Ethics Study Guide: Socrates in the Apology and Crito

"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 human being 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 a human being, you will believe me even less."

C.D.C. Reeve begins his book Socrates in the Apology by making a comparison between this dialogue and the Christian Gospels:

“Like the Gospels, the Apology is part of our common culture. Like the Gospels, it suffers -- if that is the right word -- from having as its chief protagonist a world-historical figure about whom almost everyone has views and feelings. Like the Gospels, it is part of a larger whole -- Plato’s Socratic dialogues -- in relation to which it is inevitably seen and understood. Like the Gospels, it is an interdisciplinary text studied, sometimes in proprietary fashion, by classicists, philosophers, historians, literary scholars, and students of law, politics, and religion.”

This is not the first time we have seen a comparison drawn between Socrates and Jesus; such a comparison was one of the main themes of Mitchell’s The Gift of Fire. And we will see the comparison again when we read Chapter 2 of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. But Plato’s Apology is the work that does the most to explain how Socrates has gained such a stature as to be frequently compared with Jesus. It is Plato’s presentation of Socrates as a moral exemplar and as a martyr for philosophy.

The Apology is an account of what Socrates said at his trial. (The word “apology” is used in its original meaning of self-justification; Socrates isn’t saying that he’s sorry for anything.) How historically accurate it is we do not know. Xenophon wrote a somewhat different account of Socrates’ defense speech in his own work also titled Apology. But Xenophon was campaigning as a mercenary in the Persian Empire at the time of Socrates’ trial, while Plato was actually present, so Plato’s version has some claim to be preferred. On the other hand, Plato was not present at the events depicted in his follow-ups to the Apology, namely the Crito and the death scene from the Phaedo.

To understand the Apology, some familiarity with Athenian court procedure is required. (For more details, see my article The Athenian Constitution: Government by Jury and Referendum.) As explained in the study notes to the Euthyphro, Athens had no lawyers, at least no courtroom lawyers. That is, while there were professional speechwriters who would offer to write your presentation of your case for you (Socrates declined to take advantage of their services), you had to deliver it yourself. There were also no judges, in the sense of government officials in charge of presiding over trials, interpreting the laws, or ruling on admissibility of evidence. The jury was supreme. In order to guarantee that the jury would form a representative cross-section of the Athenian populace, juries were enormous by modern standards; the jury for Socrates’ trial probably consisted of 501 people. After hearing speeches from both the prosecutor and the defendant, the jury would vote on guilt or innocence. If the defendant was found guilty, a penalty had to be decided on. Since a jury of 501 people could not effectively deliberate together, the prosecutor and the defendant would each suggest a penalty. Obviously the defendant would suggest a lighter penalty than the prosecutor would. The system was a clever one, for it tended to induce moderation in both prosecutor and defendant: if the prosecutor suggested too harsh a penalty, the jury out of compassion might vote for the defendant, while if the defendant suggested too mild a penalty, the jury out of anoyance might vote for the prosecution. Hence the prosecutor had an incentive not to be harsh while the defendant had an incentive not to be too lenient.

In the Apology Meletus proposes death as the penalty, while Socrates proposes a fine of 30 minae. (He had probably been expected to propose exile instead.) Your textbook suggests in a footnote that a fine of one mina would have been ridiculously small, since it was equivalent to $25. But this equivalency (presumably in silver content) is meaningless, since the footnote immediately admits that in purchasing power (the only equivalence that matters) it would have been five times greater, i.e., $125. (Still a ridiculously small sum, perhaps. But recall that Socrates was very poor. Still, perhaps he could have afforded more; Xenophon tells us (Oeconomicus 2.2-4) that Socrates’ entire property was worth five minae. Reeve suggests that Socrates “was not willing to beggar his family in order to save his life.”) So the final fine of 30 minae would have been equivalent to $3,750. Was this too a “ridiculously small sum”? Many have thought so, and perhaps the jury did; indeed, some have seen the suggested fine as a deliberate affront to the jury on Socrates’ part. But the suggested sum was reached through contributions from Socrates’ wealthy pupils (including Plato -- this is the only dialogue in which Plato claims to have been personally present), who could have afforded more if more were called for, so they probably believed it would be enough to sway the jury. (They did not expect a sentence of death.) Indeed, $3,750 may be an underestimate. Since a mina was equal to 100 drakhmai, and a drakhma was the average daily wage, 30 minae would have been 3000 days’ wages, or over eight years’ salary.

