Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Apology of Socrates, Part I

The Apology of Socrates (apologia Sokratous), from a “historical” standpoint, centers around the accusations brought against Socrates; it is his defense speech at his trial on charges of corrupting the youth. In this post I shall attempt to sketch out some of the relevant points of interpretation.

First, a brief note on the title. Socrates is not profusely apologizing the dialogue; the Greek word “apologia” has a slightly different sense. It means ‘defense’ or ‘a speech in defense of...’ This point should be obvious if one has read the dialogue.

Interestingly, this is the only Platonic dialogue that contains the name “Socrates” in its title. This, among other things, points to the central issue that the dialogue entertains: Who is Socrates? (John Sallis makes something of this point) Socrates has been called an atheist and a corrupter of the youth of Athens; it is his job to show that he is not. The dialogue centers on the being of Socrates—who he is, or, perhaps, who he should be. This issue is hinted at right at the beginning of the dialogue, when Socrates says “[he] nearly forgot who [he] was, they [his accusers] spoke so persuasively”. His identity has been questioned; he himself perhaps questioned his identity. Implicitly, he is drawing attention to himself and who he is. However, he points out “there was not a word of truth in what they said”. Socrates didn’t forget himself at all: he knows who he is and his accusers have attempted to cover it over in their speeches against him.

The word “truth” here is essential. The Greek word is aletheia, which, if one breaks down into its semantic and grammatical components, is a-letheia: unconcealment. Differing greatly from the commonplace concept of truth, which is correspondence; this is a more primordial concept which even underlies the everyday conception of it: something must be uncovered in order to be corresponded to something else. Heidegger makes a great deal out of this etymological deconstruction (see The Essence of Truth (the lecture course, not the essay) for a great discussion of this notion in relation to the Allegory of the Cave in the Republic, also see his lecture course Parmenides). There is no truth in the accuser’s speeches, that is, they covered up the identity of Socrates which Socrates now has to bring to light; he has to unconceal himself for all to see. This is, ultimately, the project of the Apology: Socrates unconvering himself for the jury in order to give a response to the question “Who is Socrates?”, a question that the prosecution has answered “falsely”. He goes on to say that, “you [the judges] shall hear from me the whole truth.” That is, he will attempt uncover himself completely from the untruth that has been hoisted upon him by his accusers.

I can’t say I know the ultimate significance of Socrates addressing the judges as “men of Athens” (o andres athenaioi) instead of the more standard “judges” (o andres dikastai). Perhaps because these men don’t know the entire picture he doesn’t think of them as proper “judges”—they don’t know the truth and cannot make a decent claim regarding his guilt or innocence. A classic Platonic point is that one is not a proper judge of things (or a proper philosopher for that matter) unless one knows the truth (Re. whatever is in question has been unconcealed). At this point in the dialogue nothing has been truly unconcealed for the judges and, consequently, they cannot claim the privileged position of judgment. I cannot say for sure.

Socrates, also at the beginning of his speech, states that “he doesn’t have great skill as a speaker--unless by a skillful speaker they mean one who speaks the truth...” There are two things going on here. First, it’s obviously a jab at his prosecutors, who he claimed right from the start to have spoken falsely about him; he goes on to say that he would agree with this point and would be an orator, and that he would be well out of their league when it came to speaking the truth. Second, it foreshadows some of the errors Socrates makes in his defense speech from the standpoint of classical rhetoric and, in some instances, common sense.

The first thing Socrates does after his introduction is introduce more charges against himself and proceed to defend himself against them. Why anyone in court would give the judges more crimes to brood over is rather strange, at least from a pragmatic point of view. However, Socrates was never much of a pragmatic man: he was always in search of the truth, and he has stated to the judges he will provide the whole truth. Providing the whole truth presumably entails doing away with the entire veil of lies that has settled over Socrates in his long life as a philosopher. This is why he treats charges that were never formally brought to bear upon him by the prosecution. “It is impossible for me [Socrates] to even know and tell you [the judges] their names...” , for there are too many of them; they are the invisible rumor-mongers. Socrates calls them his “dangerous accusers”, due to the fact they believe that anyone who inquires into the nature of things, that is, seeks a physical explanation for things, cannot believe in the gods. I think Socrates would call them dangerous due to their supposed ignorance: they don’t see (as Socrates does) that inquiry into “the heavens” or “things below the earth” does not necessarily entail atheism. For Socrates (Plato), ignorance is evil; knowledge, provided by truth (re. unconcealment) is everything. Inquiry, which provides such unconcealment, is thus in the service of truth and knowledge and, consequently, should not be stopped. The upshot of all this is that his critics fall into two camps: his immediate accusers, and “the earlier ones”, who propagated the rumors that probably played a large role in him being summoned to trial.

Socrates then begins to formally treat the charges brought upon him by the rumor-mongers. He states them as follows: (1) he inquires into things below the earth and in the sky; (2) he makes the weaker argument defeat the stronger (i.e. he’s just a sophist); (3) he teaches others to follow his example (that is, he convinces people that (1) and (2) are good things to do). His ultimate aim, as I have said above, is to provide an answer to the question “Who is Socrates”, and to end up with a totally unconcealed picture of himself for the judges. In order to do this, he must do away with all of the lies that concealed his true nature.

Socrates first denies that he is a professional teacher. By professional teachers he means sophists who would take young Greek men under their tutelage and charge a fee for teaching them rhetorical tricks and flourishes. Presumably Socrates is trying to do some work against charge (2); he doesn’t want to be lumped into the sophist camp right off the bat. Since sophists have a habit of charging for their teaching activities, and since Socrates works to establish that he doesn’t charge anything, it’s harder to put him in with the sophists.

He then states rhetorically, “Surely all this talk and gossip about you would never have arisen if you had confined yourself to ordinary activities, but only if your behaviour was abnormal...”. That is, one could object that the rumors about him would not arise for no reason at all: there must have been something that provoked them. He again reassures the judges that he will provide the “whole truth”; a common theme in the dialogue. A reason for his incessant questioning is now provided. Apparently his friend, Carephon, went to the oracle at Delphi and asked whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The answer of the oracle was no, there was not. Socrates then proceeded to test this claim by questioning people who apparently were thought to be wise and who were thought to know what they were talking about when they spoke of certain things. If you have read any other Socratic dialogues, where Socrates usually elenchuses the hell out of his interlocutors and gets them to admit they have no idea what they are saying, you can probably guess what Socrates will say next. He says that these so called “wise men” he talked to really had no idea what they were saying. His ultimate aim in doing this was to see if there was any hidden meaning in the god’s message; he says he “felt compelled to but the god’s business first” and that he “pursued [his] investigation at the god’s command...” Here he’s trying to do two things. First, he’s attempting to refute the claim that he’s an atheist by appealing to his “duty” to the gods and to his need to follow his command. Secondly, he’s providing an explanation for his “abnormal behaviour”; he went around questioning everybody because of the command of the god to pursue the meaning behind the oracular pronouncement.

The charge of corrupting the youth and inciting them to follow his ways comes last. In essence, he claims that those who charge him in this manner once again don’t really know what they’re talking about; if asked what Socrates teaches that has this negative effect, they say they don’t know and “fall back on the stock charges against any seeker after wisdom”. This, to me, seems a rather weak argument that sets up a rather nice red herring. The issue isn’t whether the accusers know what Socrates has taught, the issue is whether what he taught corrupted the youth--whether people know exactly what he teaches is a moot point which isn’t needed to establish corruption of the youth.

I’ll present the further defense of Socrates against the charges brought by his prosecution and the conclusion in another post.

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