“Men of Athens, I honor and love you: but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strenght I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting everyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: 0 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”
This is one statement in the marvelous monologue that Socrates gives at the trial which he is accused for “refusing to recognize the gods acknowledged by the state, and importing strange divinities of his own; he is further guilty of corrupting the young” (Xenophon). Despite of many opportunities to escape the charges, he chooses death as his final sentence. By understanding Socrates’s perspective about the nature and relation between truth, wisdom, and meaning of human’s lives, we could understand why Socrates choose to sacrifice his life for his philosophy.
As we follow Socrates back to the time when he was named the wisest man on earth by the God of Delphi, we could see a confusion in Socrates’ reactions “What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle? “(Apology, 6). God cannot be wrong. However, Socrates knows that “I have no wisdom, small or great” (6). Contradiction cannot exist, so Socrates decide to check the premises. To prove God wrong, he must have a concrete evidence on his side, a man that is truly wiser than him. He made his quest by coming to everyone who has a reputation of containing wisdom, including prominent religious leaders, politicians, poets, and philosophers of the time and starts questioning them about their intelligence. He discovered that these intellectual figures all fall into the trap of deceiving themselves and those around them about their wisdom. By continuously asking questions to the core of their knowledge, Socrates discovers a void, chaos, crumbling cluster of ideas conflicting with each other , covered with nice, sweet, peaceful disguise. He then concludes “I made answer to myself and the oracle that I was better off as I was” (Apology, 8). Socrates believes that he is better off being himself than those figures. He knows something that the other men do not know. He knows that he has no wisdom. To Socrates, knowing that one has no wisdom is better than having the illusion of holding it. To Socrates, that wisdom is the only thing that is real.
To Socrates, knowing that one has no wisdom is better than having the illusion of holding it. To Socrates, that wisdom is the only thing that is real.
One important method in Socrates’ philosophy is to keep questioning and questioning. Everything must have a reasonable cause behind it, and one should not stop until finding the deepest cause. No premises are concrete; no truth is eternal. All knowledge must be constantly challenged over and over. By asking question and reasoning the answer, we have better chance to understand the world. Socrates could give the answer to others, but it would be against his philosophy to others to accept his premises without reasons. Thus, Socrates shows the contradictions within each person by keep digging the foundation of their knowledge. To Socrates, the act of asking question, the act of finding the truth is philosophy itself.
No premises are concrete; no truth is eternal.
In his quest to find a wiser man, Socrates has angered some of the most powerful people, which directly led to his accusation of corruption the youth and his death sentence. In the road towards his physical destruction, he had many chances to jump out of it. He could agree with the God with Delphi without questioning. After all, it is a verdict to his favor. He could use a more lenient method of talking with these famous persons he approaches and acknowledge their ‘so-called” wisdom, letting them get away with it. He could plead guilty as his trial, and beg for mercy. He could escape the prison, since all the preparations were made for him by his friends. Why is Socrates so eager and insist on his physical destruction?
First, he does not seem to care the opinions of men he found unworthy. “Should we care about the opinion of the many? Good men, and they are the only persons who are worth considering, will think of these things truly as they happened.” (Crito, 8). The judgment of the many cannot alter his way of doing philosophy; that is why he chooses to ignore their hatred and accusation, which he believes are wrong. Socrates also does not seem to care about his physical body. “Good men”, as defined by Socrates, must understand the value of the truth. He must have the ability of seeing through the fog of deception. He must put his conscience, his calling for the truth above all else. He must follow his moral code, even though it will cost him his life. “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 he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of good man or of a bad” (Apology, 13).
Socrates’s definition of “good men” is the standard he set for himself. He believes that the world is full of deception in the name of wisdom. He believes the best way to understand the world, to find wisdom, is keep thinking and challenging its premises. Since he knows that it is right, he must act according to it, whatever the consequences. If Socrates backs down because of the fear that he would be harm physically, he has betrayed himself. Socrates knows that the act of betraying himself is his real ticket to hell, not death itself. That’s why he bravely announce “Whatever you do, know that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many time” (Apology, 13). The real pain is not in dying. The real pain is in looking at himself in the mirror and not knowing who is standing there. Other men can take away his life, but not his philosophy, his honor to be the man at the highest standard of his.
Plato. Apology. Pennsylvania State University. 1998
Plato. Crito. Pennsylvania State University. 1998
Xenophon. Memorabilia. Translations by Henry Graham Dakyns (1838-1911) in the public domain.