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Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

Does Socrates make any philosophical assertions, and if so, of what kind are they? On one hand, he denies having any kind of specialized knowledge, and on the other hand, he makes assertions such as "the unexamined life is not worth living" and "no one ever knowingly does wrong." Can we reconcile these two positions?

One (but by no means the only) way of answering this question is to suggest that Socrates' ethical assertions are not really assertions of fact. They are maxims more than substantial claims, and cannot really be verified or disproved. Certainly, this can be said of his claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. The assertion that no one ever knowingly does wrong is a little more difficult to step around, but can be managed through an appeal to some of Socrates' other maxims. Socrates tends to equate wisdom with goodness, seeing the ultimate end of wisdom and knowledge as being that it gives us the wisdom and knowledge to act rightly. Wisdom would not be so valuable if it were not so intimately connected to the good. Certainly, Socrates, the wisest of men, has lived faultlessly. If anything, he serves as evidence in favor of the claim that knowledge helps us to avoid evil.

Was Socrates trying to get himself acquitted? If he was not, what effect was he trying to exert on the jury?

Socrates is quite explicit on this question. Getting acquitted is completely immaterial to him. The only thing of importance is the truth. Rather than provide arguments in his defense, Socrates insists solely on speaking the truth, which he feels should be sufficient to acquit him if only the jury were just. Socrates points out that he has always been consistent in his behavior and his values, and he would be doing himself a great injustice to be inconsistent now. Rather than behave differently before a court, he continues to behave as he always has.

We might want to question whether all of this is true, however. This is certainly the rhetoric that Socrates employs, but his speech is so laden with irony that we should not be hasty to take his words at face value. Certainly, he seems to accept his condemnation, but we see in his many rhetorical flourishes and his merciless attack on Meletus that pure truth is not his only aim. Perhaps he also wants to have a deeper effect on the jury, to lead them to acknowledge the unjust state of affairs that persists in the deteriorating city- state.

Socrates asserts that he is wise only in that he knows that he knows nothing. He sets up the model of the philosopher as one who does not have any specialized knowledge, but who is instead well- skilled at revealing the ignorance of others. Plato, Socrates' immediate successor, wants to claim all sorts of positive wisdom for the philosopher (such as knowledge of the theory of forms). To what extent do you think Socrates is correct in saying that philosophy does not consist of positive wisdom?

The answer to this question largely depends upon your conception of philosophy. The majority of philosophers since Plato have followed in Plato's tradition, using philosophical methods to try to build up positive systems of knowledge. This tradition includes Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and most other major philosophers. However, there is another line of thinking that applies to different philosophers to greater and lesser extents that is more in accord with Socrates' teaching. These philosophers see the role of philosophy as one of provoking and critiquing thought without building any positive assertions of its own. Arguments could be made for including both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein in this camp.

Characterize Socratic irony and the role it plays in Socrates' method. To what extent and to what effect is this irony employed? Can we take anything Socrates' says seriously? And is there a rigid connection between being serious and speaking the truth?

What is the supernatural sign or divine voice that Socrates alludes to at 31c-d and 40a? Might we count this as some kind of specialized knowledge, the kind which Socrates vehemently denies having? Or is this a kind of intuition or inspiration of the kind Socrates identifies with the poets? How seriously does Socrates mean what he says here? And if he is joking, what is the purpose of the joke?

Is there a conflict between 31a, where Socrates claims he is irreplaceable, and 39c-d, where he claims that many more critics will take his place if he is executed? How can these two claims be reconciled?

Discuss Socrates' attitude toward religion. He is on trial in part for being impious and irreligious, and responds only very briefly to these charges. Furthermore, his attitudes toward the supernatural seem to waver a great deal. In his cross-examination of Meletus, he seems to suggest that only the gods and the children of the gods are supernatural, and yet at other points, he alludes to his supernatural sign and to the possibility of human souls living after death. Is Socrates guilty of impiety?

Explain and discuss the elenchus, or cross-examination, between Socrates and Meletus. Whose side would you take in their argument? Can you think of arguments Meletus might have made against Socrates had he been quicker witted?

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