I beg you to pardon my lack of eloquence and rhetorical skill but having never before been in a courtroom, I may unwittingly not observe the habit of flowery language and speeches you are all accustomed to. If you will permit me to lapse into my usual manner of conversation, I wish to defend myself against two charges brought against me, my supposed crime of corrupting the good youth of Athens and my other charge of being a sophist. To open my defense, I must state that despite what the Oracle atDelphi might have told me, I am not a man imbued with any special wisdom. My only claim to wisdom is that I know that I know nothing and so I hope you can forgive me if my claims do not make immediate sense. In being the gadfly who has tried to spur you all to action so that you do not become complacent, I realize that I have only the inner voice that guides me and it is my hope that such a voice will allow me to discuss what little I know with you.
You accuse me of corrupting the good youth of Athens, yet I must ask you how one person can possibly be held responsible for such an atrocity? Is it not the entire society that might be to blame for the corruption of the youth? How can one man, or better yet, even one institution be held accountable in the face of such a charge? What you are suggesting by this accusation is that the youth would be good if the society existed just as it is with the mere exception of me. I wonder that this is not a flawed argument to make, especially since there is so much malice, ignorance, and ill will to be found scattered throughout the whole of Athens already.
To claim that I, one man who is mostly ignorant yet wishes to see youths examine their lives and better their souls, am responsible is like saying that a horse cannot speak because one trainer told it not to. In addition to this, I must remind all of you men that these youths, like many of us and certainly myself, have no desire to harm themselves. If they felt they were doing so by being in my presence they would certainly not follow me about the city as they do. Look at Plato and Crito here, two of my students. They will tell you that they enjoy making their souls better. I must admit as well that many of the youth of Athens also enjoy my conversations and many of them might sometimes enjoy it when a know-it-all engages in public conversation with me. I beg you all to realize that I am not corrupting these youths, I am merely showing them how to live an examined life. I am teaching them the value of questioning that which surrounds them and showing them that no matter how knowledgeable one person may seem, there is no supreme knowledge any of us possess. It is a valuable lesson and one that will serve them well as they grow up and turn to politics or other noble ventures. In sum, I have not corrupted these youths, I have offered them a way of making themselves better.
This discussion leads me to answer the second of your charges. In my dealings with the youth of this city as well as others, I have never once charged a fee for my services. It would be ridiculous to assume that I would do such a thing since after all, I am wise only because I know I know nothing at all. Those that offer to teach for a fee are assuming that they know very much and consider such knowledge to be a commodity whereas I only examine life and those around me for free and with the hope that it will someday lead to a better society. The questions I ask of those who engage in conversation with me are not meant to make one feel embarrassed, but rather to point out that knowledge can never be complete but examination of one’s thoughts is valuable. If I were to charge a fee for something that seems to me to be so natural, would I not be doing a disservice to this city? I feel that I must again point out that I am not a wise man nor an eloquent speaker such as you here in this courtroom are.
I am merely a poor man who feels that I must remain the gadfly keeping the city thinking so that it does not lapse into sleep one day. If this is a crime—if my method of teaching is crime then this society may fall into a state of disrepair. What I am doing here is a favor, a public service even. The voice that guides me to live an examined life and reject the vices that keep men down has told me to reject payment for my services. In fact, when you ask me what punishment I should receive, a grand free meal befitting a noble Olympian would be the best remedy as I have offered for absolutely free one of the best public services in the city. So men, I ask you, since I have not, especially for a fee, taught sophistry to others and have only made the youth of Athens more aware (rather than corrupted) what would be the point of putting me to death or exiling me? I am simply performing a service and acting according to the best intentions. As it is not in my (or your) best interest to cause yourself harm, isn’t it time that you consider my pleas and see the good I have offered this community simply by questioning and not behaving as if I were some supreme authority?