Comments on the apology of Socrates

What follows is an excerpt from a private exchange about this modern translation of the apology of Socrates: I am sharing this with the express permission of my correspondent, without disclosing their identity. The quoted/indented text is from my correspondent.

But I wonder to what extent Socrates was a smart fool and to what extent he was right about his contemporaries.

I think it is hard to figure out the extent, because it is a matter of degree on something we don’t have enough data about. What we know of Socrates and of the day-to-day conditions back then is limited to what has survived through the aeons.

The image we have of Socrates is one that is coloured positively by his disciples (e.g. Plato) or is distilled to a “purity of form” by the available evidence, where the real person is largely unknown and we only get “the philosopher”. To put it differently, do we know if Socrates was a funny person? Did he have lots of friends? Was he a good father and did he help with house chores? These may seem like trivial issues when we are concerned with “the philosopher” but they matter greatly in better understanding the actual human being.

It could be that Socrates was a brilliant thinker but had an awkward way of expressing his ideas, such that others would not feel comfortable around him. We know many people today who can be highly competent in their field but are not necessarily the best with social skills. This is fine. The point is that knowing about this kind of detail allows us to have a more realistic understanding of the person, rather than the hagiographic representation we get from Plato.

Based on what I have read, I think Socrates was not a fool in his method and outlook. He may have been wrong in the way he said things or, generally, how he conducted himself. I think absolute commitment to the truth, for example, is a sign of foolishness, not wisdom.

Why should the truth be the highest value unconditionally? To me this evaluation feels arbitrary.

Consider a thought experiment where the bullies are patrolling the area and are asking you where their victim is. Suppose that you know the answer. Do you speak the truth, thereby contributing to the harm of a person, or do you lie in the hope of protecting the victim? Again, why should the truth be the highest value unconditionally? I see no good reason for that.

And here is where I think Socrates is fundamentally mistaken. He believed in his principle so much that he failed to recognise that in the human world we cannot apply absolutes the way we can in thought experiments.

This does not mean that Socrates was wrong in his critiques. We all know how politicians pretend to be all-knowing. The same kind of shallow yet loud person we find today in politics, also existed in ancient Athens. But calling them out as fools, or insulting them indirectly by attacking their fragile ego in front of their peers, does not make you wise by comparison.

I can imagine why someone may get annoyed by a Socrates figure who champions his self-righteousness (the “social gadfly”). Who appointed this person to the role of the gadfly? He claims the gods did, but do we have any proof? And what if he is just imagining things? These and related questions connect to the point I raised earlier about not knowing enough about the day-to-day realities.

Can the same pattern be seen in people today? How does somebody who wants to follow the way of the truth end up like Socrates?

The way of the truth is multifaceted. Do we want to know the truth about “why” we are here, for example? This can make us research cosmic magnitudes without ever paying attention to politics. By the same token, the way of the truth may be all about being a social critic, though this comes with the implicit admission that the social critic’s critic is society at-large. Which then raises the question of who is “more” correct in the face of our limited knowledge.

How do you balance your approach? You can not compromise the truth, but did Socrates go too far too early? to what extent trying to please Meletus of today and avoid Socrates’ fate could be a trap?

In the Apology, Meletus is the caricature of an unreasonable fellow. If the jury could be convinced by such feeble arguments, then incompetence was running rampant in Athens.

At any rate, each case comes with its specific requirements. There are times where one can challenge authority and speak the truth, though there are others where the truth is not the highest value. (This assumes we know for sure what the truth is.)

Based on what we have, Socrates was uncompromising in his personal mission. Did others have persuasive arguments against him, but Plato omitted or downplayed them in his biased view of events? Or was Socrates truly the only person around to always get it right?

I think pleasing people in places of power is generally a sign that the person cares about influence, prestige, status, and the like. Unless there is some compelling reason to prioritise those in pursuit of a greater end, they are the sort of traps you are asking about.

Still, this does not mean that we only ever have a choice between servitude or death. It may be that we can choose another course of action that is somewhere in between those extremes. When we choose a principled course of action, we have to ask if we are doing it in accordance with practical reason. And when we are in doubt, we should refrain from going to great lengths for our ideas, because we may be mistaken.