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One of the reasons why Plato’s ‘Apology’ is being commonly referred to as such that represents a high discursive value is that in it, Plato succeed in outlining the method of a dialectical inquiry, originated by Socrates. This method is being concerned with cross-examining argumentative claims for the purpose of defining the extent of their logical legitimacy (Barrett, 2001). In this paper, I will aim to show how Socrates deployed the earlier mentioned method, while ensuring the soundness of his legal line of defense. I will also aim to explore the validity of a suggestion that, while pointing out that no one is wiser than Socrates, the Oracle of Delphi meant to say that people are being just as ignorant as the philosopher in question.
The reason why Socrates ended up facing the court at Athenes is that he was accused of doubting the divine powers of the city’s gods – hence, corrupting the youth of this Greek city-polis. In other words, this accusation rested upon the assumption that Socrates considered himself an utterly wise individual, which in turn caused him to embrace a rather arrogant attitude towards the very notion of divinity (Howland, 2008). While addressing this particular claim, on the part of his accusers, Socrates pointed out to the fact that the Oracle of Delphi has indeed confirmed his presumed wisdom, “Chaerephon… asked if there were anyone wiser than I. Now the Pythia (Oracle) replied that there was no one wiser” (21a). Being a humble individual, Socrates could not quite agree with the Oracle. Therefore, in order to be able to substantiate his disagreement with the Oracle, in this respect, Socrates decided to prove that he could not possibly be considered the wisest man of all. In its turn, this had set him on the quest of finding individuals that he could expose being much more wiser than himself.
However, the more Socrates was socializing with the presumed wise men, the more it was becoming clear to him that they were not wise, at all. This is because the Socrate’s close examination of people, commonly believed to be wise, revealed them as such that were taking pride in being regarded ‘all-knowing’. Given the fact that the notions of wisdom and vanity are incompatible, it does not come as a particular surprise that Socrates eventually came to a conclusion that being famed for ‘wiseness’ and being a wise man de facto, are two different things. In fact, Socrates realized that the extent of one’s actual wisdom correlates with his or her fame for being ‘wise’ in a counter-geometrical progression, “Those who had the most reputation seemed to me to be almost the most deficient… and others who were of less repute seemed to be superior men” (22a). Then, Socrates considered the possibility of finding wisdom among poets, as the individuals known for their ability to reflect upon the essence of the surrounding reality in a particularly insightful manner.
They, however, turned out being just as arrogant as the self-proclaimed ‘wise philosophers’, with whom Socrates conversed earlier, “There was hardly a man present (among poets), one might say, who would not speak better than they about the poems they themselves had composed” (22b). In its turn, this prompted Socrates to consider the possibility that the true wisdom should be sought among socially non-prominent peasants and manual laborers, as those who had no objective reasons to be endowed with the sense of vanity, in the first place. Nevertheless, it did not take Socrates to experience an utter frustration, in this respect, as well. This is because, even though that many of these people did prove themselves thoroughly knowledgeable in their professional fields, they wrongly thought that this was entitling them with the right to land their opinions, regarding the subject matters that remained well beyond the sphere of their competence.
As Socrates noted, “The good artisans also seemed to me to have the same failing as the poets; because of practicing his art well, each one thought he was very wise in the other most important matters” (22d). After having realized that there were indeed no thoroughly wise people, in the conventional sense of this word, Socrates came to a conclusion that, in order for just about anyone to be considered wise de facto, he or she may never cease stressing out its ignorance. Given the fact that, even before being brought to the court, Socrates continued to act in an intellectually honest and yet humble manner, while never skipping an opportunity to admit its lack of knowledge of how the universe actually works, it dawned upon this Greek philosopher that the Oracle’s words did in fact make a perfectly good sense.
Apparently, it was specifically Socrates’s willingness to acknowledge that, under no circumstances he could be deemed wise, which established objective preconditions for him to be considered as such – whatever ironic it may sound. Hence, Socrates’s interpretation of Oracle’s suggestion, “The fact is, gentlemen, it is likely that the god is really wise and by his oracle means this: ‘Human wisdom is of little or no value’” (23a). While pointing out that no one is wiser than Socrates, the Oracle wanted to say that, regardless of what happened to be the essence of people’s opinion of themselves, they are being equally ignorant in their judgements about the surrounding reality.
