Friday, April 15, 2011

Apology: the oracle and Socrates’ mission

This post looks at the section of Plato’s Apology from 21a to 24b in which Plato explores the impact of the Delphic oracle. I’m going to quote and paraphrase Plato’s presentation based on G.M.A. Grube’s translation.

(21a – 23b)
In the previous post I mentioned how the oracle at Delphi told Chaerephon, in reply to his question “if any man was wiser than” Socrates, “that no one was wiser”. An obvious point but I’ll highlight it anyway—the question and reply are strictly on relative terms, not absolute, framing Socrates’ upcoming explanation. Socrates tells the jury this story to “inform you about the origin of the slander.” The slander he refers to is part of the expanded charges he laid out before the jury to explain the prejudice against him.

Despite the declaration of the god (since it was Delphi, the god would be Apollo), Socrates begins questioning the oracle and what it means. He acknowledges that the god cannot lie but he begins to investigate how or why the oracle could be true. He explicitly says he attempts to refute the oracle, which could be interpreted as impiety. But Socrates is full of contradictions during his defense, starting with his opening lines when he charges his accusers as persuasive liars. He immediately contradicts that charge by saying they can’t be persuasive since they called him a persuasive speaker, which he will immediately disprove.

Socrates turns to three specific types of men and it is interesting to see the similarities and differences in these experiences. The first interview for Socrates is a politician reputed to be wise. After examining the man Socrates realized “he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not.” To make matters worse, Socrates tried to show the politician that he was not wise, which only drew the ire of the man and his friends. The same results happen when Socrates attempts a similar type of interview with another man (not clearly identified as a politician but assumed to be one). Socrates concludes that he is wiser than these men even though he believes neither of them knows much, but that’s the key. Socrates realizes he does not know much while the other men think they know something. In other words, Socrates is wiser because “I do not think I know what I do not know.” Human wisdom comes from the acknowledgement of human ignorance.

Socrates realizes “to my sorrow and alarm” that he was becoming unpopular by pointing out the lack of wisdom in those with reputations for knowledge (all he has discussed is politicians so far). This is the genesis of the slander as he infuriates those he interviews and their friends/followers. There seemed to be an inverse relationship in his interviews: “[T]hose who had the highest reputation were nearly the most deficient, while those who were thought to be inferior were more knowledgeable.” Next Socrates visits poets and tragedians (he seems to have skipped comic poets—was this omission meant to imply they weren’t thought wise?) in an attempt “to catch myself being more ignorant than they.” Realizing random bystanders could explain poems better than their authors leads Socrates to hypothesize that poets have talent and inspiration but not wisdom. He likens the poets to seers and prophets who do not understand what they say. While not denying their talent, in this interpretation the poets are simply conduits for the gods. An important difference from the politicians comes out, or at least is implied by its omission—Socrates does not say that they played a part in his unpopularity because of this questioning (which may also explain the omission of comic poets).

So far there were politicians who neither said nor understood anything worthwhile. Next were the poets who said nice things but did not understand them. Lastly Socrates visits craftsmen, acknowledging before his interviews that they knew “many fine things.” The craftsmen “knew things I did not know, and to that extent they were wiser than I.” Ah, but notice the qualifier—“to that extent.” The problem was they knew and understood their craft well but thought that understanding encompassed a larger knowledge, for which there was no basis. Like the poets, Socrates does not explicitly tie his unpopularity coming from his questioning of the craftsmen.

Socrates’ unpopularity was “of a kind that is hard to deal with and is a heavy burden; many slanders came from these people and a reputation for wisdom, for in each case the bystanders thought that I myself possessed the wisdom that I proved that my interlocutor did not have.” Apparently the bystanders assume Socrates knows the answers to the questions he is asking, assigning a wisdom to him he does not claim to possess. The conclusion Socrates draws from these interviews leads him to a key point in his philosophy: “What is probable, gentlemen, is that in fact the god is wise and that his oracular response meant that human wisdom is worth little or nothing”. The wisest man will understand “his wisdom is worthless.” Is it really completely worthless? Surely there are attributes that offset this worthlessness (like reasoning) but Socrates does not mention them here.

