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Socrates: Defense of Philosophical Mission

Socrates was arguably the most influential yet interesting thinker to follow that existed in the fifth century. He dedicated his life to careful analysis of ideologies that evolved the entire enterprise. In his teachings, Socrates devised tricks developed by Sophists in establishing of truth and analysis of issues. Though well-known during his times, Socrates has no written works of himself. In essence, information concerning him is sought from the works of his students, such as Plato and Xenophon. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates clearly articulates the mission of the philosopher and effectively defends it against his opponents. By doing so, he elucidates the role of reason in a fully lived human life, a life of arête.

Socrates main philosophical mission was to search “into himself and other men” – a mission he claims was commanded by the god at Delphi. According to him, an Oracle responded to his friend Chaerephon upon inquiry of who was wiser than Socrates that he (Socrates) stood wisest of all men, though he claimed he knew he was not wise. His sacred mission, thus, was to find solution to the riddle and establish how he could be the wisest of all men when he was aware that he knew nothing:

It is likely that the God is really wise and by his oracle means this: “Human wisdom is of little or no value.” And it appears that he does not really say this of Socrates, but merely uses my name, and makes me an example, as if he were to say: “The one of you, O human beings, is wisest, who, like Socrates, recognizes that he is in truth of no account with respect to wisdom.” (23a-b)

He established after interrogating many brilliant and successful men that they knew nothing after all, and ultimately came out wiser than them:

For I am conscious that I am not wise either much or little. What then does he mean by declaring that I am the wisest? He certainly cannot be lying, for that is not possible for him. And for a long time I was at a loss as to what he meant; then with great reluctance I proceeded to investigate him somewhat as follows. (21b)

Socrates skillfully defended his mission. First, he acknowledged the fact that the Oracle could not lie and that the Oracle could have meant that the wise could be men like Socrates, who acknowledged their deficiency in wisdom. In essence, he went ahead to make an inquiry to esteemed Athenian men in the society, where people, including him, thought to be wise. The politicians were first to be interrogated, followed by poets and the skilled craftsmen. His findings were contrary to what people believed, since they were not wise. The poets, for instance, even though they wrote genius works, were not in a position to expound on their works:

…it was evident to me that the poets too had experienced something of this same sort. And at the same time I perceived that they, on account of their poetry, thought that they were the wisest of men in other things as well, in which they were not. (22c)

He, therefore, concluded that their work did not originate from wisdom, but some form of inspiration or instinct. Socrates believed his duty was to inquire into the knowledge of men, who thought to be wise, and show them they were indeed not wise:

Therefore, I am still even now going about and searching and investigating at the god’s behest anyone, whether citizen or foreigner, who I think is wise; and when he does not seem so to me, I give aid to the god and show that he is not wise. (23b)

The elenchus, which means “to refute,” “to examine,” or “to put to shame,” was Socrates’ preferred method of teaching. The philosopher made inquiries from those, who claimed to know and point out issues that could make the “wise” look unwise. Socrates used this method in interrogating Meletus in a bid to exonerate himself from the allegations, levelled against him. Through his command of elenchus, he brought out contradictions in Meletus allegations:

Socrates: “Now be so good as to tell us, Meletus, is it better to live among good citizens or bad ones?”

Meletus: “Yes.”

Socrates: “Is there anyone who would rather be injured than benefitted by his companions? Does anyone like to be injured?”

Meletus: “Certainly not.”

Socrates: “Well, then, are you prosecuting me for corrupting the young and making them worse, voluntarily or involuntarily?”

Meletus: “For doing it voluntarily.” (25d)

Socrates brings to his attention that corrupt people harm those, who are around them, and therefore Socrates would not have corrupted those, who are around him, because they would eventually harm him. This becomes another contradiction by Meletus.

Another contradiction by Meletus is that Socrates bribes the young people when telling them that they should not follow traditional gods, rather than “other new spiritual things:

Socrates: “…However, now tell us, Meletus, how do you say that I corrupt the young? Clearly, according to your indictment, by teaching them not to believe in the gods the state believes in, but other new divinities instead. You mean that I corrupt the young by that teaching?”

Meletus: “Yes, most certainly I mean that.” (26b)

Socrates: “Explain more clearly…”

Meletus: “I mean that you do not believe in the gods in any way whatever.” (26c)

Postulating that Socrates is an atheist yet, at the same time, accusing him of teaching about other divinities, meaning other gods, is a clear contradiction. Noteworthy, Socrates, though he did not believe in some conceptions of religion, was a religious person, true to his calling and mission, and who believed in arête life through possession of wisdom.

Upon his sentencing, Socrates prophesied that a more severe punishment awaits those, who had sentenced him:

And I say to you, men who have slain me, that punishment will come upon you straightway after my death, far more grievous indeed than the penalty of death which you have meted out to me. (39c)

Socrates believed that individuals should work towards achieving wisdom, living on truth, and improvement of their souls, rather than caring so much about wealth, honor, and reputation. This pronouncement portrays an individual deeply religious and, essentially, such were his virtues that formed the foundation of the good life of wisdom and truth. He accused the Athenians of focusing on “the acquisition of wealth and for reputation and honor,” at the expense of wisdom, truth, and perfection of their souls (29d-e).

In conclusion, the defense of Socrates of his philosophical mission vividly evinces the command of elenchus in examining issues. It brings out facts that were overlooked, but still showed that Meletus could not fall in the category of wise men and, in essence, the Oracle was true in his proclamation. The paper has dissected the virtues Socrates believed in, his religious life, and his mission as a duty from the Oracle.


Work Cited

De Strycker, Émile. Plato’s Apology of Socrates: A Literary and Philosophical Study with a Running Commentary.” Boston, MA: Brill Academic Publishers, 1994.

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