No One the Wiser


Pvasiliadis: Wall painting at a house depicting Socrates, 1st–5th century CE, Museum of Ephesus, Efes, Turkey

From the Boston Review:

What is it about Socrates that made him into a symbol for the whole institution of philosophy? Consider the fact that, when the Oracle at Delphi proclaims Socrates wisest of men, he tries to prove it wrong. As Plato recounts it in the Apology:

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.”

If Socrates’s trademark claim is this protestation of ignorance, his trademark activity is the one also described in this passage: refuting the views of others. These are the conversations we find in Plato’s texts. How are the claim and the activity related? Socrates denies that his motivations are altruistic: he says he is not a teacher, and insists that he is himself the primary beneficiary of the conversations he initiates. This adds to the mystery: What is Socrates getting out of showing people that they don’t know what they take themselves to know? What’s his angle?

Over and over again, Socrates approaches people who are remarkable for their lack of humility—which is to say, for the fact that they feel confident in their own knowledge of what is just, or pious, or brave, or moderate. You might have supposed that Socrates, whose claim to fame is his awareness of his own ignorance, would treat these self-proclaimed “wise men” (Sophists) with contempt, hostility, or indifference. But he doesn’t. The most remarkable feature of Socrates’s approach is his punctilious politeness and sincere enthusiasm. The conversation usually begins with Socrates asking his interlocutor: Since you think you know, can you tell me, what is courage (or wisdom, or piety, or justice . . .)? Over and over again, it turns out that they think they can answer, but they can’t. Socrates’s hope springs eternal: even as he walks toward the courtroom to be tried—and eventually put to death—for his philosophical activity, he is delighted to encounter the self-important priest Euthyphro, who will, surely, be able to say what piety is. (Spoiler: he’s not.)

“Against Persuasion”, Agnes Callard, Boston Review

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