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Speech I: Socrates' Defense

(3)The Oracle of Delphi
20d-24b


I dare say, Athenians, that some one among you will reply,

Jowett's Notes

"Yes, Socrates, but what is the origin of these accusations  
which are brought against you; there must have been  
del_1_lkx.JPG (10273 bytes)

Apollo's Temple at Delphi
Photo: Louise Kames

something strange which  
you have been doing? All  
these rumors and this talk  
about you would never have    
arisen if you had been like  
other men: tell us, then, what is the cause of them, for we    
should be sorry to judge hastily of you." Now I regard  

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this as a fair challenge, and I will endeavor to explain to  
you the reason why I am called wise and have such an evil  
time. Please to attend then. And although some of you may  
think that I am joking, I declare that I will tell you the entire  
truth. Men of Athens, this reputation of mine has come of a  
certain sort of wisdom which I possess. If you ask me what The accusations against me have arisen out of a sort of wisdom which I practice.
kind of wisdom, I reply, wisdom such as may perhaps be
attained by man, for to that extent I am inclined to believe that

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I am wise; whereas the persons of whom I was speaking have a
superhuman wisdom, which I may fail to describe because I
have it not myself; and he who says that I have, speaks falsely,
and is taking away my character. And here, O men of  
Athens, I must beg you not to interrupt me, even if I seem to  
say something extravagant. For the word which I will speak is  
not mine. I will refer you to a witness who is worthy of credit;  
that witness shall be the God of Delphi - he will tell you about My practice of it arose out of a declaration of the Delphin Oracle that I was the wisest of men.
my wisdom, if I have any, and of what sort it is. You must
have known Chaerephon; he was early a friend of mine, and

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also a friend of yours, for he shared in the recent exile of the
people, and returned with you. Well, Chaerephon, as you
know, was very impetuous in all his doings, and he went to  
Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether - as I  
was saying, I must beg you not to interrupt - he asked the  

del_4_rux.JPG (21276 bytes)

Pythian priestess
Photo: Runes, A Pictorial History of Philosophy

oracle to tell him whether any  
one was wiser than I was, and  
the Pythian prophetess answered,  
that there was no man wiser.  
Chaerephon is dead himself;  
but his brother, who is in court,  
will confirm the truth of what  
I am saying. Bar212.GIF (862 bytes)  

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Why do I mention this?  Because I am going to explain to you   
why I have such an evil name.  When I heard the answer, I said   
to myself, What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation   
of his riddle? for I  know that I have no wisdom, small or great.    
What then can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men?   
And yet he is a god, and cannot lie; that would be against his  
nature.  After long consideration, I thought of a method of trying    
the question.  I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than  
myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I  
should say to him, "Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you  
said that I was the wisest."  

 
Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, I went about searching after a man who was wiser than myself; at first among the politicians; then among the philosophers; and found that I had an advantage over them, because I had no conceit of knowledge.
and observed him - his name I need not mention; he was a
politician whom I selected for examination - and the result was
as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help
thinking, that he was not really wise, although he was thought
wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried

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to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not
really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and  
his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard  
me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well,  
although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything  
really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is for he  
knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor  
think that I know. In this latter particular then, I seem to have  
slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another who had  

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still higher pretensions to wisdom, and my conclusion was  
exactly the same. Whereupon I made another enemy of him,  
and of many others besides him.  

 
Then I went to one man after another, being not unconscious  
of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared  
this: But necessity was laid upon me, - the word of God, I  
thought, ought to be considered first. And I said to myself, Go  
I must to all who appear to know, and find out the meaning of  

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the oracle. And I swear to you, Athenians, by the dog I  
swear! - for I must tell you the truth - the result of my mission  
was just this: I found that the men most in repute were all but  
the most foolish; and that others less esteemed were really  
wiser and better. I will tell you the tale of my wanderings and  
of the "Herculean" labors, as I may call them, which I endured  
only to find at last the oracle irrefutable. After the politicians, I  

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went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And will I found out that the poets were the worst possible interpreters of their own writings.
there, I said to myself, you will be instantly detected, now you
find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly,
I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own  
writings, and asked what was the meaning of them - thinking  
that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I  
am almost ashamed to confess the truth, but I must say that  
there is hardly a person present who would not have talked  
better about their poetry than they did themselves. Then I  

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knew that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort  
of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers  
who also say many fine things, but do not understand the  
meaning of them. The poets appeared to me to be much in the  
same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of  
their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in  
other things in which they were not wise. So I departed,  
conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason  
that I was superior to the politicians.  

 

An Artisan - the Potter
The Perseus Project
 
At last I went to the artisans, for I was conscious that I knew The artisans had some real knowledge, but they had also a conceit that they knew things which were beyond them.

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nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew
many fine things; and here I was not mistaken, for they did
know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this they
certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the  
good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; - because  
they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all  
sorts of high matters, and this deceit in them overshadowed  
their wisdom; and therefore I asked myself on behalf of the  

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oracle, whether I would like to be as I was, neither having their  
knowledge nor their ignorance, or like them in both; and I  
made answer to myself and to the oracle that I was better off  
as I was.  

 
This inquisition has led to my having many enemies of the  

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worst and most dangerous kind, and has given occasion also to  
many calumnies. And I am called wise, for my hearers always  
imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in  
others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that Jove only is The oracle was intended to apply, not to Socrates, but to all men who know that their wisdom is worth nothing.
wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of
men is worth little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates,

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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. And so I go about the world,  
obedient to the God, and search and make enquiry into the  
wisdom of any one, whether citizen or stranger, who appears  
to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the  
oracle I show him that he is not wise; and my occupation quite  
absorbs me, and I have no time to give hither to any public  
matter or interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in  
23c utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god.  

 
There is another thing: - young men of the richer classes, who There are my imitators who go about protecting pretenders, and the enmity which they arouse falls upon me.
have not much to do, come about me of their own accord; they
like to hear the pretenders examined, and they often imitate
me, and proceed to examine others; there are plenty of
persons, as they quickly discover, who think that they know  
something, but really know little or nothing; and then those  
who are examined by them instead of being angry with  
themselves are angry with me: This confounded Socrates, they  

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say; this villainous misleader of youth! - and then if somebody  
asks them, Why, what evil does he practice or teach? they do  
not know, and cannot tell; but in order that they may not  
appear to be at a loss, they repeat the ready-made charges  
which are used against all philosophers about teaching things  
up in the clouds and under the earth, and having no gods, and  

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making the worse appear the better cause; for they do not like  
to confess that their pretence of knowledge has been detected -  
which is the truth; and as they are numerous and ambitious  
and energetic, and are drawn up in battle array and have  
persuasive tongues, they have filled your ears with their loud  
and inveterate calumnies. And this is the reason why my three  
accusers, Meletus and Anytus and Lycon , have set upon me;  
Meletus, who has a quarrel with me on behalf of the poets;  

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Anytus, on behalf of the craftsmen and politicians; Lycon, on  
behalf of the rhetoricians: and as I said at the beginning, I  
cannot expect to get rid of such a mass of calumny all in a  
moment. And this, O men of Athens, is the truth and the  
whole truth; I have concealed nothing, I have dissembled  
nothing. And yet, I know that my plainness of speech makes  
them hate me, and what is their hatred but a proof that I am  
speaking the truth? Hence has risen the prejudice against me;  

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and this is the reason of it, as you will find out either in this or  
in any future enquiry.