No one is Wiser than Socrates

Chaerephon. The Oracle at Delphi

Socrates explains that his reputation for wisdom started with his friend Chaerephon.

Chaerephon asks the God about Socrates

Delphi was the home of the Temple of Apollo. The Pythia is the name of the priestess who serves as oracle.

"For when I heard this [that no one is wiser than me], I thought to myself: 'What in the world does the god mean, and what riddle is he propounding? For I am conscious that I am not wise either much or little. What then does he mean by declaring that I am the wisest? He certainly cannot be lying, for that is not possible for him.' And for a long time I was at a loss as to what he meant; then with great reluctance I proceeded to investigate (ζήτησιν) him somewhat as follows. I went to one of those who had a reputation for wisdom, thinking that there, if anywhere, I should prove the utterance wrong and should show the oracle 'This man is wiser than I, but you said I was wisest.' So examining this man—for I need not call him by name, but it was one of the public men with regard to whom I had this kind of experience, men of Athens—and conversing with him, this man seemed to me to seem to be wise to many other people and especially to himself, but not to be so" (Apology 21b).
"For of my wisdom—if it is wisdom at all—and of its nature, I will offer you the god of Delphi as a witness. You know Chaerephon, I fancy. He was my comrade from a youth and the comrade of your democratic party, and shared in the recent exile and came back with you. And you know the kind of man Chaerephon was, how impetuous in whatever he undertook. Well, once he went to Delphi and made so bold as to ask the oracle ... if there were anyone wiser than I. Now the Pythia replied that there was no one wiser" (Apology 20e).

To investigate the god and the assertion that no one was wiser, Socrates explains that he went in search of someone with the knowledge necessary to live a good life. Because Socrates himself thought that he lacked this knowledge, he needed a way to determine whether his interlocutors had it. His method was to question his interlocutors and to use their answers as premises in argument for a conclusion they themselves thought was contrary to a prior answer. If his interlocutors were refuted in this way, as they apparently always were, Socrates concluded that they did not have this knowledge and thus that they did not disprove the oracle.

"From this investigation [of what the Pythia said], many enmities have arisen against me, and such as are most harsh and grievous, so that many prejudices have resulted from them and I am called a wise man. For on each occasion those who are present think I am wise in the matters in which I refute (ἐξελέγξω) someone else [who claims to be wise]" (Apology 22e).

Socrates Continues in Service to the God

Although Socrates found that no one survived his questioning, "I am still even now going about and searching and investigating at the god's behest anyone, whether citizen or foreigner, who I think is wise (σοφός); and when he does not seem so to me, I give aid to the god and show that he is not wise. And by reason of this occupation I have no leisure to attend to any of the affairs of the state worth mentioning, or of my own, but am in vast poverty on account of my service to the god" (Apology 23b). he continued to investigate because he thinks he serves the god by proving that his interlocutors are not wise. These proofs show that the god is not wrong in saying that no one is wiser than Socrates.
"For if you put me to death, you will not easily find another, who, to use a rather absurd figure, attaches himself to the city as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well bred, is sluggish on account of his size and needs to be aroused by stinging. I think the god fastened me upon the city in some such capacity, and I go about arousing, and urging and reproaching each one of you, constantly alighting upon you everywhere the whole day long. Such another is not likely to come to you, gentlemen; but if you take my advice, you will spare me. But you, perhaps, might be angry, like people awakened from a nap, and might slap me, as Anytus advises, and easily kill me; then you would pass the rest of your lives in slumber, unless the god, in his care for you, should send someone else to sting you. And that I am, as I say, a kind of gift from the god, you might understand from this; for I have neglected all my own affairs and have been enduring the neglect of my concerns all these years, but I am always busy in your interest, coming to each one of you individually like a father or an elder brother and urging you to care for virtue (ἀρετῆς)..." (Apology 30e).

Socrates proposed his alternative penalty in the second phase his trial. The accusers and the accused give their arguments and counterarguments in the first phase. The jurors make their decision after the arguments. If the vote is guilty, the trail moves to the second phase to determine punishment. The vote was guilty, 280 to 220. Now the accusers and accused propose punishments, and the jury chooses the one they think is most appropriate. The accusers proposed death. Socrates proposed a small fine, secured by Plato and others in his circle who were present in the courtroom (Apology 38b). The jury found the punishment the accusers proposed more appropriate. They voted for death, 360 to 140.

Socrates, however, does more than just question his fellow Athenians in his service to the god. He exhorts them to care about "wisdom and truth and the soul in such a manner that it is best" Further, he castigates them if they say do care but questioning refutes them, as it always does. Finally, in the penalty phase of the trial, he proposes that the Athenians support him because unlike the Olympic victors and others the city supports, he makes them "happy" (εὐδαίμων).

"What shall I propose as an alternative [to the penality of death]? Clearly that which I deserve, shall I not? And what do I deserve to suffer or to pay, because in my life I did not keep quiet, but ... tried to persuade each of you to care for himself so that he is perfect in goodness and wisdom rather than for any of his belongings.... What, then, does such a man as I deserve? Some good thing, men of Athens, if I must propose something truly in accordance with my deserts; and the good thing should be something that is fitting for me. Now what is fitting for a poor man who is your benefactor, and who needs leisure to exhort you? There is nothing, men of Athens, so fitting as that such a man be given his meals in the prytaneum. That is much more appropriate for me than for any of you who has won a race at the Olympic games with a pair of horses or a four-in-hand. For he makes you seem to be happy, whereas I make you happy in reality; and he is not at all in need of sustenance, but I am needy" (Apology 36b).

Happiness and the Love of Wisdom

Socrates does not explain how his questioning results in "happiness," other than to suggest that his questioning has the blessing of the god, but given that he has found that no one survives his questioning, he might think the traditional Athenian education does not teach wisdom and that his his questioning does because it helps his interlocutors eliminate the confusion that prevents them from surviving his questioning and that stands in the way of wisdom.

If, alternatively, Socrates thinks wisdom is impossible to acquire, either through the traditional education or the "love of wisdom" (φιλοσοφία), then his questioning does nothing more than wake the Athenians to the need for something they can never possess. In this case, it is hard to see how Socrates is a "gift from the god" and is acting in the interest of the Athenians.

It seems, then, as Plato represents him, that Socrates thought that the one and only way to become wise, and thus to be "happy," is to engage in the questioning in the love of wisdom.

The problem, then, which Plato takes on, is to understand whether Socrates is correct.

Perseus Digital Library:
Plato's, Apology

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
δαίμων, daimōn, noun, "god, divine, what the gods or divine ordain"
εὐδαίμων, eudaimōn, adjective, "blessed with a good δαίμων," hence "fortunate, happy"
κακοδαίμων, adjective, "possessed by a bad δαίμων," hence "ill-stared, unfortunate, miserable"

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