BMCR 1998.04.13

98.4.13, Plato: Apology. With an Introduction, Translation and Commentary

, Plato: Apology. With an Introduction, Translation and Commentary. Warminster: Phillips, 1997. Pp. vii, 200. 35 Pound/$49.95 (hb); 14.95 Pound/$24.95 (pb).

This book consists, not untypically for the series, of an introduction, Greek and English texts on facing pages, and finally a thorough commentary of some hundred pages. In the preface Stokes says that the book will be controversial, but only because any edition of any book of Plato’s is bound to be controversial. However, not untypically for the author, there is more explicitly controversial material embedded in the book, particularly in the introduction, than this modest preface might lead one to expect.

The translation itself may be swiftly dealt with. Stokes is the first to admit (p. v) that ‘it has no literary pretensions’. It is an accurate, plain translation. Since in the notes Stokes himself often and rightly stresses the rhetorical nature of the dialogue, one may doubt whether a plain translation really does the Greek justice. Apology is marvellous, fluent, colloquial, and often funny—but none of this comes across in Stokes’s version, which is often awkward and rarely reads like fluent English. I caught only one actual mistake: περιιὼν at 23b5 has been translated twice. But given the presence of the Greek text too, the book will be a useful guide to students struggling through the Greek. I don’t know what happens in other countries, but in the UK Apology is often used as an early reading book for relative beginners in ancient Greek. It seems to me that Stokes bore this audience in mind while preparing the translation; hence, perhaps, he has stuck in his translation rather too close to the Greek word order for my comfort. However, contrary to the interests of such an audience, he seems to have more or less entirely eschewed grammatical and syntactical notes, in favour of points of rhetoric and interpretation. In fact, we are well served for such grammatical and syntactical notes by Burnet’s old edition, which Stokes claims to be replacing (J. Burnet, Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, and Crito [Oxford, 1924]) and more especially by E. de Strycker and S. R. Slings, Plato’s Apology of Socrates: A Literary and Philosophical Study with a Running Commentary (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994). Not that the latter, at any rate, is likely to be affordable by most students, but then there are also still available a number of cheap ‘school’ editions.

The text is based on that of the new OCT, though with a number of departures, mostly modest in nature. There is a very selective apparatus criticus, and only the most interesting textual points receive comments in the notes. A conspectus of places where deviations from the OCT occur would have been appreciated. Here are a few such places which deserve mention: at 18b8 he deletes φροντιστὴς with von Bamberg; at 21d8 he brackets ἐκείνου as an unnecessary and misleading interpolation; at 22e1 he prefers (with de Strycker-Slings) T’s ἀποκρύπτεν; at 23c2 he follows de Strycker-Slings in adding OI( between MOI and ἐπακολουθουντες; and at 27e2 he brackets with Forster.

The introduction begins blandly enough with sections outlining Plato’s and Socrates’ careers, the relative dating of the various early sources for Socrates’ trial, and the reliability of the sources for Socrates. I happen to disagree with some of Stokes’s remarks about the differences between Socrates’ daimonion as presented in Plato and Xenophon, but I appreciate that it is I who am in a minority on this. For Stokes, as for most other commentators, Xenophon differs from Plato in that (a) the daimonion not only warns against certain actions, but positively endorses certain actions; (b) the daimonion can help Socrates’ friends, not just Socrates himself; and (c) the daimonion is assimilated to other Greek divinatory techniques, rather than being, as far as we know, unique to Socrates. But these differences are not as striking as they may appear. (a) It is true that Plato stresses in Apology 31d that the daimonion never turns Socrates towards anything, and I agree that this in Plato is how the sign always manifests itself, but a warning not to perform a certain action is very often an encouragement to do its opposite. At Euthydemus 272e, for instance, does the daimonion prevent Socrates from leaving, or encourage him to stay? That Socrates himself plays the game of opposites is shown in Apology itself by the fact that at 40a he takes the absence of the daimonion to be protreptic. (b) The two Xenophontic passages in question (Apology 13 and Memorabilia 1.1.4) are both vague enough to be compatible with the view that Socrates’ advice to his friends was no more than an extension of the advice he had received himself from his little voice. To take (merely for illustration) a later, anecdotal story, preserved in Plutarch’s De genio Socratis 580D-F: the daimonion warns Socrates not to walk down a certain street and then Socrates tells his friends to be careful of walking down that street. (c) This is a blatant piece of special pleading by Xenophon precisely to try to get Socrates off the hook of appearing different and special, and should therefore not be counted as part of Xenophon’s account of the daimonion itself.

