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.