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The Apology — Socrates' Arguments

The Apology — Socrates' Arguments

Author: Sophia Media

Extract an argument from a text.

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Hello, and welcome to this tutorial on Socrates' arguments from The Apology. Today, we will review the main action of The Apology, and then work on extracting arguments from the text. So let's get started.

Recall that The Apology is what amounts to a court transcript, recorded by Plato, in which Socrates tries to exonerate himself from criminal charges. Nominally, the charges were denying the gods of Athens, and much more seriously, corrupting the youth of Athens. However, as Socrates pointed out, the real crime was his unpopularity and making the wrong people look bad.

It is a powerful text, and since doing philosophy is what got him into trouble, to defend himself he must convince the jury that doing philosophy is right and worthwhile. In doing so, he must do some philosophy himself. And Socrates offers concise arguments showing why he does not corrupt the youth of Athens and why he does not fear execution for his purported crimes.

The dialogue begins after the prosecution has presented its case against Socrates, as he begins his defense. Important to his case, he makes a distinction between the old charges and the new charges. By new charges, he means the official charges. That is, denying the gods of Athens and corrupting the youth. The old charges are simply his reputation. Let's begin by considering his argument against the new charges.

While addressing the new charges, particularly the charge that he is corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates presents two arguments against the charge, arguing directly, in his usual dialectic method, against his chief prosecutor, Meletus. In the exchange, Socrates makes two arguments, one inductive, one deductive. Remember that an inductive argument is an argument whose inferential claim is a claim less than logically certain, while a deductive argument is an argument whose inferential claim is a claim of logical certainty. Let's begin by looking at the text and seeing if we can reconstruct his arguments before evaluating them.

In the first, inductive argument, Socrates gets Meletus to state his charge precisely. Socrates. "Then every Athenian improves and elevates them, all with the exception of myself, and I alone am their corrupter. Is that what you affirm?" Meletus. "That is what I stoutly affirm."

We now see the direction Socrates' argument will take. Meletus' assertion is that everyone else improves the youth, and only Socrates corrupts them. Now, Socrates will show how bizarre this assertion is. Feel free to pause and examine the text as it appears on your screen.

"But suppose I ask you a question. How about horses? Does one man do them harm and all the world good? Is not the exact opposite the truth? One man is able to do them good, or at least not many. The trainer of horses, that is to say, does them good, and others who would have to do with them rather injure them. Happy indeed would be the condition of youth if they had one corrupter only, and all the rest of the world were their improvers. But you, Meletus, have sufficiently shown that you never had a thought about the young. Your carelessness is seen in your not caring about the very things which you bring against me."

With the text in front of us, let's see if we can find the premises and conclusion. The former should support the latter. The conclusion should say something about Socrates not being guilty of the charge, or the charge being wrong. So look for how he supports that here.

One, if Meletus is correct, everyone else improves the youth, and only Socrates corrupts them. Two, but with horses, it is the opposite. But combining one and two together would yield three. This would mean that it is much easier to raise a good human than a good horse, which is crazy. The statement that it is much easier to raise a good human than a good horse is obviously crazy. Hence, we reject Meletus' original assertion, and conclude that Meletus' claim is wrong. That is, that Socrates does not corrupt the youth.

When it comes to evaluation, notice first that this is an inductive argument because it is based on cause and effect relationships. Specifically, a disanalogy. As such, it is easy to see why the craziness, as I called it, in the premise is logically relevant. Crazy means improbable, which means you should not believe it unless you have overwhelming evidence. But since no youth or their parents spoke against Socrates, there is no such preponderance of evidence. Therefore, we must reject the initial assumption that led us to this absurdity, that only Socrates harms the youth while every other Athenian improves them.

But Socrates does not leave it at that. Instead, he shores up this initial line of reasoning with a deductive argument. Again, feel free to pause and examine the text as it appears on your screen.

Socrates. "And when you accuse me of corrupting and deteriorating the youth, do you allege that I corrupt them intentionally or unintentionally?" Meletus. "Intentionally, I say."

Socrates. "But you have just admitted that the good do their neighbors good, and the evil do them evil. Now, is that a truth which your superior wisdom has recognized thus early in life, and am I, at my age, in such darkness and ignorance as not to know that, if a man with whom I have to live is corrupted by me, I am very likely to be harmed by him? And yet I corrupt him, and intentionally, too? But either I do not corrupt them, or I corrupt them unintentionally. And on either view of the case, you lie. If my offense is unintentional, the law has no cognizance of my unintentional offenses. You ought to have taken me privately, and warned and admonished me."

