I. What is Apologia?
An apologia (AH-puh-LOH-gee-uh) is a defense of one’s conduct or opinions. It’s related to our concept of “apology,” but in many cases it’s the precise opposite of an apology! When you apologize, you’re saying “I did the wrong thing, and I regret it.” But in an apologia, you’re defending yourself, either by saying that what you did wasn’t wrong or denying that you were responsible for what happened.
The word comes from the Greek words meaning “to speak away.” That is, it’s a form of speech that (ideally) makes accusations or objections disappear.
II. Examples of Apologia
Since the birth of Christianity, there has been a field within Christian theology called “Christian apologetics.” Contrary to a popular misconception, this does not refer to people “apologizing” for their faith. Rather, Christian apologetics is the practice of defending the Christian faith through reason and logic. All the greatest Christian theologians and philosophers – from Saint Paul and Saint Thomas Aquinas to Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich – have been Christian apologists, because they used reason to defend the validity of the Christian faith.
Perhaps the most famous formal apologia is Plato’s book “The Apology.” In this book, Plato describes how Socrates defended himself against his accusers in court. Socrates never apologizes for his teachings. Instead, he mounts a spirited defense of reason, philosophy, and the practice of questioning authority. In the end, the court finds him guilty of “corrupting the youth” by teaching them such radical doctrines, and Socrates is sentenced to death. But despite being unsuccessful in its time, this apologia has been highly influential for over two thousand years.
III. The Importance of Apologia
In a sense, every argument is an apologia – that is, every argument uses reason and logic to defend the author’s views. However, an apologia usually means a defense against some specific accusation or objection. In the case of Socrates, these are legal accusations in court; for Christian apologetics, it is the accusation that faith and reason cannot be reconciled. In both cases, the “apologists” are responding to something specific that members of their audience have to say.
When you’re writing on your own, especially in the context of school, you generally do not have to face specific allegations or objections from your audience. Indeed, most pupils are seldom given the opportunity to respond formally to your audience (the teacher) at all! However, your essays can be greatly improved if you think in terms of an apologia. That is, imagine a highly skeptical reader going through your argument. What objections might they raise? Where might they disagree with your reasoning? To make your essay as strong as possible, try to come up with such objections on your own and respond to them in the essay.
IV. Examples of Apologia in Literature
Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a philosophical mystery novel in which the Catholic Church is hiding an ancient work of philosophy from public knowledge. At the end, the villain delivers an extended speech explaining that his actions were justified – that the book had to be hidden due to its dangerous contents. Though it’s ultimately an unpersuasive argument, this is an example of a justification strategy.
In the graphic novel Watchmen, the villain delivers a lengthy speech in defense of his actions. He acknowledges that he’s killed millions, but justifies their deaths by pointing out that his plan put a stop to the Cold War and arguably saved millions more innocent lives.
V. Examples of Apologia in Pop Culture
The “Chewbacca Defense” is named after an episode of South Park, in which a character is accused of infringing on musical copyright law. The lawyer makes a confusing speech about Chewbacca, and the jury is so confused that they decide to acquit.
In March of 2015, the Indiana state legislature passed a bill that would, in effect, legalize public discrimination against homosexuals. In responding to public outcry, Governor Mike Pence delivered a denial-based apologia: he argued that the bill would actually not have the discriminatory effect that critics were pointing to. In an earlier era, Governor Pence could easily have adopted a justification strategy (i.e. “Yes, we’re discriminating against gays and lesbians – what’s wrong with that?”). However, these days being explicitly anti-gay is no longer a viable political stance, and so Governor Pence had to choose a different strategy. As of this writing, it appears that Pence’s apologia has not satisfied his critics.
VI. Related Terms
These days, it’s become pretty common for people to use the word “apologia” to refer to any apology, especially a formal or public apology. However, there’s a better, more precise term for these apologies. A mea culpa is a formal acknowledgement of wrongdoing. This, of course, is roughly the same thing as an “apology,” but it’s pretty much the opposite of an apologia. In a mea culpa, you are not justifying your actions or trying to evade responsibility; rather, you are owning up to your wrongdoing and apologizing for it.
The next time you see someone responding in public to criticism (this happens all the time in the news), see if you can tell whether they are delivering an apologia or a mea culpa.