Socrates says he continued his investigation “as the god bade me”. I must have missed that part of the oracle—Socrates sees the oracle as a mission from god (sorry, I couldn’t resist). His “service to the god” causes him to renounce leisure and live in poverty in order to engage people and show them that they are not wise if Socrates thinks they are not. I found it interesting that Socrates says he comes “to the assistance of the god” when showing other men they are not as wise as they think they are. Absent from this equation is any assistance to the men he’s questioning. Given human nature, this service to the god was surely going to be misinterpreted and raise Socrates’ unpopularity. Not to mention it will raise other problems. There is a tie-in here with Euthyphro and its focus on piety but I’m going to have to think about that one some more before commenting on it.

(23b – 24b)
“Furthermore, the young men who follow me around of their own free will, those who have most leisure, the sons of the very rich, take pleasure in hearing people questioned; they themselves often imitate me and try to question others.” When Socrates raised the additional charges leading to prejudice, he said the rumors originated from malice and envy. In publicly embarrassing people we have seen reason for malice. Is having the young men follow him “around of their own free will” a possible source for envy? As these young men find out that many claiming wisdom “know little or nothing”, those questioned find fault with Socrates and claim he “corrupts the young.” We have gone from the expanded public opinion charge to one of the formal charges (which Socrates spells out in the next section). However those questioned cannot articulate what Socrates does or teaches in order to corrupt the youth other than to fall back on the expanded charges “available against all philosophers about ‘things in the sky and things below the earth,’ about ‘not believing in the gods’ and ‘making the worse the stronger argument’. Socrates thinks these fallback accusations are easier for those embarrassed instead of them confessing the truth about their lack of knowledge.

There’s been a subtle shift in the expanded, earlier charges that Socrates raised then attempted to refute. Earlier he said those that made such charges were many and anonymous. Also, their claim that his study of sky and earth as well as his making the worse argument the stronger led others to the conclusion that he doesn’t believe in the gods. In other words, Socrates’ initial claim about these charges said they led others to an inference of his atheism. But now the accusers are known instead of being anonymous—they are the people the youth embarrass. Even with this shift, those making the original, expanded charges (and now expanded again) “are ambitious, violent and numerous; they are continually and convincingly talking about me; they have been filling your ears for a long time with vehement slanders against me.” Because of this, Socrates does not think he can “rid you of so much slander in so short a time.” He knows his behavior makes him so unpopular that he doubts he can overcome their effect.

Socrates mentions his three accusers by name and what group of people influenced them in bringing charges. I’m sure much can be written on these influences. I’ll just point out that the influences are all people his initial inquiries addressed (politicians, poets, tradesmen), with the exception of “orators”. Since his initial inquiries were with people reputed to be wise, I wonder if this was meant to reflect a scornful regard of orators.

Socrates seems to trivialize the charges of corrupting the young, at least at this point (although, to be fair, he did just raise the topic). Socrates ends this part of his speech by saying this “is the truth for you. I have hidden or disguised nothing.” OK, maybe that’s not the complete truth. While looking at his guilt by association with the youth of the city, he addressed only their mimicry of his behavior. As John M. Cooper put it in his introduction to the Apology:
It has often been thought that the real basis for it [the charge] lay in ‘guilt by association’: several of Socrates’ known associates had been prominent malfeasants in Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War only a few years earlier and the oligarchic reign of terror that followed; but an amnesty had forbidden suits based on political offenses during that time.

His description would include associates like Alcibiades and Critias, who did more than just accost people and make them appear foolish. Socrates addresses the result, to some extent, in exploring how people fall back on popular charges even though they can’t articulate the actual damage he has done. All of which leads to exasperation when looking at Socrates’ defense—he obliquely addresses part of what lies behind the charges. Yes, he’s guilty in the court of public opinion, partially for the charges he addresses, but also for reasons he completely avoids.

The next section will address the formal charges as Socrates cross-examines Meletus.

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