Thomas West
Plato's Apology of Socrates

Any community, in order to be a community, presupposes something shared by its members. A political community in particular depends for its unity and ultimately for its survival upon opinions and traditions held in common. Socrates' demand for the truth questions and corrodes Athenian beliefs about nobility and beauty without providing an alternative accessible to the citizens. If the Athenians were to follow Socrates and forsake their political and poetic tradition, they would have to entrust themselves to a sea whose farther shore might remain forever unattainable to them. If, having cast themselves off from the firm land, they could find no time for extended reflection, were deficient in intellectual capacity, or lacked the firm desire to improve their ignorant state—if, in other words, they were like most men most of the time—they would be left adrift, for the publicly recognized standards of nobility and justice would no longer grant them any guidance. The city's justice is embodied in the public laws and customs, while its nobility is seen in the visible reputation, honor, and beauty of the outstanding public men, the heroes of the poetic tradition, and the gods as they appear in sculpture and stories. without such public justice and nobility, the city's unity cannot rest upon anything except the mutual competition of self-interested factions or the outright rule of force. And the alternative is conquest by one's inevitable foreign enemies. The invisible truth by itself furnishes no foundation on which to build a public trust in shared institutions and paradigms of excellence. Is Socrates, then, as an obscure but persistent tradition maintains, 'opposed to nature and to the preservation of civilization and of the human race'? Was the comic poet Aristophanes right when he portrayed the outcome of Socrates' teaching to be the destruction of the family order and the city's laws?

Of course, the Proem only alludes to such complications. But the distance between Socrates and Athens—a distance which this defense must try to overcome—can be grasped from the outset. He appears to speak the truth baldly, without order or ornament. He teaches that truth is beautiful, but not in the usual and traditional sense. His defense would succeed, and the men of Athens would listen to him, if truth appeared as beautiful to them as it does to himself. But it manifestly does not, and probably cannot, for its beauty is too subtle and refined to reveal itself to common men. What is the result? When Socrates says he will tell the whole truth, yet refuses to give that truth an outward order and attractiveness, he guarantees that the jurors will not believe it. Consequently, his claims to beauty and nobility, instead of winning him sympathy, alienate his audience, who must look upon him as an arrogant boaster. For the jury can see no evident reasons for his pretensions to superiority. Socrates' pride, whatever the hidden justice of its grounds, must appear arrogant hybris to these Greeks nourished on noble poetry and a memory of great politics. Just as Socrates' old and ugly body wholly conceal his inner beauty, so also the naked, unadorned truth looks simply ugly to men not capable of penetrating thought. Only after Plato has turned the trial into a drama does Socrates' defense attain an external splendor. Plato gives Socrates' speech order and arrangement by showing it to be an integral part of a noble action that culminates in Socrates' death.

Moreover, if the truth by itself is unpersuasive, and if Socrates will not use the appropriate means to persuade the jurymen to reach a just judgment, then is he himself not the cause of injustice—namely of his own unjust condemnation? And does he not advocate a way of speech that leaves not only himself but all other good men at the mercy of the unscrupulous, who are willing to say and do anything?

  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.