Merrill Ring


In Plato's Apology , Socrates, after his opening remarks, tells the jury that not only will he reply to the charges on which he has been brought before the court, but must also speak to the prejudices about him which have been accumulating "for a long time now". (18b1)[1] He treats that "slander" as he calls it (19a2), as if it were a legally filed charge, as if it constituted an official accusation. In fact, he claims (18b-e) that the most important and most difficult part of his defense will be making a persuasive response to those long-standing prejudices.

He specifies the informal 'charges' at three different places in the text. At 18bc he says these accusations are that "there is a certain Socrates, a wise man, who thinks about what's in the heavens and who has investigated all things below the earth and who makes the weaker argument appear to be the stronger." He immediately adds that people "believe that those who inquire about such topics don't believe in the gods." That is, atheism is thought by the Athenian public to be a consequence of the activities of which he has been 'accused'. The details of the slander are restated by way of reminder at 19bc in an immediate preliminary to his detailed defense: "Socrates does wrong and is concerned with inquiring about what's in the heavens and below the earth and to make the weaker argument appear to be the stronger and to teach these same things to others."

The two versions differ in several ways – two of those differences are major. Missing from the restatement 19bc is the reference to atheism; and added on this second detailing of the prejudices is a charge concerning teaching.

Finally, at 23d Socrates says that these slanders have come about because, when the (rich) youth of Athens emulate him in questioning those around town, he is blamed for teaching them. However, because those who are offended by such youthful questioning know nothing about Socrates himself and his activities, in their ignorance they impute to him standard charges against those who pursue philosophy: "about 'what's in the heavens and below the earth' or 'doesn't believe in gods' and 'makes the weaker argument the stronger'." Again the list of cited offenses varies some from the two earlier versions. Here the charge of being a physicist is again clearly laid out; the atheism charge is explicitly included in the list; the teaching charge is absent, though it must be recognized that it forms the context in which these other items are cited; and for the third time the charge of making the weaker argument the stronger is stated.

Since Socrates goes to the trouble of setting out the prejudices against him as if they were included in the indictment, we should reasonably expect that, since he sees fit to defend himself against and to seek exoneration from the official charges, he will also attempt the self-proclaimed difficult task of making adequate reply to the powerful though unofficial ones.

The concerns of this paper have to do with Socrates' response to those prejudices, specifically with an expectation that he will point by point attempt to refute each of those 'charges'. A further aim will be to evaluate his responses to each of the charges. The central problem is whether Socrates did or did not reply to the charge that he makes the weaker argument the stronger.

I am not the first to raise that last question: the discussion was initiated by Alexander Sesonske some years ago.[2] However, the issue must be reopened because there is now a new context for it. That context is the publication of some comprehensive books on the Apology , chiefly Socrates on Trial by Brickhouse and Smith[3] and Socrates in the Apology by Reeve.[4] These works, given their aims of being general accounts of the Apology , must have something to say about whether Socrates attempted to respond to all the prejudices about him and must also contain evaluations of whether his defense against those prejudices is (rationally) successful.

I shall argue that the accounts by Brickhouse and Smith and by Reeve do not satisfactorily solve the problem and that, as a result, the understandings of the Apology and of Socrates which both books promote are to the extent misguided or misshapen. On the whole, the efforts expended by the authors on this section of the text are less than exemplary. And that particular failure of adequacy imperils a thesis both are deeply concerned to establish: namely, that Socrates presented a compelling defense.

First, consider the charge that he investigates things in the heavens and below the earth. About this matter there is no doubt what Socrates does. He replies to the charge that he is natural philosopher, a physiologist, a physicist, a scientist, by holding that those are things "which I don't understand at all. And I don't mean to disparage knowledge of this sort, if anyone is wise about such things (may I not have to answer such charges by Meletus as that!), but, as a matter of fact, I don't possess a bit of that wisdom, Athenians."(19cd) That is, he roundly denies that he has such knowledge.

