Plato’s Apology: The Failure of the Socratic Method in Public Discourse

This is the first major paper I submitted in university. It is a rhetorical analysis focusing on Socrates’s final trial. I have pasted the introduction and the conclusion here.

Many thanks to Dr. Mark Brantner from NUS, USP writing centre assistants, as well as all my friends for their help and encouragement.

A complete list of references may be requested by email, thank you.

Plato’s Apology: The Failure of the Socratic Method in Public Discourse


Habits are a set of routine, naturalised behaviour that are central to a speaker’s ethos, the Aristotelian rhetoric term meaning “ethical appeal”. They profoundly influence how speakers present themselves in rhetorical situations and morally persuade their audience (Longaker and Walker 238). For Socrates, his speaking habit, known as the Socratic method, is central to his philosophical practices. Plato, through his dialogues, shows that the Socratic method aims at stimulating critical thinking and acquiring new insight through conversational dialogues (Overholser 137). While the successes of the Socratic method in philosophical inquiries have been much applauded, it is interesting to consider how the same speaking habit actually failed to save Socrates from execution. Taking evidence from Plato’s Apology, this rhetorical analysis argues that the Socratic method gave rise to Socrates’s unpopular, uncompromising and arrogant ethos that greatly irritated the jurors and made a verdict of guilty inevitable.



Socrates largely repeated what he was accused for, irritated the jurors and made his death inevitable. Before his trial, the accumulated unpopularity formed his situated ethos. Socrates subsequently built on his situated ethos and created an invented ethos that was critical, arrogant, blunt and stubborn. Although Socrates did follow certain judicial rhetoric traditions, his faith in telling the hard truth instead of begging for sympathy largely deviated from the context of the trial and failed to persuade the jurors. Through the Apology, Plato argues that ethos, not Socrates’s rhetorical incapability, was essentially the determining factor of his rhetorical failure. Habits can therefore heavily determine the outcome of a speech. Furthermore, this essay finds it necessary to track the origin of the Socratic method to fully appreciate the habit because Socrates found effectiveness and profound purposes in his method. This offers the best explanation to the fact that even before the threat of death, Socrates refused to change his speaking habit. While the applications of habits have been much discussed in rhetoric, questions like how one forms his habit, what is the rationale behind each habit and why does a speaker changes or sticks to his speaking habit deserve more scholarly attention. More interdisciplinary analysis could be done in this area in the future.


Works Cited

Ahbel-Rappe, Sara, Rachana Kamtekar, and InterScience Wiley. A Companion to Socrates. Vol. 34. Malden, MA;Oxford;: Blackwell Pub, 2006. Print.

Allahverdyan, Armen E., and Aram Galstyan. “Opinion Dynamics with Confirmation Bias.” PLoS ONE 9.7 (2014): e99557. Print.

Blyth, Dougal. “Socrates’ Trial and Conviction of the Jurors in Plato’s “Apology”.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 33.1 (2000): 1-22. Print.

Feaver, Douglas D, and John E Hare. “The” Apology” as an Inverted Parody of Rhetoric.” Arethusa 14.2 (1981): 205. Print.

Howland, Jacob. “Plato’s “Apology” as Tragedy.” The Review of Politics 70.4 (2008): 519-46. Print.

Leibowitz, David M. The Ironic Defense of Socrates. publisherNameCambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

Longaker, Mark G., and Jeffrey Walker. Rhetorical Analysis: A Brief Guide for Writers. Boston: Longman, 2011. Print.

Meckstroth, Christopher. “Socratic Method and Political Science.” The American Political Science Review 106.3 (2012): 644-60. Print.

Overholser, James C. “Elements of the Socratic Method: Vi. Promoting Virtue in Everyday Life.” Psychotherapy (Chicago, Ill.) 36.2 (1999): 137-45. Print.

Plato. Selected Dialogues of Plato: The Benjamin Jowett Translation. Modern Library, 2000. Print.

Wolfsdorf, David. “The Irony of Socrates.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65.2 (2007): 175-87. Print.

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