And first, I have to reply to the older charges and to my first accusers, and then I will go on to the later ones. For of old I have had many accusers, who have accused me falsely to you during many years; and I am more afraid of them than of Anytus and his associates, who are dangerous, too, in their own way. But far more dangerous are the others, who began when you were children, and took possession of your minds with their falsehoods, telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause. The disseminators of this tale are the accusers whom I dread; for their hearers are apt to fancy that such enquirers do not believe in the existence of the gods. And they are many, and their charges against me are of ancient date, and they were made by them in the days when you were more impressible than you are now—in childhood, or it may have been in youth—and the cause when heard went by default, for there was none to answer. And hardest of all, I do not know and cannot tell the names of my accusers; unless in the chance case of a Comic poet. All who from envy and malice have persuaded you—some of them having first convinced themselves—all this class of men are most difficult to deal with; for I cannot have them up here, and cross-examine them, and therefore I must simply fight with shadows in my own defence, and argue when there is no one who answers. I will ask you then to assume with me, as I was saying, that my opponents are of two kinds; one recent, the other ancient: and I hope that you will see the propriety of my answering the latter first, for these accusations you heard long before the others, and much oftener.
Well, then, I must make my defence, and endeavour to clear away in a short time, a slander which has lasted a long time. May I succeed, if to succeed be for my good and yours, or likely to avail me in my cause! The task is not an easy one; I quite understand the nature of it. And so leaving the event with God, in obedience to the law I will now make my defence. (18a – 19a)
The first paragraph in this section proves to be quite extraordinary, not the least for Socrates enlarging the scope of the charges. He points out that there are many accusers from an earlier time that have prejudiced the public against him, charges that he fears more than those brought by his current accusers. What are the earlier charges? That there is “one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause.” Today these charges sound minor, but he spells out the implied danger—that “hearers are apt to fancy that such enquirers do not believe in the existence of the gods.” For someone on trial for not believing in Athens’ gods, this expands the charges significantly, although I do want to point out the distance Socrates gives between those making the charges and the final prejudice. Why would someone “fancy” or infer the belief of atheism of such a person? The first description, about someone speculating about the heavens and earth, describes the natural philosophers of the day, many of whom must have been looking for non-religious explanations (or at least non-reliant on the gods) of how the world worked. The second description of man that makes “the worse appear the better cause” describes the sophists of the day, paid teachers skilled in rhetoric. The implication in making the worse cause appear the better implies a lack of moral grounding or justice, someone undermining the moral order of the city. Put together the charges could lead a listener to believe that the person described was a threat to religious order.
Socrates describes these charges as the ones he fears the most since they have been going on for a long time, they come from many accusers, and he cannot name or face them (unless they are a “Comic poet”, implied here as Aristophanes and later identified by name). Socrates cannot cross-examine nameless accusers and the damage is already done. Socrates suggests these rumors originated from envy and malice. For the self-confessed gadfly of Athens who makes public figures look ridiculous I can understand the reason of malice. But envy? What is there to envy in a poor, ridiculous-looking philosopher other than his reasoning or the sway such reasoning yields in the city? Why else would comic poets target him unless he was a funny character? Socrates will address possible reasons later in the dialogue, but to me the envy charge proves the more interesting of the two. I’ll mention the second “bookmark” I made in my Euthyphro post, when Socrates says “to be laughed at does not matter”. In this case, at least according to Socrates, the court of public opinion does matter and can be dangerous.
In Xenophon’s account of Socrates’ defense the charges of not believing in Athens’ gods and his corruption of the city’s youth are addressed by Socrates in point by point. In Plato, Socrates raises the additional charge and divides his approach between the earlier and recent accusers. So why raise the additional charge, especially when Socrates says it will be difficult to remediate its impact? One reason may be to point out to the jury their bias, recognized or not, against him. It’s hardly a flattering tactic to stand in front of the jury and accuse them of prejudice, even if they don’t mean to be. Another reason may involve Socrates’ statement in his introduction where he says his role is to tell the truth (and the jury’s role is to decide what is just). Outcome be damned, Socrates will tell the truth, even if it means providing charges that may stand while the charges of his recent accusers crumble.
That attitude of doing his duty appears in the second paragraph, where Socrates stresses his “cause” and his “task” “in obedience to the law”. But then he adds an interesting side note: “May I succeed, if to succeed be for my good and yours!” In other translations it reads as to be for the good of him and the city. This is his wish but is there consistency between it, his duty of truth, and the jury’s duty of justice? Apparently only the gods know. However, it raises the question of why Socrates’ acquittal might not be good for him or good for the city/people of Athens.