A twentieth century philosophy, A.N. Whitehead, once said; "All philosophy is but a footnote to Plato." That may be an exaggeration, but he is right that in the 3rd century BCE Plato anticipated most of the topics that philosophers would go on to grapple with for the next two millennia. A remarkable feature of Plato's writing is that it comes across as so contemporary. The language may be antiquated and some of the cultural assumptions are different, but for the most part the motivations and problems of the characters in Plato's dialogues are immediately recognizable to the contemporary reader.
The Apology is Plato's account of the trial of Socrates. Socrates was a real person, he was Plato's teacher, he really did have a trial, he really was put to death, Plato was present at the trial and execution. The Apology is likley a fairly accurate account of the trial of Socrates. Other writers of the time confirm the basic facts. But this work is also a philosophical masterpiece in which Plato's unique thought and writing ability shows through. It is not merely a transcript that Plato copied from the trial.
In his defense speech, Socrates explains his reasons for following his philosophical path (which is what got him in trouble with the tyrants of Athens). This work is the first in a three-part series of works by Plato about Socrates' last days. In The Apology Socrates argues his case before the court of Athens and is sentence to death. In the second work, The Crito, Socrates is offered the chance to escape jail and live a comfortable life in exile rather than be put to death. Socrates declines this offer and provides his philosophical reasoning for doing so (i.e. it would involve breaking the law, which he refuses to do). In the third work, The Phaedo, Socrates is executed (by drinking poison) and shares these last moments of life in cheerful philosophical discussion about the immorality of the soul.
Most of Plato’s writings are dialogues in which the discussions between people are presented. We are used to narrative forms of writing in which lots of description takes place with dialogue punctuating the action. Plato gives very little description, and when he does it is usually through someone else’s words. This can be disconcerting to modern readers who are used to the author providing a God’s eye view of the scene. An effective method is to figure out who the characters are and to follow the discussion as if you were actually present.
Most of his dialogues have Socrates as a central figure. Socrates was a real person and was Plato’s teacher, but he never wrote anything. Most of what we think that we know about Socrates comes to us from Plato. Even though the Republic is written as a dialogue with Socrates as the main character, it is plainly not an actual discussion that Plato copied. In this work Plato is presenting his own ideas, using Socrates as his mouthpiece.
So why doesn’t Plato just say what he thinks and write his own opinions? Well, both Socrates and Plato agreed on a key idea that reasoning and truth can only be gained through dialogue. They saw the search for truth as a process of assertions and testing those assertions. Just stating opinions is not enough. We need to put our claims and beliefs to the test of reason and analysis. The process of a dialogue (as Socrates conducts it, anyway) puts claims to the test. This is why Thrasymachus is so angry with Socrates from the start. As a successful Sophist Thrasymachus wants to rely on speeches and statements of opinion. His view is that the ability to speak forcefully and beautifully is all that it takes to establish truth. Thrasymachus is certain that he can give more skillful speeches than Socrates, but when the method of inquiry becomes a dialogue with questions and answers (called Socratic Method) then all of his rhetorical skill becomes useless.
The Apology is written as if it were a transcript of the trial. Read it as what people are saying at this event and it will be easier to follow. As with all great literature, our understanding grows with reflection and re-reading. This is not dime-store pulp-fiction where you find out "who done it" and that's the end of it (actually, even some pulp-fiction benefits from re-reading.) I cannot stress enough, and will say it time and again; a major theme of the issues and works that we consider philosophical is that there is more to the world and to life than that which occurs to us immediately and obviously. To see the deeper aspects of something, you must look carefully, think carefully, look again, make analysis of what you find, compare the parts, contrast the difference, draw inferences, make and test hypotheses, and be willing to return to the source with a fresh eye. Many modern readers expect to be served by the author, to be given the meaning and value with little effort on their parts. This is an attitude to be transcended. One cannot merely consume the meaning and value of deep works (be they in literature, art, or the world). We must be willing to participate in the struggle of the issues and ideas along with the work. Philosophical works are invitations to inquiry: producers of questions, more than ready sources of answers. This can be disquieting for folks who are used to getting what they pay for, especially in the context of a class where one is expected to produce the correct answers in exchange for a grade.
Consider part of a key passage in the Apology;
In this passage is one of the statements of Socratic Ignorance. Socrates frequently proclaimed himself to be profoundly ignorant and lacking in knowledge. In this passage he regards that as an advantage of a sort and a sort of wisdom. Now how can that be? Are wisdom and knowledge different? How do they differ and how are they related? If Socrates is ignorant, how can he tell that another person is not wise? These are puzzles raised by the text and having such puzzlement should be regarded as a stimulus to thought; that the text is having a successful effect. I do not mean that there is a trick here, just that when we read a text such as The Apology appropriately, we end up with more questions than answers. Take that as a sign that the text is deep, not that it is too obscure and unclear to understand.
In addition to reading The Apology, get some background from the resources above, and consider the study questions for the Apology in the next section