In 2017 iSymposium met weekly to read three Socratic writings by Xenophon: Apology of Socrates to the Jury, Symposium, and Oeconomicus.Reading these shorter works after reading several shorter works by Plato (a series that included Plato’s Apology of Socrates)extended our investigation of “the Socratic education.” Plato’s and Xenophon’s apologies each describe the trial of Socrates before an Athenian jury; they also indicate other defenses that appeal to other citizens, friends, or readers. The apologies are parts of a larger story of Socrates’s life, and they shed light on the educational activity for which he was condemned. Xenophon’s Apology of Socrates to the Jury includes legal and non-legal defenses that appeal to a different kind of student, one who might look beyond the popular drama for a different kind of teacher.
After reading a worthwhile book, I often want to begin again to notice what I missed: the gems in the writing that light up only at the end, and the questions that resurface for a second try at being noticed. But surface questions such as “What did he say?” are a good place to begin. Xenophon reports what Socrates is said to have said before, during, and after the trial, but he did not report all that was said (§22).
One striking feature of the Apology of Socrates to the Jury, besides the brevity of the account of the speeches to the jury, is Socrates’s “boastful manner of speaking,” (§1) his megalegoria (“big talk”), and the likelihood of his “bringing envy upon himself by extolling himself in court” (§32). Such arrogant boasting can seem imprudent if we don’t understand its purpose (§1).
Part I – Pretrial deliberation
Xenophon begins by remarking that it is worth recalling how Socrates “deliberated about his defense and the end of his life.” The first part of the Apology(§§1-9) reports Socrates’s pretrial deliberation: (a) regarding his defense, he said he spent his life preparing a defense by doing nothing unjust (§3); when he tried to consider his defense, his diamonion (divine voice) opposed him (§4); finally, he cannot agree that anyone lived better than himself, having lived his whole life in holiness (hosion) and justly, for which he admired himself, and those who knew him recognized the same (§5); and (b) regarding his death, he said if he continues to live, he will see and hear less well, learn with more difficulty, and be more forgetful of what he has learned (§6); perhaps the beneficent god arranged that Socrates’s life end “not only at an opportune age,” but “in the easiest way,” not troublesome to friends, but causing them to miss him (§7).
Socrates concurred that the gods rightly opposed a conventional defense speech because, if he were acquitted, his life would end later, “where all the difficult and cheerless things converge” (§8).
No by Zeus, Hermogenes, [he said that] Socrates said, I will not eagerly promote these things; but as many noble things as I believe to have obtained both from gods and from human beings, and the opinion which I have of myself — if by displaying [noble things and the opinion held] I vex the jurors, then I will choose to die rather than to live longer by slavishly begging to gain a much worse life instead of death (§9).
Before the trial, outside of court, Socrates deliberated. He found death preferable to the alternative (a life worse than death); he found that his life enjoyed divine support and did not require court approval. If the jurors punish him for extolling himself in court, he would rather die than beg to live as they live.
Who would not be vexed to hear that Socrates thinks he possesses noble things and is proud of his superiority? Hermogenes, the source of this hearsay testimony,and Xenophon, the author of the speeches in the Apology,both appear unvexed as they recognize the bases of Socrates’s dignified defense. Selective hearsay is not entirely unreliable outside of court if attentive readers consider the testimony, the sources of speeches, and what is not said.
Whatever we may know about a person from a public trial, the partialness of Xenophon’s Apology reminds us that there is always more to the story. Part II will explore Socrates’s “big talk” during the trial; Part III, after the trial.
As the law professors say, “Read on.”