In the Apology, Socrates identifies his activity with "wisdom"—"This man among you, mortals, is wisest who, like Socrates, understands that his wisdom is worthless [my emphasis]."
According to Plato, this is best thing for human life, the best way humans can live their lives, the only way human life will be satisfying.
"Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you and in my usual way to point out to any one of you whom I happen to meet: Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?" 29d
" the greatest good for a man [is] to discuss virtue [excellence] every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men " 38a
Three Platonic images of wisdom
1. Leaving the cave: wisdom as enlightenment.
In the Allegory of the Cave, wisdom is depicted as getting out of the cave and coming to see things as "they really are." It's important to note that life outside the cave is not a complete break with being in the cave. We know about the same things: dogs, cats, boats, justice, and so on. But we no longer look at shadows cast by copies of these things. We see then in a new way, but also a truer way—we see the "prototypes" for the copies that exist in the cave. "Enlightenment" is different from our previous life, but not unrelated to it.
This image of wisdom stresses that part of being wise is having "understanding."
2. The examined life: wisdom as care for the soul.
Near the end of the Apology, Socrates famously says: " the greatest good for a man [is] to discuss virtue [excellence] every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men " 38a. This suggests a second image of wisdom: the examined life. This is how the philosopher cares for his/her soul (cf. 29d).
Socrates' point is that the unexamined life is a barely human life, it is incomplete life, even dysfunctional. Thinking without examining that thought ignores our deepest human need.
A life focused on the question of its greatest good is a life lived to its fullest—an excellent or virtuous life.
This image of wisdom stresses the practical part of being wise, being able to put your understanding into practice, to have it make a difference in your life and the lives of others.
3. Wisdom as not knowing
At 21d Socrates says: " when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know." [In our text it is translated thus: ...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." pg 23]
What does Socrates mean when he professes his ignorance in this way?
1. Certainly he means this: he realizes that he has more to learn. This is a common interpretation of this idea, and probably the one most people have.
2. He is also refering to the limited nature of human knowing—as he says, all human wisdom is worthless, nothing, in other words, fallible. Even in their best operation, even regarding those beliefs for which we have the best reasons, and spent the most time considering, human knowing is still fallible, and error is still possible. Human wisdom therefore ill always be a tentative thing and open thing. (However the natural human attitude treats it in the opposite way!)
Therefore, in our search for wisdom (philosophy), we must be more committed to the process itself than to its results: the best results may fail us, but the process will not. It is living the examined life that guarantees human happiness, not certain knowledge. Being proved wrong, even about things we thoroughly and rigorously considered, is always a good thing; committment to inquiry itself should ensure that such an event would not unduly disturb us.
So the process of inquiry satisfies human desire—the examined life—more so than success. The goal is to engage in the process, and not to find some truth that we can categorically say is "the truth." [Does this mean there is no truth? No. It says nothing about that either way. It just means that the process of inquiry must always continue. A good case can be made that Socrates thinks that the God has truth in this final sort of way.]
Socratic dialectic is a remedy for our fallibility:
- It is open-ended and can involve anyone.
- It requires others (a community). We need others for two purposes:
- to try to prove our ideas wrong
- to help us overcome our own defensiveness, prejudice, haste, lack of confidence
CODA: Does Socrates know nothing?
Some of things Socrates does know