Monday, April 25, 2011

Apology: additional thoughts

So what to think of Socrates’ defense and Plato’s presentation of it? There are a few points I want to get down on paper (I wrote this at a Easter family get-together) while the dialogue still rattles around in my thoughts.

Having read Thucydides a few months ago, Socrates’ dialogue with the city of Athens raised comparisons with the city of a few years earlier. Pericles’ funeral oration provides a good starting point, where a liberal, open Athens is celebrated. A few quotes from my post covering this speech seemed relevant: “Many characteristics are used to describe Athens and what makes it superior: trust, duty, courage, action, and involvement. “'Power of the city', a phrase which is repeated several time, is designed to make itself felt through citizen action and institutions.” “Pericles stresses Athenian subjection to laws, not just in making Athens great but also twice explaining he gives this oration in following what the law requires—he’s subject to the same laws as every citizen.” “Pericles notes that we all die but what matters is what we do while alive.” Even though Pericles’ speech will be undermined by future events (not to mention by one of his speeches) there lies a basis for his praise for the city. The characteristics Pericles mentions in this speech show up in one form or another in the Apology.

The ideals expressed in the funeral oration are tested during the war and Athens does not always live up to the sentiments expressed. Pericles’ speech after grumbling started as the citizens watched Sparta ravage the surrounding countryside and the plague spread reduces the funeral oration's ideals to their reality. As I said in this post about one of the important messages in Pericles’ speech that carries over to the Apology, “During his speech, Pericles stresses the importance of the state over the individual—if the state survives, the individual can be made whole.” Plato directly challenges this sentiment, stressing the importance of the individual and his development to make the state great. One more example from Thucydides that has some bearing on the dialogue: the reaction of Athens’ citizens to the mutilation of the statues of Hermes before the expedition to Sicily demonstrated how political the court system could be and how cases could be ‘gamed’. The practical side of Athens presented a few decades earlier than Socrates’ case shows how the actual didn’t always live up to the ideal, which is normal. It’s in the cases where there is an extraordinary gap between the two that prove instructive and Plato makes the most of Socrates' example.

But…was Socrates guilty? Many discussions seem not to address this basic question. It is difficult to tell since Socrates blurs the line between fact and fiction in his defense, eventually arriving at something that sounds like it might be the truth. The story about the oracle sounds completely false by the end, for example, as he arrives at what sounds like his real reasons for pestering individuals in Athens. I’ve quoted Allan Bloom in a previous post with his great line that there is “an odor around Socrates of impiety.” It is difficult to point to any large infraction but many small items accrue against him. I’ll plead uncertainty on the question, tending to believe him innocent while he maintained enough of an air of guilt to those unable to look beyond their predisposition. Not helping matters are the enemies Socrates had built up over the years and the ones he created during his defense. His arrogance, especially during the ‘middle’ sentencing speech probably helped increase the votes for his death.

Socrates' actions follow from his beliefs, which are rationally examined. The idealized life, including challenging one’s beliefs, striving for improvement, and recognizing our ignorance, lies behind Socrates’ performance in the Apology. His final challenge, to his accusers no less, to reproach his sons if they stray from virtue or think more of themselves than appropriate extends through Plato to us. In order to comply, self-knowledge and self-control of the type Socrates practiced must be necessary. While not necessarily heretical, since he says the god put him on his mission, Socrates ultimately claims the ability to reason wrong from right. This is his challenge to the jury—to reason through his charges with available facts in order to decide his fate. Their failure still resonates over 2,400 years later. The defense of Plato’s Socrates lies not in his argument against his charges but in his justification for the life worth living.

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