Plato's Apology

A web page by Alan Nicoll

Response to January's Readings

by Alan Nicoll, February 9, 2005

January's assigned readings were: PLATO: Apology, Crito; ARISTOPHANES: Clouds, Lysistrata; PLATO: Republic [Book I-II].

The following is the response to the readings of January, 2005, that I posted to the Great Conversation Yahoo group. I've put it on the Apology page because that is mostly all I talk about.

Socrates On Death
What do you make of Socrates saying that we don't know whether death is evil or good? Here's one such quote:

"Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good; for one of two things--either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain." (Apology p. 211b-c [40])

He goes on to say that no day or night of our lives is better than such an undisturbed night. I cannot help feeling that this is hollow, "whistling in the dark," perhaps even dishonest.

I say this because I do not enjoy sleep, I do not look forward to going to bed except when I'm dead tired. I would rather be up, reading or doing other things. When Socrates envisions life after death, it is joyful because "What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus..." (p. 211d [41]) He doesn't consistently imagine life after death as an unending dreamless sleep, but more like the life he has known.

Of course we don't know what comes after death, and so cannot say whether it is good or evil; but we can know what we leave behind us when we go, and we can say whether what we are leaving is good or evil. And I think most of us, including Socrates, would regret leaving the good we know in favor of the unknown.

Death Before Dishonor
"...a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong--acting the part of a good man or of a bad." (p. 205d [28])

Can a man value his virtue or honor more than his life? I am persuaded that Socrates means what he says, and in the Japanese and the ancient Romans it was common enough. Yet it is an odd notion, and one that I can hardly imagine living by. Also, given my modern idea of the value of children, I cannot imagine depriving my son of his father voluntarily under any circumstances. Socrates' ethic is not the ethic of the concentration camp, where it can be argued that one rightly does anything-including evil-to survive. For a modern family man Socrates' attitude might well be thought immoral. Society needs its martyrs for justice, but a family man martyrs others as well as himself.

Additionally, most of us are a good deal less certain about right and wrong than is Socrates. He sees himself on a mission from God, his "oracle," apparently an "inner voice" which he follows. What do I make of this? I accept that Socrates must give more credence to his oracle than I will to my inner voice, because he believes in "the gods" and I do not. But I refuse to pass judgment on Socrates; I refuse to call him deluded because I do not know.

The Unexamined Life
Socrates I think is more admirable for courage than for wisdom. How is his self-knowledge? How examined is his life? Is he a phony? Would he be admirable if not martyred?

"...if I tell you that to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me." (p. 210b [37-38])

"The unexamined life is not worth living." This quote has become a commonplace, virtually a truism, but I do not accept it. I say this even though I think I have led an examined life. To live such a life requires natural intellectual gifts and sufficient leisure for the examination process. To dismiss the worth of unexamined lives, especially those who live encumbered by excess work and poverty, is elitist and intolerant. Socrates thinks that everyone should be like him and, to an unspecified degree, live like him, this time apparently not willing to grant that he "doesn't know." However, no society can support an unlimited number of persons who do nothing but discuss virtue in the marketplace.

To those with the right kind of mind and sufficient leisure, Socrates offers a moral challenge. He does not challenge us to find truth, but to seek it. He does not demand that we live a perfect life, but merely to question our lives and consider alternatives. The important thing is to discover and recognize your own answers. This is a message I appreciate.

Socrates' "doesn't know anything" is untenable and this does not speak well for his self-knowledge. I find him rigid, authoritarian, unaware that he has convictions. He judges the wisdom of men and finds it lacking, but I think it requires wisdom to make such a judgment.

In Crito he says, "The good are to be regarded, and not the bad? ....And the opinions of the wise are good..." (p. 215a [47]) Socrates assumes that we can tell who is good and who is wise, though in the Apology he discounts the wisdom of men. Likewise his "man who has understanding..." (p. 215b [47]) How can we recognize him without understanding of our own, that is, without wisdom? But he denies that we have wisdom.

