Plato’s Apology

Walk AwayPlato records the trial and death of Socrates in four dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo. I’ve been reading The Apology this week and finding in it references that reflect well in today’s world, particularly in politics.*

In The Apology – which meant defence in Greek, not saying sorry as it does today – Socrates defends himself against his accusers in a deft and bold way, but he loses his case anyway. Still, he defended himself by telling the truth, off-the-cuff and spontaneously.

The Jowett translation of this dialogue opens with these words…

How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was – such was the effect of them; and yet they have hardly spoken a word of truth.
But many as their falsehoods were, there was one of them which quite amazed me; – I mean when they told you to be upon your guard, and not to let yourselves be deceived by the force of my eloquence. They ought to have been ashamed of saying this, because they were sure to be detected as soon as I opened my lips and displayed my deficiency; they certainly did appear to be most shameless in saying this, unless by the force of eloquence they mean the force of truth; for then I do indeed admit that I am eloquent. But in how different a way from theirs!
Well, as I was saying, they have hardly uttered a word, or not more than a word, of truth; but you shall hear from me the whole truth: not, however, delivered after their manner, in a set oration duly ornamented with words and phrases. No indeed! but I shall use the words and arguments which occur to me at the moment; for I am certain that this is right, and that at my time of life I ought not to be appearing before you, O men of Athens, in the character of a juvenile orator – let no one expect this of me.

I sympathize. Socrates faced accusers who slandered and lied about him and he found himself on trial in public, wrongfully accused and unprepared for the spiteful accusations against him, the misguided opinions.

I know that feeling. He then asks the jurors to

…think only of the justice of my cause, and give heed to that: let the judge decide justly and the speaker speak truly.

Socrates knew that he also faced anonymous accusers, who spread their lies, their allegations, rumours and innuendo behind the scenes, poisoning the populace. Socrates complained he was shadowboxing with those not brave enough to accuse him to his face. Anyone who uses social media today knows how these people work, in the shadows, and through whisper campaigns.

But the main body of these slanderers who from envy and malice have wrought upon you – and there are some of them who are convinced themselves, and impart their convictions to others – all these, I say, are most difficult to deal with; for I cannot have them up here, and examine them, and therefore I must simply fight with shadows in my own defence, and examine when there is no one who answers.

And I’m sure all council candidates – or at least the incumbents – trying to cram their entire platform into a two-minute speech, trying get the truth across in such a short time, feel like Socrates when he said he had little time available to tell the truth:

Well, then, I will make my defence, and I will endeavor in the short time which is allowed to do away with this evil opinion of me which you have held for such a long time; and I hope I may succeed, if this be well for you and me, and that my words may find favor with you. But I know that to accomplish this is not easy – I quite see the nature of the task.

Socrates compared himself to a gadfly – a pest, but, he argued, a necessary one. He tormented the steed – the Athenian state – into action. Without his annoyance, the state would be somnambulant, And thus the state needed him to keep itself awake:

For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. And as you will not easily find another like me, I would advise you to spare me. I dare say that you may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping; and you may think that if you were to strike me dead, as Anytus advises, which you easily might, then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you gives you another gadfly.

Of course, all states have their gadflies. Few are of the calibre of Socrates. Most are simply annoying pests. Some write misologic blogs. As Socrates warns in Plato’s work, Phaedo, we must never let ourselves develop a hatred of reasoning or revulsion or distrust of logical debate and argumentation:

…there is a certain experience we must be careful to avoid…That we must not become misologues, as people become misanthropes. There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse…

In that same dialogue, Socrates says what could be applied to today’s internet gadflies; the negativists, the conspiracy theorists and the trolls:

You know how those in particular who spend their time studying contradiction in the end believe themselves to be very wise and that they alone have understood that there is no soundness or reliability in any object or in any argument..

He adds it would be pitiable for someone to become a misologist:

…spend the rest of his life hating and reviling reasonable discussion and so be deprived of truth and knowledge of reality…

Social media, and indeed much of the internet, makes it easier to launch ad hominem attacks, to dominate the discussions with rage and malice, rather than engage in reasoned debate and civil argumentation.

I suspect if he lived today, Socrates would have hesitated to open a Facebook account. He valued reason, logic and most of all truth too much. But perhaps he would have seen it as a way to get his truth across, through the noise and clutter of kitten pictures, hoaxes, pseudoscience, inaccurate quotations and angry posters.

In the end, in Apology the most moving statement he made before his suicide has become the synopsis of his life and teachings in one bumper-sticker-style quote: “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” **

Indeed. What are we if we do not examine ourselves, our lives, our goals, ideas, aspirations, motives and beliefs? We would be just those Socratic gadflies, but without even the reason for our existence that his had.

* Xenophon wrote the Apology of Socrates to the Jury, another contemporary report.

** The whole line includes (in the Jowett translation):

…the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living

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