Socrates’ counterproposal is not accepted. In fact, although Socrates is found guilty by a vote of 280-221, he is sentenced to death by a vote of 360-141. In other words, 80 jurors who originally voted to find him not guilty nevertheless voted to sentence him to death. Perhaps, as is often thought, Socrates’ counterproposal speech (in which he claims that the “penalty” he truly deserves is free meals for life at state expense) irritated them. Or perhaps they really thought him guilty, yet voted not guilty out of compassion, thinking the shock of even being brought to trial would be enough to make Socrates tread more lightly in the future, but then grew alarmed once they realized Socrates had no intention of “reforming,” and so voted for the death penalty

In the Apology, Socrates refers to four historical events involving himself. The first concerns the Oracle of Delphi -- the same Oracle that gave Croesus an ambiguous answer in our reading from Herodotus. Here too the answer is something of a riddle; the Oracle says no one is wiser than Socrates, but Socrates is convinced that he possesses no wisdom worth speaking of. Socrates claims that his attempt to decipher this riddle is what led him to embark on his life of philosophical cross-examination, which he describes as a “service to the god.” (As one might expect from the Euthyphro, serving the god involves promoting human welfare by getting people to waken from their complacent ignorance and care for their soul more than for worldly goods.)

The second is the performance of Aristophanes’ comic play The Clouds, which represented Socrates as a Sophist who denied the existence of the gods and undermined traditional morality. Socrates regards this play as the origin of the popular prejudice against him which his accusers in court are exploiting.

STREPSIADES: Open up the Thinkatorium, and make it quick; I want to see Socrates as soon as possible. I yearn to learn. Come on now, open up! ... Hey, who's that man there hanging in the air?

PUPIL: The Master.


PUPIL: Socrates. ...

STREPSIADES: Socrates! Oh, Socrateezie-weezie!

SOCRATES: Why callest thou me, O creature of a day?

STREPSIADES: First tell me, pray, just what you're doing up there.

SOCRATES: I’m treading on air and thinking circles round the sun.

STREPSIADES: You're looking down on the gods from a wicker basket? Why can't you do that, if you must, down here?

SOCRATES: Never could I make correct celestial discoveries except by thus suspending my mind, and mixing my subtle head with the air it's kindred with. If down below I contemplate what's up, I'd never find aught; for the earth by natural force draws unto itself the quickening moisture of thought. The very same process is observable in lettuce.

STREPSIADES: How's that? It's thought that draws the moisture into lettuce? Come down, dear Socrateezie-weezie, come down here to me, so you can teach me what I've come to learn.

SOCRATES: And what might that be?

STREPSIADES: I want to learn oratory. By debts and interest payments and rapacious creditors I'm assailed and assaulted and stand to lose my property. ... Teach me one of your arguments, the one that enables one to get out of paying no debts. Whatever your fee, I'll pay it, I swear by all the gods, in cash.

SOCRATES: What do you mean by gods? To begin with, we don’t credit gods here.

STREPSIADES: Then what do you swear by? ...

SOCRATES: You want to know the truth about the “gods” -- what they really are?

STREPSIADES: By God I do, if it's possible.

SOCRATES: And to enter into communion with the Clouds, who are our deities? ... These are the only gods, my man; and all the rest are fantasies.

STREPSIADES: Come now, don't you all consider Zeus on high to be a god?

SOCRATES: Zeus, you say? Don't make such jests. There's no Zeus at all.

STREPSIADES: What's that you say? Who makes rain, then? That's what I would like to know right off the bat.

SOCRATES: Clouds, of course! I'll prove it so by arguments irrefutable. Tell me, have you ever seen it raining when there were no clouds? Why can't Zeus produce a rainstorm while the clouds are out of town?

STREPSIADES: By Apollo, what you say jibes well with what you said before. When it rained I used to think that Zeus was pissing through a sieve! Tell me, though, who makes the thunder: that's what makes me shake and quake.

SOCRATES: Clouds do, when they roll around.

STREPSIADES: You'll stop at nothing! But tell me, how?

