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Classic Text #2
The Apology, by Plato

A twentieth century philosophy, A.N. Whitehead, once said; "All philosophy is but a footnote to Plato." That may be an exaggerating, 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 anntiquated and some of the cultural assumptions are differnet, 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. 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 sentance 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.

Plato was one of Socrates's students, one of the worlds greatest writers, and a fabulous philosophers. Socrates did not write any works of philosophy or literature. He practiced his philosophical mission by having discussions with people of Athens. In reading The Apology, bear in mind that Plato is practicing his literary craft and promoting a philosophical (and political) aggenda. Still, Plato was present at these events and his telling of them is corroborated to an impressive degree by other sources.

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 immediatly 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 disquiteing 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;

I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him -- his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination -- and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is -- for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this l atter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him.

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

The Apology, by Plato

Apology: Classics Technology Center

Plato's Socrates: The Apology: The Conscience of a Community, by Gordon L. Ziniewicz







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