allows us to be inquisitive and curious. Recognizing our limitations allows us to be open. This lack of fear of death—courage—comes from our humility and our confession of not knowing.
Care of the Soul:
If we ought not be concerned with death, what should we be concerned with? For Socrates, we should be concerned with the welfare of our souls (i.e. essence). In fact, he went to people individually and tried to convey the significance of this. He says, “all I do is to go about persuading you, young and old alike, not to care for your bodies or for your wealth so intensely as for the greatest possible well-being of your souls.”
It’s worth thinking about what Plato has to say in light of our contemporary settings. There are many selections of Plato’s work that apply today and many more of Plato’s ideas that have influenced life in the west.
- Identify the psychological, emotional, and persuasiveness of Socrates’ opening statement. What are the main points he tries to get across and what does he want his audience to think about? Is his speech moving? Is it effective?
- Socrates notes there are older accusations that he thinks are more damaging than the formal charges he’s facing. What are these? Why does he take these claims more seriously? How are these accusations related to the intellectual trends in Ancient Greece at the time?
- What was Chaerephon’s question to the Oracle at Delphi and what was the priestess’ reply? What was Socrates’ interpretation and reaction to the reply? What does Socrates believe this oracle says about human wisdom?
- What are the two formal charges Socrates is facing? How does he defend himself? Are his points throughout his defense compelling?
- What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom? What is the difference between teaching and questioning? How does Socrates fit into your understanding of these concepts?
- Socrates claims that we ought not fear death. Explain his reasoning.
- Socrates compares himself to a gadfly. Explain the analogy. Discuss whether you think gadflies are important to our own societies and communities?
- Is a life intrinsically valuable or instrumentally valuable? How do you think Socrates would answer this question?
- Anthropomorphism means that we, as humans, project our faculties upon non-human things. If you’re a pet person, odds are you do this with your dog or cat. For the Ancient Greeks (and even earlier cultures), things in nature take on human qualities. With respect to myth, this helps explain natural occurrences and develop rituals to summon the favor of the gods. ↵