Socrates, Part 3

In which Socrates is driven to the Socratic method.

Socrates, Part 3

(If you're just coming to this, Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here)

Chaerephon, a boyhood friend of Socrates, had travelled to Delphi. For the Greeks, the centre of the world, the navel of the Universe, was at Delphi. And at the centre of the world stood Apollo’s temple, tended to by his High Priestess, the Pythia, otherwise known as the Oracle of Delphi.

Chaerephon had travelled to Delphi to ask the Pythia a simple question: Who was the wisest of men?

Socrates, she answered.



Chaerephon liked Socrates. He liked him a lot, actually. He was even prepared to grant that Socrates was of above-average wisdom. But … the wisest of men? Like, no one else was wiser?


When Chaerephon brought this news back, it caused uproar, and nowhere more so than in the heart of Socrates. There was no question for Socrates of doubting the Oracle. Apollo spoke through her and Apollo’s words were true.

But … but … I mean … you know …?

Socrates took a deep breath. It was time for a walk, he decided. No, dear friends, alone, no, that’s quite alright, thank you Chaerephon. I need to be alone for a bit.

The wisest of men.

He, Socrates, was the wisest of men.

He said the words over and over again, each time in a different tone, a different emphasis, like a man trying on hats till he finds one that fits.


The city walls had long receded behind him. He was out in the country now, where he could not tell and did not care. There were fields. Trees. Green stuff. He saw a rock and sat on it.

The wisest of men, he said, and this time he laughed.

The wisest of men.

Look at me, he thought, suddenly overcome by a spasm of anger. Look at me! He had done nothing with his life. Nothing. He had devoted it all to this mad pursuit of wisdom, to the dream of knowing how a man should live, to the idea of some kind of God … meanwhile, his friends had pursued careers, entered public life. They had won wars, become rich, gathered honours and respect.

And while they had done that, he had walked the streets of Athens, getting fatter with the years, poor, dishonoured, disrespected. That man Aristophanes, that jobbing writer, he had for years been making fun of Socrates, and now there was a play circulating, one in which he was ridiculed even further.

It would have been okay if he had made some progress, he thought. Even a little bit. If he had somehow managed to move one step closer to knowing how to live, to true wisdom. But he hadn’t. He had tried and tried and tried and all he had discovered was the depth of his ignorance. Every step he took, he floundered. Every thing he thought he knew, it turned out he didn’t.

And he was the wisest of men?

He rose, smiling without the faintest trace of happiness. May as well walk back, he thought. Tomorrow is a new day. Maybe it makes more sense then.

It was tomorrow, and it did not make more sense. So Socrates decided to investigate it closely. And the Socratic method is nothing other than a description of how he investigated it.

But before we go into that, let’s clear away a potential confusion. You see, nowadays there are actually two different things that we call the Socratic method. One of these is the safe, non-alcoholic version that is used by teachers, counsellors, coaches, consultants, parents … everyone, really, who is in the business of selling wisdom and wants to somehow do it “interactively”.

In this version, the Socratic figure knows where she wants to lead her interlocutor. She knows the destination - it is to get the student to believe a certain thing, to say a certain thing.

One way she could take the student there is to simply say: hey, you - believe this. Many teachers do that. But another way, the way that its practitioners proudly call Socratic, is to extract the desired belief from the student by asking a series of questions that eventually lead the student to the desired conclusion. (For some reason, this is considered to be more respectful of the student’s independence.)

That’s a very useful method of teaching and it’s fine to call it Socratic. But it’s not what Socrates was up to and it is not what Socrates was after.

Notice, first of all, where Socrates starts from - he starts from ignorance. And not the pretend ignorance of the teacher who actually does know the answer, but actual ignorance. Socrates really does not know.

What do you do when you don’t know something and want to learn it? Well, even today, the most natural answer is - I go and ask someone who does know. And that’s what Socrates did.

So that’s the next step of the Socratic method - if you don’t know something, and it seems as if other people do, go and ask them questions so you can learn the thing you want to know.

