Xenophon and Plato on the Matter of Socrates’ Apology to the Athenian Court, Essay Example

Xenophon and Plato each offered accounts of Socrates’ trial before the Athenian court, a trial that ended in a guilty verdict and a death sentence for Socrates. The accounts both take the form of an “apology” (based on the Greek “apologia,” loosely translated as “defense” or “justification”)(Reeve, 1989). Xenophon’s “Apology of Socrates” and Plato’s “Apology of Socrates” (often shortened to “Plato’s Apology” or simply “the Apology”) each focus on Socrates himself, and purport to describe Socrates’ own words to the court as he defended himself against charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and of impiety. Though they share a main theme, and have some areas of commonality, Xenophon’s and Plato’s Apologies also differ in some notable ways. There are structural differences in the presentation of the material, and there are significant differences in content and tone between the two works.

One difference that is immediately apparent is that Plato’s Apology is largely written in the first person, from the point of view of Socrates himself, while Xenophon’s is written in the third person, and describes Socrates’ words as well as some of the responses from those present at the trial. According to history and legend, Plato was actually present while Socrates was being tried; if this is true, it may mean that Plato’s account is as close to a historically-accurate account of the trial as we will ever have. Xenophon, by contrast, was not present at the trial, and his Apology was written based on information he was given by others who were present (Reeve). This fact alone means that historians generally give more weight to Plato’s apology in terms of accuracy; where the Apologies differ, most consider Plato’s account to be the more reliable of the two (Reeve).

It must be understood when reading the Apologies that while they are intended to offer readers an account of the trial of Socrates, they also tell readers and historians something about their authors as well. Xenophon and Plato each had different relationships with Socrates; historians seem to agree that Plato was closer to Socrates than Xenophon was, and also agree that Xenophon was more worshipful and reverential towards Socrates than Plato was (Navia, 2007). If they did have different relationships with Socrates, and Plato was more of a friend and student while Xenophon was more of a student and even a disciple, that may explain why they perceived Socrates differently, and therefore why their accounts of Socrates’ apology to the court are different in tone and in content.

Xenophon’s Apology begins with a conversation between Socrates and Hermogenes, who was present at the trial and who presumably helped Xenophon by offering him details about the event. In this conversation Socrates explains to Hermogenes that even though he believes himself to be innocent, and will not “court” death, he would prefer a swift, early death while he was still healthy over a prolonged death where his health failed in his remaining years (Perseus, n.d.). Xenophon then turns to the trial itself, and almost immediately presents a confrontation between Socrates and Meletus, as Meletus was among Socrates’ accusers and had claimed that Socrates did not believe in the Athenian-approved gods.

Plato makes note of this same confrontation, though he takes longer to get there and describes it differently. Unlike Xenophon, Plato begins his Apology by immediately describing Socrates’ words to the court; the preceding conversation with Hermogenes, if it ever happened, is not mentioned by Plato. Here can be seen the difference in tone and structure between the two works; Xenophon uses the introductory section featuring Hermogenes to describe what he felt was Socrates’ mindset at the start of the trial. Further, Xenophon sees Socrates as a practical person who was resigned to his fate and who preferred death over the miseries of old age. Socrates offers readers no such introduction, but rather he launches right into Socrates’ monologue to the courts. Where Xenophon’s Socrates begins his address to the court by immediately discussing the charges against him, Plato’s Socrates first takes the time to introduce himself to the court, and to explain something about his philosophical worldview. Each author attempts to offer readers some insight into the nature of Socrates, but uses different techniques to achieve different results.

When discussing his possible sentencing, the Socrates of Plato’s Apology at first declines to offer his own suggestion about an alternative to the death penalty he was expecting to receive.  Socrates asks the court, “when I do not know whether death is a good or an evil, why should I propose a penalty which would certainly be an evil?”(UMKC, n.d.). Socrates then suggests that his sentence should be a reward, and that the court should offer him free meals in the Prytaneum. This suggestion sent a clear message to the court that Socrates had not and would not repent for anything the court claimed he had done wrong. In the end, Socrates offered a fine of 30 minae, which was a large sum of silver for a man of his means (Reeve), though Socrates made it clear that it was his wealthy friends, and not he, who would pay the fine.

In Xenophon’s account of the trial, however, Socrates made no suggestions about alternatives to the death penalty. Even in the face of death, Xenophon’s Socrates was a practical, realistic person who refused to suggest his own sentence as anything he offered would serve as an admission of guilt. Plato, by contrast, offers a portrait of a Socrates who uses the opportunity to offer his own suggestion for sentencing as a final chance to discuss his views on the world, and to make it clear that he did not take the verdict, or even his impending death, very seriously. Despite these and other differences, however, the texts do overlap in some ways. In both accounts, Socrates makes it clear to the court that he does not believe he has done anything wrong, and in both stories he offers an impassioned and rational defense of his actions and of his life. It is impossible to say with certainty which Apology offers a more accurate portrait of Socrates, but taken together, they offer insight into one of history’s most important figures.

Works Cited

“Apology of Socrates (by Plato).” UMKC School of Law. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.

Navia, Lewis E. (2007). Socrates: A life examined. Prometheus Books. Amherst, NY.

Navia, Lewis E. (2002). Socratic testimonies. University Press of America. Lanham, MD.

Reeve, C. Socrates in the Apology: An Essay on Plato’s Apology Od Socrates. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1989. Print.

“Xenophon, Apology, section 1.” Perseus Digital Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.

Navia, Lewis E. (2007). Socrates: A life examined. Prometheus Books. Amherst, NY.

Navia, Lewis E. (2002). Socratic testimonies. University Press of America. Lanham, MD.