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 fieldof ethics, Socrates’ ideologies and claims are constantly debated by scholars.In this paper, I will dive into Plato’s Apologyof Socrates, and argue that Socrates does not claim any ethical knowledgeduring his legal self-defense speech.
Taking into account the differencesbetween human wisdom, Socratic wisdom, and knowledge that higher entitiespossess, and his interpretation of the Delphic oracle, Socrates aims to distancehimself from Sophists, leading readers CF1 tobelieve he never claimed any ethical knowledgeCF2 . Inpursuit of learning and understanding moral properties, Socrates creates adichotomy between human wisdom, and knowledge only possessedby GodsCF3 .Human wisdom is worth little or nothing (Apology23b),1and we mortals could never possess the mental capacity toachieve this type of knowledgeCF4 ,thus we are unable to drive other information from moral definitions. Socratesclaims he does not possess this sort of knowledge, but he is clearlyinvigorated by the potential of acquiring it.
Further, even without the need topossess this state of intellectuality, he will not stop questioning, examining,and assessing everything and everybody around him to maybe one day come tounderstand even a semblance of this higher moral knowledge. This is furthershowcased in Socrates’ notion that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology 38a),2which hopes to highlight the fulfilling nature of challenging and examining themoral properties and principles around us. For theaccusations against Socrates, none are entirely true of himself. CF5 BecauseSocrates is able to distance himself from well-known Sophist teachers, his argumentis shown to be more valid that he was never paid for the wisdom he bestowedupon Athenian youth. Yet I think it afine thing to be able to teach people as Gorgias of Leontini does, and Prodicusof Ceos, and Hippias of Elis. Each of these men can go to any city and persuadethe young, who can keep company with anyone of their own fellow citizens theywant 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 outwell-known Sophists, and beyond this passage goes on to explainhis limited amount of wisdom, which should not be seen in a similar light asthe 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 andinsinuate that he is assuming knowledge based on his engagement in activitiesof the highest moral value (i.e., telling the public that self-knowledge willlead to a healthier, more fulfilled life).If we question if Socrates ever claims any ethical knowledge, we cannotlook into his actions, we must further investigate his speech.CF7 Socratesadmits, “I am very conscious that I am not wise at all” (Apology 21b);4yet, according to his understanding of the Delphic oracle, humanity can onlybecome wise by sharing in his wisdom (Firey, 1).5 Socrates’profession of not having any knowledge of moral principles or ideals, whilealso characterizing himself as wise creates a paradox that almost purposefullyinvites readers in to further examine.
His admission of his limit of knowledgeis 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 whichhe 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 thanSocrates, Socrates is perplexed and unsure how to fully interpret this. “Whatever does the god mean? What is hisriddle? I am very conscious that I am not wise at all; what then does he meanby saying that I am the wisest? For surely he does not lie; it is not legitimatefor him to do so” (Apology 21b).7 The Delphic oracle cannot lie, butSocrates’ true lack of particular knowledge and wisdom sets him apart from hismale counterparts. With his constant challenges and inquiries for the Athenianmen he is surrounded by, Socrates realizes that every man around him, from alltype of professions, has a false sense of their own wisdom. “I thoughtthat 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 heknows nothing. “I am wiser thanthis man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but hethinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neitherdo 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 Socratesacknowledging that his wisdom is deficient, and he is accepting that, makinghim wiser than any other man. We can thus resolve the paradox of Socraticwisdom as follows: human wisdom lies in realizing that we are ignorant of thedefinition or moral properties, and this ignorance makes hazardous our manyimportant moral decisions (Firey, 2).9 Socrates’disavowal of knowledge can be seen as problematic due to his choice ofrhetoric. Undoubtedly an intelligent man, Socrates has a particular way ofspeaking to people, and in many instances, specific words have the ability tohave more than one meaning. “Socrates … makes”a dual use of his words for knowing”: “When declaring that heknows absolutely nothing he is referring to that very strong sense in whichphilosophers had used them before and would go on using them long after – whereone says one knows only where one is claiming certainty” (Vlastos, 276).
10 Socrates is not certain that he hasany knowledge, for this is the basis of his argument against the men puttinghim on trial. In regard to his dual use of words, we cannot make a case for oragainst 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 isnot the case.
11With that we must accept Socrates’ assertion that “from me you will hear thewhole truth” (Apology 17c).12 IfSocrates only speaks the truth then we must accept there were never anyparticular claims to knowledge in his argument, and many of his inquiries wereput in place to showcase the ignorance of his accusers rather than his ownexpertise. Plato’s account ofSocrates’ defense-speech has been debated as long as the work has been incirculation.
One topic heavily discussed is whether Socrates actually claimsany ethical knowledge during his defense. Socrates’ explanations regarding whatwisdom really is and who possesses it, his interpretation of the Delphicoracle, and expressing the differences between himself and Sophists, aids inSocrates’ disclaim of knowledge.CF10 1Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooperand D.S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
,1997), 22.2Plato, CompleteWorks, 33.3Ibid., 20. 4Plato, CompleteWorks, 21.5Thomas A. Firey, Socrates’ Conception of Knowledge and the Priority of Definition,PhD diss.
, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1999, abstractin 1.6Emrys Westacott, “Socratic Wisdom: You OnlyKnow What You Know,” ThoughtCo, , accessed November 01, 2017, 1.7 Plato, CompleteWorks, 21.8Plato, CompleteWorks, 21.9Thomas A. Firey, Socrates’ Conception of Knowledge, 2.10Gregory Vlastos, Socrates Disavowal of Knowledge, Socratic Studies, April 1987,accessed November 1, 2017, 276.11Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy12Plato, CompleteWorks, 18.