Athens of old was a melting pot of new ideas, emerging from the minds of many philosophers who walked the ancient city’s cobbled streets. One such scholar, provocateur and convicted criminal was called Socrates.
Despite the fact he was convinced he knew absolutely nothing, he is thought of today as one of wisest people to have ever lived.
Socrates was an unruly character. His hair was unkempt. He never washed his clothes. Dear friends described him as hideously ugly. Yet, many came to hear him speak, and thought of him as a great teacher. He never wore any shoes, and stood preaching the wisdom of his ignorance to any passerby who’d listen.
He cared little for money, much to the dismay of his family who were often left without much food as Socrates went about speaking, rather than earning a living, in the wealthy capital.
The topic Socrates was primarily concerned with was knowledge itself. He wanted to know how people come to know things. He looked about the busy and bustling streets of the city, wondering just what everyone was up to. “Most importantly”, he thought, “why do they do as they do?”
Curiosity soon got the better of him, and Socrates starting asking questions. He asked merchants, poets, politicians, craftsmen and anyone else who would listen what it was they were doing. To his displeasure he was never quite satisfied with the answers they gave.
When he quizzed lawyers about their job, they usually responded that they worked to uphold justice. “What exactly is justice?” he’d then ask. To which the lawman would mumble something along the lines of “goodness triumphing over evil.”
Socrates was confused by this, as sometimes something that seems good – like returning lost property – could be bad. “How so?” the bemused lawman would ask. “Well, what if a murderous maniac misplaced his sword? It wouldn’t be too good an idea to return his sword to him, would it?“ Reluctantly the lawyer would have to agree – and both men would leave the conversation non-the-wiser what it was a lawyer of Greece actually did.
One day as Socrates was speaking in front of a loyal group of followers, a sprightly young man broke through the crowd. He tugged upon Socrates’ filthy toga, and blurted out that he had been speaking with the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle was said to have a direct line to the Gods, thought to rule over ancient Greece. “Well, what did she have to say for herself?“ questioned Plato, the protégé of Socrates. “I asked her were there a wiser man in all of Greece than the great Socrates.” “What a foolish question” interrupted Socrates, “you should have asked something important, like when dinner would be ready!”
It occurred to Socrates that his fellow lovers of wisdom, actually believed the utterly ridiculous words of the Oracle. “What is the one thing that I preach to you all – day in, day out? That I know nothing! How can you now swallow this nonsense, and deem it fact? There must be someone out there wiser than I, and I’ll prove it!” With that, the elderly cloaked “Wiseman” set out to restore his name to its former glory of “Ignorant Old Fool”.
The old man hatched a plan. He would seek out someone who was wiser than him, and then go to the oracle himself to disprove this absurd statement. First, Socrates approached politicians.
As usual he asked simply what it was they did, and why they did it. “We serve the people of Athens”. “Is that not the job of waiters?” asked Socrates. “We serve them by representing them in parliament.” This, again, troubled the confused old man. How could politicians speak for the people, when so often they are hated by the people? Surely, they could only be said to serve the people when the interests of the politicians overlapped with the common interests of the citizens. And what a rare occasion that was! Socrates left the company of the now enraged politician, with a heavy heart, knowing he would have to journey further in search of true wisdom.
Next Socrates met with the poets of Greece. He was confident he would find that these noble men and women would be brimming with knowledge, as their work was full of wonderful ideas. When he recited pieces of their own work to them he was left amazed at the limited explanations the poets gave in the way of meaning. They said they wrote this and that as it felt right, or is what popped into their head in the moment of creating. It dawned on Socrates that the genius of these poets was not in their intent to make something beautiful, but in their ability to put down in words what they felt. Why they felt this way or that way, however, was something the poets could not explain. The gift of the poet, Socrates thought, was one of inspiration not of wisdom.
Finally, Socrates met with the artisans of Athens. These talented carpenters, tradesmen, chefs and skilled craftsmen had, to Socrates’ delight, a degree of wisdom. Each has a particular skill set, which required wisdom he had lacked. Socrates was just about to venture toward the Oracle’s temple in Delphi to demand an explanation, when, again, his curious nature got the better of him. “Tell me, as an accomplished carpenter, what else can you tell me of the world we live in?” Socrates asked of one man.
The carpenter began to speak gladly, and what seemed endlessly, of all that he came to know about the world.
“I use wood from this tree as its bark is far superior to all the other types of trees in the forest. From this, I know the Gods favour this tree over all others, as they have made it stronger. We can gather from this that the rest of these trees are the produce of evil seed. Why else would they serve no function? They must be the reincarnated souls of men cursed by the Gods, who stand idly by as the world around them pays no heed of them”
“Oh dear” thought Socrates. “This man has wisdom, insofar as he knows well and good how to create a wonderful table, stool, or cupboard. But, he has blinded himself toward the world, by interpreting everything else in light of this one skill. His wisdom is not comparable with mine. For the only thing I have wisdom of is that I know nothing. However, knowing this allows me to experience the world as it truly is.” It was then that Socrates finally understood what the Oracle meant. “I know nothing except the fact that I know nothing. That is what makes me the wisest man of all. I know something others fail to comprehend – the limits of mind.”
When Socrates returned to the capital he was greeted by disdain by the politicians, poets, artisans and civilians of the city. They scoffed at his new accolade, however, now Socrates was convinced he was indeed “The Wisest Man of Greece”. He became even more of a nuisance than ever to the people of Athens. He argued relentlessly and gathered a large following of students who felt they could learn so much from the man who knew so little. Politicians and parents became up in arms that the youth of the State were being led by such a menace rather than by themselves. Soon enough they became so sick with his behaviour they arrested him, on charges of “corrupting the youth of Athens”.
