Socrates’ friend, Chaerephon, was so impressed with Socrates’ intelligence that he went to the Oracle at Delphi and asked if there was anyone as wise as Socrates. The prophetess, whose words were supposed to be those of Apollo himself, replied that no one was wiser than he. When Chaerephon reported this to Socrates, Socrates was troubled. “What can the god mean? What is the interpretation of this riddle? For I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god and cannot lie.”
So Socrates decided to search for someone who really did have some wisdom, and then to go back to the Oracle at Delphi and confront Apollo, hoping to learn the answer to this riddle.
“Accordingly”, he later reported with priceless irony and humor, “I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom — his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination — and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me.” So Socrates left, thinking to himself that “although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is — for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.”
After this, Socrates went on questioning others who had pretensions to wisdom. He spoke with politicians, he spoke with poets, he spoke with merchants, but always with the same results. He was aware of the enmity he was continually provoking, but he felt that this was a necessary task which had been set for him by the divine Apollo himself.
At last, he concluded that the riddle which the oracle had given to Chaerephon really meant that he, Socrates, who had no wisdom at all, was nonetheless as wise as anyone else on earth — since only God is wise, and what people think of as wisdom means nothing.