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Gadfly on Trial: Socrates as Citizen and Social Critic 

Josiah Ober, edition of July 31, 2003

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· Setting, Conventions, & Expectations ·

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Plato (Plat. Apol.).
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The setting of Plato’s Apology of Socrates is the public trial of 399 B.C., in which Meletus (supported by other prominent Athenians), serving as a voluntary prosecutor, charged Socrates with impiety (including corruption of the youth). A jury of 500 citizens heard the case, presented as a timed speech of accusation by the prosecutor, followed by a defense speech of equal length by the accused. The jurors then voted by secret ballot and the votes were counted. Because a majority (280 to 220) judged Socrates guilty, each side delivered another speech, advocating a punishment. In these particulars, the trial followed established Athenian legal procedure. Plato’s Apology purports to be Socrates’ initial speech of defense, his second speech responding to the prosecutor’s call for his execution, and an informal post-sentencing address to those jurors who had voted in his favor. Socrates’ first speech conforms quite closely in form and style to other surviving examples of Athenian courtroom oratory, but its content is distinctive. While it is not possible to determine how accurate the Apology is as record of how the historical Socrates actually defended himself on that day in 399 B.C.; it is, I think, safe to claim that Plato’s text is an accurate record of Plato’s own first take on the problem of “Socrates and Athens”: Plato’s Socrates, the literary character, sketches out the case against himself and identifies his own bad reputation among the Athenian citizenry as the real issue in the case. He locates the ultimate source of this widespread and ultimately deadly resentment and distrust of himself in deeply ingrained Athenian assumptions and practices.

The 500 jurors who heard Socrates’ case were ordinary Athenian men, over age 30, who represented a reasonable cross section of citizen society. Most would have had to work for a living, a few might be genuinely destitute, a few others perhaps were of the leisure class. None was a legal “professional,” but most of them were very experienced “consumers” of public rhetoric, they were knowledgeable in the ways that Athenian public speakers attempted to persuade mass audiences through speech in courtroom and Assembly. When he entered the courtroom, the typical Athenian juror already knew the elaborate unwritten rules of the game and expected the litigants to play by those rules.

Read about the evidence
Plato (Plat. Apol.).

There were well established rhetorical conventions to be observed; many jurors must have settled more comfortably into their seats when Socrates opened his defense with the standard gambit of claiming to be just a quiet private citizen, one who was unfamiliar with the courts, innocent of rhetorical training, and who now found himself confronted with skilled and experienced opponents (17a-d). This commonplace (topos), like others employed by Athenian litigants, served to establish the speaker’s loyal adherence to a generally accepted and specifically democratic code of belief and behavior. Along with explicit claims to having performed services for the polis appropriate to one’s social station, rhetorical topoi sought to integrate the interests of the litigant-speaker and the audience of jurors.

The establishment of the speaker’s credentials as a useful citizen who conformed to standard democratic norms of belief and behavior would be interwoven with the substantive case establishing a defendant’s technical innocence. What the Athenian jury expected, then, was for the defendant, Socrates, to try to show through his rhetoric that the specific charges were without factual basis, and furthermore that they were incredible given his standing as a loyal citizen of the democratic polity. He should, moreover, explain how the baseless charges came to be lodged against him, in the process exposing his accusers as scoundrels who were corruptly willing, even viciously eager, to undermine democratic practices. Finally, he might try to show that his own behavior consistently conformed to a model of citizen dignity, while his opponents threatened the security of each citizen by brazenly violating public standards.

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