The very politicians, poets, craftsmen, and civilians he had made feel foolish in the past were now called upon to decide his fate.
A large crowd gathered to attend Socrates’ trial, each ready to cast a vote, determining whether he would be freed, fined, exiled, or put to death.
Socrates had until the last drop of a large up-turned dripping water vase emptied to convince the crowd he had done no wrong.
Instead, Socrates used his time to argue how he in fact was the wisest man among them, and that if they let him go he would continue bombarding them with questions as that was his civic duty.
The crowd found him guilty of being a negative influence on the youth of Athens, and began to decide upon his destiny. Socrates said he should be given a hero’s treatment, receiving only the finest foods at the expense of the city as he was as noble as any acclaimed Olympian or victorious soldier. Naturally, the insulted crowd chose to put the ever-cocky Socrates to death immediately. Luckily for the wisest man in Greece, Athens refused to carry out a death sentence while a fleet of soldiers were returning by sea from battle. Superstition forbade blood to spill until the ship returned, safe and well.
Socrates would have a few days before he would meet the Gods.
For three days the old man cheerfully entertained followers, family and friends in his prison cell. He debated, laughed, and showed no fear of the cruel fate which awaited him. One day a loyal friend, Crito, came to Socrates and told him he had arranged for his release. The guards would accept a bribe from Crito, and allow for his teacher’s escape.
“I’m disappointed my dear friend, Crito. For you must not know me as well as I thought, if you seriously expect me to accept such an offer!” said Socrates.
“Athens is the city that made me who I am today. It schooled me. It housed me. I raised my children here. If I did not love this city, I would have left it freely long ago. Instead I stayed, and entered into a silent agreement that I would accept its governance over me. Now that this city has decided I am to die, how can I in good conscious turn my back on it now?”
Crito begged him to reconsider, but Socrates’ mind was made up. When the time had come he would drink from the cup of poisonous hemlock and die as the city deemed a just punishment.
“Do you not fear death?” his followers asked of him. Socrates chuckled at the thought.
“I believe each of you should seriously consider checking your ears for excessive wax. You must not hear me when I speak, and what’s more it would save you a lot of money crafting your own candles!” His worried guests were left amazed by his light-hearted mood. “Why do you all look so filled with despair? Let me ask you one thing. What is a philosopher?” The crowd stayed silent, too forlorn to engage with their beloved Socrates in argumentation. “Okay, you need not speak, I will tell you. A philosopher is a lover of wisdom. Are we not lovers of wisdom, and pursuers of knowledge?” Phaedo, a follower quietly spoke with a cracking voice, “Yes, dear Socrates. We are.” “Thanks, Phaedo, the silence was beginning to unnerve me! As lovers of wisdom, is there not one mystery above all else which usurps our interest? That is, of course, what happens after we die? Many suspect we go to paradise, some fear the wicked go to underworld to suffer an everlasting punishment, and some even think that life simply continues in another form or simply patters out into a deep thoughtless sleep. But, truly, no one can know, nor should they! That answer is a gift we receive, we hope, after a long and happy life. For this reason I am not scared, as my curiosity has built considerably over my lengthy, fulfilling life. In death we are finally granted that which we are never allowed in life: a single, irrefutable truth!
With that, Socrates drank his cup of hemlock and awaited its effect. “Before you depart, and find an answer to life’s greatest question could I ask of you one more thing?” asked Crito. “You better make it quick, I have a prior engagement and it appears time has become quite the scarce commodity for your dear friend.” Socrates answered. “Can you tell us what you have learned from life?” Crito spoke.
Socrates began to mouth the words “I know nothing, but the fact that I know nothing”, but, upon seeing the eager wanting eyes of his beloved friends and family he stopped himself short. “Very well”, said Socrates, “I have asked more questions than most likely any man has ever asked before. What’s more, I have listened to the answers given to these queries more than I think any sane man should! From this, I have come to suspect that certain things are indeed true.”
With this, Socrates began to list all the things about the world he reasoned must be facts. “As there are so many beautiful, different coloured flowers on the ground it a safe bet to reason that the world looks spectacularly multi-coloured from space.” Unfortunately, as we know, the great Socrates was in this assertion, and many more that followed, utterly incorrect. As he was a proud citizen of Athens, he declined to leave the city when not compelled to for the sake of a battle as a young Soldier. As a result, he was deeply unaware of how large, varied and wonderfully exotic the world he lived in was, and continues to be.
Although so much of what Socrates said is misplaced, misguided or simply mistaken, Socrates was often incorrect, he still remains thought of today as one of the wisest people to have ever lived. The reason for this is simple, Socrates – as the Oracle of Delphi knew, and soon the world would, too – was utterly unique. Unlike the politicians, poets, artisans, craft-workers and lawmen of the Athens, Socrates was never afraid to admit when he was unsure of something. This, Socrates knew, was the true path to wisdom. It takes humility, and patience to find the answers to anything really complex in the adventure of life. Socrates never wrote down a single word, and yet he is still studied today via the works written of his dialogues by his loyal protégé, Plato. We have learned an incredible amount due to this one confused old man’s journey questioning all aspects of life. Though, it is safe to say, if it were up to him, he’d have you think he knew nothing at all.