“There is a wise man called Socrates who has theories about the heavens and has investigated everything below the earth, and can make the weaker argument defeat the stronger.” Plato, The Apology

There is nothing like being called a wise man to know you’re in trouble. “Wise man,” in the mouths of Socrates’s accusers, is a polite form for “intellectual elite,” a term that in ancient Athens carried the same approbrium as it does today. “Wise man” is the term used for somebody who thinks beyond the everyday discourse. In other words, a wise man is a troublemaker.

But the wise man is a special kind of troublemaker. He has time to investigate and theorize, to consider everything in heaven and below the earth. Who has time to consider the heavens when there are mouths to feed? Only the elite members of society have time for that sort of thing. Only the parasitic rich think about impractical matters. Only a ne’er-do-well busies himself with theory!

Socrates’ critics have a point. It takes time to theorize, to think about philosophical matters. If your nose is always to the grindstone, there’s not much time for considering the stars. Slaves have difficulty making time for philosophy. Their minds are always at the beck and call of their owners.

But Socrates’ accusers were not slaves. They were members of the owning and middle class. They had time to bring allegations, to pursue a formal proceeding, and to bring the jurors of Athens together to hear their case against Socrates. Why were they so disgruntled with Socrates?

The challenge of the wise man isn’t one of indolence but of inquiry. He asks the sort of questions that disrupts the social hierarchy. Socrates is most challenging because he lives in poverty. By showing us freedom without property he challenges our very weaknesses. Who wants to be reminded of that?
Last modified: Monday, December 19, 2011, 9:18 AM