SOCRATES: Clouds fill up with lots of water, then they're forced to move about, sagging soddenly with rain, then getting heavier perforce, collide with one another, breaking up and making crashing sounds.

STREPSIADES: Who is it, though, that starts them moving? Isn't that the work of Zeus?

SOCRATES: Hardly. It's the Cosmic Vortex.

STREPSIADES: What? The Vortex? I never realized Zeus is gone and in his place this Vortex has become the king.

--Aristophanes, Clouds 180-380 (Click here for the complete text of the play.)

The third is the illegal trial of some generals during the Peloponnesian War, at which Socrates was one of the presiding officers who refused to go along with the unconstitutional procedures that the generals’ political enemies were employing. Xenophon gives us further details:

[1.7.4] After this a meeting of the Assembly was called, at which a number of people, and particularly Theramenes, spoke against the generals, saying that they ought to render an account of their conduct in not picking up the shipwrecked. ... [1.7.5] After this the several generals spoke in their own defence (though briefly, for they were not granted the hearing prescribed by the law) and stated what they had done, saying that they themselves undertook to sail against the enemy and that they assigned the duty of recovering the shipwrecked to certain of the captains who were competent men and had been generals in the past -- Theramenes, Thrasybulus, and others of that sort; [1.7.6] and if they had to blame any, they could blame no one else in the matter of the recovery except these men, to whom the duty was assigned. "And we shall not," they added, "just because they accuse us, falsely say that they were to blame, but rather that it was the violence of the storm which prevented the recovery." [1.7.7] They offered as witnesses to the truth of these statements the pilots and many others among their ship-companions. With such arguments they were on the point of persuading the Assembly, and many of the citizens rose and wanted to give bail for them; it was decided, however, that the matter should be postponed to another meeting of the Assembly (for by that time it was late in the day and they could not have distinguished the hands in the voting), and that the Senate should draft and bring in a proposal regarding the manner in which the men should be tried.

[1.7.8] After this the Apaturia was celebrated, at which fathers and kinsmen meet together. Accordingly Theramenes and his supporters arranged at this festival with a large number of people, who were clad in mourning garments and had their hair close shaven, to attend the meeting of the Assembly, pretending that they were kinsmen of those who had perished, and they bribed Callixeinus to accuse the generals in the Senate. ... [1.7.12] Now Euryptolemus, the son of Peisianax, and some others served a summons upon Callixeinus, alleging that he had made an unconstitutional proposal [to try the generals en masse rather than individually]. And some of the people applauded this act, but the greater number cried out that it was monstrous if the people were to be prevented from doing whatever they wished.

[1.7.13] Indeed, when Lyciscus thereupon moved that these men also should be judged by the very same vote as the generals, unless they withdrew the summons, the mob broke out again with shouts of approval, and they were compelled to withdraw the summonses. [1.7.14] Furthermore, when some of the Prytanes refused to put the question to the vote in violation of the law, Callixeinus again mounted the platform and urged the same charge against them; and the crowd cried out to summon to court those who refused. [1.7.15] Then the Prytanes, stricken with fear, agreed to put the question -- all of them except Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus; and he said that in no case would he act except in accordance with the law.

-- Xenophon, Hellenica

But Socrates was overruled, and the generals were tried en masse and condemned to death.

The fourth concerns the (mercifully) brief rule of the Thirty. At the end of the Peloponnesian War, the victorious Spartans abolished Athens’ democracy (along with its defensive walls) and imposed upon Athens a client regime of aristocratic Athenian citizens, known as the Thirty. The Thirty soon disarmed the populace and instituted a reign of terror (one of whose victims was Polemarchus, our friend from Republic I):

