Friday, April 22, 2011

Apology: deserve’s got nothing to do with it

This post looks at Plato’s Apology from 35e to 38b, Socrates’ response to his conviction and his offers for punishment. I’m going to quote and paraphrase Plato’s presentation based on G.M.A. Grube’s translation.

Socrates begins his speech after the jury has returned with a verdict of guilty and Meletus has asked for a penalty of death. Socrates says he was not surprised except the closeness of the vote, joking that if Anytus and Lycon had not joined in the suit then Meletus would not have received one-fifth of the vote and been fined. (It’s a math joke—three accusers, less than 300 votes total, or less than 100 votes per accuser, for ‘guilty’ out of 501 jurists.) It’s interesting that Socrates only chose to cross-examine Meletus although he makes it sound like Anytus and Lycon presented accusations, too.

“He [Meletus] assesses the penalty at death. So be it. What counter-assessment should I propose to you, men of Athens? Clearly it should be a penalty I deserve…”. Socrates should have said “I think I deserve” since he lays out what he says he has done for the city, the implication that he is not guilty despite the verdict. He reiterates his mission of conferring with individuals to care for being good and wise instead of focusing on his home, family or wealth. This focus should translate to the city as well, “not to care for the city’s possessions more than for the city itself”. So Socrates initially turns the question from what punishment does he deserve to what does he deserve. What could be more fitting for a man that has done all of this work on behalf of the city than to be “fed in the Prytaneum, much more suitable for him than for any one of you who has won a victory at Olympia with a pair or a team of horses.” Even though the jury has convicted Socrates, he asks for a reward—free food at the city’s expense just like Olympic victors or those that have provided great service to Athens. [Sidenote from Thucydides: Cleon, after the Battle of Sphacteria, was awarded a seat at the Prytaneum. I’ll have to check but I recall another such award in Thucydides where a man was awarded a seat for providing information to the Athenians but had the honor stripped when it was revealed that he lied.] Obviously this is a slap in the face of the jury, calculated to provoke them as well as highlight Socrates’ declared innocence although it may be hard to see beyond the insult. But for Socrates, the reasoning is simple: “The Olympian victor makes you think yourself happy; I make you be happy.” I don’t recall too many Olympian victors being sentenced to death for their win, though.

Socrates’ reasoning behind these requests lies a simple reason: If he never willingly wrongs anyone, why should he deliberately wrong himself? He feels sure that if the trial lasted several days instead of just one day he would be able to convince the jury of his innocence, returning to the theme that it is difficult to overturn many years of slander in so brief a time. Socrates runs through various options for punishment—imprisonment, fines, exile—rejecting them for principled reasons, several of which I’ll wait and cover in the Crito. But I will highlight some of the more famous lines from the Apology:
If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the god, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men, you will believe me even less.

The greatest good for a man is to discuss virtue, not to behave virtuously? Or does Socrates imply that by discussing virtue we will lead virtuous lives? Or, drilling down even more, since man is a limited being (at least compared to the gods), we will attempt to lead virtuous lives, knowing that we will fall short? Socrates acknowledges his defense has been a failure since what he says the jury will not believe took up quite a bit of time during that speech. But so many questions arise in just a few words…

Socrates reaffirms he does not think he deserves a penalty, but eventually settles on a penalty of thirty minas with several men of Athens (including Plato) guaranteeing the amount. If Socrates had limited himself to this last paragraph he probably would have increased his chances of avoiding a sentence of death. But then he wouldn’t have been Socrates, would he? The Apology lends itself to so many “what if” scenarios but Plato’s construction of the speeches fits the character he wants to convey—an uncompromising celebrant of what it means to be human, who lives to spur others to the same thing. Why the final offers to pay a fine? It seems to be a bow to what is required of him, just as he started the defense with his role to tell the truth and the jury’s requirement to focus on what is just. If he must propose something, he will. Only it will be how and when he wants to propose it.

The “penalty phase” speech, like the “defense speech” before it, frustrates on many levels. Socrates has gone from supposedly telling only the truth to outright provocation, which echoes his development from philosophizing into a gadfly. His previous defense speech ended on a high note as he struck several pious notes, telling the jury he will not ask them to perjure their oaths while affirming (ambivalently) his belief in the gods. But he also said he would not act in a ridiculous manner at that point by groveling or begging. His offer to be rewarded with a seat in the Prytaneum sees such ridiculous behavior (as he sees it) and raises it. Although consistency has not been Socrates’ strong suit during his speeches here except in affirming the virtues behind what he sees as his sacred mission.

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