He was not pretty and he was not well bred. Socrates was a plebeian, of common stock, which set him at a disadvantage in the aristocratic world of ancient Greece. Socrates was a muscular, thick-set man, with a snub nose and heavy brow. He had served, at some point, in the hoplite infantry, but whatever physical presence he possessed was diminished by his self-depreciating sense of humour and unmanly instinct for philosophical discussion. Socrates would make a practice of wandering barefoot about the marketplace, chatting to the people that he met. When he was alone, he’d stand for hours lost in thought. People thought he was very strange. He was polite, for the most part. But he didn’t seem to fit in.
Socrates did not charge a fee for his services, unlike the Sophists, the professional thinkers of the time. Unlike the philosophers who came after him, he did not establish a school or training institute. Socrates wrote nothing and he claimed that he had nothing to teach. Yet Socrates, more than any other ancient philosopher, is responsible for creating philosophy as we know it today.
It mightn’t have happened without Chaerephon’s visit to Delphi. After the oracle at Delphi claimed that he was the wisest man in the world, Socrates had a reputation to deal with. Everyone wanted to know about the Athenian philosopher. But Socrates was as stumped by the oracle’s judgment as everyone else. How could he possibly be the wisest man in the world? In terms of track record, he was a philosophical novice. Socrates had no writings, no celebrated teachings – nothing but his state of confusion, which he happily shared about. As Socrates saw it, he really knew nothing at all.
Socrates made a radical decision. He wouldn’t just accept the oracle’s judgement. He would take the same approach to it that he took to every other idea that he encountered in life. He would be sceptical about it. Not quietly sceptical either. Socrates made it his life’s mission to question the oracle’s judgement and put it to the test. Socrates embarked on a public crusade. He set out to interview the greatest people in Athens to see what wisdom they possessed. Socrates figured that if he could find someone in Athens who was demonstrably wiser than himself, he’d have proved the oracle wrong. Years later, at his trial, Socrates recalled how he got started:
After puzzling about [the oracle’s judgement] for some time, I set myself at last with considerable reluctance to check the truth of it in the following way. I went to interview a man with a high reputation for wisdom because I felt that here if anywhere I should succeed in disproving the oracle and pointing out to my divine authority: ‘You said that I was the wisest of men, but here is a man who is wiser than I.
Well, I gave a thorough examination to this person – I need not mention his name, but it was one of our politicians … – and I formed the impression that although in many people’s opinion, and especially in his own, he appeared to be wise, in fact he was not. However, when I began to show him that he only thought he was wise and was really not so, my efforts were resented both by him and by many of the other people present. I reflected as I walked away: ‘Well, I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent – that I do not think that I know what I do not know. (Apology 50)
This was the insight that determined Socrates’ approach to philosophy. The politician who Socrates had spoken to believed that he was wise, and knew enough to have earned a reputation for wisdom. Yet Socrates found, in conversation with the man, that he overestimated the extent of his knowledge and wisdom. In fact, the politician constantly pretended to know things that he really knew nothing about. Socrates walked away from the conversation feeling quite disturbed. In many respects, this politician was his intellectual superior, having a thoroughgoing knowledge of issues that Socrates knew nothing about. But the man had a disconcerting habit of assuming that his knowledge about these things gave him a privileged insight into other affairs well beyond this sphere of issues. It was as though he thought that his status and achievement had made him some kind of super-being with absolute knowledge and powers! This was not a mark of wisdom, in Socrates’ view. Socrates decided that he was wiser than this politician in one crucial respect: not because he knew more than him but because he was conscious of the fact that there were many things that he did not know, and he was prepared to admit it.
In the following months and years, Socrates would find the same thing wherever he went. The political elite in Athens vastly overestimated their knowledge and wisdom. The situation was really quite concerning. As Socrates observed at his trial: ‘[T]he people with the greatest reputations were almost entirely deficient [in wisdom], while others who were supposed to be their inferiors were much better qualified in practical intelligence’ (Apology 51).
