A great deal of what we know about Socrates the man, in fact, all of what we know of him, is what is written about him by others who may or may not have heard him speak. This is because Socrates chose not to write anything down in his pursuit of wisdom (Wilke & Hurt, 2000: 942). Some of these writings, such as Plato’s Apology, provide such a degree of firsthand knowledge, though, that we can make some characterizations.
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In this document, Plato records, to what degree of accuracy is uncertain, the defense presented by Socrates himself at the trial for his life. Within the text, Socrates continually refers to himself as being the wisest man alive, based upon the words of the Oracle at Delphi, which is known to never speak falsely. Although it can be argued that Socrates acted unwisely in purposefully incurring the wrath of many of Athens’ more powerful figures, the defense he presents to the court indicates that Socrates was indeed wise beyond the understanding of normal men.
The argument that Socrates acted foolishly is based primarily upon his own foreknowledge that what he was doing was making many people angry with him. This is evidenced within the text of the Apology as Socrates begins his defense of himself against the old enemies that have spoken falsely “telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause” (Apology: 944).
He realizes most of his jurors have heard bad things about him from the time that they were young and are unlikely now to change their minds regarding his guilt. It has been argued that with this knowledge, Socrates should have done more to defend himself based upon more emotional reasons, such as bringing his family to court to plead for his life.
At the same time, it is shown through Socrates’ words that he knew he was making enemies even as he was making them. “Then I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this” (Apology: 946). His willful continuation of these actions that only added to the number of enemies he would have in the state is often pointed to as a sign of unwise behavior.
However, Socrates was indeed wise beyond the normal ability of a man in that he continued to act in a way that might threaten his life but was in the greater interest of the world’s population. After being told by the oracle that he was the wisest man alive, Socrates did not allow this distinction to go to his head and immediately begin spouting pithy sayings that proved his wisdom. Instead, he went to the streets and began questioning those individuals he had always considered wiser than himself.
In each case, he found that even among those who possessed a little wisdom tended to take that knowledge to the outer extremes and assume they knew everything there was worth knowing, without any further examination. “At last, I went to the artisans, for I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things; and here I was not mistaken, for they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this, they certainly were wiser than I was.
But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom” (Apology: 947). From his account, it becomes possible to deduce that Socrates’ definition of wisdom entails not only knowledge but also the knowledge of what one does not know. “I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer, he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing” (Apology: 947).
Within the trial itself, it has been argued that Socrates could have made a better presentation on his behalf, perhaps by calling up witnesses to account for the good he’s done for them or to appeal to the emotional nature of his jurors.
However, Socrates has wisely already calculated his chances to escape death and chooses instead to be judged by history based upon his own merits rather than attempt to win over a group of individuals who are already disposed against him. In making this decision, he allows himself to speak according to his idiom, “using the words which I have been in the habit of using in the agora, at the tables of the money-changers, or anywhere else” (Apology: 943), thereby providing himself with his strongest tools rather than limiting himself by the customary rules of court oration.
He can prove to history, if not to the jurors, that he has consistently acted in ways that he deems to be in the right, in support of the laws, and in the best interests of the people. Finally, in accepting his punishment, he can prove the depth of his convictions and continue to stand for those ideals he has purported to stand for thus far. In his calm acceptance of the death penalty, Socrates expresses a deeper concern for the welfare of men living without an example of how to properly examine whether what they know as truth is actually truthful or merely the platitudes of a dominant leadership.
Even in the earliest portions of his speech, Socrates gives hints that he considers himself above those he’s speaking to. This is indicated in his slightly sarcastic address regarding his manner of speech. He asks the jurors to forgive his coarse manner of speech, “using the same words in my defense which I have been in the habit of using, and which most of you may have heard in the agora, and at the tables of the money-changers, or anywhere else”, acting as if this were a foreign language rather than the language of a native Athenian, “I am quite a stranger to the ways of the place; and therefore I would have you regard me as if I were really a stranger, whom you would excuse if he spoke in his native tongue, and after the fashion of his country” (Plato, 1893).
Although everyone in attendance is an Athenian, Socrates indicates that he alone is capable of speaking in the “fashion of his country”, rather than those who have spoken against him. In addition, this plea for forgiveness regarding his manner of address holds another barb for those who have spoken already in that he implies his manner of speech is capable of relating the truth while the orators of the court are educated in the ways of duplicitous meanings, confusing the truth with the perspectives they wish to convey. To use the modern idiom, the orators make free use of ‘spin’ while Socrates merely seeks to speak the truth.
While Socrates might have been able to escape the death penalty had he been willing to pull some of the tricks that people before and after him pulled in order to sway court opinion, he would have had to have done so by undermining the very things he most stood for – the examination of the truth, the pursuit of wisdom and the importance of self-examination. By both accepting his own lack of wisdom in all things and by accepting that he was indeed wiser than any of the men he had met thus far, Socrates was able to illustrate the importance of eternal questioning as a means of self-definition and of discovering greater truths.
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By remaining loyal to this stance in his own defense, he not only emphasized this importance to those who came after him but also ensured his words would somehow be immortalized as the only way in which he might be able to reach future generations. In this sense, Socrates’ ability to see beyond his one moment in time to the greater effects of his teachings proves him to have been uncommonly wise.
Plato. The Apology. Taken from Wilkie, Brian & Hurt, James. Literature of the Western World, Volume 1: The Ancient World Through the Renaissance. (4th Ed.). New York: Prentice Hall. (1997).
The Dialogues of Plato: Selections from the Translation of Benjamin Jowett (New York: Liverwright Publishing Company, 1927), pp. 3-29. Third edition & copy; 1893 by Oxford University Press, American Branch. Web.
Wilkie, Brian & Hurt, James. Literature of the Western World, Volume 1: The Ancient World Through the Renaissance. (4th Ed.). New York: Prentice Hall. (1997).