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  • Socrates' Trial and Conviction of the Jurors in Plato's Apology
  • Dougal Blyth

I am going to argue in this paper that, in the three speeches constituting his Apology of Socrates, Plato presents the judicial proceedings that led to Socrates' execution as having precisely the opposite significance to their superficial legal meaning. This re-evaluation will lead to some reflections on the politics of Socrates' defence, and, similarly, on Plato's own aims in writing the Apology. I want to show not only that the trial as portrayed demonstrates an inevitable dereliction of duty by the democratic jury, but also, more interestingly, that throughout the proceedings Socrates understands the meaning of the trial precisely in terms of his anticipation of the jurors' judicial incapacity.

In the prooimion to his defence speech, Socrates requests that the jurors ignore his manner of speaking and concentrate on whether his case is just, "since this is a judge's virtue (), while that of a rhêtôr is to speak the truth" (18a5-6, cf. 35c2-5). We can gloss the expression "a judge's aretê" in this context as his function, or responsibility.1 Socrates claims that he, himself, fulfills his own responsibility as a defendant to tell the truth (17b4-c4, 33c1-2, cf. 34b5, 35b9-c2) in a speech that asserts his exemplary piety in Apollo's service and his beneficial influence on the Athenian youth. But if, in claiming that he is innocent of the charge, Socrates does tell the truth, then those jurors who thereupon convict him of impiety and corruption, and subsequently sentence him to death, have failed in their duty to judge rightly.

My claim is that Socrates sees the trial as a test of the jurors' abilities. It is characteristic of Socrates to test people regarding their concern for virtue and justice, a habit to which he devotes extended discussion during his defence, even dramatising it provocatively in a central passage (29d7-e5) that I aim shortly to analyse in detail. Moreover, Socrates specifically withholds from the jury the title of dikastai or judges; he does finally award the title in his address following the sentence, but only to those who have voted [End Page 1] to acquit him (40a2-3).2 The possibility thus emerges that Socrates has treated the legal proceedings all along as a moral (and intellectual) test, or trial, of the empanelled jurors themselves, to see whether they are capable of the legal function to which they have been allotted. In that case, Socrates is putting on trial, not just those individual citizens, but the very legal system of democratic Athens.

Socratic irony and truthfulness

Before considering Socrates' own explicit judgement during those final remarks on the jurors' moral offence and punishment, I should first address briefly the issue of Socrates' irony. In the past, some writers have asserted that this irony involves him in not telling the truth about himself during his defence, in which case the jury might well have been justified in convicting him. Actually, there does seem to be a consensus among the more extended treatments of the Apology that have emerged during the last decade, at least on the point that Plato presents Socrates as committed to making as sincere an attempt at a defence of his case as is consistent with his philosophical commitment to virtue, and so to telling the truth.3

I shall not re-argue this point in detail, but shall take it to be secured by two basic considerations: consistency with the Crito would require Socrates to recognise a legal obligation to make a sincere attempt at defence while his obligation to Apollo to continue his mission in Athens if possible would motivate that attempt with the goal of acquittal.4 Instead, I want to show what role irony does have in Socrates' defence, given that his principled law-abidingness requires him to attempt to persuade the jury, in accordance with truth and justice, that he is innocent (cf. 19a6-7, 18a7-b1, 18e5).

Where Socrates acknowledges the obligation to defend himself, he remarks on the difficulty he faces, a difficulty that has resulted from the slander to which he has long...


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