In Plato’s Apology, Socrates upholds that true wisdom involves acknowledging one’s own ignorance. Although his detractors have brought him to court because they believe he’s using his aptitude for critical inquiry to destabilize the city’s conventional structures of belief, he argues that “the god at Delphi” has shown him that “human wisdom is worthless,” a message he is now trying to spread throughout the community. Unfortunately, though, when Socrates tries to impress this upon his fellow Athenians, they think he’s advocating for a completely different set of beliefs. In reality, he’s trying to help them better understand the things they already believe in, but this is lost on them because they assume that any new perspective poses a threat to their strongly held religious and moral worldviews. As such, Socrates demonstrates how reluctant people are to embrace new ways of thinking, especially when those new ways of thinking require humility, intellectual inquiry, and genuine self-reflection.
Not long after beginning his apologia (or defense), Socrates says that powerful men like Meletus think he has used his philosopher’s knowledge to spread confusion. This, Socrates assures the jury, is not true, as he claims to “know nothing at all” about anything that might challenge the conventional systems of belief that prevail throughout Athens. Playing devil’s advocate to himself, he continues by saying, “One of you might perhaps interrupt me and say: ‘But Socrates, what is your occupation? From where have these slanders come? For surely if you did not busy yourself with something out of the common, all these rumors and talk would not have arisen unless you did something other than most people.’” This is an important moment, as Socrates highlights the fact that his accusers are concerned about whether or not he has done “something other than most people.” Simply put, people like Meletus are troubled by the mere idea that a person might act as an individual thinker. As such, they are wary of the fact that Socrates is a philosopher, since this means his job is to question the ways in which people perceive the world.
In a cunning rhetorical move, Socrates acknowledges that his worldview is indeed “out of the common,” but he does this as a way of refuting the idea that he holds alternative religious beliefs (an important point, since one of the accusations against him is that he’s impious). Indeed, he tells the jury that “the god at Delphi” told his friend, Chaerephon, that no man is wiser than him (Socrates). Wanting to “investigate” this claim, Socrates visited a man he knew to be much wiser than himself, but after listening to him speak, was startled to find that this man wasn’t actually very knowledgeable at all. “I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not,” Socrates explains to the jury. “I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not. As a result he came to dislike me, and so did many of the bystanders. So I withdrew and thought to myself: ‘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 […] I do not think I know what I do not know.” Socrates’s willingness to embrace his own ignorance is precisely what makes him the wisest man in Athens. Ironically, though, this self-reflexivity actually does render his worldview “out of the common,” as it encourages him to go through the city and prove to the supposedly wisest men that they are not, in fact, very wise. In turn, it’s easy to see why his accusers have interpreted his contrarian spirit as a challenge to the community’s structures of belief.
Because Socrates sets out to show his fellow Athenians their own ignorance, they assume he is challenging their firmly established beliefs, when in reality he is only challenging their vanity. Indeed, he believes there is value in recognizing one’s own ignorance. “What is probable, gentlemen,” he says to the jury, “is that in fact the god is wise and that his oracular response meant that human wisdom is worth little or nothing.” Rather than trying to convince his fellow citizens to embrace entirely new worldviews, he simply encourages them to admit the fact that “human wisdom” is by nature faulty and flawed. It’s worth noting that this is in fact a very pious opinion, since Socrates is saying that only gods can possesses a valuable kind of wisdom. “So even now I continue this investigation as the god bade me,” he continues, “and I go around seeking out anyone, citizen or stranger, whom I think wise. Then if I do not think he is, I come to the assistance of the god and show him that he is not wise.” By outlining the fact that he wants to “assist” the Delphic god, Socrates upholds that his views—which his accusers find challenging and, thus, impious—are actually quite religious.
Far from disputing the structures of belief upon which Athenians place so much importance, then, Socrates’s seemingly critical viewpoints are fueled by a desire to piously carry out a religious mission that would, if embraced city-wide, only bring Athenians closer to the kind of intellectual and religious enlightenment they claim to believe in so ardently. Unfortunately, the jury proves itself incapable of embracing Socrates’s ideas, thereby proving that humans are often too set in their ways to accept new perspectives—even when those perspectives ultimately seek to reinforce their own beliefs.
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Wisdom, Piety, and Belief Quotes in Apology
This is my first appearance in a lawcourt, at the age of seventy; I am therefore simply a stranger to the manner of speaking here. Just as if I were really a stranger, you would certainly excuse me if I spoke in that dialect and manner in which I had been brought up, so too my present request seems a just one, for you to pay no attention to my manner of speech—be it better or worse—but to concentrate your attention on whether what I say is just or not, for the excellence of a judge lies in this, as that of a speaker lies in telling the truth.
What is the accusation from which arose the slander in which Meletus trusted when he wrote out the charge against me? What did they say when they slandered me? I must, as if they were my actual prosecutors, read the affidavit they would have sworn. It goes something like this: Socrates is guilty of wrongdoing in that he busies himself studying things in the sky and below the earth; he makes the worse into the stronger argument, and he teaches these same things to others. You have seen this yourself in the comedy of Aristophanes, a Socrates swinging about there, saying he was walking on air and talking a lot of other nonsense about things of which I know nothing at all.
