Can a speech be successful - even if it fails at its goal? That is the conundrum posed by Apology.
On trial for “corrupting youth,” Socrates addressed the men of the Athens jury in his own defense.
It is a long speech, over 11,400 words. He probably would have spoken for at least three hours. Then again, when you are on trial for your life, I suspect you want to make as effective an argument as possible. You probably also want to take as much time as possible.
It is also in three parts - a defense against the charges lodged against him; the argument for an appropriate penalty once the jury had rendered a guilty verdict; and, finally, his parting words once the death penalty had been pronounced.
He begins with a classic orator’s device - to downplay his own eloquence: “But many as their falsehoods were, there was one of them which quite amazed me; -- I mean when they told you to be upon your guard, and not to let yourselves be deceived by the force of my eloquence. They ought to have been ashamed of saying this, because they were sure to be detected as soon as I opened my lips and displayed my deficiency;”
We see the same technique today, in modern political campaigns. Before two candidates meet to debate, for instance, the handlers for both sides down-play their own candidate’s abilities - in hopes of not only making that candidate look better by being able to surpass lowered expectations, but also, if something goes horribly wrong, by being able to say “we said this wasn’t our forte.” Sort of like damage control, before there even is any damage.
There is a strong note of condescension which runs through the speech. “He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.” This is not the wisest approach for addressing any audience, but to listeners who hold the power of life or death, it is truly unwise.
So, did he not care? Was he too set in his ways to change? Or, maybe, he had simply grown tone deaf to the way his examination of people made them feel? Perhaps his devotion to his philosophical pursuits left him no recourse.
It is from this speech that we derive one of the fundamental tenets of his philosophy - “that the life which is unexamined is not worth living.” That’s a rather broad statement. While it may be true of Socrates, or Plato, who recorded it for posterity, or even you and I, is it really true of every human being? Is no one’s life worth living unless subjected to the scrutiny which appeals to Socrates?
It’s an uncomfortable pronouncement - at least for me.
Quite likely, it was a lifetime of such pronouncements which decided his fate, when the sentence of death was pronounced on him by the jury.
So, was this a successful speech that failed to accomplish its goal? People still study it, more than 2,400 years later. Maybe therein lies the answer.
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.