Let's try to extract the argument here. Once more, look for the main point. In this case, it is the important either/or, that any corruption of the youth is either intentional or unintentional. But now we know where Socrates will go with this. He must show why either of those two options leads to a not guilty verdict.

You try it. See if you can reconstruct the argument, starting with the premise, one, any corruption is either intentional or unintentional. Next, there should be two more premises, one covering each option leading to the conclusion. See if you can find them.

The argument may be continued as follows. Two, unintentional corruption is foolish, but not illegal. Three, intentional corruption, however, would be to deliberately harm oneself by corrupting those around them, something Socrates would never do. Hence, in conclusion, either there is no crime or Meletus is lying. This results in a not guilty verdict either way.

Notice that these three premises deductively entail this conclusion and Meletus has granted all three premises, meaning that he has also granted the conclusion, which is guaranteed by a deductively sound argument. Of course, the jury did not see it this way, and Socrates was found guilty. Meletus asked for death, and Socrates did not really suggest any viable alternative.

As such, Socrates was sentenced to death. However, in The Apology, both before and after this sentence was pronounced, Socrates presents compelling reasons for not fearing death. Most importantly, he was doing what he thought was right, pursuing wisdom and teaching others to do so, and living by his moral principles.

Socrates claims, "the difficulty, my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness, for that runs faster than death." Here, Socrates points out that the good person does what he knows to be right regardless of any negative personal consequences. That's what being moral is, to do the right thing, even if it entails a personal cost.

Hence, the mere fact that they may execute him should not enter into his reasonings about what is right. This is true generally, but recall that we are also obligated to perform the godly activity of philosophy, of pursuing wisdom and seeking out right living. This activity is peculiar to humans, and without it, we fall short of our humanity. As Socrates famously says, the unexamined life is not worth living. This means that pursuing philosophy, even if it was personally costly to him, was a moral obligation.

Lastly, and related to this determination to do what he knows is right, Socrates gives another deductive either/or argument, this one about why we should not fear death. Closely examine the text as it appears on your screen, pausing as is necessary.

"There is great reason to hope that death is a good, for one of two things, either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now, if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain. Now, if death be of such a nature, I say that to die is a gain, for eternity is then only a single night."

"But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead abide, what good, oh my friends and judges, can be greater than this? If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below he is delivered from the professors of justice in this world and finds the true judges who are said to give judgment there. What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? Above all, I shall then be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge. What would not a man give, oh judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition, or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women, too? What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions."

Like his deductive argument as to why he does not corrupt the youth, the argument takes the form of an either/or. See if you can reconstruct Socrates' argument from the text. Its structure is very similar to the either/or that he is not guilty of corrupting the youth, which means you need to find the either/or statement and then show why neither option is anything to fear.

The argument may be reconstructed as follows. Premise one, death is either nothing or something. Premise two, if death is nothing, it is akin to a restful, dreamless sleep, which is, of course, nothing to fear. Premise three, but if death is something, it would take the form of some type of reunion with the dead ruled over by the just judges, once more nothing to fear. Hence, death is nothing to fear either way. Once more, this is a deductively valid argument. However, in evaluating its soundness, some might worry that, in maintaining his third premise, Socrates ignored the possibility of a negative afterlife, such as hell.

There are two things to be said here. First, concepts of eternal damnation were not hypothesized until centuries later, and we should try our best not to fault philosophers for not having time machines. Second, and more importantly, Socrates does say something that should assuage this worry, for the afterlife that he describes here would be ruled over by the true judges, ones who would not fault or punish him for dedicating his life to pursuing wisdom and moral philosophy. So if we believe Socrates that we should pursue wisdom, the third premise is appropriate.

All right, so let's recap. In this tutorial, we learned that, in The Apology, Socrates must defend himself, and in doing so, defend philosophy. The charge of corrupting the youth was discharged by two good arguments, one deductive, one inductive, but Socrates was sentenced to death anyway. However, this did not upset Socrates, as he knew he was living rightly. Thanks for watching, and we will see you next time.

Terms to Know

An argument whose inferential claim is a claim of logical certainty


An argument whose inferential claim is a claim less than logical certainty