Barry Strauss
Fathers and Sons in Classical Athens

Socrates' direct response to Meletos is to deny being anyone's teacher and deny being an atheist—a reply which also dismisses much in the first accusations. Through his interrogation, he demonstates Meletos' ignorance about the education and well-being of young men, and his lack of expertise on the question of whether Socrates corrupts them (PI. Ap. 24c4-26bl). He also makes an elitist argument about education (PI. Ap. 25al2-c4) though he does not, as some construe, claim to be the only man in Athens who improves the youth. Well and good, but there was still the 'Socrates' of Clouds, the sophist who taught young men to twist arguments, to ignore conventions, and to disobey their parents. Socrates needed to show clearly that he was not the man the play had depicted. One of the ways he does so (or at least attempts to: after all, Socrates lost the case) is by building up throughout his defense an image of himself as a good father and a good family man, an elder who, far from corrupting the young, makes sure that they defer to their seniors. Accordingly, familial themes are woven throughout Plato's Apology, sometimes subtly, sometimes not: fathers and sons, age and youth, children and childhood, and the education and corruption of young men.

A difficulty in Socrates' defense, and no doubt one of the reasons he was put on trial, is that his activities certainly did shake belief on the part of the young in the wisdom and virtue of the elders of Athens. As Socrates explains, he was accustomed to spending his time examining the political, cultural, and technological leadership of Athens and to exposing their foibles and follies. A Socratic 'examination' could be humiliating and infuriating for the examinee, but highly amusing for the audience, which usually included a high percentage of young men, many of whom went on to imitate Socrates by examining their elders (Pl. Ap. 23a-d, 24a, 33b-c, 37e). A liberal society would not prosecute Socrates for such behavior, but a reasonable person might conclude that he was indeed corrupting the young.

He or she might also conclude that Socrates was making it more difficult for a father to do his job. How, for example, could a father elicit his son's respect and deference when Socrates had shown the boy that the father's generation was nothing but a bunch of fools? What was a father to think of a son who, instead of displaying the requisite respect, attempted to demonstrate his father's ignorance, and proudly admitted to having learned the technique from Socrates? Socrates does not help his case any by the anecdote of how he encouraged Kallias (Andokides' enemy) to find the right sophist to educate his sons (PI. Ap. 20a-c); surely it would have been better for Socrates to tell the jury that he had encouraged Kallias to avoid sophists altogether and to educate his sons himself.

  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.