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Literary Origins: Socrates' Improbable Defense in Plato's Apology

Updated on November 23, 2010

The impossibility of Socrates Claim to Know Only that He Does Not Know

One of Plato’s most well known and important works is his Apology . In it, Socrates, the central figure in the works of Plato, is put on trial for his life. The main accusation against him is that he has corrupted the youth. Socrates, ever the eloquent arguer, would, one might be tempted to think, run his accusers out of the court room with his famed form of dialogue. However, in contrast to most of Plato’s works, Socrates does not win the court room trial. It is, in fact, this trial that condemns Socrates to death, and it is indeed this sentence that he is executed for. Even more curious than this fact is the defense Socrates makes for himself. Rather than take a defensible position, Socrates made an impossible claim to “know only that he does not know”, a claim that condemned him to death, yet provided him one last opportunity to plead with his fellow Athenians about the quest for knowledge that he was so passionate about.

Apology is one of Plato's central works and it describes the trial for the life of Socrates.
Apology is one of Plato's central works and it describes the trial for the life of Socrates. | Source

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates argues eloquently against his accusers as they try him for his life based upon the charges of atheism and corrupting the youth. He is clearly in full control of his facilities, to his accuser’s dismay. To defend himself, Socrates tells of the Oracle of Delphi’s claim that “no man is wiser” than Socrates (Plato, p. 35). Socrates claims this is impossible because “I neither know nor think that I know” (Plato, p. 36). He rephrases this later stating, “I [am] conscious I [know] nothing at all” (Plato, p. 36). Though this may at first appear to be an attractive defense for Socrates, it ultimately proves to be his undoing.

As the trial progresses, Socrates eloquently demonstrates, through the stories of talking to the politicians, poets, and artisans, the tendency of men learned in one subject to presuppose they had as much knowledge in other subjects. From here, he makes the claim that he is better off having “neither their knowledge nor their ignorance” (Plato, p. 37). The problems with this claim become even more apparent when Socrates begins to address specific charges against him.

To show the impossibility of Socrates claim, one need only examine the first charge he defends himself against: corrupting the youth. Socrates claims that he is innocent of the charges of corrupting the youth for one of two reasons. He states “either I do not corrupt them, or I corrupt them unintentionally” (Socrates, p. 39). In the first case Socrates is obviously innocent, for he has not corrupted anyone. In the second case, Socrates claims he is innocent because “the law does not mention unintentional offenses” (Socrates, p. 39). An analysis of the possibility of these two latter claims in light of his earlier claim that he only knows that he does not know reveals the problems with the first claim.

Though this scene is not in the Apology, it is of Socrates about to drink the poison that was sentenced him in the Apology.
Though this scene is not in the Apology, it is of Socrates about to drink the poison that was sentenced him in the Apology. | Source

There are several logical conclusions that result from Socrates claim that he knows nothing. Part of the problem with analyzing such a claim is that Socrates does not qualify it. How literally should the claim be taken? It is advantageous for Socrates’ defense for him to leave the extent to which he means this statement un-quantified. Not only does this give Socrates the freedom to always play the devil’s advocate, something anyone who is even remotely familiar with Plato knows he is quite fond of, but it also relieves him of the responsibility of resolving and/or concluding any points he brings into the debate. In fact, it leads him to muddle the point at times rather than clarify. This process, a version of the famed Socractic Dialogue, seems, from this point of view, the be useful only in breaking down someone’s assumed claims to knowledge as he normally employs it, not for a court room defense against his accusers. For this enterprise to be successful, Socrates must turn the tables on his accusers, deflect away from his own claims. The question, despite Socrates arguments, of how we are to interpret this claim of Socrates, remains.

In the absence of qualifications to this claim that could indicate limitations, we must assume, as it is the only option left us, that Socrates intended a literal interpretation. If such an interpretation leads to contradictions, the burden must fall upon Socrates to justify an alternative interpretation since it is his claim. Socrates own logic and form of argument dictates this burden of proof is his. Thus we need not argue all interpretations to refute Socrates claim, but rather only show that the literal, unqualified one leads to contradictions within Socrates own argument. Any such contradictions would illustrate the impossibility of the claim as he presents it in its unqualified form.

To return to Socrates’ defense against the claim of corrupting the youth, Socrates states he either did not corrupt the youth, or he only corrupted them unintentionally.The first possibility Socrates presents is that he did not corrupt the youth. To defend this claim Socrates must show that either the youth are not corrupted, or that someone else other than him is corrupting them. Socrates would have a difficult time defending himself if someone were to ask him simply: If you know nothing at all, how can you assess if the youth are corrupted, moreover, he would similarly have a hard time answering the question how he could claim to know anything about another person’s corruption of the youth when he admits he knows nothing at all about himself let alone another person? If these questions reveal a weakness, it is a weakness within the design of Socrates’ argument, or more specifically a weakness in the unqualified claim that he knows nothing. To say these questions are simply a straw man attack on Socrates’ argument would imply a qualified interpretation of Socrates statement exists. Such qualifications cannot be found in the text, and therefore cannot be assumed.

Before tackling Socrates second possible scenario, that he has unintentionally corrupted the youth, it becomes of interest to point out there is a third possibility: one which Socrates claims no one, including himself, will accept. This possible scenario is one in which Socrates has intentionally corrupted the youth. Here it becomes necessary to stipulate what is meant by intentional and unintentional. Intentional, though this is a simplification, implies Socrates has knowledge of his corruption of the youth. Unintentional implies just the opposite, that he has no knowledge. I make this distinction to point out Socrates claim about intentions relies upon an assumption of the fact that it is possible for Socrates to know if he is or is not corrupting the youth.