Socrates gave up on the hope of finding a wise politician. He started talking to poets. Poets, in the ancient world, claimed to have a direct line to truth. They shared with oracles and soothsayers a deep understanding of the wisdom of tradition, and saw everything in light of the history of the gods, whose world had preceded the rule of humanity. Once again, however, Socrates found that the poets grossly overestimated their knowledge. When Socrates asked them to explain what their poetry meant, most of them had no idea. Socrates concluded that ‘it is not wisdom that enables [poets] to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean’ (Apology 51). How could the poets be wise when they didn’t know the meaning of what they wrote? To be sure, poets were drawing on a rich font of cultural wisdom. But when it came down to it, they were as intellectually arrogant as the politicians, in that they assumed that they knew more than they really did.
Socrates felt close to despair. He was sure that there must be someone in Athens who was wiser than himself. He started talking to the architects and artisans of the city. Surely, he reflected, the great artisans of Athens had insights that would put his own ignorance to shame? The artisans that Socrates spoke to were all experts in their fields. Yet, like the politicians and poets that he’d interviewed, most artisans assumed that their practical expertise made them experts on every topic. Socrates surmised that this error ‘more than outweighed their positive wisdom’ (Apology 52). It seemed that everyone in Athens was making the same mistake. People assumed that their talent and success in life was evidence of a personal genius. They carried themselves as if they possessed infinite knowledge of all things. When pressed, however, most of them were incapable of demonstrating anything more than a detailed knowledge of their specialized field.
Socrates had set out to find someone wiser than himself, so to prove the oracle mistaken in claiming that he was the wisest man alive. Yet, everywhere that he had looked, he had found arrogance and presumption – the pretence of wisdom, not the real thing. Even so, at the end of his quest, Socrates couldn’t believe that the wisdom that he possessed was anything much to get excited about. The fact that others liked to make a show of their wisdom and exaggerate it didn’t make him feel any wiser himself. Still, it got him thinking – what if wisdom were not a matter of knowledgeableness at all? What if being wise were not a matter of having knowledge, but of being aware of the limits of one’s knowledge, knowing just how much one does not know? What if the wisest man on earth were not a font of knowledge, but someone who had the courage to admit that he knew very little or even nothing?
This thought spun Socrates’ head around. What if the oracle had been right after all? Socrates would never know the truth of the matter. But he knew that, whatever the oracle meant, he had found the kind of wisdom that he wanted to pursue. Let the politicians and poets parade themselves about as if they really knew the truth of things. Socrates would pursue a different ideal. Just as one friend desires the company of another, yet never assumes that they possess their companion, Socrates would be a friend (philein from philia, the term for brotherly love) of wisdom (sophon), not its master or king. Socrates would be a true philo-sopher. As a philosopher, he would seek out the company of wisdom, but he would never assume that wisdom was his once and for all.
Socrates’ concept of wisdom set ancient intellectual culture on a new footing. Prior to Socrates, philosophers had approached the world in the same way as poets, composing lyrical accounts of the creation of the cosmos and everything within it. They had assumed, like the people that Socrates interviewed on the streets of Athens, that their sphere of insight gave them a total knowledge of the principles of things, and that their task as thinkers was to provide the conceptual frameworks that would facilitate an understanding of this cosmic knowledge.
Socrates took a different approach to knowledge and truth. He proposed that we put our ideas to the test. Instead of spinning stories, Socrates urged that we critically address the things we know, treating each of our beliefs with scepticism until we have identified those of them that stand up to scrutiny. We may find in the end that we don’t know much at all. But our ignorance should only challenge us to keep on learning and exploring. The important thing is that we don’t succumb to the temptation to accept ideas that we can’t justify, as enchanting as they may seem.
Unjustified ideas can’t count as truth. At best they amount to an ingenious fiction.