Central Question: What do we know about ourselves and what can we know?
Plato: Apology, pp. 15-29
What is the nature of human wisdom, as Socrates understands it? How does this contrast with divine or superhuman wisdom, if at all?
Who among the Athenians does Socrates find to be wise? What does Socrates’ wisdom consist in, exactly?
Why does Socrates think it important to examine oneself and one’s life? What risks or harm lies in not doing so, on his view?
Why does Socrates believe that no evil may befall a good person?
Did You Know?
Socrates was a philosopher of Ancient Greece who lived in Athens. He was born in 470BCE and died in 399BCE. He was a man of modest means, who fought bravely in the Persian wars; he had a wife and four children. He devoted his life to the defending the moral integrity of the city of Athens, which he did by challenging his fellow citizens to respect higher moral standards. He incurred the enmity of many, this way, and was put to death in 399.
Plato was a follower of Socrates, much devoted to and inspired by him. After Socrates’ death, Plato wrote philosophical dialogues in which the character of Socrates often led philosophical discussions in much the same way the historical Socrates had done. In Apology, Plato describes the speeches that Socrates made at his trial. Most scholars agree that the views expressed in this dialogue are close to those of the historical Socrates.
The word ‘apology’, as it is used here, means “defense” or “justification”. Socrates is not apologizing for his actions, as you see clearly in the reading. Rather, he is explaining them and himself to his accusers and the jury of 500 who will judge him.
Moral Risk: Human ignorance brings the risk of our harming ourselves by committing an injustice.
Corollary: It is only by injustice that we truly harm ourselves.
The unexamined life is not worth living.
1. Human Wisdom
Socrates is convinced that while humans have a great deal of technical knowledge, they lack “divine wisdom,” or knowledge of the most important things concerning how we should act. Socrates has spent much of his life trying to find a person wiser than he, and although he recognizes that he himself has no special knowledge of the right, the just, etc., the more he examines others the more he finds that, in fact, no one is in this respect wiser. That means that we are all equal in this regard: none of us truly knows what is the right thing to do. (See ¶6, “superhuman wisdom;” ¶7, knowledge that is “beautiful and good;” ¶9, knowledge of “high matters;” ¶10, “God only is wise.”)
Socrates is particularly anxious to point this out to those of us who think otherwise. The condition that he targets is called “hubris” (pronounced hyoo-BREE). Hubris is an excessive pride, a pride that can lead to a tragic downfall. It is a pride that challenges the gods, a pride that pretends to have their divine wisdom, perfect knowledge of right and wrong. (Note the connection here to Plato’s Cave: the reception of those still in the cave to those who attempt to tell them of their ignorance is anything but cordial; Socrates was killed for doing this.)
Thus, Socrates thinks that while the gods may have divine wisdom of moral truth, human wisdom consists in recognizing our ignorance of moral truth. (¶10) This form of wisdom, he thinks, is our most valuable tool in living well.
Think about this. While we all have many deep moral convictions, who among us can define the right, the good or demonstrate clearly that any one action is right or good, or wrong and bad? Even when we are convinced that we are in the right, Socrates points out that we must accept the possibility that we are mistaken.
2. The Risk of Harm
Without clear knowledge of right and wrong, Socrates stresses, we risk making moral errors. In one famous dialogue, Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates challenges a man who is prosecuting his own father for murder. It is difficult to know, in such dire situations, what is the right thing to do.
The harm that Socrates is most concerned with is not physical harm. It is true, of course, that many physical harms may come to us because of our ignorance of moral truth. But the harm that he is primarily concerned with is a moral harm. “[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” (¶55).
This is because the quality of a person is a matter of his or her moral integrity, for Socrates. It has nothing to do with physical strength, or health, or intelligence, or beauty. It is a matter of whether we do right or wrong. Consequently, Socrates maintains, the only way that a human can be harmed, be made worse, lowered, reduced, is by committing an immoral act, an injustice. (See ¶¶56, 57.)
This is why hubris is such a danger to us. If we do not accept the possibility of being wrong, we run a greater risk of committing a wrong. And if we commit a wrong, we do ourselves the only significant harm that we can undergo: we make ourselves less good persons.
Thus Socrates’ concern for his fellow citizens and thus the sterling example of moral courage he shows at his trial that still, today, has the power to command our respect and admiration. Socrates recognizes that by unjustly committing him to death, the Athenian assembly harms itself (¶¶70, 71). And by choosing death over dishonor, Socrates himself upholds his conviction that it is only our moral behavior that is important; it is more important than whether we live or die.
3. The Examined Life
With Socrates is associated the truism, the unexamined life is not worth living.
The idea, here, is that first we must recognize our moral ignorance and second we must preserve an awareness of that ignorance in all that we do. Our moral standing is precious: it is the most important thing about us. And it is tenuous: it is easily reduced or lost. But just which actions will improve or reduce it is not always clear. Consequently, we must act with the greatest care and with the greatest humility. For Socrates, we must face each moral decision, however great or small, with the realization that what we do may not be the right thing to do.
The effect of this self-examination, Socrates thinks, will be a reduced risk of moral error. While we may not avoid every moral error – none of us is perfect – it is especially that false confidence that we cannot be in error that gets us into trouble. Honest self-examination, Socrates thinks, helps us to avoid this most pernicious risk to our moral health.
Socrates and Self-Study
“Know Thyself” is inscribed on the walls of the Oracle at Delphi from which Socrates received his life instruction. Socrates’ work and very life were devoted to this principle. His memory stands as a way of our avoiding the hubris that he hoped that we might avoid.
Think about what is truly important and the extent to which we can be certain about it. Are we ever completely certain of the right thing to do? If so, how, exactly? If not, what does this imply about how we should act, both for ourselves and with respect to others?