For someone who is apologizing, the defendant seems a bit defensive.

Plato’s Apology of Socrates, otherwise known as ‘Oh I’m sorry all right, sorry for you losers‘, tells the story of Socrates’ trial, the intellectual life that would eventually lead his fellow citizens to condemn him to death. By the way, ‘apology’ comes from the Greek word Apologia, which means a speech in one’s defense. So, if Socrates seems a little, well, defensive, that’s because he is.  

One of the key points of the Apology is an ideal of wisdom as recognizing one’s own ignorance. This may seem like a rather boring cliché. And indeed, it would not be that surprising if Socrates, probably the most recognizable figure in the western tradition, had turned into a cliché by now. After all, as a culture, we have had two thousand years to digest his message. 

I’m going to politely suggest that we are still suffering from a form of philosophical indigestion, and that Socrates’ message causes intellectual bowel dysfunction until this very day. 

A Pithy Prophecy 

For some unknown reason, the painter seems to have depicted the Pythia as trying carefully to understand the will of the gods instead of as dancing in a seductive manner for this guy.

Many doomed courses of action in the ancient world had their origins in a consultation with the Pythia, and Socrates’ was no exception. The Pythia was not so much a person, as a job title given to the priestesses at Apollo’s shrine responsible for delivering the prophecies of the god.

Appropriately for such a station, there is quite the mythology around the position: the Pythia is said to have entered a trans-like state because of fumes rising from a vent in the floor; she is said to have delivered her prophecies in ex-temporized verse; and she is said to have spoken in liability-evading ambiguities. The movie 300, for instance, depicts her as an erotic dancer whose words (and body) are used by priests with terrible skin conditions for their own purposes. How much truth is there to these myths? 

As for the first two issues: when her prophecy chamber was uncovered by archaeologists in the nineteenth century, they were bitterly disappointed to find no vents present, and the idea of an intoxicated Pythia fell out of fashion for a while. Geological research later indicated that the shrine sat on a fault line from which rose ethylene gas, an effective anaesthetic. This one remains unresolved, but as Hugh Bowden points out, it probably does not matter: the belief that one is speaking on behalf of a god is probably strong enough to induce a trance without the gas. The Pythia’s prophecies were recorded in verse, but these were most likely composed later by professional poets working at the shrine of Apollo. The Pythia herself probably spoke in prose.  

Concerning the ambiguity of the messages: the Pythia did occasionally give ambiguous prophecies. Perhaps the most famous is the one she gave to Croesus, when he was considering going to war with Persia: “cross the river”, she prophesized, “and a great empire will fall.” In the event, the empire was Croesus’. However, most of the Pythia’s prophecies unambiguously speak in favour of one course of action over another. And when Croesus did what any self-respecting middle-aged man would do, and wrote a letter of complaint, the Pythia chided him for not seeking clarification of an ambiguous prophecy. The Pythia’s advice was clear enough that she was sometimes bribed to give specific advice to particular people. 

The prophecy she gave to Socrates’ friend Chaerophon, if it is authentic (which is possible), does have a playful element of ambiguity. For Chareophon asked her if there was any person in Athens wiser than Socrates, and the Pythia answered that there was not. 

A Questionable Course of Action 

Just like Socrates, this guy never said he was wise.

Socrates was rather surprised by this prophecy, and so, true to form as a philosopher, he set out to refute it. He went around Athens asking questions of all the people who had a reputation for wisdom, to see whether this reputation was deserved.  

One wonders whether any of his friends took him off to one side to gently remonstrate with him about the lack of wisdom in this course of action. I suppose Socrates would have just responded that that was his whole point. 

According to the Apology, Socrates targeted three groups of people: politicians, craftspeople, and poets. This may seem like a slightly odd selection, but it makes more sense once you consider the historical context.

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Politicians are perhaps the last place we would today expect to find wisdom. Many of us vote not to select a good candidate, but to secure the lesser of two evils. Many others do not bother voting at all, as the candidates are so uninspiring. The case may have been a little different in Athens. 

Athens is often said to be the birthplace of democracy, but democracy was not, at its birth, that democratic. Women, slaves, and foreign residents (that is, almost everybody living in Athens) had no voting rights. Be that as it may, there was a way in which it was more radically democratic than today’s societies: voters did not elect candidates to office, but rather themselves discussed and voted on particular policies. It is almost as if every male citizen was a member of parliament, or the house of representatives.  