Now a bare denial of something one is charged with may well not sit very securely in a legal proceeding. It would be altogether more satisfying to a defense if there were evidential support for the denial. In the Apology , Socrates properly proceeds to provide support. Moreover, in this particular case, the nature of that support has significance. For the jury, having heard slanders about Socrates for these many years, may well have heard that, in public discussion, he frequently denies that he knows things, important things, things he should know, perhaps even seems to know. Consequently, they might be disposed to regard this denial of knowledge on his part as just another one of those characteristic and suspicious denials. So it is important that Socrates show not only ignorance of how nature operates, but also that he not have any interest in how things are above and under the earth. And that is what he does: "I'm supplying many of you as my witnesses, and I ask you to talk to and inform each other, as many of you as ever heard me carrying on a discussion – and there are many of you in this category – tell each whether any of you have ever heard me discussing anything at all about things of this sort. And from this you'll know that the other things that most people say about me are no different. On this point I call upon the majority of you as witnesses. I think it right that all of those of you who have heard me conversing, and many of you have, should tell each other if any one of you has ever heard me discussing such subjects to any extent at all." (19d) Obviously, Socrates believes that any honest discussion amongst the jurors about this point will completely exonerate him of the charge of being a physicist – he has not ever discussed such matters on the streets of Athens and no one can honestly say, therefore, that they have heard him talking about such things as natural philosophers do.[5]

It should be remembered that each time Socrates lays out these long-standing charges, the one concerning natural philosophy is placed first. We can say that he believes it takes precedence and also that he squarely, and legitimately, shoots it down.

Further, in this matter of the charge of Socrates' being an investigator of natural phenomena, I have no complaints about how the authors of both of the books under investigation handle that charge/slander. Their weaknesses lie elsewhere.


The atheism charge is said, in the first presentation of the 'charges', to follow from the idea that people who inquire into natural phenomena acknowledge no gods. However, while not mentioned at all in the second presentation, atheism is presented as an independent charge in the third, recapitulary, version of the slanders – though we are no doubt intended to think of it there as standing in the same relationship to the physicist charge as earlier asserted.

If Socrates is not a physicist, as he has just argued, then the atheism charge should wither, if it rests on nothing more than the belief that he is a physicist. Having denied its only clear or explicit support is no doubt the reason that Socrates, in this section of the Apology , does not deny the accusation of atheism. Of course, nothing in the argumentative line he adopts between 19c and 20c will establish that he is a believer, specifically in the Athenian gods. But whether or not he is, such a matter which will come up as a result of the official indictment and Socrates need not address the issue while treating of the long-standing prejudices against him.

Of course, it is worth noting that Socrates does not address the religious issue here. One of the shortcomings of the recent commentaries is that they do not even remark that absence, much less speculate about it. Reeve, who races through this material, says the following. "This reputation is prejudicial because such advanced thinkers are widely believed to be atheists; 'Those, men of Athens, who have spread this report are my dangerous accusers; for their hearers believe that investigators of these things do not believe in gods.' (18c) And atheism, as is widely accepted today, is precisely the burden of Meletus' indictment. Atheism is the thread, therefore, which links the new formal charges Socrates faces to the ancient slanders against him".[6]

Reeve, first, has the antecedent of "This reputation:" to be the entire set of charges (early) – not just the physicist charge. Yet it is clear that Socrates intends that the atheism charge be hooked up with the physicist charge: he says that Athenians believe that whoever investigates such things is an atheist; the other charges do not refer to investigating anything. Secondly, if Reeve is correct that at the core of all the Athenian objections to Socrates is the belief that he is a non-believer, then it should occasion some comment by Reeve that Socrates did not make any critical reference to that issue at this point in the defense. Now perhaps he did not make such a reference because he trusted that the audience would see that, logically speaking, if the atheism charge is derived from the physicist charge and if that is false, as he has just convincingly argued, then the accusation of atheism has no evidential leg to stand on. Still the careful modern reader should find it surprising that Socrates leaves that important inference to the jury. And in a careful commentator, it is equally surprising that that lack of mention is not mentioned.

