Plato (427–347 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A088-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

7. Apologetic writings

Moral, or indeed existential, choice, to use an anachronistic expression, is the insistent focus of Apology. God has appointed Socrates, as he represents it to his judges, to live the philosophical life, putting himself and others under constant examination. The consistency of his commitment to this mission requires him now to face death rather than abandon his practice of philosophy, as he supposes for the sake of argument the court might require him to do. For confronted with the choice between disobeying God (that is, giving up philosophy) and disobeying human dictate (that is, refusing to do so), he can only take the latter option. What governs his choice is justice:

It is a mistake to think that a man worth anything at all should make petty calculations about the risk of living or dying. There is only one thing for him to consider when he acts: whether he is doing right or wrong, whether he is doing what a good man or a bad man would do.

(Apology 28b)

Whether death is or is not a bad thing Socrates says he does not know. He does know that behaving wrongly and disobeying one’s moral superior – whether divine or human – is bad and shameful. The demands of justice, as his conscience (or ’divine sign’) interpreted them, had earlier led him to choose the life of a private citizen, conversing only with individuals, rather than the political life: for justice and survival in politics are incompatible. When he did carry out the public obligations of a citizen and temporarily held office, justice again compelled him to choose the dangerous and unpopular course of resisting a proposal that was politically expedient but contrary to the law. As for those with whom he talked philosophy, they too faced a choice: whether to make their main concern possessions and the body, or virtue and the soul; that is, what belongs to oneself, or oneself. And now the judges too must choose and determine what is just as their oath requires of them.

Crito and Gorgias continue the theme in different ways. Crito has often been found difficult to reconcile with Apology when it argues on various grounds (paternalistic and quasi-contractual) that citizens must always obey the law, unless they can persuade it that it is in the wrong. Hence, since the law requires that Socrates submit to the punishment prescribed by the court, he must accept the sentence of death pronounced on him. The higher authority of divine command stressed in Apology seems to have been forgotten. Once again, however, the whole argument turns on appeal to justice and to the choices it dictates: we must heed the truth about it, not what popular opinion says; we must decide whether or not we believe the radical Socratic proposition that retaliation against injury or injustice is never right (see Socrates §4). Gorgias, one of the longest of all the dialogues, ranges over a wide territory, but at its heart is the presentation of a choice. Socrates addresses Callicles, in whose rhetoric Nietzsche saw an anticipation of his ideal of the superman:

You see that the subject of our arguments – and on what subject should a person of even small intelligence be more serious? – is this: what kind of life should we live? The life which you are now urging upon me, behaving as a man should: speaking in the assembly and practising rhetoric and engaging in politics in your present style? Or the life of philosophy?

(Gorgias 500c)

The dialogue devotes enormous energy to arguing that only philosophy, not rhetoric, can equip us with a true expertise which will give us real power, that is power to achieve what we want: the real not the apparent good. Only philosophy can articulate a rational and reliable conception of happiness – which turns out to depend on justice.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. Apologetic writings. Plato (427–347 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A088-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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