That is not to say there were no elected offices: there was the office of Strategos, elected generals of the army. They had certain procedural rights, and a certain amount of prestige. But even someone like Pericles, one of the most famous strategoi, depended on his ability to persuade the people of, well, the wisdom of his actions.  

The Athenians were not naïve about persuasion. One of Pericles’ political opponents was asked if Pericles was better at wrestling than him. His answer is telling: “whenever I throw him in wrestling, he disputes the fall, and carries his point, and persuades the very men who saw him fall.” Nonetheless, Pericles’ influence depended on his ability to maintain the trust of the majority of Athenians, and the same was true for any politician. When Socrates examined the politicians, however, he found that they knew basically nothing about anything. I guess not much has changed after all.  

Socrates’ next target for examination was the poets. Today, poetry is rather niche: it’s something we turn to at weddings and funerals, but, aside from that, unless you’re really into literature, you probably haven’t read a poem this year. In Athens, however, poetry accounted for much of the entertainment available. Athenians could go to the theatre and watch a play – written by a poet. Or they could find a rhapsode, a sort of human poetry jukebox, to perform some Homer. If they went to a symposium – that is, if they went over to their friends’ house for a few drinks – they would be entertained by people playing music and reciting lyric poetry. So perhaps it is not too different from approaching today’s novelists, songwriters and scriptwriters.  

Socrates concedes that poetry contains a lot of wisdom. But he found that when he asked the poets to explain their work to him, they were unable to do so. He inferred from that the wisdom did not come from the poets, but from a form of divine inspiration.  

Finally, he turned to the craftsmen. Again, to the modern ear, ‘craftsmen’ sounds like an odd choice. Did Socrates hang out at some kind of hipster farmers’ market or something? In fact, Socrates counted many things among the crafts, including navigation, architecture and medicine. In the time of Socrates, ‘craftsmen’ were busy building things like the Parthenon and making important anatomical discoveries. We might expect them to know something about something. 

Socrates agrees: they do know a lot of things about a lot of things. But, he argues, they only know about their own field: doctors know about healing, and architects know about building. They did not know anything outside of their own field. That, in itself, isn’t so much of a problem. The problem was that they didn’t seem to know where the limits to their wisdom lay and insisted that they knew about many things beyond what they knew. In particular, they thought they knew about the finest things, even though they did not. 

The meaning of the oracle was becoming clear: nobody knew more than Socrates about the finest things. Perhaps there was a sense in which he was wiser than everybody else, in that he was aware of the limits of his own knowledge. But this, Socrates claims, is not worth very much: the point of the oracle is not that Socrates is particularly wise, but that nobody is. 

I Dunno… 

I’m in search of my wisdom. I’m sure I left it in here somewhere.

Well, but so what? I never, you might say, claimed to be wise: who on earth, in this day and age, goes around claiming to be wise? Maybe Athens was full of people who thought they were wise, but this is the 21st century. We know we’re not wise.

With a few quite plausible assumptions about wisdom, however, the relevance of Socrates’ story becomes clearer. If we spend our money wisely, it will help us; if we spend it unwisely, it will harm us. If we raise our children wisely, we will benefit them; if we raise them unwisely, we will harm them. If we deploy our talents wisely, we will make the world a better place; if we deploy them unwisely, we will make it a worse place. 

If such assumptions about wisdom are correct, then it seems to me that Plato draws more or less the right conclusions from Socrates’ story. We should stop caring about gaining power and money, trying to make the world a better place, or raising our children correctly. Instead, we should begin searching for wisdom: first, we should see whether we are wise. If not, we should then look for someone who is wise to guide us. If we cannot find such a person, perhaps the best we can do is to live a simple life in pursuit of wisdom, persuading those around us to join them by asking them lots of questions to show how much they don’t know.  

Just one thing: if you do adopt this lifestyle, don’t be surprised if your friends want to kill you. 

Recommended Reading 

Fowler’s translation of Plato’s Apology. 

Vincent Azoulay’s Pericles of Athens. A review at Bryn Mawr Classical Review.  

Hugh Boden’s Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle. 

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