[2.3.11] Now at Athens the Thirty had been chosen as soon as the long walls and the walls round Piraeus were demolished; although chosen, however, for the purpose of framing a constitution under which to conduct the government, they continually delayed framing and publishing this constitution, but they appointed a Senate and the other magistrates as they saw fit. [2.3.12] Then, as a first step, they arrested and brought to trial for their lives those persons who, by common knowledge, had made a living in the time of the democracy by acting as informers and had been offensive to the aristocrats; and the Senate was glad to pronounce these people guilty, and the rest of the citizens -- at least all who were conscious that they were not of the same sort themselves -- were not at all displeased. ... [2.3.17] But when, on account of the great numbers continually -- and unjustly -- put to death, it was evident that many were banding together and wondering what the state was coming to, Theramenes spoke again, saying that unless they admitted an adequate number of citizens into partnership with them in the management of affairs, it would be impossible for the oligarchy to endure. [2.3.18] Accordingly Critias and the rest of the Thirty, who were by this time alarmed and feared above all that the citizens would flock to the support of Theramenes, enrolled a body of three thousand, who were to share, as they said, in the government. ... [2.3.20] As for the Thirty, they held a review, the Three Thousand assembling in the market-place and those who were not on "the roll" in various places here and there; then they gave the order to pile arms, and while the men were off duty and away, they sent their Lacedaemonian guardsmen and such citizens as were in sympathy with them, seized the arms of all except the Three Thousand, carried them up to the Acropolis, and deposited them in the temple. [2.3.21] And now, when this had been accomplished, thinking that they were at length free to do whatever they pleased, they put many people to death out of personal enmity, and many also for the sake of securing their property. One measure that they resolved upon, in order to get money to pay their guardsmen, was that each of their number should seize one of the aliens residing in the city, and that they should put these men to death and confiscate their property. ... [2.4.1] So ... the Thirty, thinking that now they could play the tyrant without fear, issued a proclamation forbidding those who were outside the roll to enter the city and evicted them from their estates, in order that they themselves and their friends might have these people's lands. And when they fled to Piraeus, they drove many of them away from there also, and filled both Megara and Thebes with the refugees.

-- Xenophon, Hellenica

Aristotle gives some more details:

[35.1] So in this manner the Thirty were established, in the archonship of Pythodorus. Having become masters of the state they neglected most of the measures that had been resolved on in regard to the constitution, but appointed five hundred Councillors and the other offices from among persons previously selected from the Thousand, and also chose for themselves ten governors of Peiraeus, eleven guardians of the prison, and three hundred retainers carrying whips, and so kept the state in their own hands. [35.2] At first, then, they were moderate towards the citizens and pretended to be administering the ancestral form of constitution .... [35.4] But when they got a firmer hold on the state, they kept their hands off none of the citizens, but put to death those of outstanding wealth or birth or reputation, intending to put that source of danger out of the way, and also desiring to plunder their estates; and by the end of a brief interval of time they had made away with not less than fifteen hundred. [36.1] While the state was thus being undermined, Theramenes, resenting what was taking place, kept exhorting them to cease from their wantonness and to admit the best classes to a share in affairs. At first they opposed him, but since these proposals became disseminated among the multitude, and the general public were well disposed towards Theramenes, they grew afraid that he might become head of the People and put down the oligarchy, and so they enrolled three thousand of the citizens with the intention of giving them a share in the government. [36.2] ... But they ... for a long time went on postponing the roll of the Three Thousand and keeping to themselves those on whom they had decided, and even on occasions when they thought fit to publish it they made a practice of erasing some of the names enrolled and writing in others instead from among those outside the roll [so that no one would be sure of being on it]. ... [37.1] Winter had already set in, when Thrasybulus with the exiles occupied Phyle, and things went badly with the Thirty on the expedition that they led out against them; so they decided to disarm the others and to destroy Theramenes in the following way. They introduced two laws into the Council, with orders to pass them; one was to give the Thirty absolute powers to execute any citizens not members of the roll of Three Thousand, and the other prohibited admission to citizenship under the present constitution for all who had actually taken part in the demolition of the fort on Eetionea, or in any act of opposition to the Four Hundred who had instituted the former oligarchy; in both of these proceedings Theramenes had in fact participated, so that the result was that when the laws had been ratified he became outside the constitution and the Thirty had authority to put him to death. [37.2] Theramenes having been put out of the way, they disarmed everybody except the Three Thousand, and in the rest of their proceedings went much further in the direction of cruelty and rascality.

-- Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians

The leader of the Thirty was Critias, who was both Plato’s relative and Socrates’ student. Critias was also famous for penning the following apparent endorsement of atheism:

A time there was when anarchy did rule
The lives of men, which then were like the beasts’,
Enslaved to force. Nor was there then reward
For good men, nor for wicked punishment.
Next, as I deem, did men establish laws
For punishment, that Justice might be lord
Of all mankind, and Insolence enchain’d.
And whosoe’er did sin was penalized.
Next, as the laws did hold men back from deeds
Of open violence, but still such deeds
Were done in secret -- then, as I maintain,
Some shrewd man first, a man in counsel wise,
Discovered unto men the fear of Gods,
Thereby to frighten sinners should they sin
E’en secretly in deed, or word, or thought.
Hence was it that he brought in Deity,
Telling how God enjoys an endless life,
Hears with his mind and sees, and taketh thought
And heeds things, and his nature is divine,
So that he hearkens to men’s every word
And has the power to see men’s every act.
E’en if you plan in silence some ill deed,
The Gods will surely mark it. For in them
Wisdom resides. So, speaking words like these,
Most cunning doctrine did he introduce,
The truth concealing under speech untrue.
The place he spoke of as the God’s abode
Was that whereby he could affright men most --
The place from which, he knew, both terrors came
And easements unto men of toilsome life --
To wit the vault above, wherein do dwell
The lightnings, he beheld, and awesome claps
Of thunder, and the starry face of heaven,
Fair-spangled by that cunning craftsman Time --
Whence, too, the meteor’s glowing mass doth speed
And liquid rain descends upon the earth.
Such were the fears wherewith he hedged men round,
And so to God he gave a fitting home,
By this his speech, and in a fitting place,
And thus extinguished lawlessness by laws.
Thus first did some man, as I deem, persuade
Men to suppose a race of Gods exists.

-- Critias, Sisyphus

(Pretty poetical for a mass-murdering dictator....)

Xenophon tells of a conversation that Socrates had during this time with Critias and Charicles (another of the Thirty).

[1.2.32] When the Thirty were putting to death many citizens of the highest respectability and were encouraging many in crime, Socrates had remarked: "It seems strange enough to me that a herdsman who lets his cattle decrease and go to the bad should not admit that he is a poor cowherd; but stranger still that a statesman when he causes the citizens to decrease and go to the bad, should feel no shame nor think himself a poor statesman."

[1.2.33] This remark was reported to Critias and Charicles, who sent for Socrates, showed him the law and forbade him to hold conversation with the young.

"May I question you," asked Socrates, "in case I do not understand any point in your orders?"

"You may," said they.

"Well now," said he, [1.2.34] "I am ready to obey the laws. But lest I unwittingly transgress through ignorance, I want clear directions from you. Do you think that the art of words from which you bid me abstain is associated with sound or unsound reasoning? For if with sound, then clearly I must abstain from sound reasoning: but if with unsound, clearly I must try to reason soundly."

[1.2.35] "Since you are ignorant, Socrates," said Charicles in an angry tone, "we put our order into language easier to understand. You may not hold any converse whatever with the young."

"Well then," said Socrates, "that there may be no question raised about my obedience, please fix the age limit below which a man is to be accounted young."

"So long," replied Charicles, "as he is not permitted to sit in the Council, because as yet he lacks wisdom. You shall not converse with anyone who is under thirty."

[1.2.36] "Suppose I want to buy something, am I not even then to ask the price if the seller is under thirty?"

"Oh yes," answered Charicles, "you may in such cases. But the fact is, Socrates, you are in the habit of asking questions to which you know the answer: so that is what you are not to do."

"Am I to give no answer, then, if a young man asks me something that I know? -- for instance, `Where does Charicles live?' or `Where is Critias?'"

"Oh yes," answered Charicles, "you may, in such cases."

[1.2.37] "But you see, Socrates," explained Critias, "you will have to avoid your favourite topic -- the cobblers, builders and metal workers; for it is already worn to rags by you in my opinion."

"Then must I keep off the subjects of which these supply illustrations, Justice, Holiness, and so forth?"

"Indeed yes," said Charicles, "and cowherds too: else you may find the cattle decrease."

[1.2.38] Thus the truth was out: the remark about the cattle had been repeated to them: and it was this that made them angry with him. So much, then, for the connexion of Critias with Socrates and their relation to each other. [1.2.39] I venture to lay it down that learners get nothing from a teacher with whom they are out of sympathy.

-- Xenophon, Recollections of Socrates

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