Discussion of plato's apology transcript


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Discussion of political philosophy through Plato's dialogue Apology.

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Discussion of plato's apology transcript

  1. 1. Discussion of Plato’s Apology Transcript Steven Smith Today we startwith Plato, Plato's Apology of Socrates. This is the best introductory text to the study of Political Philosophy.Why? Let me give you two reasons.First,itshows Socrates, the reputed founder of our discipline,the founder of Political Scienc e,and I will say a littlebitmore about that later on today, explaininghimself and justifyinghimself,justifyinghis way of lifebefore a jury of his peers. It shows Socrates speakingin a public forum, defending the utility of philosophy for political life.And, secondl y, the Apology demonstrates also the vulnerability of political philosophy in its relation to the city, in its relation to political power. The Apology puts on trial notmerely a particular individual,Socrates,but puts on trial thevery idea of philosophy.Fromits very beginnings,philosophy and the city, philosophy and political life,havestood in a sortof tension with one another. Socrates is charged, as we will see,by the city for corruptingthe youth and impiety toward the Gods, right? In other words,he's accused of treason, a high capital offense.No other work of which I am aware helps us better think through the conflict.I would even s ay,the necessary and inevitableconflict,between the freedom of the mind and the requirements of political life.Are these two things,are these two goods as itwere, freedom of mind and political life,arethey compatibleor are they necessarily atodds with one another? That seems to me to be, in some ways,the fundamental question that the Apology asks us to consider.Okay? Now for generations, the Apology has stood out as a symbol for the violation of free expression.It sets the casefor the individual committed to the examined lifeover and againsta bigoted and prejudiced multitude. The cleareststatement of this view of, a gain, the individual setagainstthemob in some ways,is found in a work of a very famous civil libertarian of the nineteenth century, a man named John Stuart Mill.In his famous tractcalled simply On Liberty, Mill wrote, "Mankind can hardly be too often reminded that there was once a man named Socrates between whom and the legal authorities of his time there took placea memorable collision."Over and again,and Mill is a kind of a famous caseof this,Socrates has been described as a martyr for freedom of speech and he has been somewhat extravagantly compared at various times to Jesus, to Galileo,to Sir Thomas More and has been used a s a rolemodel for thinkers and political activists fromHenry David Thoreau, to Gandhi, to Martin Luther King.So, Socrates has become a very central symbol of political resistanceand resistanceto political power,and, of the dangers to the individual of unchecked rule. But, this readingof the Apology as you might say,is a kind of brief for freedom of expression and a warningagainstthe dangers of censorship and persecution.Although this has been enormously influential over the centuries,at leastover the lastcentury and a half,you have to ask yourself:is this the readingthat Plato intended? Did Plato want us to read the dialoguethis way? As a teacher of mine used to say,"You read Plato your way, I'll read himhis way." But, how did Plato intend this dialogueto be understo od? Note that Socrates never defends himself by reference to the doctrine of unlimited free speech. He doesn't make that claim.He doesn't make the claimaboutthe general utility of freedom or unlimited speech. Rather, he maintains as heputs it near the end of the defense speech, that the examined lifeis aloneworth living.Only those, in other words, engaged in the continual struggleto clarify their thinking,to remove sources of contradiction and incoherence,only those people can be said to liveworthwhile lives."The unexamined lifeis not worth living."Socrates confidently,defiantly asserts to his listeners,to his audience.Nothing else matters for him. His,in other words seems to be a highly personal,in many ways, highly individual questfor self perfection and not a doctri neabout the valueof freedom of speech in general. But, even though you might say,Socrates seems to be engaged in, again,this highly personal questfor self perfection, there is something, which one can't avoid,deeply political aboutthe Apology and about his teaching. At the heart of the dialogueor at the heart of this speech rather is a quarrel,a quarrel with his accusers over the question, never stated directly perhaps,but over the question of who has the rightto educate future citizens and statesmen of the city of Athens. Socrates' defense speech, likeevery platonic dialogue,is ultimately a dialogueabouteducation.Who has the rightto teach, who has the right to educate? This is in many ways for Socrates the fundamental political question of all times.Itis the question of really who governs or maybe put another way, who should govern, who ought to govern. Remember also thatthe city that brought