Brickhouse and Smith do it somewhat differently. They do not say right off that the atheism charge is tacked on to the first specification of the charges in the text. They at least see that the atheism charge is a consequence of the natural science charge alone (see pp. 64-65, section 2.3.2.) But they too do not say anything about what Socrates might have said at this point about the matter of religion. Yet they, even more than Reeve, are determined to assert the care and punctiliousness of Socrates in defending himself. If atheism is the crux, as they would agree, then a careful Socrates might have said here, at a minimum, 'As I will show later, I am no atheist, no disbeliever in the gods of Athens.'


Although not cited originally, in the second version of the informal charges, and also constituting the context in which they are mentioned a third time, Socrates holds that one of the long-standing complaints about him is that he is a teacher as well as an inquirer into nature. Although the question of his teaching will re-emerge later in his defense, Socrates does have something to say about it when replying to the first accusations. What he says is "In fact there's nothing to these claims, not even if you've heard someone say that I try to instruct people and make money that way." (19d) That is, his reply to this accusation looks to be a straight-forward denial: it is not true that I teach. Despite the bluntness of his reply, there are several things that need to be said about it.

Unlike what he did in connection with the charge of being a physicist, Socrates does not provide any evidence in support of his denial that he is a teacher. One can, of course, well imagine why. He could ask the jury and the audience generally whether anyone could honestly say that they had heard him discoursing on natural phenomena and confidently expect a 'No' answer. But of course he cannot deny that it looks as if he is a teacher: to put it briefly, he was, and was widely known to be, the center of a group of young (and some not so young) Athenians, who spent their time with him, and who went out around the city being 'Socratics', even engaging the Socratic elenctic with citizens. It was a perfectly reasonable assumption, given a general knowledge of his activities, that Socrates was a teacher. To correct that assumption would have required a rather long story.

Now Socrates does supply that story later in the Apology . All I am claiming is that it is not supplied in the section of the defense where the issue is first raised. My complaint, of course, is not with Socrates but with the commentators, especially in this instance with Brickhouse and Smith. For it is one of their major interpretative principles that Socrates is ever so thorough in his construction of his defense. Yet they make no reference to the fact, which might well count against the employment of their principle, that Socrates does not make anything more than an unsupported denial of the charge of pedagogy when presented with the opportunity to do so.

Things are worse than that however. Socrates in fact qualifies the denial that he teaches, making it in fact not as flat as it appears on first sight to be. The denial at 19d, you will recall, is "In fact there's nothing to these claims, not even if you've heard someone say that I try to instruct people and make money that way." And if you have heard from anyone that I undertake to teach people and to charge a fee for it, that is not true either." There are two details to be noted.

First, what he strictly speaking denies is not that he teaches people but that he "undertakes" to teach them. That is a considerably different matter: for one may teach, and know that one is teaching, even if one does not, formally or informally, undertake to do so.

Secondly, in that denial Socrates adds a second conjunct to the charge, mentioning a matter which was not included in either of his two specifications of the prejudice concerning teaching: he does not, he says, (undertake) to teach and to charge a fee for doing so. As we all know, a conjunct will be false if but one of the conjuncts is false. It is established that Socrates did not take fees from any of those who observed him and who went out on their own to behave in 'Socratic' ways. So as a matter of logic the conjunction which Socrates denies was not true. But it was not that conjunction which he consistently presents as the 'charge' against him and hence the presented charge is, strictly speaking, not denied at all, only made to appear to be so.

In short, not only does Socrates produce no evidence in support of his reply to the charge of being a teacher, but it further looks that he, in two different ways, indulges in a classic straw man defense against the accusation.

These difficulties with this part of Socrates' defense are not at all noticed by our commentators. One can, however, construct from Reeve an objection to the above criticism. Before turning to that, there is another significant textual curiosity concerning the pedagogy charge which is also not discussed by Brickhouse and Smith or by Reeve – nor, I think, by other writers. At 19d Socrates makes the claim which we have been examining, roughly a one-sentence denial of the allegation of being a teacher. There follows in the text twenty-one lines, from 19e to 20c, in which Socrates talks of the wonders of the sophists who can impart knowledge for money and get others to pay for what they learn. Why does he go on so long about that when what is needed for his defense is discussion of his purported teaching activities? So far as I know no one has addressed themselves to that puzzlingly long passage and its far from obvious logical role in Socrates' defense.

