‘The wisdom of men is little or nothing’ – Socrates, from Plato’s account of his trial.
Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy, a book that presents the grand sweep of humanity’s search for philosophical understanding from Socrates to Peter Singer. Today’s post turns back the clock to focus on Socrates, one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived.
If there is one philosopher in the world whom you absolutely ought to know about, it’s Socrates. After all, as Nigel Warburton suggests in the first chapter of A Little History of Philosophy, ‘[if] philosophy has a patron saint, it is Socrates’. Socrates was a very famous teacher in ancient Athens who was always pushing his students to question the things around them. This method of inquiry led to many wonderful discoveries, but it also made some people find him rather disagreeable:
‘Snub-nosed, podgy, shabby and a bit strange, Socrates did not fit in. Although physically ugly and often unwashed, he had great charisma and a brilliant mind. Everyone in Athens agreed that there had never been anyone quite like him and probably wouldn’t be again. He was unique. But he was also extremely annoying. He saw himself as one of those horseflies that have a nasty bite—a gadfly. They’re irritating, but don’t do serious harm. Not everyone in Athens agreed, though. Some loved him; others thought him a dangerous influence.’
Warburton explains that while Socrates’ questions often seemed ‘straightforward’, they were really designed to make the other person think hard about his beliefs and re-evaluate things that he or she would normally take for granted:
‘An example of this was his conversation with Euthydemus. Socrates asked him whether being deceitful counted as being immoral. Of course it does, Euthydemus replied. He thought that was obvious. But what, Socrates asked, if you friend is feeling very low and might kill himself, and you steal his knife? Isn’t that a deceitful act? Of course it is. But isn’t it moral rather than immoral to do that? It’s a good thing, not a bad one—despite being a deceitful act. Yes, says Euthydemus, who by now is tied in knots. Socrates by using a clever counter-example has shown that Euthydemus’ general comment that being deceitful is immoral doesn’t apply in every situation. Euthydemys hadn’t realized this before.
Over and over again Socrates demonstrated that the people he met in the marketplace didn’t really know what they thought they knew. A military commander would begin a conversation totally confident that he knew what ‘courage’ meant, but after twenty minutes in Socrates’ company would leave completely confused. The experience must have been disconcerting. Socrates loved to reveal the limits of what people genuinely understood, and to question the assumptions on which they built their lives. A conversation that ended in everyone realizing how little they knew was for him a success. Far better that than to carry on believing that you understood something when you didn’t.’
In the end, however, Socrates upset many Athenians with his ideas and was taken to court by one of them, Meletus, in 399 BC. Meletus accused Socrates of being a corrupting influence on Athenian youth and holding dangerous beliefs about the old gods. When the jury finally voted, more than half declared that Socrates should be sent to death. Warburton writes, ‘If he’d wanted to, he could probably have talked his way out of being executed. But instead, true to his reputation as a gadfly, he annoyed the Athenians more by arguing that he had done nothing wrong and that they should, in fact, be rewarding him by giving him free meals for life’. Obviously, people did not take too kindly to that suggestion and Socrates was eventually put to death by poison.