At this point, that’s all the Socratic method is. It’s the “method” of asking questions to try to learn something; in Socrates’ case, he asks questions to try to learn about wisdom and how to live.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss this as being “only” about asking questions. Because even at this point, even before I bring in some of the more esoteric and sophisticated stuff, even at this very simple point, there is something remarkable about the method as Socrates himself uses it.

What’s remarkable is the intensity of Socrates’ desire to know. Socrates really wants to know. Most of us would stop somewhere out of politeness or laziness or expedience or boredom or tiredness. Not Socrates. He keeps going and going and going. If there’s a secret to the Socratic method at this point, it’s simply that - Socrates keeps going when most of us would give up.

It’s a useful reminder to us that, sometimes, life isn’t about finding new tricks. Rather, it’s about fully using the trick you already have.

Socrates went first to

one of those who had a reputation for wisdom, thinking that there, if anywhere, I should prove the utterance wrong and should show the oracle “This man is wiser than I, but you said I was wisest.”

He talked with this man, he examined him, and he concluded that the man was not actually wise.

So then he went to another one of those with a reputation for wisdom, and conducted the same kind of inquiry. There too, he found that the reputation was unearned.

Then he went to another, and another, and another still, and he kept finding the same thing: none of these men were actually wise!

Then, having exhausted the “public men”, Socrates went to the poets and then to the hand-workers, and in both cases, in all cases, he continued to be disappointed. These men, who thought themselves so wise, were not wise at all!

From these continued disappointments, Socrates eventually generates an answer to the riddle of why the oracle had called him the wisest of men. The point, says Socrates, is not that he, Socrates, knows more than other men. Rather,

it is likely that the god is really wise and by his oracle means this: “Human wisdom is of little or no value.” And it appears that he does not really say this of Socrates, but merely uses my name, and makes me an example, as if he were to say: “This one of you, O human beings, is wisest, who, like Socrates, recognises that he is in truth of no account in respect to wisdom.”

And from here, we can move to version number 3 of the Socratic method.

But let’s begin with a recap.

Version 1 of the Socratic method is when the Socrates figure knows where she wants to take her interlocutor. She already knows the conclusion that she wants to reach, and uses cunningly designed questions to make her student reach the desired conclusion.

Version 2 of the Socratic method is when the Socrates figure truly does not know. She does not know what the true conclusion is, she has no prior destination in mind. But she knows that she does not know, and she wants to learn what she does not know, so she goes to people who say they know what she wants to learn and asks them questions.

Version 3 … this is a little bit more esoteric, perhaps. The aim of the Socratic method in Version 3 is neither to learn something nor to make the interlocutor arrive at some belief. Rather, the aim is to bring the interlocutor to a realisation of their ignorance. It is to bring the student to the point where she recognises just how ignorant she truly is, just how little she truly knows.

What could be the point of that?

Well, perhaps Socrates is telling us that one of the biggest obstacles to wisdom is thinking that we already have it.

Perhaps before we can build, we need to destroy (this is an idea we will encounter later too, because it is an idea that always recurs in the history of philosophy).

There is another possibility, much more unsettling than the ones I’ve just mentioned. It’s a theme we will repeatedly encounter, because it is a theme that always arises when human beings try to understand and experience the world.

If we allow it to, the Socratic method drives us to the end of thought. It takes us to the point where we realise: we have danced and sparred, we have spun elaborate castles out of the air, we have built words upon words and laid thought upon thought and … and we can go no further. We, we who thought we were so clever, who were proud of how subtly we can reason and how elegantly we can formulate our thoughts … we must confess: we are lost.

This is one of the methods of Zen Buddhism too. You see it most famously in the koan - try to solve it, try with all your soul to solve it, try try try … and then, when you have reached the end and are fully despairing, when what you call your mind is overturned: then you see the point of it.

In Version 3, the Socratic method is about destroying your mind.

And suddenly, it’s not surprising at all that they killed him.