A cynic, however, bearing in mind the discovered difficulties with what Socrates presents as a defense against the charge of being a teacher, especially the possibility of seeing it as a straw man defense, may go one step further and allege that the entire passage about the sophists is a red herring (to continue with the terminology of fallacies) designed to distract the jury from noticing that he has just produced a straw man argument. In the absence of any other explanation of the occurrence of that material in the text, this interpretation has a good deal to commend it. Of course, Brickhouse and Smith especially, given their aims, would have to vigorously deny it.

Reeve, on the other hand, provides the wherewithal to construct a different reading of why Socrates refers to undertaking teaching and to charging fees. Reeve takes it, though without argument and without considering alternatives, that what Socrates is accused of by the Athenian public, and especially by Aristophanes in both using and creating Socrates' reputation, is that he is both a physicist and a sophist. Reeve employs the wonderful phrase that Socrates is charged by reputation with being "a generic intellectual".[7] He thinks that what Socrates denies, over and above the allegation that he sorts with what we today speak of as the Pre-Socratics, the inquirers into nature, is that he also sorts with the sophists. That is, Reeve implies that we should not take the charge that Socrates is a teacher as the best interpretation of what the Athenian public thought of him. What Socrates, the jury and Athens generally understand the charge to be is that Socrates is a sophist. And what do the sophists do? Importantly, they not only do teach but they undertake to teach – and they charge a fee for teaching. So, if we take the charge that way, we can see Socrates' defense as perfectly appropriate, as not a straw man argument at all. For he says he does not undertake to teach and does not charge for whatever it is that he does.

What can be said about this account of Socrates' reputation and his response to it? It will stand or fall with whether we think that the Athenians were opposed to Socrates because he was thought to teach or whether we think the public dislike for him really was based upon a belief that he was a professional teacher, a home-grown sophist. About which option we should take, the evidence in the Apology seems to me inconclusive, although inclining against the interpretation I have constructed following Reeve. I have in mind as evidence three segments of the text. (1) At 23cd, Socrates discusses the fact that young men follow him around and then emulate him in his elenctic activities. My guess (obviously undeveloped here) is that that passage emphasizes more the fact of (apparent) teaching and thereby corrupting than it does any matter of receiving money for his 'work'. (2) One of the official charges filed by Meletus is that Socrates is guilty of corrupting the young. Since it seems likely that there is some correspondence between the informal charges and the formal (and since the recent commentators agree that that is so), then it would seem more likely that the Athenian worry is about Socrates' teaching and not whether that is his profession. (3) From 33a to 34c Socrates reconsiders the issue of his followers and imitators and the claim that they have been corrupted by him. And once again, while the issue of professionalism does make its appearance, even if briefly, nonetheless the weight of the discussion seems to me to fall onto the side of emphasizing that Socrates perceives the Athenian allegation to be that of teaching and not that of being a professional teacher.

Without additional hard thinking about that evidence, I do not think that there is any way of settling this interpretative issue and so will leave the matter dangling here.

Incidentally, I have said nothing so far about how Brickhouse and Smith treat of the claim that Socrates teaches. They do not see the problem about exactly what the charge is and they do not have a solution. Yet without recognizing it, they do move ambiguously between the two interpretative positions and so are of no help, I think, in coming to an answer. For present purposes, I will say nothing more here about their views on the charge that Socrates teaches.


Lastly, in carrying out the purposes of this essay, I must consider the accusation that Socrates makes the weaker argument (defeat) the stronger. As I have pointed out, each of the three times Socrates states the prejudices against him, he says that he is thought to make the weaker argument defeat the stronger.

How does he respond to that charge? There is no response at all! That is, in this section of the text where he is presenting his reply to the popular though misguided beliefs about him and where it is specified that a major such belief is that he makes the weaker argument the stronger, he does not say anything on the order of 'And further, not only do I not investigate natural phenomena and do not teach but I do not defeat strong arguments with weaker ones.' Further, it should be added that not anywhere in the text of the Apology does he otherwise say anything about weaker and stronger arguments.

That omission should be very striking if one is concerned to pay close attention to the text and to the details of Socrates' defense. It badly stands in need of explanation.

