The Oracle of Delphi and Socrates

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The infamous Oracle of Delphi strikes again! The Oracle was known for handing out prophecies that often came true because they were trying to be avoided. This isn’t exactly the case with Socrates, but this reputation is interesting to consider in the narrative of Socrates’ trail and conviction as told by Plato.

Socrates’ trouble began when his impulsive friend Chaerephon asked the Oracle if any man was wiser than Socrates, to which it replied that no one was wiser (21a). This reply deeply puzzled Socrates, who didn’t believe himself to be especially wise at all. In response, he went to a man known for his wisdom in order to bring him before the Oracle and ask the true meaning of the prophecy. However, upon questioning, Socrates found this man to be not quite as wise as he thought himself to be, or as others thought he was. Socrates attempted to show him his error (with what we can assume was very little tact), but the result was, as Socrates sarcastically points out, “he came to dislike me, and so did many of the bystanders.”

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He went on to “examine” many public figures, poets, and craftsmen in this way, offending most of them along the way, thereby ensuring his unpopularity. The main point at which Socrates found fault with these individuals is that they assumed their knowledge stretched farther than it actually did. One comment he made was that “those who had the highest reputation were nearly the most deficient, while those who were thought to be inferior were more knowledgeable.” (22a). From all this, Socrates believed the Oracle to be revealing to mankind that the key to true wisdom lies in humility (23b).

Socrates sets both a very high and a very low standard for wisdom. He insists that the greatest wisdom is in understanding and admitting your own limits. This is such an easy step and yet very difficult for us humans. We all have an arrogant streak, and Socrates showed his by feeling the need to point it out in everybody else.

Socrates was put on trail, mainly as a result of offending many important people, for corrupting the youth of the city and impiety. In his trial, Socrates manages to make sense while further offending those present. After his conviction, he expresses his belief that he should be praised for his efforts instead of punished, and further said that he would never stop what he was doing, as the unexamined life is not worth living. Certainly for him, this would seem to be the case. He believed it to be his sacred duty, handed down from the god, to show people how they are actually not wise at all.

However, I don’t entirely agree with him. Given that he believed it his sacred duty, I can understand why Socrates felt he could love no other life. However, I feel there are many ways to live your life that produce satisfaction and are worthwhile. Doctors heal people and save lives every day, teachers impact the next generation immeasurably by passing on knowledge, and stay-at-home moms provide love and a safe place for their children. These people may be living “unexamined” lives, but I don’t think that makes their lives not worth living.

I don’t agree that the unexamined life is not worth living, because I believe that there are many ways to have a worthwhile life. I think perhaps looking deeply into your life and character may bring you more satisfaction, but I don’t think it follows that anything less is worthless.

In a way, the Oracle was right. There really was no one wiser than Socrates in his opinion. By his own definition, he himself was the wisest man he could find.

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