In 399 B.C.E., Socrates entered a courtroom prepared to present a three-hour long defense speech for his innocence. The 500 men waiting to listen were performing their required jury sentence, but there were few rules in Athenian society. No judge was present to explain the law nor was there any handbook of rules to consult. The charges brought against Socrates were foggy at best. He had been accused of corrupting the youth, not worshiping the state gods and impiety. Still, the odds were stacked against him. At 71, he had become something of a public notoriety. As he tells us, he’d been known colloquially as the town busybody, and the Athenians were more than happy to finally rid themselves of his presence.
Trials were common in the democratic age of Athens. Plenty of men were interrogated for crimes ranging from those as trivial as cutting down an olive tree to those as serious as murder. Nothing would have made this one particularly remarkable, except that the defense given by Socrates was so radical and poignant in its thought. The text has become a seminal work for classicists, philosophers and political scientists alike.
The early sections of The Apology focus on the virtue of humility. Wisdom, as Socrates tells us, is merely the acceptance of having none. Man knows nothing, he claims, but assumes that he knows everything, and that is the fallacy of humankind. The defendant chastises the onlooking crowd, telling them that this error has made them all complacent with the state of Athenian society. Their confidence has led them to stop examining themselves and bettering the community, causing the entire democracy to fall into a state of decline.
This question of knowledge is something I confront often. In the 2016 election, I worked for the Clinton campaign and cast my vote in her favor. I come from an immigrant family that has consistently supported Democratic Party policies. Having been raised in that setting, I have adopted those views as my own, and will continue to believe in those values.
At the same time, I must also acknowledge my own shortcomings. My beliefs are rooted in sound bites. I will tell you passionately that every American deserves healthcare, but I know few of the technicalities of the Affordable Care Act. I argue that everyone should pay their fair share of taxes, but I am not well versed in the logistics of such economic policies. I will assert that no human is illegal, but I haven’t the faintest idea how the immigration process works, even though my parents went it twenty years ago when they moved from India.
I wonder sometimes if these fundamental values are sufficient. Certainly, I will continue to vote based on these beliefs, but I question whether or not I can call myself an informed citizen. Still, what drove Socrates was a hunger for information. The core principle behind Athenian democracy was civic engagement, and for that to be successful, every man had to be educated on all aspects of governance and society. Modern democracy requires the same of us. The newfound partisanship seems indicative of a larger shift away from these standards. Our generation should strive to further educate ourselves on the intricacies of law and politics. Socrates might tell us to do just that: investigate these affairs that threaten civil society thoroughly and never presume that we know everything.
The Apology is more than an educational discourse or a political example. Socrates covers both of these topics in his dialogue, but he also presents a greater argument: a defense of the philosopher’s role in modern society. For him, the pinnacle of civic life is engagement. The highest service that a citizen can provide to his country is questioning every aspect of it. Complacency is a mistake, he asserts, comparing the Athenian populace to a sluggish horse needing to be awakened. In perhaps the most famous maxim of the entire text, he claims that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” a guiding statement reminding his audience to inquire and investigate the very nature of humanity. The message he sends to us is clear: activism against what we perceive as wrongdoings is imperative to the success of society. The process of questioning our government, and of displaying our dissatisfaction is more important than ever.
Mass movements, such as the Women’s March on Washington, are reminders of the power of the individual. Further pursuits of this nature will only be caused by continued criticism of the current administration and its discriminatory policies. As soon as we fall into complacency, we will fail to effect productive change.
It is worth noting that Athenian democracy, which we consider one of the greatest accomplishments of the ancients, is also the same society that sentenced Socrates to death. The institution is not infallible, nor are civil liberties guaranteed. At its core, The Apology advocates for questioning; that is, the need for every citizen to interrogate and aggravate the governing body, and to actively speak out against injustice. The philosopher has a role to play in the political sphere, and today, the manifestation of that duty is in the form of active engagement.
At the close of The Apology, Socrates makes a final request to the Athenian people before his impending death at the hands of the hemlock plant: “when my sons grow up punish them in the same way that you have punished me if they ever care for anything above virtue.” This statement is a guiding principle to all of us to take initiative and examine ourselves and our society. Our full potential is realized when we contribute actively to our communities, question the fallacies of our government, and focus on improving ourselves in a productive manner.