The Apology of Socrates is Plato’s account of what Socrates said to the Athenian Council when brought to trial on charges of corrupting the youth and impiety. No record of what was actually said at the trial exists.
The dialogue begins with Socrates addressing the jury at great length. He first says that he knows they were warned against him as an accomplished speaker; however, Socrates does not believe himself to be an accomplished speaker unless men who speak the truth are considered accomplished. Because this is his first appearance in court at the age of seventy, he asks them to forgive his accustomed manner of speaking because he knows no other way.
It is harder to refute long-told rumors than new ones because they become imbedded in people’s minds, so Socrates says he will refute the accusations in order. The first accusation brought by Meletus is of studying the sky and what is below the earth and then teaching it to others. This is not true, because anyone who has heard him speak knows that he does not talk about such things, or charge a fee for this so-called teaching like others do. Furthermore, the wisdom he possesses is only human wisdom in knowing nothing. Apollo, through his oracle at Delphi, told Chaerephon that Socrates is the wisest man on earth. Feeling like he must serve this god, he set about finding the truth in the prophecy. Socrates knows that he knows nothing, but in questioning those who were supposed to have great wisdom, he found that they only thought they knew things. The higher a man’s reputation, the less wise they actually were. So Socrates feels the prophecy must be true, if he alone is aware that he knows nothing. To further his claim, Socrates points to his poverty in service to his god.
The second accusation is corruption of the youth. If laws, councilmen, and the jury are all thought to make the young good, then how could Socrates alone be responsible for their corruption? As an example, he states that horse breeders often damage their horses, but an individual makes them better. The reverse is never true. Also, Socrates knows better than to corrupt those closest to him, because it is much better to live among good people than bad. If Socrates has indeed corrupted anyone, it was certainly not his intention, and if this is true, he should receive instruction in how not to corrupt instead of a trial.
Socrates then asks Meletus to address the impiety charge. Meletus replies that Socrates does not believe in the gods and believes the sun and moon are made of rock and earth. Socrates counters this by saying any student could buy books that make the same claims about the sun and moon very cheaply, and people who are not being tried for corruption wrote those books. Also, how can Socrates believe in spiritual matters, which he frequently discusses, if he does not believe in spirits? Spirits are the offspring of gods and humans, and to only believe in one would be like believing in mules but not horses.
Socrates knows that his long-term slander will be his undoing, but good men don’t worry about life and death when they perform good acts. Socrates is not ashamed; his silence would have been shameful. Fear of death is equivalent to believing oneself wise when one is not. If the council will acquit Socrates on the condition he not teach anymore, Socrates would rather have death. To his credit though, he has not groveled by bringing his family to court with him, and none of his grown students have come back to testify against him.
Socrates is found guilty and Meletus asks the penalty be death. Socrates says he would prefer death to imprisonment or exile, as neither is a good life for an old man who cannot stop teaching. Some of Socrates’ friends recommend a fine and guarantee payment, but the jury rules in favor of death. Socrates predicts that the council will suffer greatly for killing him in an act of great injustice, and truth will eventually prevail. Socrates concludes by musing that deatth may really be a blessing. Either he will feel nothingness or his soul will be transported, and he would love to spend time with other wise men who have already died. Socrates bids farewell, as now is his time to die.