Socrates’ Apology is an account of Socrates’ legal defense of himself against charges that he was corrupting the youth of Athens (for unspecified reasons) and for not believing in the gods.
How precisely he corrupted the youth of Athens is not clear, as there is no statement given by his accusers. We can, however, infer that he offended a great many people. He would go to politicians, poets, and artisans, saying he was looking for wisdom, then ask them a bunch of questions to prove that they didn’t have any wisdom, yet neither did he have the answer to any of the questions that he posed. For example, to a citizen he asked if he had found a good teacher for his children. “who is he?” asked Socrates. “and of what country? And what does he charge?” “Evenus the Parian,” the man replied. “and his charge is five minae.” To which Socrates replied, “happy is Evenus, if he really has the wisdom, and teaches at such a moderate charge.”
In my notes here I have written “Socrates is an asshole.” He makes people feel stupid, yet he offers nothing helpful. Socrates charged no tuition, but one can imagine that the youth of Athens had a great time learning rhetorical techniques and making their authority figures run in rhetorical circles.
So, he must have conducted himself in such a way to make many powerful enemies. Yet, the Apology seems unjust – it is not wholly clear how his accusers have been materially hurt by him, nor even exactly what he is being accused of. At one point, Socrates refers to a satirization of him by Aristophanes that it is not true. Are the accusations being leveled at him so nebulous as to require him to defend himself against a satire?
Never mind what he did – the accusation that he didn’t believe in their gods is an accusation of “thought crime,” which doesn’t seem just.
Many features of what we now consider due process in the American court system are missing – the right to confront and cross-examine one’s accusers, the requirement that one bringing a civil lawsuit demonstrate that he has suffered harm, the right to freedom of speech. Yes, Socrates was an asshole, but one hopes that simply having made powerful enemies does not warrant imprisonment or death (though that sort of thing certainly happens), as seems to be happening in the case of Russia’s Alexander Shestun.
He made people feel stupid, while not offering any answers himself, but we remember Socrates as a martyr for freedom of speech and thought, sentenced to death without due process by insulted cronies.
The relevance to modern life? Legally, A society that preserves free speech should have more protections for the accused than did the Athens of Socrates, and in the United States, indeed there are. Personally? It’s not good to go around pedantically making people feel stupid.