The Apology by Plato

Why do I mention this ? Because I am going to explain to you why I have such an evil name. When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean ? and what is the interpretation of this riddle ? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men ? And yet he is a god and cannot lie ; that would be against his nature. After a long consideration, I at last thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, “Here is a man who is wiser than I am ; but you said that I was the wisest.” Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him — his name I need not mention ; he was a politician whom I selected for examination — and the result was as follows : When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself ; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise ; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away : Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is — for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him.

After this I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this : but necessity was laid upon me — the word of God, I thought, ought to be considered first. And I said to myself, Go I must to all who appear to know, and find out the meaning of the oracle. And I swear to you, Athenians, by the dog I swear ! — for I must tell you the truth — the result of my mission was just this : I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish ; and that some inferior men were really wiser and better. I will tell you the tale of my wanderings and of the “Herculean” labors, as I may call them, which I endured only to find at last the oracle irrefutable. When I left the politicians, I went to the poets ; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be detected ; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them — thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me ? I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration ; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. And the poets appeared to me to be much in the same case ; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise. So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians.

At last I went to the artisans, for I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things ; and in this I was not mistaken, for they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets ; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom — therefore I asked myself on behalf of the oracle, whether I would like to be as I was, neither having their knowledge nor their ignorance, or like them in both ; and I made answer to myself and the oracle that I was better off as I was.

This investigation has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind, and has given occasion also to many calumnies, and I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others : but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise ; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing ; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. And so I go my way, obedient to the god, and make inquisition into the wisdom of anyone, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise ; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise ; and this occupation quite absorbs me, and I have no time to give either to any public matter of interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god.

There is another thing : — young men of the richer classes, who have not much to do, come about me of their own accord ; they like to hear the pretenders examined, and they often imitate me, and examine others themselves ; there are plenty of persons, as they soon enough discover, who think that they know something, but really know little or nothing : and then those who are examined by them instead of being angry with themselves are angry with me : This confounded Socrates, they say ; this villainous misleader of youth ! — and then if somebody asks them, Why, what evil does he practise or teach ? they do not know, and cannot tell ; but in order that they may not appear to be at a loss, they repeat the ready-made charges which are used against all philosophers about teaching things up in the clouds and under the earth, and having no gods, and making the worse appear the better cause ; for they do not like to confess that their pretence of knowledge has been detected — which is the truth : and as they are numerous and ambitious and energetic, and are all in battle array and have persuasive tongues, they have filled your ears with their loud and inveterate calumnies. And this is the reason why my three accusers, Meletus and Anytus and Lycon, have set upon me ; Meletus, who has a quarrel with me on behalf of the poets ; Anytus, on behalf of the craftsmen ; Lycon, on behalf of the rhetoricians : and as I said at the beginning, I cannot expect to get rid of this mass of calumny all in a moment. And this, O men of Athens, is the truth and the whole truth ; I have concealed nothing, I have dissembled nothing. And yet I know that this plainness of speech makes them hate me, and what is their hatred but a proof that I am speaking the truth ? — this is the occasion and reason of their slander of me, as you will find out either in this or in any future inquiry.

I have said enough in my defence against the first class of my accusers ; I turn to the second class, who are headed by Meletus, that good and patriotic man, as he calls himself. And now I will try to defend myself against them : these new accusers must also have their affidavit read. What do they say ? Something of this sort : — That Socrates is a doer of evil, and corrupter of the youth, and he does not believe in the gods of the state, and has other new divinities of his own. That is the sort of charge ; and now let us examine the particular counts. He says that I am a doer of evil, who corrupt the youth ; but I say, O men of Athens, that Meletus is a doer of evil, and the evil is that he makes a joke of a serious matter, and is too ready at bringing other men to trial from a pretended zeal and interest about matters in which he really never had the smallest interest. And the truth of this I will endeavor to prove.