English 10 Humanities:
Mr. Spragins

Fall 2000

Study Guide for Plato, Apology

(pp. 294- 313) from Classics of Western Thought, Vol.1: The Ancient World  ed. Donald S. Gochberg


(Jacques- Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1788)

Socrates (469-399 b.c.) was an Athenian officer during the Peloponnesian Wars (despite his advanced age) and then became a popular teacher in the city during the period of turbulent political and intellectual unrest which followed Athens’ defeat by the Spartans. Teaching in the city at the same time as Socrates were the Sophists, a group of controversial thinkers who had achieved important positions working with the youths of some of Athens’ most important families. The Sophists taught that the gods did not exist and that there was no single moral truth. They charged exorbitant fees for teaching their students the public speaking skills of rhetoric and grammar, essential skills in the political debates of the day.

Socrates was considered to be another of the Sophists, but his philosophy and method of instruction were very different. He believed that there was one universal truth, and he believed that the duty of human beings was to discover this truth by discovering and practicing virtue. The method of intellectual inquiry Socrates used was called dialectic: the systematic search for the truth through a series of questions. This Socratic method of instruction has been adopted by teachers ever since. Because Socrates exposed the hypocrisy and vain self-importance of the powerful, his teachings outraged the leaders of the city, and in 404 b.c. he was brought to trial before a jury of five hundred, charged with teaching atheism and corrupting the youth of the city. Socrates was on trial for his life.


(p.295)             How does Socrates define eloquence as opposed to the sophist’s emphasis on rhetorical skill?

                        True eloquence has little to do with sophisticated methods of persuading people to do what you want them to do. Instead, true eloquence comes only from a devotion to the difficult task of discovering the truth through logic and persistence.

(p.297)             How did Aristophanes lampoon Socrates in his comedy The Clouds?

                        Aristophanes depicts Socrates as a thinker who walks on air, whose notions are hopelessly abstract.

                        How does Socrates respond to the charge that he has committed heresy by making ‘the worse appear the better’, ie. making the study of earthly phenomena more important than the worship of the gods?

                        He argues that he has nothing to do with physical speculations (the substance of  ‘scientific’ philosophy: Anaximander’s insistence that matter possesses no divine spark, the universe no moral order); instead Socrates pursues the truth revealed only by questioning everything with logic, a systematic and daily examination of his thoughts and deeds for consistency and virtue.

(p. 298)            What did the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi say about Socrates?

                        The Oracle declared that “No man is wiser [than Socrates].”

(pp. 299-300) How did Socrates prove to himself that the Oracle had spoken truly?

                        He was at first skeptical about the Oracle’s truth because he knew that he possessed no answers, no wisdom, only a method of pursuing the good through reasoning.

                        Why do the following groups fail at wisdom?

                                    The politicians: He knows nothing yet he thinks that he knows.

The actors and poets: They do not understand what they say; they only express themselves through inspiration.

The skilled craftsmen: Because they do one thing well, they think that they know all sorts of high matters.

                        Who alone is wise, according to Socrates?

                                    God only is wise. The wisdom of man is worth little or nothing.

(pp. 301-04)    What is Miletus’ accusation?

Socrates does evil by corrupting the youth of the city with atheism and poisons their respect for their elders by teaching them to question everything and to accept nothing on faith.

What logic does Socrates use to reject his accusation?

He argues that his whole method insists upon a spiritual truth revealed by reason, so how could he not believe in a god of truth.

(p. 305)            Why does Socrates continue his teaching even though he knows that he is endangering himself?

A man who is good at all ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is pursuing right or wrong.

                        How has he been obedient to the gods wishes by pursuing his mission?

The gods themselves commanded him to pursue wisdom by searching within himself and to reveal hypocrisy in others. To offend the oracle by not doing their bidding would be true evidence of heresy.

(p. 306)            How does Socrates define his mission?

                                    Revealing ignorance and pride in pursuit of the improvement of the soul.

(pp. 306-07)    How does he argue that by executing him, his persecutors do more harm to themselves?

Bad men can kill him, exile him, or deprive him of his rights, but the evil of seeking injustice inflicts a greater injury on the criminal than the victim: it blinds them to the path which leads to virtue.

                        What does he mean when he refers to himself as a gadfly?

Like an irritating bug, he stirs the lazy horse to life; such a man is a gift from the gods to the state.

(p. 308)            What punishment does Socrates suggest the jury use against him?

                                    Reward him for his service to the state.

                        Why doesn’t he fear death?

                                    Why should he fear something about which he knows nothing?

(p. 310)                               How does Socrates define the greatest good of man?

Daily discourse to discover virtue is the greatest good.
The unexamined life is no life for a human being.

How does the jury vote in the penalty phase? Why?

            For death. They are angry at Socrates’ insolence.

How does Socrates respond?

            You condemn me because I would not plead for my life.
He would rather die having spoken after his own manner, than speak in their manner and live.
            The difficulty is not to avoid death but to avoid unrighteousness.

(p. 311)                               How can Socrates reason that his persecutors will suffer more from his death than he will?

They evade a true account of their thoughts and deeds, and the young will condemn them for it.

                        How can he be so sure that what will happen will be for the best?

His inner voice, his oracle, never halted him in his path during the whole course of the trial, so what has happened to him must be for the good.

                        Why must death be good?

It is either unconscious oblivion or a journey to be reunited with friends in a place where he will not be punished for pursuing the truth.

(325-26)                    How did they execute the man?

By making him drink hemlock. He refuses to attempt an escape because of his respect for the laws of the city.

What were Socrates’ last words?

                                  He asks his friend Crito to repay Aesculpius the cock he owes him.