Our commentators come at this matter in quite different ways. Take Reeve first. He fails to see the omission. The reason for that is that he is not worried by details in this part of the text. And the reason for that lack of concern about textual details is that he thinks it clear from a general reading of the text what the charges are: that Socrates is a physicist and that he is a sophist.

But even if he had noticed that there is no direct reply by Socrates about his making weaker arguments stronger, there seems a way that he would deal with the omission of any Socratic reference to this charge. He would, I think, say that the explicit charge of making weaker arguments defeat stronger ones is absorbed into the implicit but real charge that Socrates is a sophist. For that is what Sophists can do and can promise to teach others to do, namely to be able to win your case no matter what the strength of the evidence against you. (See The Clouds on this.) So, on the view I am attributing to Reeve, there are not three long-standing prejudices against Socrates, but only two. All the talk about teaching and about weaker and stronger arguments are simply connected aspects of the same animus, that he is a practicing sophist.

This interpretation of the meaning of the allegation that Socrates makes weaker arguments defeat stronger and of his not addressing himself to that explicitly, will, at least in large measure, stand or fall with the question I left unanswered in the previous discussion, namely whether Socrates was disliked because he was thought to be a sophist or because he was thought to teach something to rich young Athenians without regard to whether he so as a professional. Still there are some other things which might said against this Reevian view. However, deployment of those must wait until a differing interpretation is developed.

Brickhouse and Smith play the game differently here. For they do realize that Socrates nowhere denies making strong arguments lose. "Socrates does not selectively respond to the second charge – that he makes the weaker argument the stronger."[8] Moreover, they have seen the Sesonske paper I referred to earlier and thus know that something can be made of the fact that there is no "selective response" to this charge. In consequence, they do spend a significant amount of time and space in discussing the matter.

Their solution is to hold that Socrates did, not directly but in other ways, reply to the charge. I am not impressed by the response but picking apart the details of it would take too long at this time and so is a task for another day.[9] Instead let me take up the criticism by pointing out that in the absence of any passage in the text which does directly address the charge, Brickhouse and Smith must make some assumptions about what the charge amounts to in order for them to say 'Yes but Socrates does in effect reply to it here and again here.' Although just what they are assuming tends to be somewhat different in different places, on the whole they are making assumptions similar to those of Reeve: that what Socrates is charged with is being a professional sophist. "These considerations all demonstrate the implausibility of the charge that he 'makes the weaker argument the stronger' and distance Socrates from the charge that is a practicing professional sophist."[10]

The problem is that Sesonske's thesis is a challenge to precisely Brickhouse and Smith's assumption about what this charge amounts to. And they simply do not see that. Although there is a footnote in which they quote a relevant few lines of Sesonske, they completely fail to understand the point of what he is holding. Consequently, all of their detailed work on solving the problem of why Socrates does not directly or explicitly respond to this charge is beside the point as far as defending their view against Sesonske is concerned.

What, then, is Sesonske's view? I do not feel obligated here to explain it and defend it in detail. What follows is my version of it, simplified for present purposes.

What Sesonske does is to ask us first to recall that the charge of making the weaker argument defeat the stronger, as it is found in the Apology , is not made by Socrates or by Plato. It is made by the Athenian public against Socrates. That fact must not be confused with the fact that Plato, throughout his writings, charges the sophists with making the weaker argument the stronger. For they, in his eyes, practice persuasion without regard for truth and in thus employing all the tricks of rhetoric and in treating argumentation as a contest rather than as a search for truth, they aim, and too often succeed, at making the weaker argument defeat the stronger.

That is what Plato says about the sophists. What we must beware of is thinking 'We, today, friends and descendants of Socrates, readers of Plato, all know Socrates was interested in truth and interested in persuasion only insofar as it follows from truth. Hence, he did not engage in the practices of the sophists and did not make the weaker argument defeat the stronger.' It is clear that Brickhouse and Smith are taken in by that line of thought and think it clear that Socrates was innocent of the charge and thus must have replied to it in some fashion or the other.

