Josiah Ober
Political Dissent in Democratic Athens

When he entered the courtroom, the typical Athenian juror already knew the elaborate unwritten rules of the game and expected the litigants to play by them. There were accepted rhetorical conventions to be observed; many jurors must have settled comfortably into their seats when Socrates opened his defense with the well-known gambit of claiming to be a quiet private citizen, unfamiliar with the courts, innocent of rhetorical skill or training, who found himself confronted with highly skilled and experienced opponents (17a-d). This particular topos, and others like it, served to establish the speaker's adherence to a generally accepted and specifically democratic code of belief and behavior. Along with explicit claims to having performed services for the polls appropriate to one's social station, rhetorical topoi were intended to integrate the interests of speaker and audience. The establishment of the speaker's credentials as a useful citizen who adhered to standard democratic norms of belief and behavior would be interwoven with the substantive case establishing a defendant's technical innocence. What the Athenian jury expected, then, was for Socrates to try to show through rhetoric that the specific charges were without factual basis, and furthermore that they were incredible given his standing as a loyal citizen of the democratic polity. He should, moreover, explain how the baseless charges came to be lodged against him, in the process exposing his accusers as scoundrels who were corruptly willing, even viciously eager, to undermine democratic ideology and practice. Finally, he might try to show that his own behavior consistently conformed to a model of socially constructed and socially maintained citizen dignity, while his opponents threatened the security of each citizen by brazenly violating public standards.

The Apology presents a Socrates who is very well aware of these conventions and expectations (he had 'often' been present at trials of others, 35a)—and more than willing to confound them. Socrates' speech is a rhetorical masterpiece. But by its end he has not aligned himself with the mass of his fellow citizens nor with the democratic politeia. Indeed, he has proved quite conclusively that his own political convictions are drastically at odds with popular ideology, and that his irritating, idiosyncratic everyday practice of examining his fellow Athenians (and rinding them painfully wanting in wisdom) followed necessarily from those convictions. He has demonstrated that he is, by his own lights, a patriotic citizen who cares deeply about the good of his polis and who consistently acts in what he sees as its best interests—but also that given his definition of patriotism, he must be regarded as a uniquely patriotic Athenian. Moreover, given the corrupt condition of the polis, doing good means questioning the most fundamental of ideological beliefs in conversations held in public and private spaces of the city.

By the end of the Apology, Socrates has shown that his primary accuser is an ignorant fool, but a fool appropriate to business as usual in the democratic state. He has established that he himself is a dignified private citizen rather than a pandering politician. But in the process, he has also revealed that an active political life that included advising the demos in the citizen Assembly is simply impossible for a just man, since a just politician would be intolerable to the democracy and quickly killed. Finally, he has shown that true dignity was not a social matter at all, but rather an affair of the individual soul.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.