How Wise Was Socrates?

by Peter Saint-Andre


Did you know that Socrates' 2500th birthday will occur in 2032? Lately I've been pondering the possibility of writing by then an intellectual biography of Socrates.

One of the hard questions about Socrates is why he was so devoted to Alcibiades, the ultra-rich and incredibly handsome bad boy of 5th-century Athens. Friedrich Hölderlin composed the following poem about the matter:

„Warum huldigest du, heiliger Sokrates,
Diesem Jünglinge stets? kennest du Größers nicht?
Warum siehet mit Liebe,
Wie auf Götter, dein Aug’ auf ihn?“

Wer das Tiefste gedacht, liebt das Lebendigste,
Hohe Jugend versteht, wer in die Welt geblickt,
Und es neigen die Weisen
Oft am Ende zu Schönem sich.

Casting this poem into Sapphic meter (which seems fitting given the similar subject-matter of Sappho Fragment 31), I would translate it as follows:

“Why, O holy Socrates, do you pursue
This youngster? Don’t you know anything greater?
Why do you gaze at him with love in your heart,
As if he’s a god?”

One who has plumbed the depths loves what's most alive;
Knows the bloom of youth who's looked upon the world.
And yet in the end those who are wise often
Bend toward beauty.

Although the sentiment is attractive, Hölderlin's poem evades the question. Was the sagely Socrates intemperate in his relationship with Alcibiades? If so, was Socrates really as wise as everyone thought?

Recall that when Socrates' friend Chaerephon asked the Delphic Oracle whether anyone was wiser than Socrates, her answer was "No." But because in general the Oracle's wording could be notoriously ambiguous, her statement "no one is wiser" could have meant several things:

  1. At least one person is just as wise as Socrates.
  2. Everyone is equally wise.
  3. No one is wise.

While it might be true that "those who are wise often bend toward beauty", the same might be true of those who are unwise! Thus Socrates' behavior toward Alcibiades doesn't necessarily put him in good company.

Socrates is the fountainhead of Western philosophy. His life deserves to be examined anew by every thinking person, and I might do just that in a future book entitled, appropriately enough, "No One Wiser"...

(Cross-posted at


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