Plato's Apology has been taught thousands of times, maybe hundreds of thousands, over the last two thousand three hundred years. I have probably taught it at least twenty times. How ought it to be taught? I am currently teaching a seminar on Plato and thought I would start off on the first day of class with this chestnut. So I listed on the board, with the help of my class, the key concepts and topics that are addressed or at least brought up in this dialogue, some that are only implicitly addressed, and some that are left out. Here is a list of concepts: death, god, piety, gods of the city, atheism, Socrates' daemon, courage, intellectual courage, justice, wisdom, truth, persuasion, argument, virtue, soul, corruption, education, what makes life worth living. Socratic examination, harm cannot be done to a good man, Socrates' unique duty to the god Apollo, democracy
So, my working thesis is that in order to understand any one of these concepts one must understand its relation to all of the others. The ideas form a, to use Quine's term, "web of belief." One good way to enter Socrates' web of belief (here "Socrates" means the character in the Apology) is to stand back a bit from the text and consider how the various key concepts inter-relate. For example, the unexamined life is not worth living. So only the examined life is worth living. The examined life is one that involves Socratic examination. Socratic examination entails asking questions of people in particular fields and showing them that they are not really wise in matters of great importance to them. This examination will improve their souls. Socrates goes about constantly trying to improve people's souls. An improved soul cannot be harmed: it is hardened from harm. An improved soul has courage. Courage comes at least in part from a certain form of wisdom. Wisdom is knowing that human wisdom is worthless and that one does not always know what one thinks one knows. Craftsmen do in fact know their craft. But they are unwise in that they do not know anything about politics even though they think they do. Believing that death is the worst thing that can happen to us is typical of the uncourageous person. Socrates does not believe this because he recognizes the limits of human wisdom with regards to death. Either death is a dreamless sleep or it is a trip to Hades where one could engage in conversation with other shades. Neither option seems particularly bad. Of course there may be other possibilities: for example burning forever in hell. But, for a contemporary atheist the argument has cogency: death is like the dreamless sleep in that in both one experiences nothing. The atheist believes that one experiences nothing in death because in death one no longer exists (except as an unconscious body). So the atheist would agree that there is no reason to fear death (unless one fears losing the time to do things one would have had if one had lived longer). Of course one can fear the painful experiences of the death bed...but that is another matter.
Is there a center to the web. Perhaps the daemon is. In a way, this is not a concept since it is uniquely belonging to Socrates. One of my students asked whether there is point here for all of us, given that Socrates' situation is unique. There are two places where Socrates seems to generalize his position: first, it is not that the unexamined life is not worth living just for Socrates. It is for everyone. Second, that man is wise who, like Socrates, realizes that human wisdom is worthless. By the way, since the wisdom of the carpenter in carpentry is not worthless, the claim seems rather to be that any claim to know that goes beyond practical expertise is worthless. But this does pose a problem for the carpenter as well since if the carpenter is unable to define good carpentry (as would typically happen if he engaged in examination of his life with Socrates) then he would fail to understand his innermost essence. How does Socratic discourse help us improve in virtue when it inevitably leads to a failure in trying to understand our innermost essence? The daemon interestingly always gives negative knowledge: tells Socrates not to go there, not to do this, and so forth. So perhaps the daemon is the impulse he has to destroy false theories. Yet the daemon does tell us a truth, as when it does not intervene. Socrates at the end of the dialogue thinks that because his daemon did not intervene he could be assured that he had taken the right course of action. The failures of the dialogues are also successes in that bad theories are cleared away: the path is cleared away for the soul's self-actualization in virtue.
So was Socrates an atheist? Quite the opposite. However, the religious belief he introduces is one in which deities play little important role. The real thing is the process of examination itself, the process that purifies the soul.
I often worry about the relationship between my main philosophical interest, aesthetics, and other aspects of philosophy. I have spent lot of time thinking about intimate relations between aesthetics, epistemology and metaphysics. But often in my career I have neglected the relationship with ethics. But ethics has to do with the good life, and the good life has to do with happiness, and it is inconceivable that a life could be a happy one that was not filled with a wide variety of rich aesthetic experiences. Socrates implies that the good life is an examined life, and following from this is a sort of wisdom (a very modest sort), and following from this is courage and justice (which, for Socrates, is closely related to the search for truth....he admonishes his jury only to think of truth) Does Socrates really neglect aesthetics or does he simply hide it.
On one level Socrates is anti-aesthetics in that he attacks the decorative style of delivery in the court-room. He is going to speak plainly. And yet there is such a thing as spare aesthetics. Socrates favors a spare aesthetic in the courtroom. Perhaps he could also be said to favor a spare aesthetic in life. From other things we know that he did not shun the pleasures of life but in fact insisted that they were even better for him than for the gourmand. If we can speak of religion in terms of aesthetics Socrates also favors a spare aesthetics here as well. The vast realm of mythology is set aside (this is why he is so threatening to Athenian civil society) and in its place is the job of examining people in order to help them to improve their souls. Improving their souls will involve taking their main interest away from making money, and since the main benefit of money is luxury, this means taking them away from a luxurious aesthetic.