The it. Further, even without the need to

The Era of Ancient Philosophy benefited
– but to many, was plagued – by the presence of renowned philosopher, Socrates.

Known through the accounts of his students and his contributions to the field
of ethics, Socrates’ ideologies and claims are constantly debated by scholars.

In this paper, I will dive into Plato’s Apology
of Socrates, and argue that Socrates does not claim any ethical knowledge
during his legal self-defense speech. Taking into account the differences
between human wisdom, Socratic wisdom, and knowledge that higher entities
possess, and his interpretation of the Delphic oracle, Socrates aims to distance
himself from Sophists, leading readers CF1 to
believe he never claimed any ethical knowledgeCF2 .

pursuit of learning and understanding moral properties, Socrates creates a
dichotomy between human wisdom, and knowledge only possessed
by GodsCF3 .

Human wisdom is worth little or nothing (Apology
and we mortals could never possess the mental capacity to
achieve this type of knowledgeCF4 ,
thus we are unable to drive other information from moral definitions. Socrates
claims he does not possess this sort of knowledge, but he is clearly
invigorated by the potential of acquiring it. Further, even without the need to
possess this state of intellectuality, he will not stop questioning, examining,
and assessing everything and everybody around him to maybe one day come to
understand even a semblance of this higher moral knowledge. This is further
showcased in Socrates’ notion that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology 38a),2
which hopes to highlight the fulfilling nature of challenging and examining the
moral properties and principles around us.

            For the
accusations against Socrates, none are entirely true of himself. CF5 Because
Socrates is able to distance himself from well-known Sophist teachers, his argument
is shown to be more valid that he was never paid for the wisdom he bestowed
upon Athenian youth.


Yet I think it a
fine thing to be able to teach people as Gorgias of Leontini does, and Prodicus
of Ceos, and Hippias of Elis. Each of these men can go to any city and persuade
the young, who can keep company with anyone of their own fellow citizens they
want without paying, to leave the company of these, to join with themselves,
pay them a fee, and be grateful to them besides” (Apology 19e-20a).3


Here, Socrates is pointing out
well-known Sophists, and beyond this passage goes on to explain
his limited amount of wisdom, which should not be seen in a similar light as
the kind of wisdom that Sophists can address and authoritatively discuss. CF6 “Certainly,
I would pride and preen myself if I had this knowledge, but I do not have it,
gentlemen” (Apology 20c). Further, it is easy to hear Socrates’ words and
insinuate that he is assuming knowledge based on his engagement in activities
of the highest moral value (i.e., telling the public that self-knowledge will
lead to a healthier, more fulfilled  life).

If we question if Socrates ever claims any ethical knowledge, we cannot
look into his actions, we must further investigate his speech.CF7 

admits, “I am very conscious that I am not wise at all” (Apology 21b);4
yet, according to his understanding of the Delphic oracle, humanity can only
become wise by sharing in his wisdom (Firey, 1).5 Socrates’
profession of not having any knowledge of moral principles or ideals, while
also characterizing himself as wise creates a paradox that almost purposefully
invites readers in to further examine. His admission of his limit of knowledge
is known as Socratic wisdom, which to scholars can be referred to as “Socrates’
understanding of the limits of his knowledge in that he only knows that which
he knows and makes no assumption of knowing anything more or less” (Westacott, Socratic Wisdom).6 After the Delphic oracle proclaims that no other man is wiser than
Socrates, Socrates is perplexed and unsure how to fully interpret this.


“Whatever does the god mean? What is his
riddle? I am very conscious that I am not wise at all; what then does he mean
by saying that I am the wisest? For surely he does not lie; it is not legitimate
for him to do so” (Apology 21b).7


  The Delphic oracle cannot lie, but
Socrates’ true lack of particular knowledge and wisdom sets him apart from his
male counterparts. With his constant challenges and inquiries for the Athenian
men he is surrounded by, Socrates realizes that every man around him, from all
type of professions, has a false sense of their own wisdom. “I thought
that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not”
(Apology 21c). CF8 Socrates,
on the other hand, affirmed that he would rather be as he is, knowing that he
knows nothing.


“I am wiser than
this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he
thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither
do I think I know;?so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent,
that I do not think?I know what I do not know” (Apology 21d).8


This conclusion is Socrates
acknowledging that his wisdom is deficient, and he is accepting that, making
him wiser than any other man. We can thus resolve the paradox of Socratic
wisdom as follows: human wisdom lies in realizing that we are ignorant of the
definition or moral properties, and this ignorance makes hazardous our many
important moral decisions (Firey, 2).9

disavowal of knowledge can be seen as problematic due to his choice of
rhetoric. Undoubtedly an intelligent man, Socrates has a particular way of
speaking to people, and in many instances, specific words have the ability to
have more than one meaning.


“Socrates … makes
“a dual use of his words for knowing”: “When declaring that he
knows absolutely nothing he is referring to that very strong sense in which
philosophers had used them before and would go on using them long after – where
one says one knows only where one is claiming certainty” (Vlastos, 276).10


Socrates is not certain that he has
any knowledge, for this is the basis of his argument against the men putting
him on trial. In regard to his dual use of words, we cannot make a case for or
against his claim of ethical knowledge based on the word “know.” To “know” something does not claim knowledgeCF9 ,
it can be used in the factive sense, so that one cannot know something that is
not the case.11
With that we must accept Socrates’ assertion that “from me you will hear the
whole truth” (Apology 17c).12 If
Socrates only speaks the truth then we must accept there were never any
particular claims to knowledge in his argument, and many of his inquiries were
put in place to showcase the ignorance of his accusers rather than his own

            Plato’s account of
Socrates’ defense-speech has been debated as long as the work has been in
circulation. One topic heavily discussed is whether Socrates actually claims
any ethical knowledge during his defense. Socrates’ explanations regarding what
wisdom really is and who possesses it, his interpretation of the Delphic
oracle, and expressing the differences between himself and Sophists, aids in
Socrates’ disclaim of knowledge.CF10 

Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper
and D.S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.,
1997), 22.

Plato, Complete
Works, 33.

Ibid., 20.

Plato, Complete
Works, 21.

Thomas A. Firey, Socrates’ Conception of Knowledge and the Priority of Definition,
PhD diss., Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1999, abstract
in 1.

Emrys Westacott, “Socratic Wisdom: You Only
Know What You Know,” ThoughtCo, , accessed November 01, 2017, 1.

7 Plato, Complete
Works, 21.

Plato, Complete
Works, 21.

Thomas A. Firey, Socrates’ Conception of Knowledge, 2.

Gregory Vlastos, Socrates Disavowal of Knowledge, Socratic Studies, April 1987,
accessed November 1, 2017, 276.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Plato, Complete
Works, 18.