Socrates was a classical Greek philosopher who lived and died in Athens. He is primarily known to us through the writings of his contemporaries and students because he did not pen any philosophical texts. The principal and most quoted of these writings are those by Plato. He claimed to know nothing and ascribed his wisdom to the fact that he was aware of his ignorance while others were not. According to him, wisdom belonged to the gods, therefore, being human, he could not be held to be wise.
Socrates’ modus operandi was asking questions consistently of his subject, seeking to gain knowledge and reduce his ‘ignorance’. His dialogue with Euthyphro and his questioning of Meletus both illustrate this perfectly. In his conversation with Euthyphro, a self proclaimed master of religion, on what was pious; he defers to the latter as the wiser of the two and proceeds to try to obtain a definition of piety.
In the search for a definition of piety, Socrates is the student, hoping to gain wisdom from his teacher. He questions each definition offered by Euthypro. He questions the first definition on the grounds that it was an example of piety, not a definition. As he continues to ask questions on the definition, he assumes a disciple’s role. Each question prompts Euthypro to tell him more. In fact, Euthypro on a number of occasions offers to expound his ideals and Socrates accepts this offer, taking on the part of a person who is seeking to learn more.
During his trial, as he questions Meletus, he again poses questions as to the morality of the young people and how he has corrupted it. He seeks to obtain from Meletus an understanding of the nature of the improvement of youth and by whom it is accomplished. He interrogates this issue to a great extent, offering none of his views but rather getting Meletus to tell the jury and the public what he thinks.
Socrates’ enquiries seem to be his way of expressing his views without appearing to do so. He asks what could be construed as leading questions in order to challenge the subject’s perceived knowledge and get them to admit ignorance or change their viewpoint. However, as he asks the leading questions, he still maintains a position of ignorance and leads the subject to believe that it is he who is imparting wisdom to Socrates.
Socrates persistently goads Euthyphro into coming up with different definitions of piety and trying to improve on each. Although Socrates retains his role of disciple till the end, it is clear that it is not Euthyphro who is impacting knowledge. Socrates, through his questions, seeks to reveal to Euthyphro the deficiencies in his definitions. Contrary to his perceived role of a student seeking to partake of the wisdom of his teacher, he can identify the weaknesses in the arguments presented to him and corrects each. When the discussion finally comes full circle, with no true definition for piety, Euthypro makes a hasty exit. The irony is retained till the very end as Socrates, at the end of the dialogue laments that he was hoping to be enlightened on the true nature of piety and impiety so that he could use it in his defence.
Socrates’ purpose while questioning Meletus is to show the charges leveled against him as false. On the charge of atheism, Meletus is skillfully maneuvered into admitting that actually Socrates must believe in deities for him to refer to ‘Daimon’ or spirits. While posing as the questioner who is in a quest for enlightenment, he also gets Meletus to display his ignorance on the matter of the enlightenment of youth. Having accused Socrates of corrupting the youth, Meletus, makes it clear from his answers that it is not a question he has given much thought.
Socrates’ behavior is not necessarily contradictory to his words, and it must be said here that it was not Socrates’ intention to embarrass his subjects or exalt himself. He considered himself the Athenian gadfly, whose aim was to provoke citizens to examine themselves and their beliefs and thus increase their perception.
Although he subscribes to the idea that he knows nothing, he is seen to be wiser than those around him. This is demonstrated through the questions he asks, how he frames them and how he uses these questions to prove a point or help his subject develop his own thoughts on a matter as was seen with Meletus and Euthyphro respectively. He uses questions to prove a point, that only the gods have true wisdom and most humans live in ignorance of their own ignorance.