A stone sculpture of one of the greatest philosopher's of all time, Plato.
A stone sculpture of one of the greatest philosopher's of all time, Plato. | Source

The circular nature of Socrates argument should begin to become apparent as this is considered. If the only thing that Socrates knows is that he knows nothing, then it is not possible for Socrates to know he is corrupting the youth. The point gets stickier yet, if Socrates intends that he is aware of inability to know whether or not he is corrupting the youth this calls into question his meaning of intentional. If Socrates is aware of a possibility of corruption, and also aware he will be unable to conclude whether or not he is in fact corrupting the youth, then to remain in their presence potentially corrupting them would certainly be a crime. What would Socrates say to this? At this point, it seems he must reply as he has all along, that he knows nothing, or he must qualify what he means by that statement, something he proves unwilling to do.

We must conclude that foreknowledge of possible corruption warrants some form of intention. Obviously the only type of intervention available to a man who knows nothing would be to remove himself completely from the situation for fear of harming those he cares about, as Socrates professes to care for the youth. If Socrates was intent on this, he had ample time to achieve it, yet he did not. We cannot call such behavior unintentional on Socrates part based upon his own claims about himself and his awareness of his lack of knowledge. He says he knows he has no knowledge, so he at least has this knowledge, and it seems only prudent the next conclusion a man who realizes this would have is that he should be cautious about whom he is around not only to protect them, but also to protect himself.

The arguments above illustrate the problematic nature of Socrates claim to know nothing in light of the argument in which he makes it. There are, however, still two other points of view, which have been alluded to already, that may shed even more light on the impossibility of Socrates claim. The first is the contradictory nature of the phrase, the only thing I know is that “I know nothing”. This nature is best illustrated by pondering the following statement: Every thing I say is a lie. The statements contain contradictions within themselves. To say you know that you know nothing is a claim to know something, which means the statement is necessarily false when made. To say you are always lying is to claim you can never be believed, which the statement is necessarily false when made.

Such arguments lead to an infinite regress of impossibility and are perhaps one of the strongest arguments against such a literal interpretations of Socrates’ claim.  This objection appears so obvious that to claim Socrates was unaware of this inherent contradiction would be to underestimate him.  In response to this, it must be said that Socrates would have to give up much of the freedom leaving the term unqualified allowed him within his arguments if pressed upon it.  Is this a trade Socrates would be willing to make? Of course, the easy way to refute this claim is to say that Socrates would probably find a way out of this apparent trap, as he so often did in Plato’s dialogues.  To this, the question must be asked if such a qualification would have been easy for Socrates to do, why didn’t he do so within the text and avoid the obviously hyperbolic claim that he knew nothing?

 The second point is that of the nature of the qualified interpretation of Socrates’ claim to know nothing.  It seems quite reasonable to say purely empirical matters, such as the observation of the behavior of the young over time, are not Socrates point at all.  Justification for this statement would be that Socrates obviously did not mean that when he sees a tree he does not know it is a tree.  To rephrase, Could Socrates possibly mean that he could be around a person for a length of time, interact with them,  observe them, etc., and still not be able to describe their behavior?  It follows logically that to describe them requires knowledge of what you are describing.  It also follows logically that if all this is possible, it is possible, by comparison, to notice changes in behavior, and attitudes that could indicate corruption.  This objection does not need to investigate the cause of corruption to make its point.  If it is possible for Socrates to make a comparison at all of the simple types of knowledge we allow him, it seems it must also be possible for him to observe corruption taking place and then burden him with responsibility that his claim seeks to deny.  The point is that there are reasonable limits to what Socrates could mean by claim that he knows nothing, yet even still he cannot be exonerated. 

In response to this objection, it becomes important to ask the question, at what point does Socrates intend the line to be drawn between what he means to be possible knowledge and impossible.  This line is not clearly drawn by Socrates for reasons already mentioned.  Reason infers this line must be somewhere between the concrete and the abstract.  This is problematic because observable human behavior entails a certain amount of assumption and/or deduction on the part of the observer.  How much, however, is dependent in each case upon that particular observer.  There are countless examples of the disparity between observers.  One of the most obvious disparities can be illustrated by the statement: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  This gives a strong argument against any interpretation of Socrates claim that is not grounded within the text of.  Thus, for any sort of qualification of Socrates statement to carry more weight than that inferred by the term “opinion”, it must be grounded in the text.

In conclusion, this long mental exercise proves one thing:  that Socrates took an indefensible position in his trial in response the accusations brought against him.  We cannot assume that we, as rough amateurs in philosophy have found Socrates out as a philosophical phony.  Such an assumption is born of pride.  Wisdom, however, imparts insight.  Insight says that if we found Socrates out, we found out he was ready to die.  Socrates argument is a terrible defense because it backs him into a corner where he will lose the trial, therefore, winning the trial and saving his life was not what Socrates was concerned with.  What Socrates was concerned with, was answering his accusers in such a way as to try to reach any man with ears to listen about the truth of the way things are, about the folly of human pride and the discipline of the path of knowledge.  From this perspective, Socrates defense is a form of sacrifice for his beliefs.  This interpretation is supported by Plato’s other dialogues and presents the Apology as a testament to the ideals Socrates lived and died for.


Plato. (2000) Apology. In Christopher Biffle (Ed.), A guided tour of five works by Plato.(Christopher Biffle, Trans) (3rd ed.) (pp.32-50). Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company.


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      Assistant Coach 7 years ago

      The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.

    • profile image

      Coach  7 years ago

      loved this one, more please!


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