Nowadays we see both good and evil in everyone, do we not? I think this is practically inevitable after Darwin and Freud. Yet Socrates has two categories, good and evil, and they are to him as clear as black-and-white. Each person is one or the other, no person is both. Or at least, there is no evidence in the Apology that he sees this.

I have not come to a conclusion yet about the Crito as a whole and Socrates' decision not to escape. I think he makes the right decision for him, but I am undecided about the morality of his decision.

I don't have much to say about the Republic. It's a totalitarian society that minimizes human freedom in favor of efficiency in meeting human physical needs. I wouldn't care to live under such a system, naturally, but I do look forward to reading the rest of the Republic in future.

I apologize for this response to January's reading being so late. I first read the assigned texts in November of last year, and although I made notes at the time and even started writing the above, when it came time to finish and post it, I found that I had forgotten everything. So I read it all again, studied it. However, I don't see this post as anything even remotely close to a "definitive interpretation" of the Apology; it is merely a personal response, and an incomplete one at that.

I read the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo about two years ago, so there were no surprises this time, and my opinion of Socrates hasn't changed much. His failings as a father and husband are manifest, and many posts in this group have focused on these failings. But even so I see him as a courageous and noble figure condemned for exercising his freedom, and as a wise man who did not fully live up to his professed aims. He is a man to stand with Leo Tolstoy and Bertrand Russell in a tiny shrine badly in need of paint.

I find that the only big lesson I've learned from January's reading has nothing to do with Socrates. It is that the more engaged I am with a text, the more I "work" at it, the more I will like and profit from it. This is a bit of self-knowledge that was worth acquiring.

"by the dog"

From vol. 7, p. 202c (top of right-hand column):
Then I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this: but necessity was laid upon me,—the word of God, I thought, ought to be considered first. And I said to myself, Go I must to all who appear to know, and find out the meaning of the oracle. And I swear to you, Athenians, by the dog I swear! —for I must tell you the truth—the result of my mission was just this: I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that others less esteemed were really wiser and better.

I wrote to Bernard Suzanne who has a site titled "Plato and His Dialogues" (see link below), regarding the expression "by the dog" in Plato's Apology. Here's his response:

At 15:43 12/01/2005 -0800, you wrote:
>In the Apology, Socrates says once or twice, "by the dog." Can you tell
>me what this means? Google has turned up a site or two where this is
>explained as "by the dog of Egypt," i.e., the Egyptian dog-headed god,
>Anubis. One of these sites, at least, promotes an Afrocentric view of
>history that I, at least, find rather dubious.

What is for sure is that, in the Gorgias, at 482b5, Socrates says: "by the dog, the god of Aegyptians" (in Greek: "ma ton kuna ton AiguptiOn theon"

Aside from that, a cursory check at footnotes in various translations of the Apology at 22a1, where the expression 'nH ton kuna" is also found, without reference to "the god of Aegyptians", shows that scholars are not sure where the expression comes from. What comes out of this check is that 1) the expression is not specific to Socrates: it is found in the mouth of Xanthias, a slave, in Aristophanes' Wasps (Verse 83) 2) probably due to Gorgias, 482b5, most scholars suggest a reference to Anubis, the Egyptian god with a dog's head 3) some refer to a scholium on Apology, 22a1, whereby the expression would have been first used by Rhadamanthus, Minos' brother and judge in Hades (cf. Apology, 41a) in order not to use names of gods lightly. Hence the name "Rhadamanthus' oath" sometimes given the formula. 4) still others suggest that it might have an Orphic origin. But, in the end, nothing for sure is known about it.


Bernard F. SUZANNE (
Plato and his dialogues:
Platon et ses dialogues:

Links to web pages specific to Plato's Apology: For links to online texts of Plato's works, go to my page on Plato.

Page references are to Great Books of the Western World, vol. 7: Plato, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952
My Great Books of the Western World home page.

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