Socrates And The “Examined Life”

Socrates was a man of very strong conviction. A conviction to live his life for the pursuit of knowledge, true wisdom, piety, and God’s will. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates delivered a passionate defense for the way of life he had chosen. He believed that this way of life was not only right in every sense of the word, but prosperous for him and the people who came into contact with him. This is apparent when he states “Indeed, men of Athens, I am far from making a defense now on my own behalf, as might be thought, but on yours, to prevent you from wrongdoing by mistreating the god’s gift to you by condemning me; for if you kill me you will not easily find another like me” (35, 30d).

Socrates’ begins his arguments by turning the general belief of what true knowledge is upside down. Socrates busied himself by asking questions to hose who were thought to be very wise. He does not claim to have this knowledge himself, “Certainly I would pride and preen myself if I had this knowledge, but I do not have it, gentlemen” (25, 20c), but he does argue that this knowledge is not true wisdom, and does not lead to an “examined life”. “What has caused my reputation is none other than a certain kind of wisdom” (25, 20d). The fact is, Socrates believes in a true wisdom that is fed by curiosity. The wisdom that he has was gained through examining his life and the lives of others. He does not occupy himself with personal gain and “knowledge” like those who are considered the wisest of all. Instead he is steadfastly rooted in the will of god, and takes on his quest for the examined life selflessly. For example, Socrates believes that he is wiser, in that he knows he knows nothing, while others believe they know when they do not, “I am wiser than this man… he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser…” (26, 21d).

Socrates drives home his argument with a statement telling the jurors that he would rather be as he is, with neither knowledge nor ignorance than to be like the “wise” people and have both, “I asked myself… whether I should prefer to be as I am, with neither their wisdom now their ignorance, or to have both. The answer I gave myself and the oracle was that it was to my advantage to be as I am” (27, 22e). Finally, he tells the jurors of the oracle and interprets the oracle’s message as putting Socrates forth as a model for other people, “as if he had said: ‘This man among you, mortals, is wisest who, like Socrates, understands that his wisdom is worthless'” (27, 23b).

Socrates believes that the examined life is one spent seeking internal and spiritual wisdom, asking questions and examining the lives of others, and seeking the best possible state of the soul, “For I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul” (34, 30b). He questioned those who thought they had wisdom and helped them to see that what they were looking for in life was not the way to true wisdom and satisfaction.

This statement made by Socrates about the unexamined life not being worth living makes sense from one point of view, but it is untrue if taken from the point of view of someone who is oblivious to this kind of wisdom and lacks the motivation to look for it. It is the same principle as saying ignorance is bliss. People can lead very happy lives, however simple, even without asking the questions that people like Socrates dare to ask. When it comes to those who do have an intrinsic desire to understand and have that passion about true wisdom like Socrates, however, to not pursue that desire would be very unfulfilling. So from Socrates’ point of view, the statement makes perfect sense and should be true for those who have that curiosity, but from the point of view of many others, it simply does not apply. There could be an argument that a life lived by one who is oblivious to true wisdom is still leading a worthless life, but only from the point of view of someone looking in from the outside. To the person living it, his life has all the meaning in the world. It just depends on which point of view is taken. This statement is so bold that it is impossible for everyone to agree with it. I think that Socrates is thinking purely from the point of view of someone who has this knowledge, and not considering the possibilities of one who does not bother with curiosity.

Essay 4: The Clash Between “Just” and “Right”

Socrates makes a couple of very strong arguments in the dialogues of the Apology and the Crito. In the Apology, he states that if he were to be let free, he would still continue to live the lifestyle he was living. He believes with all his heart that what he is doing by asking questions and seeking answers and true wisdom is the righteous way to live. It was given to him by God and he is simply fulfilling his duty. Socrates argues that he must do what is right and if this meant going against the law, then he would certainly have to do so, for what is commanded by God is more important than what is commanded by the state, or the laws. Nothing should come before what is right, and Socrates believes that this overrides what the people who govern say is just.

Later in the Crito, Socrates is met by Crito who suggests that he run away and escape. In this dialogue, Socrates argues that it would indeed be wrong for him to break the law, even if his conviction was not just. In this situation, the law comes before anything else. He is saying that if he were to run away, he would be living as a poor example of what he believed and that he would rather face his death than live a life in which he was a coward, or at least where he would be labeled as a coward. Crito suggests several reasons why it should be right for Socrates to escape. He mentions his own reputation, and the fact that he would be forever looked down upon as someone who valued money more than he valued his friends. He also brought up the fact that he believes those who are accusing him and putting him to death are in fact his enemies. He should do what he can to keep from benefiting them, and so should escape to defy them. Finally Crito tells Socrates that he is careless for refusing because he is abandoning his own sons. His sons are the ones who should convince him to stay, because they need a father figure in their lives to bring them up properly. Socrates listens to each of these reasons for escaping intently, but in the end, still refuses to run away. He argues that to break the law is not right, no matter how unjust the law seems to be.

So, in the Apology, we have an argument that tells us we should do what we know is right and at all costs. This means that since Socrates believed his way of life was commanded by God, he should follow that path no matter what. On the other hand, we have an argument in the Crito that tells us that to break the laws, even if they seem to be unjust would be wrong. He backs up these arguments in their own situation. In the first instance we have the reasoning that righteousness in leading the way of life ordained to him by god overrides everything else, and in the second situation, it is wrong to go against your government even if the conviction is unjust.

After reading through and observing each of these situations and examining the words of Socrates in both instances, it is conclusive that they are inconsistent with each other. In the Apology, Socrates speaks of the evils in politics and the corruption. He states, “Do you think I would have survived all these years if I were engaged in public affairs and, acting as a good man must, came to the help of justice and considered this the most important thing? Far from it, men of Athens, nor would any other man” (37, 32e). As Socrates makes points about the justice system being corrupt, he defends the fact that what he is doing with his life is simply what was commanded of him by God. He refuses to live his life any other way, even if it meant giving up his life. Later in the Crito, Socrates makes arguments saying that it would be wrong for him to leave and escape death because he would be going against the law. He also makes it clear that his values and principles have not changed. He says that he still holds true to the things that he has said in the past and defends those values the same now as he did then. This is made clear when he states, “I cannot, now that this fate has come upon me, discard the arguments I used; they seem to me much the same. I value and respect the same principles as before…” (48, 46b).

An argument to saying these two claims are inconsistent may be to say that one simply undermines the other. In other words, Socrates only uses breaking the law hypothetically in thinking about what would happen if he were let free on the terms that he not speak as he does. The other situation in the Crito is more potent in the fact that what he is saying about following the law is actually right and just, and is in fact, the actual situation he is in. I believe the argument that they are simply inconsistent makes more sense, because they are two very extreme statements that boldly contradict each other. It does not seem correct to say that the government is secondary in one argument and then to say that the government is the core of justice and should be followed in another.

Source by Emily Crawford

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