Classics Plato's Apology of Socrates
by
Charles Platter
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0165

Introduction

The Apology of Socrates takes its name from Plato’s version of the defense speech (Greek, apologia) given by Socrates at his trial. The date of its composition is unknown, but the work is generally believed to have been composed after the publication of Polycrates’s Accusation of Socrates (c. 493) but before Plato’s first voyage to Sicily (487). It consists of three parts: the defense proper (17a–35d), Socrates’s response to the guilty verdict (35e–38b), and a pair of speeches directed respectively at those who voted for the death penalty, and at those who voted against it (38c–42a). It is unique among Plato’s works because it is not a dialogue, and it exploits many of the conventions of Athenian forensic oratory. Despite its atypical form, the Apology is clearly important for understanding the significance of Socrates for Plato, and it has been remarked frequently that through him the work functions virtually as a foundation myth for the Western philosophical tradition. The Apology is alluded to frequently in the Platonic dialogues. It also serves as the pivot in a series of dialogues set in the last weeks of Socrates’s life. Two take place before the trial. At the end of Theaetetus (184d), Socrates leaves the discussion to attend a reading of the charges against him in the agora at King’s Stoa. At the conclusion of that hearing he meets Euthyphro, who has come to prosecute his father for the murder of a slave, and commences the dialogue named after him. A discussion of their respective circumstances (1a–2b) leads to the discussion of holiness that engages them for the rest of the dialogue. Two dialogues also are set after the Apology, and so implicitly offer a commentary on the trial. Crito takes place in the prison while Socrates awaits execution, and Phaedo on the last day of Socrates’s life. Plato’s decision to recall the trial of Socrates in so many works, probably written many years apart, attests strongly to the centrality of the Apology for his understanding of philosophy. Scholars have agreed. As a result, the bibliography related to the Apology, and to the trial of Socrates, is vast.

General Overviews

It is much less common than it once was to treat the Apology primarily as a good-faith effort to record the facts of the historical trial of Socrates. Still, general studies of the work often treat both the Apology and the trial together in parallel. The background of the Apology is surveyed generally in Guthrie 1975, whose comprehensive History of Greek philosophy also contains a substantial discussion of the Sophists (see Socrates and the Sophists). The best summary of the primary sources for the events surrounding the actual trial is Brickhouse and Smith 1989 (see also Rowe 2010). A more succinct summary is available in Nails 2006. For the historical testimonia pertaining to many of the individuals involved in the trial, see also Biography. There are also numerous general interpretations of the Apology. Reeve 1989, West 1979, and Strauss 1983 provide detailed interpretations of the text from a philosophical perspective. For nonspecialists, Colaiaco 2001 and Waterfield 2009 offer analysis of the trial on the basis of the Apology and supply substantial cultural context.

  • Brickhouse, Thomas S., and Nicholas D. Smith. 1989. Socrates on trial. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    This is the one-stop shop for discussions of scholarly issues relevant to the Apology and the historical events that inspired it. The authors are positivists in regard to the basic historical accuracy of the work, and argue that a central aspect of Socrates’s approach is that he sincerely tries to win acquittal on his own moral terms.

  • Colaiaco, James. 2001. Socrates against Athens: Philosophy on trial. New York and London: Routledge.

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    For the general reader. Like Brickhouse and Smith 1989, Colaiaco accepts the Apology as essentially historical (see also Stone 1988, cited under Socrates and Athenian Politics).

  • Guthrie, W. K. C. 1975. A history of Greek philosophy. Vol. 4, Plato, the man and his dialogues: The earlier period. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Guthrie summarizes the arguments of the Apology (pp. 70–92), is skeptical about its historicity, and discusses its uncertain date of composition and supposed relationship with the Palamedes of Gorgias. Volume 3 also discusses Socrates and the Sophists (see Socrates and the Sophists).

  • Nails, Debra. 2006. The trial and death of Socrates. In A companion to Socrates. Edited by Sara Ahbel-Rappe and Rachana Kamtekar, 5–20. Oxford: Blackwell.

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    A short sketch of the basic issues (see Nails 2002 in Biography for more detailed prosopography).

  • Reeve, C. D. C. 1989. Socrates in the Apology: An essay on Plato’s Apology of Socrates. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

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    A close examination of the Apology. Reeve discusses the work within its cultural contexts but primarily with a view to the philosophical significance of the arguments.

  • Strauss, Leo. 1983. On Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Crito. In Studies in Platonic political philosophy. By Leo Strauss; edited with an introduction by Thomas Pangle, 38–66. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    A detailed analysis of the text, stressing the opposition between the oracle of Apollo and the daimonion of Socrates (see Socrates’s Daimonion), as well as suggesting the tension between the philosopher and the state.

  • Waterfield, Robin. 2009. Why Socrates died: Dispelling the myths. New York and London: W. W. Norton.

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    Engagingly written for a general audience. Waterfield has a tendency to go beyond the evidence in supplying the cultural background but often scores. Particularly valuable is his imaginative rendering of the speech of Anytus for the prosecution.

  • West, Thomas G. 1979. Plato’s Apology of Socrates: An interpretation, with a new translation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

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    A comprehensive reading of the Apology in the tradition of Strauss 1983.

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