Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Apology: Socrates’ introduction

I’ll quote from the Benjamin Jowett translation at Project Gutenberg, although I may occasionally reference the G.M.A. Grube translation in my book.
How you, O Athenians, have been affected by my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that they almost made me forget who I was—so persuasively did they speak; and yet they have hardly uttered a word of truth. But of the many falsehoods told by them, there was one which quite amazed me;—I mean when they said that you should be upon your guard and not allow yourselves to be deceived by the force of my eloquence. To say this, when they were certain to be detected as soon as I opened my lips and proved myself to be anything but a great speaker, did indeed appear to me most shameless—unless by the force of eloquence they mean the force of truth; for is such is their meaning, I admit that I am eloquent. But in how different way from theirs! Well, as I was saying, they have scarcely spoken the truth at all; but from me you shall hear the whole truth: not, however, delivered after their manner in a set oration duly ornamented with words and phrases. No, by heaven! but I shall use the words and arguments which occur to me at the moment; for I am confident in the justice of my cause (Or, I am certain that I am right in taking this course.): at my time of life I ought not to be appearing before you, O men of Athens, in the character of a juvenile orator—let no one expect it of me. And I must beg of you to grant me a favour:—If I defend myself in my accustomed manner, and you hear me using the words which I have been in the habit of using in the agora, at the tables of the money-changers, or anywhere else, I would ask you not to be surprised, and not to interrupt me on this account. For I am more than seventy years of age, and appearing now for the first time in a court of law, I am quite a stranger to the language of the place; and therefore I would have you regard me as if I were really a stranger, whom you would excuse if he spoke in his native tongue, and after the fashion of his country:—Am I making an unfair request of you? Never mind the manner, which may or may not be good; but think only of the truth of my words, and give heed to that: let the speaker speak truly and the judge decide justly. (17a – 18a)

I found the line Socrates draws between him and his accusers interesting even though a conventional court defense. He says his accusers hardly speak a word of truth while he speaks only the truth. But his defense does not follow such simple lines. Several things Socrates says may be true in a narrow sense but they aren’t accurate in a broader view. He says he is “a stranger to the language of the place”, meaning the court. Two thoughts undermine that: 1) Later in his defense Socrates tells of his role as leader of a council trying a case against Athenian generals, and 2) even with that caveat, do you have to appear as a defendant in court to know the “language of the place”? Socrates later makes it clear that he knows many people plead and beg in court and behave most unseemly, so he is familiar with more than he initially reveals. Plus he reveals he knows the sophists’ tricks of the trade, even though he refuses to use them.

OK, so he stretches the truth a little…what’s the big deal? The importance lies in his early claim that he speaks only the truth while his accusers scarcely speak a word of truth. But Socrates takes this claim and links truth to justice. He is confident in the justice of his cause which he will make apparent through speaking the truth. In addition, the speaker’s duty is truth while the jury’s duty is justice. Just things are identified with true things. It will be interesting to see how this linkage holds up during his defense.

In addition, Socrates seems to contradict himself about his choice in the manner of speaking. He originally says that it is not fitting to “toy with words” (Grube translation). Socrates says he will not appear or speak “in the character of a juvenile orator”, indicating he could do so if he wishea but he chooses not to. But at the end of this section he claims to be a “stranger to the language of the place”, implying he is ignorant of such oratory techniques. While not necessarily a contradiction, Socrates again presents possible incongruous claims. You can’t knowingly choose between something you know and something you don’t. Another implication here concerns an incompatibility between rhetoric and (his duty to tell) the truth.

Many of the guides to Plato highlight the tailoring of Socrates’ speech to match his audience. I think he provides a big clue in this first paragraph he doesn’t believe his audience (the jury) to be up to his high standards. As I mentioned in this post, Euthyphro (in that eponymous dialogue) acts surprised'to see Socrates at the court and not at the Lyceum. Here in the Apology Socrates says some of the jurists may have heard him in the marketplace, especially at the bankers’ tables. While Xenophon’s defense of Socrates mentions his speaking in the marketplace, I think Socrates deliberately implies the jury could not follow his normal speech at the gymnasia (or elsewhere in the marketplace) because they have never heard, much less understood, him in any other setting than simple commercial transactions. The Apology provides several examples of Socrates saying or implying less than flattering things to the jury, although this instance would have probably sailed over their heads. Your mileage may vary on this one—that’s just how it struck me, especially after the comment in Euthyphro.

Why does Socrates mention his age twice in his introduction—once directly and once indirectly? There may be no reason, but I rather doubt that option. Everything seems to be there for a reason. Many times throughout the trial Socrates references the absolute or relative youth of the jurists and of his accusers. He may simply be pointing out an additional difference with them and other Athenians, one that adds to a feeling of alienation or unfriendliness between him and the Athenian citizens. But another reason for its inclusion would be less flattering. Later in his defense Socrates says he will not act in an unbecoming manner in order to draw mercy from the jurists. Would constantly reminding them of his old age fall in this category but in a slightly more “acceptable” manner? It's possible, but the inclusion may be calculated as an additional irritant to the jury (think Abe Simpson and his ramblings about “back in the day”). I have to remember that this performance is as much Plato’s as it is Socrates’ defense.

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