Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Apology: confronting Meletus

This post looks at the section of Plato’s Apology from 24b to 28a, where Plato directly addresses the accusations of Meletus. I’m going to quote and paraphrase Plato’s presentation based on G.M.A. Grube’s translation.

This section proves to be the only sustained address by Socrates to the formal charges. Even here he seems to treat things lightly while turning Meletus around in his arguments. Not that Socrates’ reasoning is solid…far from it. Instead, Meletus seems to be pretty much a lightweight. I hate to admit that this section didn’t hook me as much as some of the other sections, even with the humor, not because it isn’t important but because Meletus seems so senseless and Socrates’ arguments fall flat. But then, maybe that’s the point. This is the central section of the defense and yet it feels far from satisfying.

Socrates says he will turn his attention away from the “earlier accusers”, the ones he says have tarnished his reputation and accused him of atheism (directly or implied), and focus on defending himself against one of the three formal accusers. He calls Meletus a “good and patriotic man, or at least he says he is” (cue the sarcasm-ometer, which will get plenty of use in this section). Socrates repeats the formal charges, or “something like” them: “Socrates is guilty of corrupting the young and of not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other new spiritual things.” Note—other translations highlight that Socrates introduces new gods, not the he believes in them. As pointed out at Kelley L. Ross' site, there’s good reason for the confusion:
The problem all these translation are dealing with is that there is no noun in the Greek phrase. Kainá is "new"; and daimónia is "of or belonging to a daímôn," where a daímôn is a god, spirit, or even soul -- though this is later the word "demon" used by Christianity. So the literal translation would be that Socrates believes in "other new spiritual." But this is not grammatical in English, as it is in Greek, since English requires a noun, not just adjectives, in that phrase. We do know something from the Greek phrase about what a noun would have to be like, since all three adjectives in the phrase are neuter plurals -- "things." Supplying the noun "divinities" or "beings" implies that what Socrates' teaching is about living things, or actual gods. This adds far too much to what the charge says, and makes Socrates' questions about it sound unmotivated. "Things" is the best noun to supply, a very indefinite, semantically neuter, plural. But it should be remembered that even this is more definite than the original Greek. Socrates is being accused of teaching new something-or-others about divine or spiritual things, without much of a clue about what those would be. No wonder that Socrates is going to ask about it.

Socrates cross-examines Meletus first on the corruption charge. After repeating that Meletus has charged Socrates with corrupting the young, Socrates asks him, since he cares so much about the youth, “who improves them.” (A minor point, but Socrates makes a play on words several times here since Meletus means “the carer”. He constantly asks “the carer” about his concern and care for the young.) Meletus does not respond at first, but after additional prodding answers “The laws.” Urged to try again, since Socrates asked “who has the knowledge” Meletus answers “These jurymen”. Under more prodding and answering that the audience, the members of the Council, and the assembly improve the young, Meletus confirms Socrates’ statement that “All the Athenians, it seems, make the young men into fine good men, except me, and I alone corrupt them.”

Socrates then uses an analogy (common in both Euthyphro and the Apology) with horses and other animals, showing that only a few people help animals (trainers, etc.) while many do not improve them. Concluding such behavior is similar with people, that not just one person will be a corruptor of the youth, Socrates asks Meletus “whether it is better for a man to live among good or wicked fellow citizens.” Since the wicked supposedly do harm to those they are closest to, Socrates asks “Is there any man who wants to be harmed?” After Meletus answers ‘no’, Socrates argues that if he makes people wicked then he runs the risk of being harmed by those he corrupts. Following Meletus’ logic, this could not happen. “Either I do not corrupt the young, or, if I do, it is unwillingly”. If unwillingly, then court is not the proper response but instruction. (For now I’ll skip Socrates’ belief, echoed by Meletus agreement, on the topic of doing wrong knowingly—I’m sure that will show up in more detail in other dialogues.)

Socrates leads Meletus into a trap: “Nonetheless tell us, Meletus, how you say that I corrupt the young; or is it obvious from your deposition that it is by teaching them not to believe in the gods in whom the city believes but in other new spiritual things?” (Note: this will contradict what Socrates later, but that is possible since Meletus seems to neither know nor understand what the charges are.) After Meletus agrees, Socrates pushed for further clarification on the charges—is Socrates an atheist and does he teach this belief to others? Meletus agrees to that clarification. A slight digression follows, where Meletus declares that Socrates does not believe the sun and the moon are gods but “that the sun is stone, and the moon earth.” Socrates ridicules this as something the youth could pick up in the books by Anaxagoras and he would be foolish to pass these beliefs off as his own, but does not address that he could have agreed with them and taught such beliefs.

I’ll shorten the remainder of the cross-examination since the main point falls on Meletus’ deposition that Socrates believes “in spiritual things and teach about them, whether new or old” versus his current testimony (and apparently also in the deposition) that Socrates is an atheist. Actually this proves to be a humorous section as Socrates points out that believing in spirits but not gods is akin to believing in mules but not horses or donkeys. Meletus also agrees that no man would “believe in spiritual activities who does not believe in spirits”. Socrates point out that all of these contradictions means that either Meletus means to test the jury or could not find any true wrongdoing with which to accuse him.

This section has relies heavily on sarcasm and ridicule with the deliberate taunting of Meletus which may be part of the reason it feels flat to me. Socrates’ defense is enough to silence Meletus, but is it enough to convince the jury? Not with that tone, and the logic isn’t overly strong. He simply gives Meletus enough rope to hang himself. I did enjoy the irony that Socrates has taken great pains to say his unpopularity comes from such examinations as he carries out with Meletus, yet he continues to behave this way because of his divine mission to show men they aren’t as wise as they think they are.

Socrates wraps up the defense of the formal charges at this point, but he does not stop. He will speak on why he expects to be convicted and his refusal to plead to the jury. I found the next section much more moving and to the heart of the matter, at least from Socrates' point of view, that his reply to the formal charges here seem like a perfunctory performance until he can get to what he really wants to convey.

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