Anaxagoras and Aristophanes Essay

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Anaxagoras and Aristophanes:
Key roles in Plato’s Apology

PL 201: Introduction to Philosophy
Doctor Geoffrey Batchelder

In The Apology: Defence of Socrates, Plato records the trial and sentencing of his mentor

and teacher, Socrates. Socrates, though he would argue otherwise, is a very wise man and a great

orator and debater. If the record of this trial is accurate, and we can assume that it is through the

cross-examination of other records, Socrates makes his case very well and should not have even

been in court. However, despite his great defense, insurmountable evidence to support his

innocence, and the lack of validity in the trial itself, Socrates is found guilty on the old charges of

teaching and getting paid to teach the ways of science and rhetoric, and on the new charges of

corrupting the youth and religious nonconformity. He is sentenced to death by poison and

accepts his fate willingly. As previously mentioned, Socrates argues his defense with great eloquence and poise. He

uses every tool in his vocabulary arsenal, including his ability to show his accusers that they

contradict themselves readily and unknowingly. Socrates is also sure to allude too many of his

contemporaries. These allusions come about in many different ways. Some arise from accusers

that may not necessarily be present or even be fully aware that they are in fact accusers

themselves. Such is the case when Socrates mentions the playwright Aristophanes. Other

allusions are made because Socrates is accused of actions or matters that do not concern him at

all and are instead the matters of others; contemporaries. This occurs when Socrates references

that some of the accusations Meletus makes against him are in fact accusations that would

only make sense to make against a man named Anaxagoras. These two allusions are a brief but

significant component of Socrates’ that unfortunately would ultimately become his undoing.

In the beginning of The Apology, Socrates explains the first set of charges, which are

teaching skewed methods of science and rhetoric, and how these may in fact be the most difficult

to defend against. These charges stem from a group of individuals who have grown up with these

accusations being accepted widely as truth. Socrates explains, “…those accusers are numerous,

and have been denouncing me for a long time now, and they also spoke to you at an age at which

you would be most likely to believe them, when some of you were children or young lads; and

their accusations simply went by default for lack of any defense.” 1 In this part of the speech,

Socrates explains that what is difficult in particular about these early accusations is that not only

have they been around for so long and so widely accept, but no one has contested them in any

way. This then leads to what Socrates believes to be, “…the most absurd thing of all is that one

cannot even get to know their names or say who they were – except perhaps one who happens to

be a comic playwright.”2 This currently anonymous playwright, who will be named in a later

quotation as Aristophanes, is largely to blame for the spread of these accusations. Even if he was

not accusing Socrates formally, his success as a playwright allows him to reach the public in

ways that others perhaps common folk, who Socrates is unable to name, can. The patrons who

then go and see this play, where “a character called ‘Socrates’ swings around, claims to be

walking on air, and talks a lot of other nonsense on subjects of which [Socrates] has no

understanding, great or small,”3 then make the association between this Socrates and the real

one. This is engrained in the minds of the people and becomes common knowledge. These…