In Plato’s Apology, Socrates is accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, of creating new deities instead of recognizing the gods that were recognized by the state. In his defense of his case against the jury, Socrates began with the argument that he knows nothing despite being prophesized by the oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest of all men. Socrates then continued by saying that it was perhaps his ignorance, so to speak, which made him wiser than all the rest of the men. That is, he knows that he knows nothing unlike the supposed wise men that pretend to know everything when in fact they know false truths. It should be understood that Socrates’ method of inquiring is the best example of disproving false beliefs, especially the beliefs firmly held by the wise men in the state. Moreover, part of the reason of Socrates being charged with these crimes is that he has angered and put to shame wise men, politicians and poets that he has proven to be ignorant of real knowledge through his method of inquiry.
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Apparently, Socrates’ defense of his self before the jury is also a defense of philosophy. For one, his critical insight about the way in which most people in position impart knowledge—people such as poets and politicians—is through force or an appeal to authority. Socrates instead suggested that true knowledge begins by accepting the fact that all people know nothing and that it is through the method of questioning can one begin to realize and understand genuine knowledge. Socrates also espoused the idea that people should not be afraid to question those in authority or to inquire about the supposed knowledge that they hold. As he has proven to himself in his series of inquiries in Athens, poets appear to be ignorant of what they write inasmuch as craftsmen appear pretentious in reality. He has likewise proven to himself that prophets and seers do not comprehend the things that they are saying and that politicians were impostors. He even likened himself to a stinging “gadfly”—an irritant, so to speak, aiming for a noble cause—and the state to a “lazy horse”.
It is easy to see how Socrates was able to compare himself to a gadfly. For the most part, his method of questioning the authority of politicians and the practices of poets, craftsmen and seers was not a “welcome” approach to begin with. The reason for this is that Socrates’ method of inquiry always resulted to disproving the beliefs of these individuals, thereby putting them into shame for not knowing that they knew nothing at all. He was, therefore, never a favorite among those he has questioned and proven to be pretentious. In the process of defending himself before the jury and against those who have charged him of atheism and corruption, he has effectively defended the essence of philosophy—to question beliefs of people regardless of who they are in the society.
The method of inquiry practiced by Socrates fittingly embodies the essence of philosophizing, which is to know the truth and to acquire real knowledge in the process. Yet in order to commit to that goal, one should first realize that one does not know anything at all other than the knowledge that one is ignorant in the first place. This same approach has been adopted by Socrates in his search for knowledge in his daily affairs. On the contrary, the poets and politicians of Athens during his time all claim to hold genuine knowledge. Thus, Socrates’ method of questioning those in authority made him unpopular, figuratively suggesting that philosophy in itself does not bend to authority. Neither does it accept everything else as true or as genuine knowledge just because those who hold them are in a higher position in the state. Apparently, Socrates’ defense of his self before the jury focused on these same issues, which in turn highlighted the role of philosophy in the search for genuine knowledge.
As far as the charge of corrupting the Athenian youth thrown against Socrates is concerned, much of it is tied back to his method of challenging conventions. The manner in which he taught his students focused on questioning conventional knowledge being passed on by the state and its authorities. By challenging these established conventions, it is not a farfetched possibility for Socrates to be accused of corrupting the youth of Athens. The fact that the method of Socrates in opening the minds of the Athenian youth departed from the conventional manner of teaching during ancient Athens is already in itself a challenge to the Athenian status quo. The charge of corrupting the mind of the Athenian youth, therefore, is a product of the youth acquiring knowledge which is different to what is being taught by the authorities of the state.
Socrates’ case of supposedly corrupting the Athenian embodies another aspect of philosophy which has been misunderstood by the Athenian jury. To philosophize is to think, and to question or challenge the established conventions is one way to stimulate the mind into a deep thinking—this perhaps summarizes the method used by Socrates in teaching the Athenian youth. Unfortunately, the mere act of challenging the established convention within the state through questioning can be interpreted by the Athenian authorities—which has been the case with those who filed charges against Socrates—as a form of treason in one way or another. By teaching the Athenian youth with method that departs from how the authorities want the people to ‘know’, Socrates was charged with corruption. However, Socrates defended his position by saying that, in the first place, he was unaware that he was corrupting the Athenian youth. His argument points us back to the center of all his arguments, which is that he knows that he knows nothing. At the same time, albeit without the explicit revelation from Socrates himself, the act of philosophizing behaves in the same way. At the heart of it all is the idea that one is ignorant of real knowledge other than the knowledge of that ignorance. In effect, how can Socrates have corrupted the Athenian youth when he was not aware that he was doing so in the first place? More importantly, as Socrates professes, deliberate corruption is an incoherent idea for, indeed, no one would intentionally corrupt another individual.
Plato. (1997). J. J. Helm (Ed.), Plato: Apology (Rev Sub ed.) Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers.