Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.05.18

David Leibowitz, The Ironic Defense of Socrates: Plato's Apology.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. ix, 194.  ISBN 9780521194792.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by Gabriel Danzig, Bar Ilan University (


Most readers believe that Plato's Socrates often speaks in an indirect, humorous or ironical manner. The Apology is the only work in which he addresses a court of law, and one would not be surprised at all to find a special degree of irony on display. I for one do believe that Socrates speaks with irony in parts of this work. Of course, irony is a notoriously difficult phenomenon to pin down, partly because one of the common aims of an ironic speaker is to avoid being pinned down. Still, one does sometimes find persuasive accounts of irony, and it was with the hope of finding some that I opened David Leibowitz's book on irony in Plato's Apology.

The philosophical and exegetical framework of the book is openly Straussian, and references to Strauss and his students abound. It is Straussian both in theory (philosophical writers who do not accept popular beliefs are reluctant to criticize them openly) and in method (speculative interpretations which are not fully canvassed). To my mind, Straussian theory – as opposed to method – is plausible and well worth testing, but Leibowitz's goal is not to test it but to apply it on the assumption that it is correct. The burden of judging whether the interpretation is persuasive or not is placed on the reader . Readers who do not already possess a deep familiarity with the text and its interpretation may find this judgment impossible to make.

The book serves a useful purpose in the sense that it collects just about every possible instance of irony in the Apology. It follows the text in order from beginning to end, including sections on the prooemium, the first accusers, the present accusers, the digressions, the penalty and so forth. In order to illustrate the character of the book, I will take a look at a few of the examples of irony the author finds and the explanations he offers.

In the second chapter, Leibowitz discusses the irony in Socrates' claim to speak the truth, but to do so using whatever words occur to him, rather than in a carefully composed speech. He offers a list of six questions that occur to him when he reads Socrates' statement, “I trust that the things I say are just” (17c). He leaves us to ponder the questions on our own, and turns to a seventh question: “The most mysterious thing of all is that Socrates does not spell out the connection between saying things that are just and a willingness to tell the truth in a haphazard manner.” (9-10) He supposes that the connection resides in Socrates' confidence that by being just and telling the truth he will “ensur[e] his acquittal.” (10) Thus for Leibowitz, Socrates here asserts, by implication, the belief that a life of justice is itself sufficient to guarantee an acquittal, even if one speaks haphazardly in court. But this is an ironic assertion, since Leibowitz will argue that Socrates knows well that justice does not always win in court.

But does Socrates really ever imply that justice always wins in court? Leibowitz supports this inference by referring to Socrates' later statements on the “power of virtue” (30b2-4, 30c6-d1, 41c8-d2). In the first instance, Socrates says that virtue not wealth is the cause of all good things for human beings, both in public and in private. One might suspect some exaggeration here; but even if not, does the fact that virtue is the cause for all the good things mean that it can never fail to attain them? We get a better sense of what Socrates means from the second and third citations Leibowitz offers. In the second instance Socrates says that he does not think it permitted for a better man to be hurt by a worse man. Does this mean that the just always win in court? Certainly not, for Socrates goes on to say that while a bad man might kill or expel or strip a better man of his rights, this would not constitute harm (30d1-4). Clearly, then, virtue does not guarantee success in court or anywhere else. In the third instance Socrates says that death must be a good thing, once again failing to affirm that justice guarantees success in winning an acquittal. These passages suggest, contrary to Leibowitz, that for Socrates justice is worth pursuing even if it does not guarantee success in material or political terms.

After insisting that Socrates implies that speaking the truth haphazardly will lead to an acquittal, Leibowitz goes on to argue, correctly, that Socrates does not really believe this. He points out that Socrates knows that the jury is incompetent and prejudiced against him and may not reach the right conclusion (11). So, Leibowitz asks, why did Socrates say or imply that the innocent and truthful man always wins? Even if he had said that, one can imagine many possible answers to a question such as this. But I doubt many readers would reach the conclusion that Leibowitz reaches. He argues that Socrates ironically implies that he does not intend to speak haphazardly and honestly after all. But he does not offer any explanation why he resolves the “contradiction” in this particular way. Maybe the ironic implication, if there were one, would be that he knows he will lose?

This is only one passage of many, but it is an important one for the entire project, and I think it is representative of the kind of argumentation that Leibowitz employs throughout. It is leads to further difficulties. The argument that Socrates will speak untruthfully, since justice is no guarantee of an acquittal, implies that Socrates is seeking an acquittal. But of course this is not the case. Socrates does not win an acquittal, nor does he intend to. According to Leibowitz, Socrates deliberately provokes his judges into condemning him (155). If so, what does he need the lies for? Leibowitz does not discuss this difficulty directly but he does find a new object for Socratic lies: Socrates is concerned not with self-preservation, but with the preservation of philosophy (156).

