wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

James Colaiaco

Socrates Against Athens

When Socrates opened the Apology by recalling the prosecution's warning that the jury should beware of him as a 'clever' speaker, he was referring not only to their implication that he was a Sophist but perhaps also to his well-known reputation as an ironist. The word originated in Greek comedy, which featured a stock comic character known as Eiron, an astute dissembler who pretended to lack intelligence, triumphing in a contest or agon over a boastful stock character named Alazon. As J.A.K. Thomson observed: 'The Alazon professes to be something more, the Eiron to be something less than he is. As Cicero puts it, the former simulates, the latter dissimulates.' Listening to Socrates review his Heraclean labors in outwitting numerous deluded Athenians who, like Alazon, professed to be wise, many jurors might have concluded that the defendant was using his trial merely as a forum to expose their moral shortcomings. As Alexander Nehamas points out, irony often expresses a sense of superiority in the ironist. Indeed, the ironic Socrates was viewed by many as merely affecting ignorance and self-deprecation, hiding pride behind a mask of humility. Nevertheless, Plato's dialogues portray Socrates as perhaps the only person of his day who, in a city of many imposters, strove to follow the Delphic maxim, 'Know thyself.'

The early dialogues of Plato, which many scholars believe to reflect closely the teachings of the historical Socrates, are aporetic in that, although endeavoring to define different virtues, they invariably leave the reader perplexed. With few solid conclusions. In the Laches, for example, Socrates seeks to determine the meaning of courage by finding the common element shared by each particular example of the virtue. When Socrates asks Laches whether he understands the purpose of the question, he replies that he does not. The discussion closes with Socrates emitting that neither he nor anyone else knows the meaning of courage. The Charmides, an investigation of temperance, ends with a disappointed interlocutor concluding that even Socrates is unable to define temperance; the Lysis, on friendship, concludes with Socrates conceding that he and his interlocutors have not been able to discover precisely what is meant by a friend; and the Euthyphro, an examination of piety, ends with Socrates confessing: 'Then we must begin again and ask What is piety?' Although these dialogues brilliantly explore various philosophical difficulties, they leave the interlocutors, including Socrates himself, ultimately in a state of confusion. The dialogues teach primarily questions. To engage in philosophical discussion with Socrates was to embark upon an intellectual adventure, in which there were no foregone conclusions. He is represented as declaring in the. Republic, 'wither the argument may blow, thither we go.' Like Socrates' interlocutors, readers of Plato's early dialogues are challenged to formulate their own answers.

In stimulating other people to think, Socrates understood his philosophical role as analogous to an intellectual midwife who, although not possessing wisdom himself, helps others give birth to their own thoughts.