Oracles and Horseflies

Oracles and Horseflies


Socrates is on trial for his life and he is defending himself before his judges. He begins by explaining how he’s been brought to such a pass: why he’s reputed to be wise and how he’s come to have so many enemies. It all began with a busybody by the name of Chaerephon who went to the oracle at Delphi and asked if there was any man as wise as Socrates. The oracle replied that there was no man wiser than he.

Upon hearing of this, Socrates was troubled because he knew that he had no wisdom of any kind. Sure that it must be a test or a riddle or a mystery, he resolved to find a man wiser than himself and bring him before the oracle. He first went to a politician renowned for his wisdom but when Socrates questioned him, he found that he was not wise at all. He explained to the politician that although he considered himself wise, he really wasn’t. The politician took this badly and after this he hated Socrates, and his admirers and supporters did as well. Socrates went to other politicians, examining and discomfiting one after another.

Having run through the politicians without finding a wise man, he next went to the poets and asked them the meaning of their writings. But they were unable to explain their own poems. Because of their fine poems they took themselves to be the wisest of men, but when they set down these passages, they were divinely inspired, a conduit to wisdom but not wise in themselves. Socrates made the rounds of the poets, and finding that they weren’t wise, he left them alone but not before mortally offending them.

Next Socrates went to the artisans, and he found that they knew many things that he did not. Potters, carpenters, shipwrights, and masons knew a great deal of their own art and they could explain their techniques. Because of their expertise, they thought themselves wise, but when Socrates asked about the nature of the holy, the just, and the good, they knew no more than any of the rest.

It’s clear that the artisans were no wiser than any other men, but we must stop here because again and again Socrates compares the few who can improve the youth to horse trainers. If horse trainers can’t be numbered among the artisans, they are certainly akin to them. And like the artisans, they know their own business. They know how often a horse should be fed, what he should be fed, and how often. They can lift up a hoof and look it over, quickly spotting any injury and infection. They’re familiar with the diseases to which horses are susceptible and they can hear in the animal’s breathing when he is unwell.

Yet like the artisans, when questioned about what Socrates refers to as ‘higher matters’ they can give no better answers than any who have come before. Socrates has said again and again that there is a small class of men who can improve the youth just as horse trainers can care for and improve horses. And as the horse trainers act on their special knowledge, these men must have a special knowledge of their own. In order to guide the youth and impart to them their own wisdom, these men must have a knowledge of these higher matters.

But Socrates says this is impossible:

And I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer he wants to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing; is is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name by way of illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.

The few men who can improve the youth are like the few men who know how to properly care for horses, not because they have a special knowledge, but because they are few. While no man is truly wise, nearly all men believe that they are. Socrates might, in fact, be completely alone. Socrates compares himself to a gadfly and warns the Athenians that if they swat him, they won’t easily find another like him.

To improve the youth, a mentor must bring them to see that they know nothing and admonish them to proceed accordingly. Their teaching is entirely negative, a denial that their charges know anything. This may seem obstructive and fruitless, but Socrates one really public act was equally obstructive. When Socrates held public office, he acquitted himself well, not by proposing some ingenious measure or by drafting some salutary law, but by opposing the entire Assembly when it was about to perpetrate an injustice. The Assembly proposed to try the generals who had neglected to gather up the bodies of the slain after the Battle of Arginusae as a body rather than individually. This was illegal and Socrates stood against the measure in spite of being threatened with impeachment or death.

Socrates doesn’t believe that knowledge can be imparted by being poured into the ear. He does believe that the young can be taught but he doesn’t give an account of that here. He does tell of his oracle, a kind of voice, that first came to him when he was a child. This voice doesn’t whispers secrets to him, mysteries and esoteric truths hidden from everyone else. The voice doesn’t counsel him, telling him of what lies in the future, or suggesting steps that will benefit him, his family, or the state. The oracle never commands but only forbids him from doing anything evil or unjust.

The few who can guide and improve the youth must do the same, humbling their pride and curbing their feckless certainty. Socrates doesn’t teach in the manner of the Sophists, imparting knowledge and truth in long, elegant, rhetorically polished passages. If the young can learn, they must first be shown that what they think they know is false and that they don’t know anything.

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