However, do not ask whether we, and Plato, think that Socrates made the weaker argument the stronger – ask the Athenian public for they are, after all, the ones who have this opinion about him. And what can be seen from their eyes? Brickhouse and Smith say "This charge holds Socrates guilty of specious reasoning and deceptive speaking.... In other words Socrates wins arguments he should not win, and convinces people of what should not be believed."[11] Is that not exactly how Socrates struck those who were on the receiving end of his argumentation?

Recall that Socrates would come up to Athenians with the highest reputations for knowledge and judgment, ask them questions about something that they and the Athenians took them to be experts about, and disturb them mightily because those respondents recognized that they were failing to exhibit their expertise in the face of Socrates' challenge. And yet, though they are aware that in every encounter they have somehow lost, they do not go off singing Socrates' praises: 'By Zeus, that man had the stronger argument and rightly took me to pieces. I don't know what I thought I did.' These men, those who shape Athenian public opinion, never depart believing that they have been shown to be wrong. They go off, rather, thinking that they have been had, somehow, by someone who is a clever arguer, someone who has just made the weaker argument defeat the stronger.

Now, so interpreted, is it not intelligible why Socrates should not find it possible to reply to the charge of making the weaker argument the stronger? For the very fact of his showing that those who thought they knew did not know  was, from their point of view, making the weaker argument triumph. As that was his mission in and to Athens, he could not well deny that that is what he did, seen through their eyes.

There is more to be said. Recall at this point, Reeve's claim that the 'informal charges' against Socrates amount to calling him an 'intellectual', branding him indiscriminately with all the varied sins of the breed. He can, and does, reject an association with the physicists and with the sophists on specific grounds: that he does not study natural phenomena and does not teach rhetoric for money. Still, one might well see that the charge that he makes the weaker argument stronger as a general charge that he sorts with both those other. For he, like them, is an intellectual. And there is a perfectly good sense, in the Athenian context, which Sesonske emphasizes, in which that fact might be expressed as making the weaker argument defeat the stronger.

Both the physicists and the sophists are attacking the traditional ways of thinking about things, whether those things be the constitution and history of the natural world, the ways in which human society does and ought to function, or the existence and nature of the gods who bind the human and natural worlds together. They are insisting that the traditional stories by which the Greeks understood themselves and their lives and also the traditional standards by which Greeks measured human excellence be abandoned in favor of rationally defensible accounts and standards. If you are an adherent of the old, of the traditions, then criticism of those traditions by clever new men will seem the defeat of the stronger by the weaker.

Surely Socrates did belong in these matters with those from whom he, and Plato, otherwise wanted to be distanced. Socrates was an intellectual who was demanding new things in the moral and religious practice of Athenian life. Excellent men were not those with a reputation for excellence, who had performed well in practical affairs. Rather, in order to be excellent, a person had to be capable of answering, of stating openly and precisely, in the terms Socrates set down, what excellence and other matters are. That is surely a standard for excellence hitherto never imposed on candidates. Those who tried and failed to meet it, without understanding what the game was, could not help but feel that they had just been defeated by someone with a weaker argument.


1. I have used Brickhouse and Smith's translation of the Apology throughout : Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies , (Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 42-65.

2. Alexander Sesonske, 'To Make the Weaker Argument the Stronger', Journal of the History of Philosophy , 6 (1968), pp. 217-31.

3. Thomas C Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Socrates on Trial (Princeton University Press, 1989).

4. C.D.C. Reeve, Socrates in the Apology: An Essay on Plato's Apology of Socrates (Hackett, 1990).

5. The account in the Phaedo that as a youth he had read and thought about natural philosophy does not count against the defense – for the Phaedo does not say that he talked about natural philosophy on the streets of Athens and the Apology does not say that he never in his life read such books and thought about such issues.

6. Reeve, op. cit., p 10.

7. ibid., p. 14.

8. Brickhouse and Smith, op. cit., p. 67.

9. Section 2.3.3 of their book, pp. 65-66, is their attempt to specify what the charge amounts to; except for the first paragraph and a few later words about teaching, the whole of section 2.3.5, pp. 66-68 is concerned with Socrates' reply to the charge concerning stronger and weaker logoi.

10. Brickhouse and Smith, op. cit., p. 68.

11. ibid., p. 65.