Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Hypatia's Girl Angrily Reads the Apology of Socrates

"Apology" in Five Dialogues 2e, trans. G.M.A. Grube, rev. John M. Cooper (Hackett, 2002)

I'm preparing for the Grand Move, and realized that this book is packed away, oops! So, you know, it might be a little short.

The trial of Socrates is one of my favorite stories in philosophy.  Which says something as I got into philosophy for the stories.  There is something enormously compelling about the image of this pug-nosed old geezer daring Athens to put him to death.

What we have in this dialogue is the "transcript" of Socrates' defense at his trial.  Before a 500 man jury, Socrates is expected to defend himself against the fairly serious charges of corrupting the youth and atheism/worshiping false gods.  It is also in this dialogue that we see the formulation of the idea that Socrates is the wisest man because he knows that he knows nothing.

I'm going to focus on that thought, leaving aside his specific arguments against the charges for now, although once my books and I are reunited, I may return to them.

Socrates tells the assembled that a friend had visited the Oracle of Delphi, and was told by her that none were wiser than Socrates.  Wondering where the trick lay, he sets out to find out how that could be true.  He wanders through some politicians, some poets and some craftsmen.  Interrogating them about what they do, and what they know about what they do, Socrates discovers that the politicians are frauds, the poets don't know what the hell they're talking about and the craftsmen don't understand what they do, but what makes Socrates smarter than all of them, is that he knows to wonder at the limits of his knowledge, to question how and whether one knows anything.

This is why I do philosophy.  That edge of reason, of knowledge.  Like I tell my ethics kids - 99% of ethics is hella boring, you don't lie awake at night worrying about whether or not blowing up school buses full of orphans, nuns, kittens and your kindly grandma. (We'll assume she's not Gangee)  It's the borderline cases (e.g. should we use BP execs to stop the oil leak, or is that too insulting to the ocean?) that are interesting, that tell us something about what we believe, that, in fact, allow us to understand why the easy cases are the easy cases.

This, and suggesting that an appropriate sentence would be buying him a nice dinner, might have contributed to more people voting for the death penalty than voted to find him guilty.

Next book: At least part of Plato's Republic, I'll probably break that up a little!

I make no promises to get to that anytime soon.

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