Search 75,905 tutors
FIND TUTORS

Historical Background of Plato's "Apology"

In 399 BC, the Athenians Anytus (on behalf of the craftsmen and politicians), Meletus (on behalf of the poets), and Lycon (on behalf of the rhetoricians) brought Socrates to trial on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth of the city.  These charges may seem strange to modern ears, but there was in fact much at stake for the city of Athens.
 
"Impiety"

This charge stems from the fear that Socrates was another natural philosopher like the Ionians who preferred a naturalistic account of the cosmos to the traditional account of Hesiod and Homer. The references that Socrates makes in Apology 18b-d and 19c are to Aristophanes' comedy Clouds, in which Socrates is portrayed as a buffoonish academic who teaches his students that natural phenomena are not due to the action of the gods; e.g. in the play Socrates explains that thunder is the result of the clouds farting. There was also a common fear that Socrates was another Sophist who would teach his students clever rhetorical tricks so that they could pursue their own interests in the legislative assembly and in court at the expense of justice. His fellow citizens feared that Socrates' supposed lack of respect for the established religious and legal customs of the city would have a damaging effect on the community, especially if he was allowed to convince others to believe as he did. Which brings us to:

"Corrupting the Youth"

Prior to Socrates' trial, Athens and her allies had been involved in a major war with Sparta. The two most powerful cities in Greece were struggling for regional hegemony, and in the end, and with Persian help, Sparta won. One of the more colorful figures from this period was the young Athenian general Alcibiades, who was an associate of Socrates (as recounted in Plato's dialogue Symposium). Although he was a fairly successful general, he led a rather extravagant and unscrupulous lifestyle, and when this caused political trouble for him at home he defected to the Spartans and gave them strategic advice that greatly helped in their struggle with Athens.

After Athens' defeat and the overthrow of the Athenian democracy by the Spartans, a group of rulers known as the Thirty came to power. The Thirty were notorious for using their power against their political opponents and for using trumped-up charges to execute wealthy citizens and confiscate their property. The Thirty were overthrown in 403 BC, and the Athenian democracy was restored (see also Apology 32c-d).
The charge of corrupting the youth was directed at Socrates because of his association with the traitor Alcibiades and with Critias, who was one of the leaders of the Thirty. The Athenians were concerned that Socrates' practice of questioning was ruining the characters of the young men with whom he associated, so that they became traitors and tyrants.
 
The charges against Socrates were therefore quite serious: he was accused of being a threat to Athens by undermining traditional religious beliefs and customs, and by associating with and enabling those who had done the city great harm.


Sources

Aristophanes. Clouds.
Nails, Debra. The People of Plato.
Plutarch. Lives.
Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War.
Xenophon. Memorabilia.