Therefore, contrary to what Socrates’s accusers were implying, there can be no rationale in believing that wise men are predetermined to strive to oppose gods. Quite on the contrary – because, as Socrates illustrated, the notion of wisdom is being synonymous with the notion of humbleness, wise individuals cannot be actively striving to deny the gods, by definition.
In the light of what account for the realities of a post-industrial living, Socrates’s view on wisdom may appear somewhat inconsistent. After all, these realities are being concerned with the process of scientists continuing to reveal the conceptual fallaciousness of the very notion of ‘divinity’, especially in regards to religion-based assumption that there must be a metaphysical purpose to people’s existence. As Dawkins (1976) noted, “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” (p. 2). This, however, is far from being the case, because the same realities suggest the discursive legitimacy of how Socrates went about substantiating his vision of wisdom.
As it was mentioned earlier, Socrates believed that one’s existential humbleness can be well considered an indication of the concerned individual’s wisdom. Yet, contrary to what many people believe, the notion of humbleness does not necessarily presuppose one’s endowment with fatalistic attitudes towards life. In order to be defined a humble (wise) individual, one must be willing to consider the possibility that his or her worldviews may not be thoroughly objective. What it means is that the humble (wise) people’s foremost psychological characteristic is their percepual open-mindedness and intellectual flexibility. And, it is specifically on the account of open-minded and intellectually flexible people, that the continuation of cultural and technological progress is possible.
The validity of Socrates’s line of reasoning, in regards to what can be considered the indication of one’s wisdom, can also be explored within the context of what causes the system of education in Western countries to grow progressively inefficient. After all, it does not represent much of a secret that, in these countries, the majority of most successful graduates from schools, colleges and universities, consist of individuals, commonly referred to as ‘nerds’ (Bishop et al., 2003). Even though that the term ‘nerd’ has long ago been deemed politically incorrect, it nevertheless remains conceptually sound. Essentially, this term implies the concerned individual’s inability to effectively address life’s basic challenges – despite the fact that he or she possess an extensive knowledge in the narrow field of its professional competence. As the realities of today’s living indicate, it now represents a commonplace practice to refer to these people as being utterly wise – not the least because many of them wear glasses. Yet, if assessed through the lenses of Socratic dialectics, this practice appears thoroughly unsubstantiated. This because one’s possession of an abstract knowledge should never be fetishized to an extent of representing a ‘thing in itself’.
What also makes the Socrates’s view on wisdom relevant, within the context of what appear to be the implications of currently predominant socio-political discourses, is the fact that it suggests that truly wise decisions must necessarily be simple. After all, simplicity has been traditionally regarded as an epitome of truthfulness. This is exactly the reason why Socrates began his defense-speech by making it clear to the audience that, while arguing his case, he would refrain from indulging in sophisticate rhetorics, “I urgently beg and beseech you if you hear me making my defense with the same (simple) words with which I have been accustomed to speak both in the market place at the bankers tables” (17c).
Unfortunately, even today many people do not quite realize that simplicity is the foremost key to ensuring the soundness of a particular line of argumentation, which is why they tend associate the sophistically sounding but essentially meaningless rhetorics with ‘wisdom’ (Lai, 1998). If it was not the case, there would not be now the hordes of ‘social scientists’ and ‘experts’ in ‘public relations’ in Western countries, whose professional careers solely depend on their ability to come up with pretentiously sophisticate but utterly unintelligible speeches. It is needless to mention, of course, that this situation can hardly be considered thoroughly appropriate.
I believe that the earlier provided line of argumentation, in regards to what should be considered the actual meaning of the Oracle’s suggestion, and also in regards to what accounts for the Socrate speech’s discursive relevance, is being fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, even though that this speech has failed in preventing Socrates from being sentenced to death, it nevertheless succeeded marvelously in providing the representatives of next generations with an in-depth insight, as to what the notion of wisdom actually stands for.
Barrett, J. (2001). Plato’s ‘Apology’: Philosophy, rhetoric, and the world of myth. The Classical World, 95 (1), 3-30.
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Bishop, J. et al. (2003). Nerds and freaks: A theory of student culture and norms. Brookings Papers on Education Policy, 6 (2), 141-213.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Howland, J. (2008). Plato’s ‘Apology’ as tragedy. The Review of Politics, 70 (4), 519-546.
Lai, M. (1998). The intellectual’s deaf-mute, or (how) can we speak beyond postcoloniality? Cultural Critique, 9, 31-58.
Plato. (1966). Plato in twelve volumes, vol. 1. Translated by H. North Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd.