How did Socrates know he was wise?

Steven asked:

How did Socrates know he was wise?

Answer by Graham Hackett

The words of the Oracle are actually in the negative. ‘Is anyone wiser than Socrates?’ was the question asked. The priestess answered, ‘No one’. So not only was Socrates declared wise, but in fact he was declared the wisest man in Athens. I recommend that you the answer by Tony Fahey, Socrates and the Oracle of Delphi. There you will find a good account of the pronouncement of the Oracle and Socrates’ use of it in his own defence before his Athenian accusers. I cannot do better than this article, so I will add just a few remarks of my own.

The difficulties in answering your question stem partly from our lack of direct knowledge of Socrates own life (how much of the account we have is due to Plato’s own views or genuinely objective, etc), and partly what we take to be the meaning of wisdom. Wisdom could refer to the possession of genuine higher level knowledge of such difficult key concepts as virtue, good, happiness, piety, justice etc. A key Greek word here is ‘Sophos’. This term used in pre-Socratic Greece refers to something like a sage, wise man something like a combined prophet, priest and therapist. The Sophos were interested in rational argument for proof of concepts in ethics and metaphysics. Sophos in this sense were not ‘professional thinkers’, such as were the Sophists active in the lifetime of Socrates .

What would Socrates have understood the Delphic Oracle to be saying about wisdom, and if so, would he have a convincing reason for his particular belief? Well, as is reported, he seems to have expressed puzzlement with the oracular pronouncement, regarding it as paradoxical. According to mainstream Greek thinking before Socrates, a truly wise man would have definitive knowledge, maybe, like Thales, Heraclitus and Pythagoras, even have constructed systems of knowledge. Socrates denied that he had this kind of knowledge and he was certainly not a system builder. In fact, he rather famously claimed ignorance, so how could he be the wisest man in Athens?

In support of this claim of lack of knowledge, Socrates, at least in the earlier Platonic dialogues used the method of elenchus, which proceeded as follows;

1. Socrates’ interlocutor asserts a thesis, e.g. ‘piety is doing according to the will of the Gods’, which Socrates questions.

2. Socrates secures his interlocutor’s agreement to other premises, e.g.; ‘what the Gods ask is pious’ or ‘the Gods may ask contradictory things.

3. Socrates then argues, with the interlocutor’s agreement, that these further premises imply the contrary of the original thesis.

4. Socrates then claims this shows that his interlocutor’s thesis is false and that its negation is true.

What seems to be the point behind the Oracle story is this; the claims of many to be wise (to possess knowledge) is wrong. Socrates use of the technique of the elenchus demonstrates this. His assumption of ignorance, and then gradually refining an initially unacceptable position in the direction of knowledge at least could be described as the beginning of wisdom. If you accept this interpretation of the Oracle, then you may judge that Socrates has some justification to believe he wise. You may have read Platonic dialogues where a final definitive position is never reached. For example, in the ‘Theaetetus’, Socrates attempts to get at the nature of knowledge, but the dialogue seems to end unsatisfactorily with no final acceptable conclusion. Should we regard this as a futile failure? Not a bit of it! Even if the characters in the dialogue never reach a final definitive position on the nature of knowledge, Socrates would no doubt take heart in having moved the search further onward.

Perhaps it is not too fanciful to suggest that there was shift in how we view wisdom at the time of Socrates. Today, philosophers are less viewed as having wisdom in the ancient sage-like sense and seen more as those who love and seek wisdom. Knowledge is not a final position; it is an ongoing search.

Wisdom is also often used as referring to a more practical prudential knowledge. Socrates and Plato seem to have regarded this as a lower form of knowledge; an art, or a skill; how to build a boat, how to conduct oneself in the public arena etc. Aristotle held prudential wisdom in higher regard (it was referred to by the Greeks as phronesis). You may argue that considering his own wilful neglect of Athenian public life and his ability to irritate important citizens, Socrates could have used a lot more of this form of wisdom. It is a pity that the Oracle did not warn Socrates of his dangerous lack of this kind of practical knowledge, by providing more detail in their pronouncements. But then the Oracle never had the virtue of clarity.


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