Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

The Paradox and the Protreptic of Plato’s ‘Apology’: How Socrates Justifies the Examined Life and How Philosophers Can Benefit Pedagogically and Politically from His Learned Ignorance

George Heffernan.

Plato’s ‘Apology of Socrates’ contains a paradox. Namely, the defendant seeks both to prove that he is not guilty of the charges against him and to provoke the jurors into finding him guilty and condemning him to death. But a resolution of the paradox lies in the character of the defense as a protreptic, that is, a justification of and an exhortation to the philosophical life. For Socrates not only defends his own philosophizing; rather, he also urges others to philosophize in order to lead a virtuous life. In doing so, Socrates provides three reasons why he philosophizes. The theological reason is that a divine being commands him to philosophize; the political reason is that it is beneficial to the city and to its citizens for him to philosophize; the philosophical reason is that the best life for a human being requires him to philosophize. These motives are inextricably intertwined with Socrates’ conviction that only by dying for what he believes in can he make the strongest statement about what it means for him to live a virtuous life. Thus his defense strategy and his offense tactics are consistent. Indeed, they serve the same purpose, namely, to establish the Socratic way of life as paradigmatically philosophical and the philosophical way of life as paradigmatically human. From the ‘Apology’, accordingly, philosophers can learn pedagogical and political lessons in how to argue that the pursuit of wisdom is an essential part of the good life for a human being.


George Heffernan
Professor of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy
Merrimack College

B.A. & M.A., Catholic University of America; Ph.D., University of Cologne

  • Philosophy
  • Protreptic
  • Paradox
  • Pedagogy
  • Politics
  • Humanities

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)