David Shiner has been a professor at Shimer College for many years, writing on baseball and much more. (For David's previous contribution to Evocations, click here.) He plays chess and vintage baseball; his most recent research interest is classical philosophy. Here David offers "Thoughts on Plato’s Apology."
As one of Plato’s best-known works, the Apology needs little introduction, especially to devotees of philosophy. However, perhaps partly because of its conventional characterization as a philosophical text, the religious content of the dialogue is often understated or ignored. This is a mistake, for reasons I shall briefly enumerate here.
Early in the Apology, Socrates attempts to account for his reputation – a reputation that has resulted in his being prosecuted on the grounds of, among other charges, impiety. He tells the Athenian jury, “I have gained this reputation, gentlemen, from nothing more or less than a kind of wisdom. What kind of wisdom do I mean? Human wisdom, I suppose. It seems that I really am wise in this limited sense.” Concerning “wisdom that is more than human,” Socrates goes on to say, “I certainly have no knowledge about such wisdom….” (20D). How, then, does he know that he has any wisdom at all? Because “the god at Delphi,” Apollo, had famously told Socrates’ friend Chaerephon many years earlier that no one was wiser than Socrates (20D-E).
Socrates’ reaction to the declaration of the oracle was to try to better understand its meaning by asking questions of people who claimed to be knowledgeable about various matters. He viewed this as a religious quest, saying, “I pursued my investigation at the god’s command” (22A). On this basis, Socrates questioned many of his fellow Athenians and found their responses to lack the knowledge they claimed to have about their chosen subject. [W]hen I think that any person is not wise,” he tells his listeners and Plato’s readers, “I try to help the cause of God by proving that he is not” (23C). Socrates’ project is self-consciously religious throughout.
As a result of his labors, Socrates professes to have discovered the meaning of the oracle, which is that “real wisdom is the property of God, and…human wisdom has little or no value” (23A). In other words, “real wisdom” is religious in nature, and Socrates does not believe that he himself possesses it. However, in claiming ignorance of any “wisdom that is more than human,” Socrates does not intend to imply that he is irreligious. In fact, as the quoted passages and many others within the dialogue make clear, it is Socrates’ obedience to the god Apollo that leads him to undertake his quest. As he says, “God appointed me…to the duty of living the philosophic life, examining myself and others” (28E). It is thus religious faith that serves as the foundation for Socrates’ beliefs and actions as recounted in the Apology. Any serious attempt to understand the dialogue, philosophical or otherwise, must come to grips with that fact.
(Citations are from Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, trans. Treddenick [Penguin Classics, ISBN 0-14-044037-2) (If you want to look at a version of Plato's Apology from the Internet Classics Archive, try clicking here.)