Socrates to trial was notjustany city,it was a peculiar kind of city, itwas Athens. And Athens was, until only fairly recenttimes in human history,the most famous democracy that ever existed. I say fairly recenttimes until,you know, the American democracy. But itwas, until atleastthe eighteenth or nineteenth century, the most famous democracy that ever existed. The speech of Socrates before the jury is perhaps the most famous attempt to put democracy itself on trial.Itis not merely Socrates who is on trial.Socrates intends to put the democracy of Athens itself on trial.Not only does the Apology force Socrates to defend himself before the city of Athens, but Socrates puts the city of Athens on trial and makes it defend itself before the high court of philosophy.So, the ensuingdebate within the dialoguecan be read as a struggleagain over who has titleto rule. Is itthe people? Is itthe court of Athens, the dẽmos, to usethe Greek word for "the people," or is itSocrates the philosopher-kingwho should be vested with ultimate political authority? Thatis,of course, the quest and it's taken up in a very vivid way, much more explicitway in the Republic, but it runs throughout the Apology and you can'treally understand the Apology unless you see that this is the question that Socrates is posingthroughout. So, I have some names put on the board and some dates, because I want to talk a littlebi tabout the political contextof this dialogue.One can of courseread, there's nothing wrong with readingthe Apology, again,as a kind of enduring symbol of the plight of the, you might say,the justindividual confronted with an unjustmob, or an unjust political rule.It's,again,a question that Plato takes up in the Republic when a character in the book named Glaucon who happens to be, as itwere, the brother of Plato,asks Socrates if it is actually better to be justor simply to have the reputation for justice? And Socrates says itis better to be just, even if that results in persecution and death. But the trial is not,again,justan enduring symbol of justiceversus injustice,iti s an actual historical eventthat takes placein a particular moment of political timeand this bears,I think, decisively on how we come to understand the caseboth for and againstSocrates. Let me talk a littlebit about that context. The trial of Socrates takes placein the year 399 and all of these refer to before the common era, 399. Some of you will know that that trial follows very quickly upon the heals of the famous Peloponnesian War. This was the war related by Socrates' slightly older contemporary,a man named Thucydides who wrote the history of the Peloponnesi an War,a war that took placebetween the two great powers of the Greek world between the Spartans and their allies and Athens and its allies.The Athens that fought this war againstSparta was an Athens at the height of its political power and prestige under the leadership of its firstcitizen Pericles,whosename is also up there at the very top. Under Pericles,Athens had buil tthe famous Acropolis.Ithad established Athens as a mighty and redoubtable naval power and it created an unprecedented level of artisti c and cultural life,even today known simply as Periclean Athens.
  2. 2. But Athens was also somethingcompletely unprecedented in the world, itwas a democracy. And, again,even today the expression "Athenian democracy" connotes an ideal of the most complete form of democratic government that has ever existed. "We are the school of Hellas."This is whatPericles boasts to his listeners in the famous funeral oration told by Thucydides."We throw our city open to the world and never exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learningand observing,even though the eyes of an enemy may profitfrom our liberality,"Pericles boasts onceagain.The question maybe you want to ask about this is howcould the world's firstfreest and most open society sentence to death a man who spoke freely about his own ignoranceand professed to care for nothing so much as virtue and human excellence? Now, at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War,Socrates was justunder 40 years of age. And, we learned from the speech that Socrates himself served in the military and served in defense of his country. The war, the Peloponnesian War,was fought as you can see over a considerablelength of time, on and off for almosta period of 30 years and was concluded in the year 404 with the defeat of Athens, the installingof a pro-Spartan oligarchy,a pro-Spartan regimeknown simply as the Thirty Tyrants who ruled Athens for a year. The next year, 403, the Tyrants, The Thirty as they were called,were driven out and a democratic government was once again reestablished in Athens. Just three years later, three men named Anytus, Meletus and Lycos, all of whom had been partof the democratic resistance movement againstthe Spartan oligarchy,broughtcharges againstSocrates.The charges againsthimwere: corruptingthe young and disbelievingin theGods that the city believes in.So, you can see that the charges were brought by people who were themselves, again,partof a democratic resistancemovement and the names of Anytus and Meletus as you've