This work is universally known as Plato’s Apology of Socrates, in deference to the word apologia that stands in its Greek title. Actually, the word means not an apology but a defense speech in a legal proceeding, and that is what we get—certainly, Socrates does not apologize for anything! This is not really a dialogue. Except for an interlude when he engages one of his accusers in the sort of question-and-answer discussion characteristic of Plato’s ‘Socratic’ dialogues, we see Socrates delivering a speech before his jury of 501 fellow male Athenians. At the age of seventy he had been indicted for breaking the law against ‘impiety’—for offending the Olympian gods (Zeus, Apollo, and the rest) recognized in the city’s festivals and other official activities. The basis of the charge, such as it was, lay in the way that, for many years, Socrates had been carrying on his philosophical work in Athens. It has often been thought that the real basis for it lay in ‘guilt by association’: several of Socrates’ known associates had been prominent malfeasants in Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War only a few years earlier and the oligarchic reign of terror that followed; but an amnesty had forbidden suits based on political offenses during that time. However much those associations may have been in the minds of his accusers—and his jurors, too—Plato makes him respond sincerely to the charges as lodged. After all, these would be the ultimate basis on which he should or should not be found guilty of anything. So he takes the occasion to explain and defend his devotion to philosophy, and the particular ways he has pursued that in discussion with select young men and with people prominent in the city—discussions like those we see in Plato’s other ‘Socratic’ works. He argues that, so far from offending the gods through his philosophizing, or showing disbelief in them, he has piously followed their lead (particularly that of Apollo, through his oracle at Delphi) in making himself as good a person as he can and encouraging (even goading) others to do the same. The gods want, more than anything else, that we shall be good, and goodness depends principally upon the quality of our understandings of what to care about and how to behave in our lives: philosophy, through Socratic discussion, is the pursuit of that understanding.
I’ll use the Benjamin Jowett translation at Project Gutenberg for quotes, although I may compare it at times to the G.M.A. Grube translation in my book.
The recording at LibriVox suffers from uneven recording quality. There is another recording available at ThoughtAudio but I have not listened to it yet.