In this passage from Plato’s Apology, the character of Socrates makes a series of arguments about knowledge, life, good and evil. He argues first that men should not try to measure their chances of living or dying. His second argument is that men should only consider whether, when they act, their actions are right or wrong. Next, Socrates argues that it is not wise to fear death, because no one really knows what it is. He argues that, although most people believe that to die is the greatest evil, dying might, in truth, be the greatest good (Plato, Apology, 28b).
One of the key terms in this passage is, “course of life”, which, judging from the context, means not a person’s life span, but the way a person chooses to live his life. While the term “good” might seem straightforward to some, good can be something that is virtuous, it can be something that is satisfying, it can be something that is proper, something that is beneficial, something that is reliable, or something that is merely pleasant.
For Socrates, “good” is not simply the most pleasurable action or event. Rather, his idea of good seems to combine virtue, satisfaction, and nobility. More specifically, Socrates seems to see “good” as what is best for the soul and the state. The term “evil” in this text, then, probably refers to those things which harm the state or the soul.
When Socrates asserts that men should not “calculate” their chances of living or dying, he may not have meant mathematically. Rather, he may have used a vaguer version of the word. His point here was that men should not try to guess whether or not they would die or which actions might keep them alive longer. While his use of the word “calculate” might not have been specific, Socrates’ use of the word “conceit” seems narrower. According to the Random House Dictionary, one definition for “conceit” is, “an excessively favorable opinion of one’s own ability, importance, wit, etc.”
This seems to fit Socrates’ description nicely. “Conceit of knowledge”, then, is an overly favorable opinion of one’s knowledge (Random House Unabridged Dictionary). The final term of note in The Apology is “ignorance”, while standard dictionaries refer to ignorance as simply “the lack of knowledge.” The Book of Common Prayer, takes the term a step further. Ignorance is, says the book, “A willfull neglect or refusal to acquire knowledge…” This is exactly the sort of definition that fits Socrates’ purposes (Webster’s Unabridged Revised Dictionary).
Socrates’ first argument, that men should not try to calculate their chances of living or dying, is a plea to reasonable men not to waste their lives thinking about thoughts that will not better society. In his next argument, we see that he wants men to do things for the right motives, not merely for the sake of survival. Morals, then, to Socrates, are more important than health. So, for instance, when Socrates is condemned to die and his friends wish him to escape, he refuses. Although it would certainly be better for his health to flee, Socrates chooses to die, so that the state’s authority will remain intact and so that his teaching can be trusted.
Socrates’ next argument is that men should not be afraid of death, because they don’t know what it is. This, at first glance, seems unreasonable. Men probably fear death because they don’t know what it is. But Socrates next suggests that death might be the greatest good men can do, rather than the greatest evil. Some men can harm the rest of the world through their deeds and actions.
If someone is hailed as a hero, but he begins breaking the law, those who emulate him may do the same. It might be better for society, then, for a man to die than it is for him to live. And it may be, as Socrates seems to indicate, better for a man’s soul and better for his legacy. Finally, Socrates suggests that pretending to know something when one does not is disgraceful. This is particularly convincing coming from Socrates, who rarely offered ideas, but often questioned the ideas of others – keeping men in check and testing their real knowledge.
Random House Unabridged Dictionary. “Conceit.” 2006. Dictionary.com. 8 December 2008 <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/conceit>.
Webster’s Unabridged Revised Dictionary. “Ignorance.” 1996. Dictionary.com. 06 December 2008 <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ignorance>.