The arrogance of Socrates: Apollo made me!

None wiser, says Apollo

None wiser, says Apollo

So we opened this thread on Socrates and his relevance to us today by showing the heroically positive, then nuanced that with some more ambiguous observations. We must now add (before we eventually get to the heroic again) a few more. First: he was arrogant.

Yes, an arrogant S.O.B. I mean, let’s take his personal “creation myth”, ie the story that he would later use at his trial (to which we will get) as his raison d’être.

There are two versions of this story, one from each of the only two students whose writings we rely on to know anything at all about Socrates.

Xenophon, the less famous of the two, says that Socrates told the Athenian jury that he had sent a student/apprentice to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, where the oracle opined that

no man was more free than I, or more just, or more prudent.

Ahem. Lest that sound a bit, you know, over-the-top, Socrates added that

Apollo did not compare me to a god [although he did] judge that I far excelled the rest of mankind.

So there, members of the jury. That’s why I have been going around humiliating and exposing you, disabusing you of your impression that you were free, undermining your self-confidence while tooting the horn of the Spartan enemy.

The more famous of the two students, Plato, wrote later and probably realized that it would be wise to tone this down a bit. Here Socrates ‘merely’ told the jury that the oracle told him that

there was no one wiser.

This is still rather cocky, but now with a twist. The twist is that Socrates is now on a divine mission. He must find out whether the oracle is right, whether anybody out there is wiser after all. So, you see, he had to make everybody look like a fool just to do justice to Apollo.

His ‘biographer’ I.F. Stone calls this one huge “ego-trip”, possibly the biggest in world history. It just so happens that I have a soft spot for huge egos, provided that they are intelligent and witty and not my editors. So on The Hannibal Blog, this is not an attack per se. It’s just, you know, ‘color’. We need to know who we’re dealing with.

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5 thoughts on “The arrogance of Socrates: Apollo made me!

    • I’m rooting for Socrates too. But you read I.F. Stone (since you recommended it to me). You must have struggled with these contradictions…

  1. My contribution is again non substantive.
    Other ways for arrogant ego-trippers to toot their own horn:

    to throw flowers at oneself – Spanish (Lat Am)
    to kiss the sky – Hindi
    to think one is the last suck of the mango – Spanish (Lat Am)
    to flap one’s nose wings – Japanese

    Apologies – I’m stuck in idiom promotion mode…

  2. Yes, and as readers of this blog in particular, we agree that conflicting thoughts lead to greater insight, sometimes.

    Somewhere, between Plato and Xenophon, is the truth about Socrates. In my reading of The Trial of Socrates, I found myself equally annoyed at both him and his accusers. He was a cocky son of a gun, but then I know many cocky men, so that aspect of him didn’t offend me.

    If you needed a surgeon, would you want Socrates or Alcibiades?

    I loved the story that Stone told. How much of it was true, I don’t know, but Stone’s scholarship is impressive.

    Thanks for providing a place to discuss this, Andreas.

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