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Plato’s Apology of Socrates: For What Does Socrates Die?

Joseph Gerbasi

University of Toronto

This paper interprets Socrates’ defense speech in Plato’s Apology of Socrates within the unstable context of late 5th century Athenian political ideology concerning self-sacrifice, and thereby challenges the dominant approach to interpreting the speech. Going back at least to Hegel, scholars have taken Socrates’ speech to his jurors to be a performance of a conflict between philosophy and the city, between the individual and the collective, between rationalistic morality and conventional ethical values (Most 2007). For some, this conflict is unresolvable, and leads to the tragic failure of Socrates’ defense (e.g. Brann 1978, West 1979, McPherran 1986, Reeve 1989, Burnyeat 1998, Cartledge 2009, Gonzalez 2009). For others, the dialogue’s aim is to show that the failure was not fated, but was the result of misunderstanding, and that Socratic philosophy and Athenian democracy are essentially compatible (e.g. Grote 1879, Jaeger 1947, Woozley 1979, Kraut 1984, Recco 2009). The speech itself is ambiguous on the matter, and both traditional camps of interpretation tend to rely on the portrayal of Socrates in other dialogues and a priori philosophical principles as explanatory sources for making sense of those ambiguities. Against this tradition, and in agreement with recent approaches to reading the Platonic dialogues attuned to their “historicity” (Nightingale 1995), their “entanglement” in democratic ideologies (Monoson 2000), and their fundamentally “apologetic” purpose (Danzig 2010), I propose reading the Apology as a thoroughly ideological document, part of a narrative constructed by Plato to present Socrates as an exemplary Athenian citizen. The ambiguities in Socrates’ speech, I argue, reflect, not a tension between a traditional civic morality and a higher philosophical one, but a tension intrinsic to the very conception of an exemplary citizen at this particular historical and cultural moment.

For understanding those tensions, I draw on the scholarship surrounding a change that took place at the end of the 5th century in Athenian ideology, namely, an abstraction of the very idea of the city: no longer was the city a collection of citizens, whose interests were the citizens’ own, but now it was becoming a sovereign entity which transcended its citizenry and the citizenry’s interests (Finley 1971, Romilly 1971, Loraux 1986, Ostwald 1986, Sealey 1987, Nightingale 1999). This change naturally produces a problem for demonstrating one’s own exemplarity: according to the earlier 5th century view, the citizen, by sacrificing himself for the good of the city, partakes in a common good which is immediately intelligible to himself and other citizens; now, however, the city demands obedience and self-sacrifice from its citizens for its own purposes. My argument is that Socrates’ self-presentation as an ideal citizen oscillates between both understandings and that this oscillation animates the ambiguities in Socrates’ speech.

Hence the textual focus of my argument are those passages in the Apology where Socrates, ostensibly in order to defend his life of philosophizing, packages it in a narrative of self-sacrifice. I pay particular attention to what in Socrates’ defense seems, on the contrary, to contradict or just to sit uneasily with this narrative: his comparison of himself to a foreigner (17c-18a), his appropriation of the non-democratic Achillean ethos (28b-d), his apparent willingness to disobey the hypothetical decree not to philosophize (29c-d), his dissent from the majority’s condemnation of the twelve generals (32a-c) and his disobedience to the orders of the Thirty (32c-32d), his general avoidance of political engagement (32a-d), and, not least, his own ignorance concerning the right standards of conduct to teach the youth (20a-c; 23c-d). The inclusion of these details in Socrates’ defense has hitherto been explained only by reference to the incommunicability between the philosophical and civic ways of life; on my reading, however, they point to an implicit tension within the ideology concerning the relationship between citizen and city itself, which Socrates, holding up a mirror to Athenian democracy, helps make explicit.

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Plato and his Reception

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