Leibowitz does not explain why lies are necessary for the preservation of philosophy. Presumably, the reason is that if people knew what philosophy really was, they would never tolerate it. Of course there must be something good about it, or why would anyone, such as Socrates, want to preserve it? But if this is the case, why are lies necessary? Would it not be possible to speak in metaphor about its goodness? Couldn't one say for example in simple language that the unexamined life is not worth living? Or that virtue is the source of all good things both public or private? I was not able to find many persuasive examples in the remainder of the book in which Socrates' alleged lies serve to promote philosophy..

Not only do Socrates' lies aim at preserving philosophy, so does his death. How does getting killed serve this cause? Leibowitz claims that enraging the jurors will cause them to make a decision they will later regret. Once they regret killing the philosopher they will strive to be gentler with philosophers in the future (157). I think this is a new theory, but what grounding does it have in the text?

Leibowitz is not the first to make Socrates into a martyr who gave his life to preserve philosophy. But even this rests on little or no support. Where does Socrates ever suggest self-sacrifice, even indirectly? Where does he express personal concern for the future of philosophy? The portrait of self-sacrificing devotion is so appealing to us nowadays, influenced as we are by ideals deriving from ancient Israel, that we have to be especially careful before reading it into classical Greek literature. At the very least, one would need to provide a sustained argument to back up this theory.

Another irony: although Socrates loudly dissociates himself from sophists and physicists, he also indicates subtly that he should be associated with them: “By now the attentive part [of the audience] has recognized Socrates' interest in natural science and sophistry.” (60). Leibowitz offers several pieces of evidence, the most interesting of which is Socrates' seemingly superfluous use of the word allothi (51; 17c-d), implying that he engaged "elsewhere" in private conversations which may have concerned the subjects he claims no one heard him discuss. Another hint is derived from the fact that Socrates denies only that he said any of the drivel attributed to him by Aristophanes. This could imply, to an ironical reader, that he made other remarks about other such subjects that were not drivel (51). Similarly, his claim to have no knowledge of these subjects does not show that he never investigated them. He openly praises such knowledge as noble, which might imply that he has “looked into it” himself (51).

Leibowitz argues that these hints of Socratic interest in science and sophistry are confirmed by the Phaedo. I assume that Plato would not have wanted to rely on his reader's familiarity with a text that by most accounts was not yet written. In what way, then, does Phaedo support the ironic reading? Possibly, if Phaedo reflects historical reality, and if people who were aware that Socrates did investigate physics at one time were among the readers, they would perceive Socrates as lying. But Leibowitz does not say in what way the evidence of Phaedo supports his reading of Apology.

Not all of the points Leibowitz makes are implausible, and of course an author has the right to offer even weak arguments in order to make his case comprehensive. What I found troublesome was the lack of effort to distinguish between better and worse arguments. This leaves the reader wondering whether the author makes such distinctions or not, and leaves the important task of judgment all to the reader.

Leibowitz is best when he criticizes other scholars. The author is to be praised for discussing some of the non-Straussian approaches to the Apology. The criticism of Burnet and Hackforth is cogent, even if the targets are a hundred years old. The criticism of Brickhouse and Smith and Reeve is fair. Leibowitz is right to object to the imposition of moralistic assumptions onto the text of Plato – even if he clearly imposes his own agenda as well. He offers some useful criticisms of West as well. But when it gets to the better recent work on Apology, Leibowitz is silent. He mentions the commentary of Michael Stokes in the bibliography, but refers to it less than a handful of times, and never with any genuine grappling. He seems to be unaware of Stokes' other writings on Apology. His argument that there is irony in the famous story of the Oracle, for example, would have benefited from Stokes' detailed and influential discussion of it.1 The general level of argument would benefit if he read the well-argued ironical interpretations of Crito and Meno by Roslyn Weiss.2 Consulting Stokes would also help correct the lack of attention to historical context.

As often with the better Straussian writings, this book raises questions which merit further investigation. Researchers who are interested in further investigation of the irony in Apology may use this book as a convenient starting point. Those who teach from a Straussian perspective will not find innovations of doctrine here, but they may find some congenial textual comments and digressions for use in the classroom. The book may also be appealing to intelligent students who possess powerful imaginations and enjoy paradoxical lines of argumentation. The book will prove frustrating, however, for those who are looking for a persuasive and balanced argument.


1.   "Socrates' Mission,” in Socratic Questions, B. S. Gower and M. C. Stokes, edd., 1992, London.
2.   Socrates dissatisfied, repr. Oxford, 1998; Virtue in the Cave, Oxford, 2001.

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