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 1. Plato’s Apology of Socrates I The Apology of Socrates is one of the sacred texts upon which Western Civilization rests. The Apology consists of three speeches, re-created by Plato, which suggest what Socrates said in his defense during his capital trial in Athens in 399 b.c. The first speech is in response to the charges and evidence presented against him; the second is his contribution to the penalty-determination phase of the proceedings after he was found guilty; the third is in response to the sentence of death. The indictment of Socrates, evidently initiated primarily by Anytus and Meletus, is said by him to present charges that he corrupts the youth and does not believe in the gods that the city does but rather in other daimonia that are novel. The reader can gather both from Socrates’ remarks and from the public examination by him of Meletus what it was that had long troubled his fellow citizens about the way that he conducted himself in Athens . That Socrates continues to be troubling is indicated not only by the votes for his conviction and for his execution, but also by the instances (perhaps as many as a half-dozen altogether) when his remarks elicited or threatened to elicit outbursts from the five hundred Athenians trying the case. It is evident both from what Socrates says and from how he is dealt with that the life dedicated to philosophy can be both liberating and dangerous (if not even, it might seem to some, suicidal). Thus, Socrates’ sacrifice points up both the attractions and the risks of philosophy. Plato’s dramatization of the Socratic career seems to be regarded by some as a secular anticipation of the career of Jesus. II Plato’s Apology can be read as the first great document in the annals of the development of freedom of speech in the West. It is, of course, much Part One  more than that—but it is that, at least. Thus, it can be invoked (along with Jesus’ career) by such an illustrious champion of free speech as John Stuart Mill. Perhaps the earliest predecessor to the Apology of Socrates, at least in “secular” literature, is the brief account in Book One of Homer’s Iliad of the ill-fated intervention, by a common soldier, in a quarrel among the nobility. This meddler in the affairs of his betters, Thersites, is beaten for his presumptuousness. But, it can be suspected, the unlovely Thersites was not altogether without merit in what he had to say, however inept (Homer and Sophocles, among others, indicate) he may have been in how he conducted himself on that and earlier occasions. Of course, it need not be assumed that Plato was a champion of freedom of speech as we understand it. But the account he presents of the career of Socrates, reinforced by the accounts of Xenophon, Aristotle, and others, has served to remind Westerners of the folly of suppressing conscientious men and women of talent. That folly is examined in a memorable fashion by John Milton in his Areopagitica, a pamphlet on behalf of unlicensed printing which draws on both the theological and the secular heritage of the West. III How did Socrates get into the trouble that he encountered in the year 399 b.c.? That trouble, he argues, is nothing new, for it had been decades, or half a lifetime, in the making. It all goes back, he says, to his having persisted in questioning distinguished Athenians who were regarded, not least by themselves, as wise. This had followed upon the divinely inspired Word brought back from Delphi by Chaerephon, the surprising judgment by Apollo that no one was wiser than Socrates. Socrates, it seems, could not help so testing the god’s assessment as to come to the conclusion (in support of Delphi) that those reputed to be wise believed they knew more than they did, whereas Socrates (unlike them) was aware of his ignorance. This discovery did not endear Socrates to those thus exposed, or to their partisans. Among their partisans, it seems to be suggested, was the comic poet Aristophanes, who lampooned Socrates in the comedy Clouds. Even though Aristophanes shows Socrates as doing more than exposing the limitations of pretentious politicians, poets, and others of reputation, he 1. Plato’s Apology of Socrates  does suggest (decades before the indictment of Socrates) the risks that Socrates ran because of teachings which openly challenged long-standing opinions. Some...


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