Commentary on Plato's Apology (24--26)

Socrates' defense against Meletus

At 24b, Socrates announces his intent to defend himself against his later accusers, beginning with Meletus. About this part of the Apology, C.D. C. Reeve says:

Nothing in the Apology has evoked more unanimous response than the . . . cross-examination of Meletus. Almost everyone, even the most cautious, is convinced that it does not establish, is perhaps not even intended to establish, that Socrates is innocent. Socrates "entraps" Meletus into saying things he does not mean -- the story goes -- and then "refutes" him with arguments at once irrelevant to his charges and fallacious. (Reeve, p. 74).

Though I will quote more from this passage from Reeve below, let me say here that Reeve is correct (more or less) about how "the [usual] story goes" and that the usual story offers, more or less, the only sane and non-sophistic reading of this part of the Apology. Although we will see Reeve challenging the usual reading below, his challenge reveals him to be (although this hardly needed revealing) a Socratic disciple, utterly unable to see his master guilty of any wrong, let alone serious wrongs like entrapping interlocutors and giving irrelevant and fallacious arguments. Although I have great respect for Reeve's erudition and philosophical skills, it is sad to see him using his considerable talents and knowledge to try to get around (and soft-sell) Socrates' obvious sophisms in this section of the Apology. It is such behavior that lends support to those who hold, first, that there are as many truths as there are interpreters and that philosophers are those who are good at making the weaker argument appear to defeat the stronger argument.

To see that the usual story is on the mark, one need look no further than Socrates' opening gambit against Meletus. After laying out the charges against him (viz., corrupting the youth and impiety) Socrates uses the all-too common and all-too faulty ploy of the accused, viz., claiming that one's accusers are also guilty of something or other. In particular, Socrates claims that "Meletus is guilty of treating a serious matter with levity . . . and professes concern and keen anxiety in matters about which he has never had the slightest interest." (24c). And then Socrates says the he "will try to prove this to [the jury's] satisfaction." (24c). But the jurors should be saying, "Don't bother Socrates, for it matters not what Meletus is or is not guilty of; show us you are not a corrupter of the youth or impious." There is no legitimate way to avoid concluding that Socrates is guilty here of "trying Meletus" when the matter before the court is Socrates' guilt or innocence. It would be nice if we could just call this spade a spade and ignore all sophistic arguments trying to show otherwise. But let's look at the evidence.

Of Socrates' "proof" that his charges against Meletus are true, irrelevant though it is, there is much not to like. Socrates asks Meletus to say who it is that influences the young for the better, insisting that Meletus "must know, if [he] is so much interested". The text then finds Meletus slow to answer, at which point Socrates hastily concludes that "Meletus . . . cannot answer" and then declares that Meletus' inability is "a sufficient proof in itself of what I said, that [Meletus has] no interest in the subject [of the welfare of the young]." (24d).

Socrates is simply wrong on both counts, viz., wrong that Meletus must know who influences the young for the better if he is interested in the young's welfare, and wrong that Meletus' inability to answer is proof of lack of interest. Meletus might claim that no one in present-day Athens influences the young for the better, in which case a non-answer, or the answer, no one, would be compatible with an interest in the welfare of the young. But even if Meletus admitted that he didn't know who uplifts the young and had never bothered to investigate the matter, his failure is obviously compatible with an interest in the matter. He could have claimed that his focus up till now has been on those who are the most obvious corrupters of the young, a task which is simultaneously easier and more likely to produce results than that of finding the uplifters of the youth. Socrates' "proof" then proves nothing at all.

Eventually, however, Socrates gets an answer from Meletus, who claims that the laws make the young good. Socrates does not accept this answer, insisting that he wants to know "the person whose first business it is to know the laws." (24e). Meletus cites a group of such people, viz., the members of the jury. Eventually, Socrates gets Meletus to say that everyone in Athens, except for Socrates, "has a refining effect upon the young", and thus that Socrates alone demoralizes them. Now although Meletus' view is hopelessly optimistic, as well as highly implausible, it is obvious that its implausibility or even falsity cannot be taken to establish Socrates' innocence. For the statement's implausibility and likely falsity is due to the unlikelihood of everyone other than Socrates being a benefactor of the young, or Socrates being their only corrupter, rather than on the implausibility or likely falsity of Socrates being a corrupter. Socrates, however, tries to make the case that Meletus' claim is not merely implausible but that it in fact reverses the truth of things. It is much more likely, says Socrates, that improvers of mankind are few in number while the corrupters are many. Socrates' argument is based on an analogy with horse trainers, with Socrates claiming that the ability to improve horses lies with a few (viz., horse trainers) whereas "most people, if they have to do with horses and make use of them, do them harm". (25b).

Even allowing that there is a viable analogy between the help and harm of horses and that of young people (a rather generous assumption, don't you think!), the conclusion that benefactors are few while non-benefactors or harmers are many, does much to establish the obvious, viz., the implausibility of Meletus' contention, but nothing to establish that Socrates is not a corrupter of the youth. Most importantly, Socrates' conclusion does not warrant the conclusion Socrates wishes to draw, viz., that Meletus has "never bothered his head about the young". For as noted above, his concern for the young can be said to be evident by his effort to rid the streets of Socrates. Whether one agrees with this or not, we can't forget that Meletus' bothering or not bothering his head about the young is irrelevant, not only because it is Socrates that is on trial but also because Socrates' corrupting influence may be so obvious that it is capable of being detected even by someone who has "never taken the slightest interest in the welfare of the young".

The fallacious character of Socrates' next maneuver against Meletus is perhaps the most difficult to spot but once seen, cannot be denied. After setting out some preliminary truisms (everyone prefers to be benefited by others rather than harmed, and it's better live in a good rather than a bad community, etc.), Socrates gets Meletus to say that Socrates corrupts the youth "intentionally" rather than unintentionally. Socrates then goes on to bellow that he would never intentionally corrupt the young and so it must be that he either does not corrupt the young or he does so unintentionally. Socrates then adds that the proper procedure for unintentional wrongdoing "is not to summon the culprit before the court, but to take him aside privately for instruction and reproof, because obviously if my eyes are opened, I shall stop doing what I do not intend to do." (26a). Clearly Socrates is being disingenuous here, for nothing will convince him that his mission corrupts the youth and nothing will deter him from his mission.

But the truth is that Socrates deliberately performs his elenchus. Meletus regards this as youth-corrupting and so contends, rightly, that Socrates deliberately corrupts the youth. That is, Meletus is claiming here that Socrates intentionally performs the actions which Meletus deems corrupting, i.e., the elenchus. The point in dispute then is whether Socrates' elenchic activities corrupt the young. No one cares that Socrates does not intentionally perform actions he himself regards as corrupting. Indeed, as Socrates himself says, only a fool would do such a thing. Meletus is not then, claiming that Socrates is deliberately doing something which he, Socrates, regards as youth-corrupting. As such, this entire episode about deliberateness is little more than a red herring to try to make Meletus look silly. Not exactly the sort of behavior one expects from someone on a mission from God (but then again, it depends on one's notion of God; some there are who regard their God as a trickster).

The bottom line however is that since Socrates would readily allow that he performs his elenchic activities intentionally, deliberately, the only way for Socrates to convince the jurors that he does not corrupt the youth intentionally is to show that his elenchic activities do not, Meletus' contentions notwithstanding, corrupt the young. At the very least, it ought to be agreed that the whole "either I do not corrupt or I do so unintentionally" maneuver smacks of sophistry, not to mention hypocrisy, and ought not be a part of any honest attempt to meet the charges before Socrates.

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Last modified September 17. 2011
JAH, Professor
Dept. of Philosophy