James Colaiaco
Socrates Against Athens

Like the intellectual labors of Socrates, the physical labors of Heracles were initiated by the Delphic oracle. While Heracles, known for his strength and endurance, bore a club, a bow, and arrows, along with a sword, as his weapons, Socrates, the hero as philosopher, wielded his formidable method of cross-examination. Like the archetypal hero, Socrates had to perform some challenging task to show that he was worthy of the quest. While Heracles battled ferocious beasts, Socrates confronted the ignorance of his fellow Athenians, attempting to free them from their illusions and set them on the road toward self-knowledge. For his heroism, Heracles was elevated into a divinity at his death, thus achieving immortality. Socrates, although meeting an ignominious death at the hands of the Athenians, would achieve heroic stature and immortal fame in the writings of Plato.

From the politicians Socrates proceeded to examine the poets, also expecting them to possess greater wisdom than himself. Throughout Greece, the poets, especially Homer, were exalted for their wisdom. Yet despite their integral role in the education of Athenians, Socrates relates that when he asked the poets, including the tragedians, to explicate their works, they were deficient. In fact, the bystanders were usually better able to explain a poet's meaning. Like the seers and prophets, the poets 'say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them.' As Socrates declares in Plato's Ion, like the prophets, the poets compose not by deliberate art but through divine inspiration, either through Apollo or the Muses. Socrates found that the poets not only assumed for themselves the divine wisdom in their poems but also claimed an understanding of other subjects of which they were totally ignorant. Hence, he was as disappointed by the poets as he was by the politicians.

Finally, Socrates approached the craftsmen, including not only artisans (carpenters, shoemakers, and builders), but also physicians, sculptors and artists. While, as he had anticipated, the craftsmen surpassed him in genuine knowledge of their various crafts, and hence were wiser than he in this respect, nevertheless, like the poets, they erroneously assumed that they also possessed knowledge of other important matters. Socrates' retelling of his humiliation of numerous craftsmen must have created a stir in the court. Athenian democracy had enfranchised many among the working class. While few jurors were politicians, exerting leadership in the Assembly, and fewer were poets, perhaps the majority were craftsmen. Yet, as Socrates reminds the court, his interrogations of various Athenian craftsmen led him to ask himself 'on behalf of the oracle, whether I would like to be as I was, neither having their knowledge nor their ignorance, or like them in both; and I made answer to myself and to the oracle that I was better off as I was.' Although Socrates could not, of course, be indicted for having exposed shallow thinking, recounting his deflating interrogations probably incensed many jurors. He had demonstrated that the Athenian politicians, poets, and craftsmen, in assuming they possessed wisdom, lacked self-knowledge. In Platonic terms, they had no real knowledge, but mere opinions. Yet Athenians did not want to hear the truth about themselves. In the eyes of many, the interrogating Socrates was an officious busybody (polypragmon). Nevertheless, he was convinced that only by relentlessly pursuing his philosophic mission could he hope to turn his fellow Athenians away from the quest for power and material wealth and toward virtue and the perfection of their souls.

The method that Socrates employed against the reputedly wise, pointing out their inconsistent views, was that of cross-examination, the so-called elenchus, or refutation. This was how Socrates practiced philosophy. While conversing with an interlocutor, an ethical concept, such as wisdom, justice, courage, or piety, whose meaning was usually assumed, would invariably be introduced. At this point, Socrates would press for a clear definition of the concept, claiming his own ignorance. Once eliciting a definition from his interlocutor, he proceeded to illustrate that it was either too broad, or too narrow, or that the conclusions arrived at directly contradicted some initial assumption. The respondent's definition was usually based upon little reflection, as was readily demonstrated when Socrates attempted to apply it to specific cases. Forced to amend his definition, Socrates' interlocutor was ultimately left in a frustrating position by a new series of questions. Attempting to answer the philosopher's questions, he was caught in further inconsistencies, revealing that he lacked clear knowledge of basic concepts. As a result of such inquiries, the superficial understanding of many victims was revealed, with many spectators looking on. People would wonder whether such self-proclaimed wise men, now exposed and vanquished by Socrates' elenchus, really knew what was best for Athens. Were the politicians really wise enough to take a leading role in the Assembly? Were men who could not define virtue really fit to be parents? Hence, according to Socrates, the democratic government of Athens had been placed in the hands of numerous pretenders to wisdom—politicians, poets, and craftsmen—ill-equipped to assume the responsibility of governing and educating the polis.

Plato's Meno conveys a sense of the shock inflicted by Socrates' formidable interrogations. Questioned by Socrates on the nature of virtue, Meno confesses his trepidation: 'Socrates, I used to be told, before I knew you, that you were always doubting yourself and making others doubt; and now you are casting your spells over me, and I am simply getting bewitched and enchanted, and am at my wits' end.' He then compares Socrates to a stingray fish: 'For my soul and my tongue are really torpid,' laments Meno, 'and I do not know how to answer you; and though I have been delivered of an infinite variety of speeches about virtue before now, and to many persons—and very good ones they were, as I thought—at this moment I cannot even say what virtue is.' If this reflects accurately the profound effect of Socrates, it is no wonder that the prosecution initially warned the jury to beware of his speech. Like the stingray, Socrates in effect paralyzed his dialectical partners. Recognizing their shallow views, they lost the ability to articulate. Their certitude was reduced to confusion. What they had taken for granted was shown to be without foundation; their view of the world was turned upside down.

Even Alcibiades, a man of formidable intellectual gifts whose political ambition led him to betray Athens to Sparta, is said to have been stung by Socrates' discourse. 'My heart leaps within more than that of any Corybantian reveller,' Alcibiades says in Plato's Symposium—not without a touch of hyperbole—'and my eyes rain tears,' whenever he heard Socrates speak. 'And I observe that many others are affected in the same manner. I have heard Pericles and other great orators, and I thought that they spoke well, but I never had any similar feeling; my soul was not stirred by them, nor was I angry at my own slavish state.' Alcibiades then offers an insight on the root of his own corruption: He had entered Athenian politics morally unprepared. Socrates compelled him to 'confess that I ought not to live as I do, neglecting the wants of my own soul, and busying myself with the concerns of the Athenians; therefore, I hold my ears and tear myself away from him.' In other words, before entering politics, Alcibiades should have cultivated self-knowledge and perfected his soul. Alas, the gifted Alcibiades shut his ears and fled from Socrates, 'as from the voice of the siren, my fate would be like that of others,—he would transfix me, and I should grow old sitting at his feet.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.