I have seen that Plato's writings have traditionally been classified as Early, Middle or Late and that the earlier the work, the closer it resembles what Socrates might have actually said. In view of that, is the Apology close to what Socrates actually said?

In particular, did he go to the Oracle and genuinely tried to find someone wiser than him, or is that just a textual device to explain Socrates' method of maieutics?

  • 1
    We cannot know. But, the story of Socrates 'martyrdom' to wisdom, is I argue paradigmatic to defining what philosophy is, here: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/88852/… I'd further say, Plato literally created Academia, by combining Socratic Dialogue, with the 'math mysticism' of the cult of Pythagoras; making a hybrid that can be both open to learning, & fanatical in devotion even to obvious untruths, which has seen us through to the Modern Age. Math is like a prayer, who's chanting changes consciousness, despite un-literalness
    – CriglCragl
    Commented May 28, 2023 at 21:37

2 Answers 2


We don't know how far Plato's account is accurate, but most people assume it is broadly correct. In favour of that, there were other people around who would have objected to his account if it was too far wrong. Against, it is clear that Plato wrote this more to defend Socrates (and philosophy) against the world than against the jury.

But it is interesting to compare Plato's account with Xenophon's account, which you can find, in translation, at the Perseus Digital Library

Who was Xenophon? See The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


There is nothing resembling a proof for the authenticity of the Apologia, we can just assess plausibility.

Xenophon wasn't even in Athens at the time of Socrates' trial, so his apology is of very questionable value as a source.

On the other hand, Plato's Apologia was published in the decade after Socrates' execution (399 BC) - most likely in 386 BC. So the memory of the judges and audience was still relatively fresh, and they would've objected if Plato strayed off too much from the historical events.

Still, the Apologia wasn't a great success, more or less ignored at first, so maybe there was indeed some protest, but the records of it have been lost.

Obviously, Plato took some artistic liberties, at least: he streamlined what happened, since the only witness appearing was Meletos (an accuser), yet the Apologia is framed as a protocol of the trial.

It would be very ironic, though, if Plato pushed a lot of "fake news" in his apology, went further than a poetic recollection: Socrates made his defense all about valorizing the search for truth (as in all his life, as we know him through Plato's Dialogues), and harshly criticizing those who try to use manipulative techniques to appeal to the emotions of the judges.

But even this "total fraud" option, while less plausible, is still possible - we just don't know.

In particular, did he go to the Oracle and genuinely tried to find someone wiser than him, or is that just a textual device to explain Socrates' method of maieutics?

Socrates never claimed that he went there himself:

For of my wisdom—if it is wisdom at all—and of its nature, I will offer you the god of Delphi as a witness. You know Chaerephon, I fancy. He was my comrade from a youth and the comrade of your democratic party, and shared in the recent exile and came back with you. And you know the kind of man Chaerephon was, how impetuous in whatever he undertook. Well, once he went to Delphi and made so bold as to ask the oracle this question; and, gentlemen, don't make a disturbance at what I say; for he asked if there were anyone wiser than I. Now the Pythia replied that there was no one wiser. And about these things his brother here will bear you witness, since Chaerephon is dead.

(Plat. Apol. 20e - 21a)

He can name a witness, so that makes it believable. This event is regarded as historical by most scholars.

A side remark: it is only believable because Chaerepon asked the Pythia a leading question. If the question had simply been "Who is the wisest human?", there would be no naturalistic explanation for this answer. According to the story, Chaerepon went to the oracle before Socrates was famous!

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    "people would have objected is he had taken liberties with the facts" is not a robust argument. Take a look around: pundits, some politicians and journalists take liberties with easily verifiable facts all the time. They did in ancient times too, this is not new. They just don't care if someone objects. Particularly considering the fact that, as you say, if there were protests we probably have lost them forever, along with the vast majority of what was written at the time and the totality of the oral debates that took place on the agora.
    – armand
    Commented May 29, 2023 at 0:00
  • @armand That's true. Moreover, the weight of Plato's fame and his success in producing a very effective "origin myth" (where "myth" means "story", not "false story") must have been very influential. But Xenophon's account is free of the desire to found philosophy and so independent of Plato's view.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented May 29, 2023 at 6:47
  • Thank you for the clarification!
    – Saegusa
    Commented May 29, 2023 at 9:36

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