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Socrates on Wisdom, Knowing That They Know Not, and Not Knowing

Plato, The Apology, in Shelbourne Essays (University of Minnesota: 1909), pp. 283-4.

Perhaps you may wonder why I relate this story: it is because I am going to show you how the calumnies rose against me. For when the oracle was brought to me, I began to ask myself, What does the god mean, and what is the reading of his riddle? Certainly so far as I know myself I am not conscious of being wise in any matter great or small. What, then, does he mean by calling me the wisest? At any rate he does not lie, for that were contrary to his nature. So for a long while I was in doubt about the oracle, until at length I bethought me of the following method of testing it. I went straight to one of our reputed wise men, thinking that here, if anywhere, I should be able to refute the oracle and say to the god, Look you! this man is wiser than I, and yet you call me wisest. Well, I examined this man (never mind his name, but my first adventure was with one of our politicians) and conversed with him, and it soon became apparent that to many people and most of all to himself he seemed quite wise, whereas in truth he was not so at all.

Thereupon I undertook to show him how he was wise in opinion only and not in reality; but I only made myself a nuisance to him and to many of those about him. So I went away reflecting that at least I was wiser than this man. Neither of us apparently knows anything much worth while, but he in his ignorance thinks he knows, whereas I neither know nor think I know. Surely I may claim a little more of wisdom than he, in so far as I do not think I know what I do not know. After this I approached one whose character for wisdom was still higher, but with no different result; I only gained the ill will of him and a host of others.

So I went from one to another in succession, perceiving all the while that I was but making enemies, sorrowing and fearing, and yet compelled, as it were, to honour the god above all things and to prove his oracle by approaching all who were reputed to have any knowledge. And I swear by the dog,1 men of Athens — for I must declare the truth — I swear that this was all my profit. Searching by command of the god, I found that those who had the greatest renown for wisdom were in general the most lacking of all, whereas others of no reputation were really the better and wiser men. But let me narrate my wanderings in detail and the labours I endured, like a second Heracles, to confirm the oracle to my own mind. After the politicians I went to the poets, tragic, dithyrambic, and what not, making sure that in comparison with these I should detect myself in the very act of folly. I took their own poems which they had apparently elaborated with the greatest care, and with these in my hand proceeded to ask the authors what they signified, expecting, of course, to pick up some curious information at the same time. I am ashamed to tell you the truth, my friends, and yet it must out. Will you believe me, almost any one here in this court would speak more intelligently about these works than the authors themselves. I very soon learned of the poets that they compose not by wisdom but by a certain inspiration and gift of nature, like diviners and soothsayers, who in the same way utter many noble sentiments, yet understand nothing of what they say. Such appeared to be the state of the poets; yet I perceived that deluded by their poetic genius they deemed themselves the wisest of men in other matters also, wherein they were nothing. So I gave up the poets too, thinking I surpassed them in the same way as the politicians.

Finally I went to the artisans. Here at least I had no knowledge at all, and I was sure to find these men skilled in many noble crafts. And in this I was not deceived; they knew what I did not know and in so far were wiser than I. Nevertheless these excellent artisans, as 1 dis- covered, had the same weakness as the poets; because they wrought well in their own craft, every one of them deemed himself most wise in other weighty matters; and this error went far to obscure their real wisdom. Come, then, I said to myself, in behalf of the oracle, will you be content with your present lot, being neither wise in the wisdom of these men nor foolish in their folly, or would you choose their dubious state? And immediately I answered to myself and to the oracle that it was better for me as I am.

From this investigation, men of Athens, many enmities sprang up against me, such as are grievous and dangerous, and such as gave birth to a host of slanders; from thence, too, arose the name I had of being wise. Those who are present always take it for granted that I myself am wise in those things wherein I expose the ignorance of others. But the truth would seem to be, Athenians, that God alone is really wise, and this he sets forth in the oracle, signifying that human wisdom is worth little or nothing at all. Neither doth he care aught for Socrates, but merely employed my name, using me as an illustration, as if to say: Hear, all ye men! he is wisest among you who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is of nothing worth. And I even to this day go about seeking as the god wills, and am ever on the scent, if perchance any citizen or stranger may appear to me truly wise. And when he proves other than wise, then, in vindication of the god, I expose the man’s ignorance. And by reason of this task laid upon me I have no leisure for the important affairs of State and home, but live always in utter poverty as a servant of the god.

In addition to this, many young men from our wealthy families, who have nothing else to do, flock after me unbidden and take delight in hearing my cross-questionings. Indeed, they often imitate me, trying their wit at refuting others; and I dare say they find plenty of men ready at hand who pretend to know, but really know little or nothing at all. Straightway these pretenders, on being exposed, fall into a rage against me, instead of blaming themselves, and call down curses on this Socrates who is corrupting our young men. And when they are asked what this Socrates does and teaches, they are at a loss, having nothing to say; and so they try to cover up their confusion by repeating the old trumpery charges against the whole body of philosophers about things in heaven and beneath the earth, you know, and atheism, and making the worse appear the better cause. They are not likely to confess the truth, that they have been detected in assuming knowledge which they never had. These men are self-important and revengeful and numerous, and so, I think, with their loud and overbearing words they have dinned these ancient and bitter slanders into your ears. No doubt this is why Meletus and Anytus and Lycon have set upon me, — Meletus having a grudge against me on the part of the poets, Anytus of the artisans, and Lycon of the orators. It would be a wonder then, as I remarked at the beginning, if in the brief time allotted me I should be able to root out of your minds this calumny now grown so huge. This is the very truth, men of Athens, and I speak before you, nothing concealing, whether great or small, nothing dissimulating. Yet I know well enough that I but increase the hatred towards me by my frankness; and this is a proof, if need be, that my words are true, and a witness to the slander of my life and the causes thereof. Examine the matter now or later at your leisure; you will find it thus.

And now sufficient has been said in regard to those earlier enemies and their charges; I will proceed in my defence against Meletus — that worthy patriot as he calls himself — and my recent accusers. Let us treat them as new plaintiffs and read their affidavit anew. So it runs: Socrates is an evil-doer and corrupter of …

1 Socrates’ favourite oath. Tradition says that Rhadamanthys forbade swearing by the gods, but permitted such a use of the names of animals.