One of you might perhaps interrupt me and say: “But Socrates, what is your occupation? From where have these slanders come? For surely if you did not busy yourself with something out of the common, all these rumors and talk would not have arisen unless you did something other than most people. Tell us what it is, that we may not speak inadvisedly about you.” Anyone who says that seems to be right, and I will try to show you what has caused this reputation and slander. Listen then. Perhaps some of you will think I am jesting, but be sure that all that I shall say is true. What has caused my reputation is none other than a certain kind of wisdom. What kind of wisdom? Human wisdom, perhaps.
I went to one of those reputed wise, thinking that there, if anywhere, I could refute the oracle and say to it: “This man is wiser than I, but you said I was.” Then, when I examined this man—there is no need for me to tell you his name, he was one of our public men—my experience was something like this: I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not. I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not. As a result he came to dislike me, and so did many of the bystanders. So I withdrew and thought to myself: “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.” After this I approached another man, one of those thought to be wiser than he, and I thought the same thing, and so I came to be disliked both by him and by many others.
Finally I went to the craftsmen, for I was conscious of knowing practically nothing, and I knew that I would find that they had knowledge of many fine things. In this I was not mistaken; they knew things I did not know, and to that extent they were wiser than I. But, men of Athens, the good craftsmen seemed to me to have the same fault as the poets: each of them, because of his success at his craft, thought himself very wise in other most important pursuits, and this error of theirs overshadowed the wisdom they had, so that I asked myself, on behalf of the oracle, whether I should prefer to be as I am, with neither their wisdom nor their ignorance, or to have both. The answer I gave myself and the oracle was that it was to my advantage to be as I am.
As a result of this investigation, men of Athens, I acquired much unpopularity, of a kind that is hard to deal with and is a heavy burden; many slanders came from these people and a reputation for wisdom, for in each case the bystanders thought that I myself possessed the wisdom that I proved that my interlocutor did not have. What is probable, gentlemen, is that in fact the god is wise and that his oracular response meant that human wisdom is worth little or nothing, and that when he says this man, Socrates, he is using my name as an example, as if he said: “This man among you, mortals, is wisest who, like Socrates, understands that his wisdom is worthless.” So even now I continue this investigation as the god bade me—and I go around seeking out anyone, citizen or stranger, whom I think wise. Then if I do not think he is, I come to the assistance of the god and show him that he is not wise.
Either I do not corrupt the young or, if I do, it is unwillingly, and you are lying in either case. Now if I corrupt them unwillingly, the law does not require you to bring people to court for such unwilling wrong doings, but to get hold of them privately, to instruct them and exhort them; for clearly, if I learn better, I shall cease to do what I am doing unwillingly. You, however, have avoided my company and were unwilling to instruct me, but you bring me here, where the law requires one to bring those who are in need of punishment, not of instruction.
Does any man, Meletus, believe in human activities who does not believe in humans? […] Does any man who does not believe in horses believe in horsemen’s activities? Or in flute-playing activities but not in flute-players? No, my good sir, no man could. If you are not willing to answer, I will tell you and these men. Answer the next question, however. Does any man believe in spiritual activities who does not believe in spirits? — No one.
Thank you for answering, if reluctantly, when these gentlemen made you. Now you say that I believe in spiritual things and teach about them, whether new or old, but at any rate spiritual things according to what you say, and to this you have sworn in your deposition. But if I believe in spiritual things I must quite inevitably believe in spirits. Is that not so? It is indeed. I shall assume that you agree, as you do not answer. Do we not believe spirits to be either gods or the children of gods? Yes or no? — Of course.
Then since I do believe in spirits, as you admit, if spirits are gods, this is what I mean when I say you speak in riddles and in jest, as you state that I do not believe in gods and then again that I do, since I do believe in spirits.
To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils. And surely it is the most blameworthy ignorance to believe that one knows what one does not know. It is perhaps on this point and in this respect, gentlemen, that I differ from the majority of men, and if I were to claim that I am wiser than anyone in anything, it would be in this, that, as I have no adequate knowledge of things in the underworld, so I do not think I have. I do know, however, that it is wicked and shameful to do wrong, to disobey one’s superior, be he god or man. I shall never fear or avoid things of which I do not know, whether they may not be good rather than things that I know to be bad.
[…] if you said to me in this regard: “Socrates, we do not believe Anytus now; we acquit you, but only on condition that you spend no more time on this investigation and do not practice philosophy, and if you are caught doing so you will die”; if, as I say, you were to acquit me on those terms, I would say to you: “Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy […].”
Indeed, men of Athens, I am far from making a defense now on my own behalf, as might be thought, but on yours, to prevent you from wrongdoing by mistreating the god’s gift to you by condemning me; for if you kill me you will not easily find another like me. I was attached to this city by the god—though it seems a ridiculous thing to say—as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly. It is to fulfill some such function that I believe the god has placed me in the city. I never cease to rouse each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long and everywhere I find myself in your company.
I was convicted because I lacked not words but boldness and shamelessness and the willingness to say to you what you would most gladly have heard from me, lamentations and tears and my saying and doing many things that I say are unworthy of me but that you are accustomed to hear from others. I did not think then that the danger I ran should make me do anything mean, nor do I now regret the nature of my defense. I would much rather die after this kind of defense than live after making the other kind.
It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death. Slow and elderly as I am, I have been caught by the slower pursuer, whereas my accusers, being clever and sharp, have been caught by the quicker, wickedness. I leave you now, condemned to death by you, but they are condemned by truth to wickedness and injustice. So I maintain my assessment, and they maintain theirs.