However, I agree with Stokes (now) that the daimonion was largely irrelevant to the charges of the trial, and that the new gods in question were probably the ‘gods’ of the Presocratics. Stokes plausibly takes impiety to be the main charge, with ‘corrupting the young’ as forming a subheading of that main charge; as is clear from 26b, that is how Plato would have us read the charges. Stokes does not believe, as I do, that there was a political subtext to the trial. This is an old chestnut, and there is no point in rehearsing the arguments for and against it in this review.

Sections on what little we know about the prosecutors, and about the formal procedure likely to have been followed in the trial, precede the philosophical meat of the introduction, the sections on what Apology has to tell us about Socratic philosophy. It is always pleasant to see Apology being taken seriously as a source of evidence for various general issues in interpreting Socrates’ thought and methods; apart from shorter studies, two recent books demonstrate the validity of the approach beyond the shadow of a doubt. These are, of course, C. D. C. Reeve’s Socrates in the Apology (Hackett, 1989), and T. C. Brickhouse and N. D. Smith’s Socrates on Trial (Oxford, 1989). Nevertheless, Stokes’s compass is too brief and his range too narrow (since he limits himself almost entirely to Apology) to do justice to the topics he touches on. And even where just Apology is concerned, there is room for doubting some of his theses. He argues, for instance, that there is nothing paradoxical about Socrates’ disavowal of knowledge, because Socrates never says that he knows that he does not know moral truths, only that he thinks that he does not know them. Now, the test case for this is Apology 21b4-5. Stokes’s own rendering of this is: ‘In nothing great or small, do I know that I am wise.’ Stokes wants to drive a wedge between ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’ here and elsewhere in the dialogue, such that wisdom does not necessarily imply knowledge, but his remarks on this score are unconvincing to me. The oracle says that Socrates is wisest; in order to test this conundrum, Socrates questions those with a reputation for wisdom. It is explicit that sophia is equivalent to knowledge, since otherwise the use of eidenai at 21d7-8 is meaningless: their wisdom was an illusion precisely because they thought they knew what they did not know (eidenai, both times). The sentence translated above, 21b4-5, comes smack in the middle of this passage. Elsewhere in the dialogue too there is a clear equivalence between sophia and episteme, as at 22d, 23c and 29a. In any case, it is also legitimate to wonder whether Stokes would have come to a different conclusion had he extended his gaze beyond Apology alone: at Gorgias 509a4-5, for instance, Socrates unequivocally says that he does not know (eidenai) the truth of the matters under discussion—i.e., just the moral truths which are always the relevant object of knowledge throughout the Socratic dialogues. It really looks to me as though Socrates is saying something stronger than ‘I think that I do not know.’ Of course, we can then defuse the apparent paradox by teasing out different senses of ‘know’, as Vlastos successfully did (‘Socrates’ Disavowal of Knowledge’, Philosophical Quarterly 35 (1985), pp. 1-31; reprinted in Socratic Studies (Cambridge, 1994)—a book puzzlingly absent from Stokes’s admittedly brief bibliography).

The fact that Stokes limits himself so strictly to Apology also vitiates his remarks about virtue and happiness, and makes his strategy with regard to the substantive issues of Socratic ethics unusual. Instead of a number of recent broad-ranging, but Apology-centred discussions of Socratic ethics, we get a narrow focus. Of course, it is Stokes’s first concern to introduce this particular dialogue, but nevertheless I can’t help feeling that he has done himself and his audience a disservice in this instance, since his remarks skate over the really important issues. Yet some of these issues are in fact introduced by remarks in Apology itself, so surely Stokes could have made more of them. What about 28b5-c1 (‘it is virtue that makes anything in life good’) and 30b2-4 (‘the only thing a good man should consider is whether his actions are just or unjust’)? Stokes pays attention to these passages, of course, but fails to make them central to his account. Since they coincide with doctrine in other early dialogues, the same flaw of Stokes’s book reappears: it limits itself too narrowly to Apology for the introduction to be really helpful.

Here, at any rate, are Stokes’s main conclusions, arising from a difficult few pages of the introduction (Stokes is not always the clearest of writers). Just as there are three kinds of wisdom—divine, human, and Socratic, which is less than divine and more than ordinary human—so there are three kinds of goodness and three kinds of happiness. For Socrates, happiness consists in the ability to undertake his elenctic mission in an unrestricted fashion. This enables him to identify certain subordinate goods and evils—i.e., those which support or inhibit his mission. Injustice is bad because the self is the soul, and injustice deals only with material things which do not nurture the soul. Ordinary human virtue lies in not deliberately doing wrong, but for Socrates it is also good to try to know what is right and wrong (and so on for the other virtues). Therefore he needs Socratic enquiry: ‘The search itself is such goodness as a human being may aspire to’ (p. 27). Therefore goodness has some essential connection with happiness, since we have already seen that happiness consists in the Socratic search. In fact goodness or virtue is both necessary and sufficient for happiness. A good man cannot be harmed by evils because a good man cannot be harmed by anything that is not his own choice, but the Socratic search may be inhibited by unchosen setbacks. ‘Wisdom, goodness and happiness would then consist in the awareness of pursuing wisdom and goodness as far as circumstances would allow’ (p. 30).

The commentary following the text has all the virtues of a traditional line-by-line commentary. It is filled with acute comments on the meaning of the text, with excellent detailed analyses of Socrates’ arguments, with an impressive knowledge of parallel passages in the Greek orators, and with sound remarks on the text and style of our dialogue. The general pattern of the commentary is that we meet a block of detailed analysis of a section, including remarks on the philosophy and argumentation, followed by specific line-by-line commentary. In the course of the commentary, Stokes not infrequently makes minor corrections to all the recent commentators on Apology, especially where he can argue that they have overreached themselves, gone too far beyond the actual text. Thus the overall impression of Stokes’s commentary is of a careful, even cautious piece of work, lacking perhaps in the challenge offered by other recent books on the dialogue. A rare mistake occurs on p. 159 where according to Stokes ‘Socrates says that he not only asks but answers questions’ at 33a-b. Since this is surprising, it leads Stokes to a paragraph of commentary; but in fact, of course (and as Stokes himself correctly translates the passage on p. 74) there is no implication here that Socrates answers questions, only that he expects his interlocutors to do so.

One particularly welcome thread to the commentary is introduced right at the beginning: ‘Plato’s Apology in general shows every sign of being a serious, though provocative, defence, “historical” or no’ (p. 97; see also remarks on e.g., pp. 111, 128). Another is that he gives the daimonion due weight as a factor in Socrates’ life, contrary to Vlastos’ Socrates who is too much the rationalist to take such irrational promptings seriously. (On this issue see also M.L. McPherran, The Religion of Socrates [Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996].) Another is that he is sensitive throughout to the level of ‘casuistry’ (p. 190) in Socrates’ speeches—that they tend to skate over the beliefs of the Platonic Socrates in favour of what the crowd and jury might be expected to understand and believe and generally relate to.

Stokes has written an edition of Apology that will be useful to university-level students. As for a more demanding audience, there are no startling conclusions or great insights, but scholarship is cumulative, and there is no doubt that he has added to our knowledge of certain aspects of the dialogue.