In the Apology, what is Socrates’ argument for holding that the Oracle of Delphi was right to say that there was no one wiser than Socrates? Why does Socrates interpret the Oracle’s answer as a command to live the philosophical life?
Upon being asked by Socrates’ friend Chaerephon, the all-knowing Oracle of Delphi replies there is none wiser than Socrates. Socrates recounts this incident with modesty in his defence. He was puzzled that why the Oracle found him to be the wisest of all. The reply of the priestess surprised his friend. Socrates left out to see all the wisest people. Despite being puzzled, he was certain the priestess would not lie. He tells people, “I shall call upon the God at Delphi as witness to the existence and nature of my wisdom, if it be such. You know Chairephon…. He went to Delphi at one time and ventured to ask the Oracle—as I say, gentlemen, do not create a disturbance—he asked if any man was wiser than I, and the Pythian replied that no one was wiser”. Socrates argues further to prove the truth of the claim by the Oracle of Delphi.
He was at a loss over the claim and questioned many wise men in order to verify its truth. He visited several wise men esteemed for their wisdom. He saw politicians, scholars, poets and other people known to be the wisest. Socrates says, “I went to one of those reputed wise, thinking that there, if anywhere, I could refute the oracle and say to it: “This man is wiser than I, but you said I was.” When he came across one of the wise men who was a politician he found that while he seemed to himself and the people a wise man, he was truly not. In Socrates’ words, “Then, when I examined this man—there is no need for me to tell you his name, he was one of our public men—my experience was something like this: I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not.”
Socrates shows that the people who believed or claimed themselves to be wise were not so actually. They were wise in their own eyes and claimed it before the people. He explains before the jury that he visited nearly every person who was claimed to be wise. He found that they who claimed to be the wisest were the most deficient. He saw the politicians and the scholars. When he approached one of the politicians known to be the wisest, he found it was not the reality. The poet whom Socrates visited wrote poems based upon inspiration but again Socrates felt like he was at an advantage compared to the poet. Wherever Oracle went, he found that the wisdom of these people was based upon wrong assumptions and none of them was akin with the truth. Their wisdom was nothing but a heap of lies. When he visited the craftsmen, he found them making the same mistake. They too had falsely assumed that they were the wisest of them all. So, at last Socrates is forced to conclude that the Oracle was true in her claim about him.
In this regard, he takes the Oracle’s reply to be a divine command that he lead a philosophical life. He could not commit the same error as the politicians, poets or the craftsmen. Socrates could not falsely assume himself to be as wise he was not. He would remain modest, be himself, and not be wise or ignorant. Thus, Socrates proved that vanity did not imply wisdom even if so many people chose to make the mistake knowingly. They vainly assumed themselves to be the wisest of all. People who falsely assumed themselves to be wise were actually miles away from true wisdom. “But, gentlemen of the jury, the good craftsmen seemed to me to have the same fault as the poets: each of them, because of his success at his craft, thought himself very wise in other most important pursuits, and this error of theirs overshadowed the wisdom they had, so that I asked myself, on behalf of the oracle, whether I should prefer to be as I am, with neither their wisdom nor their ignorance, or to have both. The answer I gave myself and the Oracle was that it was to my advantage to be as I am.”, Socrates says. To satisfy his curiosity regarding the Oracle’s claim, he tells himself that it was better to remain the humble self he was than believe he was wiser.