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Genre – Oratory
Plato’s Apology is in the widest sense an example of forensic oratory, in which Socrates defends himself in court against his accusers. The Apology is also an important example of a fairly extensive literature designed to defend Socrates against his detractors and to present what his defenders believed to be the real Socrates. Finally, it should be noted that the Apology is a set of speeches recreated by a second party after the fact (like the speeches in Thucydides), and therefore should not be considered a word-for-word reproduction of what Socrates said on that occasion.
After the defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, the democracy, which had so vigorously prosecuted the war, could not survive. The Assembly, cowed by the presence of the Spartan fleet, voted to choose thirty men to form a temporary government while they codified “the ancestral laws” as a basis for a new constitution. The phrase “ancestral laws” was a well-known slogan of the oligarchs at Athens. The first step taken by the Thirty, with the tacit approval of the Athenian people, was to rid Athens of those politicians whose bad advice had contributed to Athens’ downfall. But the ultimate aim of the Thirty was to eliminate their political opposition. Ignoring their assigned task of codification, they proceeded to use their autocratic power, with the support of the newly arrived Spartan garrison stationed on the Acropolis, against prominent democrats. Political ideology, however, was not the only motive behind the reign of terror established by these oligarchs who became commonly known as the “Thirty Tyrants”. Greed encouraged them to prey upon well-to-do Athenians by passing a law that they could put to death and confiscate the property of anyone not included on their list of three thousand citizens.
The tyrannical behavior of the Thirty resulted in a mass exodus of disenfranchised Athenians from Athens to neighboring cities. Among these exiles were the former generals under the democracy, Anytus and Thrasybulus. In the spring of 403 a small army of democrats led by these two men succeeded in entering the Piraeus, and in the summer of the same year defeated the forces of the Thirty. The remaining oligarchs still were in control of Athens, but the Spartan garrison, combined with the army of the Spartan king Pausanias who had replaced Lysander as commander, engaged in only token resistance to the exiles. Through the efforts of Pausanias the democrats were allowed to enter Athens peacefully and the democracy was restored. An amnesty was decreed which stipulated that no citizen could be brought into court on a charge of political wrongdoing committed before the restoration of the democracy. The only persons excluded from this amnesty were the Thirty themselves and their close associates, who were outlawed. With the withdrawal of the Spartans, Athens again became an independent city.
Since the trial of Socrates took place in 399, four years after the restoration of the democracy, it must be viewed in the context of the events narrated above. Critias, the leader of the Thirty, and Charmides, who was his assistant during the rule of the Thirty, were known to have been at one time or another associates of Socrates. Socrates was tried under the auspices of the restored democracy and, although the actual prosecutor in his trial was the obscure Meletus, the prosecution was instigated by Anytus, one of the democratic leaders exiled during the rule of the Thirty.1 Socrates had refused to become involved in the crimes of the Thirty (Ap. 32c-d),2 but the fact that he had remained in the city throughout the rule of the Thirty certainly did not endear him to the democrats who had to go into exile. This, of course, could not be the basis of an accusation in court because of the amnesty, but the charge could be couched in sufficiently vague terms to avoid a technical violation of the amnesty. On the other hand, Anytus and other enemies of Socrates almost certainly did not desire the philosopher’s death, but would have been satisfied if Socrates had chosen the usual alternative of exile even before the trial had begun or proposed it as a penalty after condemnation. Socrates, however, refusing to be intimidated by the trial and insisting that his activities had benefited Athens, staunchly proclaimed his own innocence. His uncompromising attitude no doubt angered the jury and led to their decision to condemn Socrates to death.
1It might seem strange that almost four years elapsed between the restoration of the democracy (403) and Socrates’s trial (399). The answer is that a commission had undertaken the revision and codification of the laws, which originally had been the task of the Thirty, and, until they finished their work in 400, the courts were in a state of confusion. Thus it is clear that the restored democracy sought revenge against Socrates as soon as it was practically possible.
2This number plus letter(s) refers to sections of the Apology. The numbers and letters are generally located in the margins of the text.
Another factor to consider was the intellectual ferment at Athens during the last half of the fifth century. The fact that old beliefs were under constant attack by intellectuals disturbed many Athenians. As early as the middle of the fifth century, Anaxagoras, who said that the sun and moon were not gods, was prosecuted for impiety and left Athens rather than submit to the court’s penalty (perhaps death). In order to bring Anaxagoras to trial a decree was passed by the Assembly which virtually outlawed the teaching of astronomy as irreligious. A tradition exists (which may be unreliable) that c .411 the famous Sophist Protagoras was prosecuted for impiety because of his treatise On the Gods and fled Athens before the trial could take place. This Athenian distrust of intellectuals combined with the political pressures of the last two decades of the fifth century made Socrates vulnerable to prosecution. Aristophanes in the Clouds had presented him as a Sophist and an irreligious teacher of astronomy who corrupted his students with his teaching. Although Socrates was not a teacher of astronomy nor the impious man that he appears to be in the Clouds, he was a tireless questioner of traditional values and constantly seen in the company of wealthy young men of oligarchic leanings. His enemies believed that Socrates was corrupting these young men with his radical thoughts and making them bad citizens. In their minds, the actions of Alcibiades, Critias and Charmides confirmed that Socrates was a bad influence on young men and that this influence was responsible for many of the disasters that Athens had suffered in the last years of the war and immediately afterwards. by Roger Dunkle
Brooklyn College Core Curriculum Series