Historical Rhetorics/Plato's Relationship to Rhetoric/Plato, ''Apology''

Note that what follows is a copy/paste of reading notes. Grammar is terrible. Fragments abound.

From the introduction--the original Greek title "means not an apology but a defense speech in a legal proceeding." Thus, the Socratic apology is, from the beginning, a rational exercise rather than a pathetic event.

Of course, we can never know the context of this piece. Lost to history is whether Socrates was damned from the beginning. And, of course, the Apology is a piece of literature, not an actual court transcript. The extent to which this "apology" contributed to Socrates' death is pure (fun) speculation (see John M. Cooper's introductory notes to the dialogue). There's always the question of whether Socrates was really being tried for his students' connections to the Tyranny of the 30. In the dialogue, Socrates notes that he bravely resisted an order from them concerning an execution. However, at least two of the thirty were his students, and exposed anti-democratic sentiments similar to those expressed in Plato's Republic.

Persuasion or Truth?


Noteworthy of this piece: it represents, more than most other dialogues, a rhetorical performance. Well, actually, a-rhetorical performance--if one thinks of rhetoric in the usual way (as attention to circumstance, audience, etc). Notice how the opening lines of the dialogue begin with a binary--what is persuasive, and what is true. This binary will continue to animate almost all of Plato's writings on the subject of rhetoric. To be accomplished as a speaker brings suspicion (17 a-b). Later in the dialogue, we learn that truth and wisdom lie in opposition to popularity [21d-e].

Socrates' unusual manner of question and answer (the future of the justice system)? Plenty of moments such as 27b where Socrates calls attention to his unusual manner.

Socrates' suspicion toward style should not go unnoticed. In 17c Socrates offers a strong endorsement of the plain style, one that echoes Enlightenment rejections of rhetoric and oratory. The rejection of poets is a rejection of artifice born of "talent," [22c] it anticipates the rejection of all art in Republic X (see 22d, craftsman have advanced knowledge of their craft). In his opening to the dialogue, Socrates stresses that his speech will be spontaneous. This underlies the Socratic rejection of writing in the Phaedrus. Socrates prefers orality's spontaneity to writing's cultivation. There is something, by default, inauthentic about writing for Socrates [17c]. Only young men "toy with words."

The Crime of Sophistry/Socrates


He is accused of the crime of sophistry: "who makes the worse argument the stronger." This, too, we will hear again--as the accusation against Gorgias in the Gorgias dialogue. This is the banner of Plato-sophistry. Also, the depiction of Socrates in The Clouds.

Note that Socrates takes pride in the fact that he does not charge a fee [20b-c]. We should be especially suspicious of anyone who charges so little.

"They say: 'that man Socrates is a pestilential fellow who corrupts the young'" [23d]. So Socrates is on trial for teaching them to ask questions, questions lead to anger (26b). What has he taught them? Deconstruction--the art of exposing the first principle, the foundation. Socrates argues that he is on trial not because of the charges, but because his gadflyish pursuit of truth, his exposing others to their own ignorance, has made him profoundly unpopular.

Wisdom is Worthless


Socrates identifies himself as the master of human wisdom (not any other, or higher, kind of wisdom--such that the sophists claim to have). Almost an Eastern flair--for Socrates true wisdom is a recognition that one is not wise [21b]. It is a perpetual state of curiosity, humility, bravery, etc. "I do not think I know what I do not know" (23b: "this man among you, mortals, is wisest who, like Socrates, understands that his wisdom is worthless").

"If anyone says that he has learned anything from me, or that he heard anything privately that the others did not hear, be assured that he is not telling the truth" [33b].

The A-Rhetorical Socrates


There are distinct moments in this dialogue when Socrates strikingly insults his audience. Again, we here have to speculate whether this audience was judging him fairly or merely waiting to pass sentence. The first occurs at 31d-e, when he informs a democratic jury that interacting in politics and public life is, for a "true, honest, good" philosopher/person, a death sentence. He emphatically persists:

Do no be angry with me for speaking the truth; no man will survive long who genuinely opposes you or any crowd and prevents the occurrence of many unjust and illegal happenings in the city. A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time. [32]

Two things of note here: first, I would point to the idiosyncratic use of the word "justice," since for most of us, justice is caught up in a social legal system. For Socrates, justice quite clearly transcends the human. This will come up again in much more detail at the conclusion of the Gorgias dialogue. Second--this reflects Socrates' disdain for pathos. Think of how many times, throughout the dialogue, Socrates chastises the audience for reacting to his style or arguments--how many times he urges the audience "not to create a disturbance if I proceed in my usual manner" [27b]. His usual manner is, of course, quite unusual--but Socrates doesn't acknowledge (here or elsewhere, to my recollection), that change and the encounter with the unusual is an affective or pathetic experience. This might be one of the reasons that the vision of the Republic remains a purely intellectual, rather than political, exercise. Plato and Socrates are excellent at developing ideas, not so much at marshaling humans to enact those ideas. [Note that he degrades the use of emotional appeals and displays at 34b-c].

Odds and Ends


25a-e, Socrates performs justice in terms of the probable (this seems very uncharacteristic for him).

35a-b; Socrates' lack of fear for death comes up again at the end of the Gorgias. Combined with his personal, rather than public, sense of justice, we have a clear transcendental notion of morality. This becomes even clearer at 38a:

If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the god, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical.

See also 41d: "a good man cannot be harmed either in life or in death." But, as Socrates argues at the end of the Gorgias, he fears no human court because he answers only to divine logos.

Perhaps you think that I was convicted for lack of such words as might have convinced you, if I thought I should say or do all I could to avoid my sentence. Far from it. I was convicted because I lacked not words but boldness and shamelessness and the willingness to say to you what you would most gladly have heard from me, lamentations and tears and my saying and doing many things that I say are unworthy of me but that you are accustomed to hear from others. I did not think then that the danger I ran should make me do anything mean, nor do I now regret the nature of my defense. I would much rather die after this kind of defense than live after making the other kind. [38d-e]