The Apology of Socrates is an early dialogue by Plato that presents Socrates’ speech of self-defense at his trial for impiety and corrupting the youth. Socrates presents his defense and addresses the charges, but is ultimately convicted. After being found guilty, Socrates was allowed, as was the custom, to propose a less severe penalty, which the court could consider in lieu of death. In this Socrates antagonizes the court by suggesting not a penalty, but a reward, after which he is promptly and unsurprisingly sentenced to death.
Contained within Socrates’ defense speech are three key ideas that outline the revolutionary nature of his teachings, defining the ideals of philosophy and redefining how we should think about wisdom.
1. Socrates’ revolution in thought
As the story goes, the Oracle of Delphi had told one of Socrates’ friends that no man was wiser than Socrates. Surprised by this verdict, Socrates set out to prove the Oracle wrong. To do so, he would interrogate countless people to see if they possessed wisdom and could be said to be wiser than himself. He would employ what is now known as the Socratic method, a method of questioning used to draw out definitions and assumptions and penetrate deeply into issues.
What he found, as he described in the Apology, is that those thought to be most wise were exactly the opposite. The politicians were frauds, the poets didn’t understand their own poetry, and the artisans over-extended their knowledge to matters outside their expertise.
In trying to contradict the Oracle, Socrates instead confirmed that he was indeed the wisest, but only in the sense that he recognized his own ignorance. As Socrates stated:
“When I left him, I reasoned thus with myself: I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”
In most pre-philosophical traditions, including tribal religion, wisdom was equated with assertions of infallibility, certainty, and prophecy. It’s not until Socrates that this is inverted, with wisdom being associated with doubt, skepticism, humility, critical thinking, and free-inquiry, in what I would call one of the first great Copernican revolutions of thought. Just as Copernicus reversed our conceptions of planetary motion, Socrates reversed our conceptions of the embodiment of wisdom.
And so here we can see that the starting point of philosophical investigation is ignorance, doubt, and open inquiry, rather than the closed dogmatism of all previous religious and superstitious traditions that relied of revelation, prophecy, subversion, and faith.
Embedded within this framework is also the idea that rhetorical skill is not wisdom and sophistry is not truth. The poets were articulate and the politicians eloquent, but neither group was able to withstand the scrutiny of the Socratic method. Philosophy was thereafter recognized as a higher form of wisdom than simple rhetorical or political power.
2. The unexamined life is not worth living
In facing a sentence of death, Socrates was asked why he could not just agree to stop with his questioning and forgo the activities that led to his trial. Here was his reply:
“Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say that the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living — that you are still less likely to believe.”
To Socrates, the unexamined life was not worth living, and free-inquiry, debate, and living by reason was living in accordance to the highest ideals. To give up reason and philosophy would be to give up one’s humanity—a situation worse than death. This is why Socrates refused to cooperate with the court, and would become history’s first martyr for the freedom of thought, speech, reason, and conscience.
This also helps us to answer the question as to why philosophy is important. Socrates is claiming that philosophy represents a good in itself, like art or music, and that the exercise and free expression of reason is what most distinguishes humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom.
3. Living by higher moral ideals
On the meaning of life religion gives us an answer: live in service to and according to the dictates of God and scripture. Faith is your purpose and securing a pleasant afterlife is the ultimate goal.
Socrates had something else in mind. The purpose of life—the highest ideal in which an individual can live—is a life spent in contemplation with the goal of improving one’s knowledge and character. As Socrates said, as quoted by Diogenes Laertius, “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.”
This apparently simple statement is actually another revolution in thought. In religious thinking, evil is seen as the turning away from God and doubting the truth of scripture. Likewise, good is not the pursuit of knowledge and free-inquiry but rather the unquestioned acceptance of tradition as laid out in divinely inspired books.
For Socrates, this thinking is again reversed: ignorance, or the assertion of certainty when there is in fact uncertainty (dogma), is the source of all evil, whereas open inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge is the source of all good. This is the birth of philosophy as we know it, which is in the deepest possible way in direct conflict with conservative and religious traditions, or in fact with any secular tradition that dictates that everyone follow the “one true way to live.”
The idea that reason and knowledge is the source of all good, and that dogmatic ignorance is the source of all evil, is probably best captured in the painting by Francisco Goya called The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, as shown below. The idea is that when we stop thinking, or when we let superstition and faith override our critical faculties, evil manifests in many forms, such as in demons, devils, inquisitions, witch burnings, war, the invention of hell, guilt, psychological torture, subjugation, and intolerance.
It’s only through the application of reason—via the tradition of philosophy—that we can awaken from the dogmatic slumber and banish evil from the world through reason and virtue.
Socrates goes on to point out that the development of virtue, through continual contemplation of ethical issues, is the supreme good from which all else follows:
“I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this? And if the person with whom I am arguing says: Yes, but I do care: I do not depart or let him go at once; I interrogate and examine and cross-examine him, and if I think that he has no virtue, but only says that he has, I reproach him with overvaluing the greater, and undervaluing the less.”
“I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, I am a mischievous person.”
“I set to do you—each one of you, individually and in private—what I hold to be the greatest possible service. I tried to persuade each one of you to concern himself less with what he has than with what he is, so as to render himself as excellent and rational as possible.”
We’ll end with a couple of quotes by Socrates on the topic of death. His main contention is that it is presumptuous for us to fear death, since no man can know what it is like and death may in fact be better than life. Therefore, it is better to avoid things that are certainly bad than that which is only possibly bad. In fact, Socrates identifies several things worse than death, including the sacrifice of our reason and free speech, the abandonment of our critical faculties, and the conducting of evil acts. Here’s what Socrates had to say:
“Someone will say: And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong — acting the part of a good man or a bad. …For wherever a man’s place is, whether the place he has chosen or that where he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remain in the hour of danger; he should not think of death or of anything, but of disgrace.”
“To fear death, is nothing else but to believe ourselves to be wise, when we are not; and to fancy that we know what we do not know. In effect, no body knows death; no body can tell, but it may be the greatest benefit of mankind; and yet men are afraid of it, as if they knew certainly that it were the greatest of evils.
And how is not this the most reprehensible ignorance, to think that one knows what one does not know? But I, O Athenians! in this, perhaps, differ from most men; and if I should say that I am in any thing wiser than another, it would be in this, that not having a competent knowledge of the things in Hades, I also think that I have not such knowledge.”
“If you kill such a one as I am, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me. Meletus and Anytus will not injure me: they cannot; for it is not in the nature of things that a bad man should injure one better than himself. I do not deny that he may, perhaps, kill him, or drive him into exile, or deprive him of civil rights; and he may imagine, and others may imagine, that he is doing him a great injury: but in that I do not agree with him; for the evil of doing what Anytus is doing — of unjustly taking away another man’s life — is greater far.”