THE WISDOM OF SOCRATES

Posted by & filed under apollo, Know Thyself, Meaning 0f Life, oracle at Delphi, Plato's Dialogues, Socrates.

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Socrates was born in 469 B.C., in the early years of Pericles’ rule. Socrates, like all Athenian children, studied music, Homer’s poetry, and gymnastics. He also acquired some knowledge of geometry and astronomy, and became fascinated with the theories of Thales and others on the nature of matter. So with his friend Chaerephon, he began studying the natural science of his day.

But this interest in science did not last very long for two reasons:
 *  First, it all just seemed like a lot of idle speculation, full of disagreements and contradictions, and incapable of proof.
  
   *   Second, it was useless — useless, that is, for what seemed to Socrates to be the chief and proper concerns of a human being: knowledge of oneself and the right way to live. Socrates only wanted to discuss human concerns — what makes people good as individuals and citizens.
Chaerephon was so impressed with his friend’s 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, humor, and much contemporary relevance, “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.

Thus began Socrates’ mission of relentlessly asking people questions, listening to their answers, and accepting no ideas or opinions without examining them fully, as a means of eliciting self-knowledge and a deeper understanding of truth and virtue. Eventually, he so annoyed the complacent authorities of Athens, that at the age of seventy they condemned him to death on trumped up charges of impiety and corrupting the youth of the city. His allegedly ‘corrupting activities‘, as demonstrated in Plato’s Dialogues, consisted of a method of self-inquiry, a path toward ever increasing self-awareness, because he knew that self-knowledge is the necessary first step in the perfection of the soul. Socrates, as a teacher, guided his pupils through their self-examination by asking them pointed questions and probing their answers with them, leaving no stone unturned or unquestioned.

He did not teach a ‘belief system’. Rather, he taught them a method of psychological self-discovery, a method for asking questions and verifying truth for themselves.

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