What is Socratic wisdom?

* short attempt at understanding Socrates’ thoughs about wisdom in front of his own death

What is virtue? What is justice? What is wisdom? What is good? These were some of the strange questions Socrates kept asking people around the city. A role model for every human being he seemed to know both how to live and how to die. In this essay, I will explain and find a clue for the puzzle about Socrates’ wisdom. This puzzle arises when we try to understand his defense from Plato’s Apology.

The main problem that strikes us after we read Plato’s Apology is Socrates’ wisdom or ignorance. At first, we start wondering if Socrates was wise or not. On the one hand, he claims his own ignorance, on the other the Oracle portraits him as the wisest from all men. Moreover, sometimes he himself asserts that he knows something, that is in power of some knowledge. But also, from the way he builds his speech, we can easily conclude that he definitely knows more than everyone else. For example, he starts by stating that he will speak the truth (line 18a6), so he knows how to say it. Then, why does Socrates esteem his ignorance?

In order to solve this puzzle, we should understand who the first accusers were and what was Socrates blamed for. He makes a clear distinction between “his first accusers” and “his late accusers”. The first ones are pictured as more dangerous, bare of cleverness, but with great influence in the city’s life and especially in his later accusers’ thoughts: “But those who use malicious slander to persuade you, and those who, themselves persuaded, persuade others – all these are the most difficult to deal with” (line 18d2 – line 18d4). Another issue that Socrates deals with is that he does not know which their names are, so he fights “with shadows” (line 18d6). But, what is he accused for? It was said to be guilty of refusing to recognize the gods of the state, introducing new divinities and corrupting the youth.

But, at this point, we can ask ourselves if this were the genuine reasons or there is a deeper meaning under these accusations. How was Socrates acting so wrong to be demanded with the death penalty? According to his explanation, in fact, he was put on trial for his wisdom. He explains to the jurors that the Oracle of Delphi challenged him to start an entire philosophical mission around the city. Chairephon went to Delphi and asked if there is someone wiser than his friend, Socrates. The Pythia’s answer was positive: nobody is wiser than Socrates, so he is the wisest of all men. And here starts the puzzle because Socrates asserts “I am aware of being wise in any way, great or small” (21b4 – 5). After hearing the Oracle’s words, he tries to understand their meaning by investigating those people who were reputed for their wisdom: politicians, poets and craftsmen. But Socrates discovers that politicians did not know anything valuable and both poets and craftsmen are creating under some sort of divine inspiration, not because they are in possession of wisdom. Then, why is still Socrates so puzzled about the Delphic answer? A possible clue may be that Socrates is aware that he does not know anything valuable, while all those people leave under the wrong impression that they are wise.

However, we do not have a proper solution for the puzzle, until Socrates discerns between human wisdom and divine wisdom. “Gentlemen of Athens, I got this name through nothing but a kind of wisdom. What kind? The kind which is perhaps peculiarly human, for it may be I am really wise in that.” (20d5 – 20e1) But human wisdom means nothing, it is invaluable. What is valuable is the real wisdom, which belongs just to god. Human beings are not capable of absolute, so they are not capable of real wisdom either, which is absolute. As Socrates says “the god is really wise” (23a5), while “human nature is a thing of little worth, or none” (23a6), in contrast to divine nature. For this reason, I do not believe in Socrates’ irony, at least not in this passage.

Finally, we should try to find out what kind of defense is Socrates’ speech. In my view, Socrates is aware that no matter what he declares, he will be found guilty. Even if the accusations are false, they are just a pretext for Athenians to put to death someone that makes them feel totally uncomfortable.  One might enquire what was so uncomfortable about Socrates’ speech. Walking around the city, proving people that they are not as wise as they think (in fact, they are not wise at all), so making them feel inferior, lowing their standards about themselves, showing them who they really are, are enough reasons for someone to arise the antipathy of people from a whole continent, not just from an ancient city as Athena. From the way he built his speech, he seems more than aware of this issue. The jurors do not want to hear the truth; they want to be flattered, to hear from Socrates – the wisest man, according to the Oracle – that they are wise. But this type of defense will be against Socrates’ complex of moral and philosophical values. That is why, his strongest argument is that he is “a gift from the god” (30d7) and he has acted as the god’s servant in his philosophical mission. So, we can deduce that Socrates’ defense is a defense in name of the truth because truth is more valuable for him than his own life.

In conclusion, the puzzle from Plato’s Apology finds its solution in the distinction between human wisdom and divine wisdom. Even though at first we can be surprised by Socrates’ contradictions in speech, at a closer loser, we can understand the deeper meaning of what we perceived as contradictions.

About Madalina G.

I value truth and beauty. I love philosophy, literature, good films and old art. I am preoccupied with injustice and inequality in society. More than anything, I love writing, so this blog is my way of putting all my passions together, piece by piece. View all posts by Madalina G.

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