read, you know, appear in the speech itself.So, the charges brought againstSocrates did not simply growout of thin air.Maybe we should rephrasethe question. Not why did the Athenians bring Socrates to trial? But, why did they permit him to carry on his practiceof challengingthe l awand the authority of the lawfor as longas they did? Okay? Add to this the fact that when Socrates was brought to trial again,the democracy had only recently been reestablished butthat many friends and former students of Socrates had been themselves implicated in the rule of the hated Thirty Tyrants. Among the members of The Thirty was a man named Critias,and there's actually a platonicdialoguenamed after him, a man named Critias,who was a relativeof Plato's and another man named Charmides whose name is also thetitle of a platonic dialogue, Charmides who is Plato's uncle.Plato himself, he tells us much later in lifein his famous Seventh Letter, Plato himself was invited by his relatives to help to form a part of the government of The Thirty and later Plato said,"That so abhorrent did they become that they made the older democracy look likethe Golden Age." So, the point I'm suggesting is thatmany of Socrates' students and associates,includingPlato himself,had some connection with this oligarchical government that had ruled Athens for a brief time. And, Socrates was himself not above suspicion.Weoften, don't we even today yes, we often judge teachers by their students, by the company they keep, yes, don't we? No one is above suspicion.Socrates himself had been a closeassociateof a man named Alcibiades,probably themost prominent Athenian in the generation after Pericles.Alcibiadeswas the man who engineered the disastrousSicilian expedition and later ended his lifeas a defector goingto Sparta.His complex relationship with Socrates is,by the way, recounted in the drunken speech that Alcibiades gives in Plato's dialogue, Symposium. So, you can see that the trial of Socrates,the littlespeech that you have read, takes placein the shadow of military defea t, of resistance,of conspiracy and betrayal.Socrates was 70 years old atthe time of the trial.So,this was a highly charged political environment. Far more volatilethan for example the kind of partisan quarrels wesee today in our republic,I hope. Okay? So, let me talk about the accusations,letme move from the political contextof the speech to the accusations.And,I say accusationsbecause there, as you read, if you read closely you will seethere were actually two sets of accusationsleveled againstSocrates.Ea rly in the speech Socrates claims thathis currentaccusers Anytus and Meletus, again,the democratic resistancefighters,the charges they have brought againsthimarethemselves the descendants of an earlier generation of accusers who were responsiblefor,he cla ims, maligningand creatingan unfavorableprejudiceagainstSocrates."These charges arenot new," he tells the jury,and many members of the jury,he says,will haveformed an unfavorableopinion abouthim.This was the day before there were intense forms of jury selection,where they would ask people: "Do you have a view of the case?"Many of the jurors would have known Socrates,or certainly would have heard of himand, he says,would have had already an unfavorableopinion formed about him by this earlier generation of accusers. Reference he makes to a comic poet, yes, a comic poet, an unequivocal reference to the playwrightAristophanes,whose name I have put up on the board.Aristophanes is the one who created the original or theinitial prejudiceagainstSocrates.Whatwa s that prejudicethat Aristophanes,this comic poet, had created? The allusion to Aristophanes and the comic poet is a partof what Plato callsin Book X of the Republic, the old quarrel between philosophy and poetry. This quarrel is a stapleof Plato's dialogues,is a central theme, not only of the Symposium in which Aristophanes and Socrates are actually shown atthe same dinner tablewith one another. But, itis also a key feature of the Republicwhich we will bereadingin a week, where Socrates offers an elaborateproposal for the censorship and control of poetry, if it is to be made compatiblewith the demands of political justice.In fact,in a way you cannot understand theRepublic unless you understand the poetic backdrop to it and Socrates' long standingengagement with the poetic tradition and this back and forth between himself and the man he callsthis comic poet. The core of this quarrel between the philosopher and the poet, between Socrates and Aristophanes is notjustan aesthetic judgment or itis not simply an aesthetic quarrel itis,again,deeply political or atleasthas something very political aboutit.It gets to the essence of the question of who is best equipped to educate future generations of citizens and civic leaders.Arethe philosophersor are the poets, you might say,the true legislatorsfor mankind,if you want to useShelley's dictum? Which one legislates for mankind at the time of Socrates? The Greeks already had a century's longtradition of poetic education, going back centuries to the time of Homer and Hesiod that set out certain exemplary models of heroic virtue and civic life.The Homeric epics were to the Greek worl d what the Bibleis to our world that is to say,in some respects the ultimate authority,regardingthe way of the Gods, their relation to the world and the type of virtues appropriateto human beings. The virtues endorsed by the poetic tradition of which Aristoph anes is the great representative here, the great inheritor and representative, the virtues of this tradition were the virtues of a warrior culture, of war-likepeoples and men at war. These were the qualities thathad guided the Greeks for centuries and contributed to their riseto power. It contributed to Athens' as well as Sparta's riseto greatness from a small dispersed people,to a great world power and, again,allowed them to achieve a level of artistic,intellectual and political accomplishmentakin to Renaissance Florence, Elizabethan England and Thirties Weimar. So, what is atstake in this quarrel between Socrates and the poetic tradition thathe alludes to? First,Socrates' manner of teachingis markedly different from the poets, right? Does anyone know here the opening lineof the Iliad? Homer'sIliad, does anyone know the firstline? Anyone remember that from high school? "SingGoddess the wrath of Achilles,"right? "SingGoddess the wrath of Achilles."The poets areoracular,right? They call on Gods and Goddesses to inspirethem with song, to fill them with inspir ation to
  3. 3. tell stories of people with super-human strength and courage and anger. By contrast,you could say,the method of Socrates is not oracular.Itis notstory telling;it is conversational,itis argumentative,if you want to use the word he applies to it, i t is dialectical. Socrates makes arguments and he wants others to engage with him, to discover which argument can best withstand the test of rational scrutiny and debate. There areno arguments in Homer's Iliad or Odyssey. You hear strong and compellingstories butno arguments. Socrates makes, in other words, continual questioningand notthe tellingof stories and the recitation of verses,the essence of this new political education.He questions the methods of teaching of the poets. But, secondly,again,Homer and the poets singthe virtues of men at war. Socrates wants to replacethe warrior citizen with a new kind of citizen, a whole new set, you might say,of citizen virtues. The new Socratic citizen,let's call himthatfor a moment, the new Socratic citizen may have some features in common with the older Homeric warrior.But, Socrates ultimately wants to replace military combatwith a new kind of, you might call it,verbal facility,verbal combat,in which again the person with the bes t argument is declared to be victorious.Theperson with the best argument, let the best argument prevail.The famed Socratic method of argumentation is basically all thatremains of the older pre-Socratic cultureof struggleand combat. The new Socratic citizen is to be trained in the art of argument and dialectic,and we will talk a littlelater aboutwhat that means. So, itis a challenger to the poets and all they stand for, the century-long tradition of poetic education that Socrates asserts himself,that Socrates presents himself. The Apology shows Socrates as offeringa new model of citizenship,a new kind of citizen. His challengeto the poets is in a way the basis for the resentment that is builtup againsthim,in that Aristophanes and what he calls the earlier accusers havebroughtto bear. In fact, you might say,so seriously was Socrates taken by Aristophanes and the poets, that Aristophanes devoted an entire play,he wrote an entire play,about Socrates called theClouds, devoted to debunking and ridicule Socrates' profession of learning.Aristophanes' play sometimes is even included in certain editions of the book you're reading, like this one, ithas the edition of Aristophanes' Clouds in it, alongwith the Apology and Crito. The existence of that play shows to all of us justhow seriously Socrates was taken by the greatest of his contemporaries and Aristophanes was,alongwith Sophocles and Euripides and others, among the greatest of the Greek playwrights.The mockery, you might say,mockery of Socrates,remains one of the sincerestforms of flattery; they took himvery seriously. Let me justsay something about the Clouds, this comic play,this satireon Socrates, becauseit is partof that initial accusation that Socrates says is leveled againsthim.Here, Aristophanes presents Socrates as an investigator,and this is partof the first charge, remember an investigator of the things aloftand the things under the earth and who makes the weaker argument the stronger. That's the argument that Socrates says Aristophanes brings againsthim.In this play,Socrates is presented as the head, the leader, the director of what we might think of as the firstthink tank known to human history.It's called in the play itself the Phrontisterion which means, or is sometimes translated as the Thinkery or the Thinketeria or simply a kind of think tank where fathers, Athenian fathers, bringtheir sons to be indoctrinated into the mysteries of Socratic wisdom.And in the play Socrates is shown hovering, flying above the stage in a basket in order to be ableto better observe the clouds,the things aloft, right? But, also in many ways symbolizingSocrates',atleaston the Aristophanes' account,Socrates' detachment from the things down here on earth, the things that concern his fellowcitizens.Socrates is a kind of what in German people would call Luftmensch. He's a man up in the air,you know, he's so detached, he doesn't have his feet on the ground. And Socrates is shown not only mockingthe Gods in doing this,but he is shown by Aristophanes to teach incestand to teach a ll of the things that violateevery decent, human taboo--incest, the beating of one's parents,all these kinds of things. Socrates is presented as exhibitingkind of a corrosiveskepticismwhich is atthe core of Aristophanes' chargeagainsthim.To make a longstory short, the play concludes with Socrates' think tank being burned to the ground by a disgruntled disciple.An object lesson for all later professors,I would say,who teach nonsense [chuckles].Right? Don't get any ideas.Take a match to the department. So, how accurateis thatpicture of Socrates, the man who investigates the things aloftand the things under the ground? The Clouds was written in 423 when Socrates was in his mid-forties and the Aristophanic Socrates isessentially whatwe call a natural philosopher. Again, investigatingthe things aloft,under the ground. He is what we would call today a scientist,a natural scientist.But, this seems quite removed, doesn't it,from the Socrates who is brought up on charges of corruptingthe young and the impiety. In the Apology and here is where Socrates actually tells thestory,very important in the courseof this speech; he provides a kind of intellectual biography of an incidentthat occurred long before the trial and sethim on a very different path. He recallsthestory, don't you remember, of a man named Charephon, a friend of his,who had gone to the Delphic Oracle,who had gone to Oracleof Delphi,and asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates and was told there was not. Socrates tells us that when he was told this he expressed disbelief in the Oracle. He didn't believe itand in order to disprovethe Oracle's statement, he says he began a lifelong quest to find someone wiser than himself.A quest, in the courseof which lead himto interrogate the politicians,the poets, the craftsmen, all peoplereputed to be knowledgeable, and his conversationslead himto ask questions,not about natural scientific phenomena, but questions about the virtues,as he tells us,the virtues of a human being and a citizen, what we would call to day perhaps moral and political questions. That incidentthat Socrates tells here represents what one could call the famous Socratic turn,Socrates' second sailingso to speak.It represents the moment in the lifeof Socrates where he turns away from the investigation of natural phenomena to the study of the human and political things,the moral and political things.TheDelphic story for what it's worth marks a major turningpoint in Socrates' intellectual biography.The move from the younger, we could call him,Aristophanic Socrates, the Socrates who, again, investigates the things aloftand under the earth, to the later,what we could call platonic Socrates.The founder of politic al science, Socrates is the founder of our disciplinewho asks aboutthe virtues of moral and political l ife.Socrates' accountof this turn, this major turn in his lifeand career, leaves a lot of questions unanswered, that maybe even occurred to you as you were reading this dialogue,readingthis speech. Why does he turn away from the investigation of natural phenomena to the study of human and political things? TheDelphic Oracleis interpreted by Socrates,at leastto command engaging with others in philosophical conversation.Why does he interpret itthis way? Why does this seem the proper interpretation to engage in these kinds of conversations? It is this Socrates who is broughtup on charges of corruption and impiety, yet none of this quite answers the question of wh at is the nature of Socrates' crime. What did he do? What did corruption and impiety mean? To try to answer those questions we would have to look a littlebitat what is meant by this new kind of Socratic citizen.Who is this citizen? The charges brought against Socrates by Anytus and Meletus we see are not the same exactly as those brought againsthimby Aristophanes,the comic poet. Anytus and Meletus talk about impiety and corruption,not investigatingthe things aloftand makingthe weaker argument the stronger. What do these terms mean? Impiety and corruption,in what senseare these civic offenses? Whatcould impiety have meant to his
  4. 4. audienceand his contemporaries? At a minimum, we would think the charge of impiety suggests disrespectof the gods. Impiety need not be the same thingas atheism, although Meletus confuses the two, but it does suggest irreverence even blasphemy toward the things that a society cares most deeply about. Yes? To be impious is to disrespectthose things a person or a society car es most deeply about. When people today, for example, refer to flagburningas a des ecration,as desecratingthe flagthey are speakingthe languageof impiety, right. They arespeakingthe languageof some kind of religious or quasi-religious desecration.Meletus, whose name in Greek actually means care,accuses Socrates of not caringproperly for the things that his fellowcitizens careabout. So, the question is:"What does Socrates careabout"? What does he careabout? Consider the following:every society,which we know, operates within the medium of belief or faith of some kind.Take our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution,all men are created equal, that we are endowed with inalienable rights that all legitimategovernment grows out of consent and the like.These beliefs form something likea kind of national creed, you might say,American, national creed,what it means to be an American and not someone else. Yet, how many people could giv e a kind of reasoned accountof what makes these beliefs true, or what grounds these beliefs? Most of us, most of the time, hold these beliefs as a matter of faith,as a matter of belief, becausewe have learned about them from childhood,becausethey were written by Thomas Jefferson or some other reputed high authority. To question those beliefs would seem to exhibi ta kind of lack of civic faith,faith in our rulingopinions.In shortyou might say a lack of civic piety or respect. Socrates clearly believes thatpiety or faith is the natural condition of the citizen. Every society,no matter of what kind requires a kind of faith in its rulingprinciples,in its fundamental beliefs.Butbelief seems to be threatened from at leasttwo sourc es.One is simpledisbelief or unbelief,a kind of rejection of rulingopinion simply becauseyou don't likeit.You know, when you see the bumper sticker on the car "Question Authority," this kind of rejection of rulingopinion.But the other source of conflictwi th ruling opinion is fromphilosophy.Philosophy isnotthe same thing as simpledisbelief or rejection,but the two can be easily confused. Philosophy grows out of a desireto replaceopinion with knowledge, opinion or belief with reason. For philosophy,itis not enough simply to hold a belief on faith,but one must be ableto give a rational account,a reasoned accountfor one's belief, its goal again is to replacecivic faith with rational knowledge. And, therefore, philosophy is necessarily atodds with belief and with this kind of civic faith.The citizen may accept certain beliefs on faith because he or she is attached to a particular kind of political order or regime. But, for the philosopher this is never enough. The philosopher seeks to judge those beliefs in the lightof true standards,i n thelight of what is alwaysand everywhere true as a quest for knowledge. There is a necessary and inevitabletension between philosophy and belief,or to put it another way, between philosophy and the civic pieties thathold the city together. From this point of view, I want to say,was Socrates guilty of impiety? On the fac e of it, the answer to that seems yes. Socrates does not careabout the same thing his fellowcitizens careabout.His opening words to the jury seem to convey this,"I," he says,"am simply foreign to the manner of speech here." This seems to be a statement of his alienation or disaffection fromthe concerns of his fellowAthenians. I know nothingabout what you do or what you care about. Yet it certainly doesn't seem right to say that Socrates does not careat all.He claims to caredeeply, perhaps more deeply than anyone has ever cared around him, before or since.And among the things he cares deeply about, he says,is this callingto do nothing as he s ays "To do nothing but persuade you, both younger and older, not to carefor bodies and money, but, how your soul will bein the best possiblecondition."Thatconcern with the state of one's soul,he tells the jury,has lead himnot only to impoverish himsel f,butto turn himself away from the public business,fromthe things that concern the city to the pursuit of privatevirtue. And, here are the words of his that I want to leave you with today from section 31d of the Apology.Socrates writes, "This is what opposes my political activity.And, its opposition seems to me to be all together noble for know well, men of Athens, if I had longago attempted to be politically activeI would long ago have perished and I would benefited neither you nor myself. Now do not be vexed with me when I speak the truth. For there is no human being who will preservehis lifeif he genuinely opposes either you or any other multitude and prevents many unjustand unlawful things from happeningin the city." Rather, he says,"if someone wh o really fights for justiceis goingto preserve himself even for a short time, itis necessary for him to lead a private,rather than a public life." Think about that, if someone who really fights for justiceis goingto preserve himself,itis necessary for him to lead a private, not a public life.How are we to understand Socrates' claimthatthe pursuitof justicerequires himto turn away from public to privatelife? What is this new kind of citizen,again,concerned with this kind of privatevirtue, this concern for the virtue of one's soul? That's the question I want us to consider again for next week as we finish the Apology and move our way up to the Crito. Okay? We'll do that for next week.