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Self-examination and its impact on society (Plato, “Apology”)

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Plato’s dialogue “The Apology” presents us with the elaborate speech Socrates made to defend himself against the accusations of impiety and corrupting the youth. Within the speech Socrates details his method of self-examination which has proved to be his very instrument to guiding himself and the others to “perfection of the soul”. The increased self-awareness, in addition to the strong willingness to improve oneself and stay away from any wrongdoing, are all exhibited as qualities of the ideal citizen, obtained through the self-examination practice. Thus, the method that Socrates used to criticize both himself and the rest of the citizens of Athens is indeed a process that is beneficial both to the individual and the society.

            The first evidence that the Socratic method is profitable not only for the person engaged in it, but also for the state as a whole is found in the episodes in which Socrates examines the poets and artisans. After conversing with the poets, Socrates finds that they do not even understand the ideas they are delivering, yet they think highly of themselves for being praised by the people.  Under the same observation fall the artisans whose skills in craftsmanship foolishly lead them to think they are wise in all possible matters.

The two groups obviously fail to recognize their human limitations besides the way their wisdom manifests, which prevents them from seeing clearly themselves and being able to best use their skills. Socrates, on the other side, is well aware that his strength is to examine himself and others. Moreover, he recognizes his weaknesses, and while he goes deeper into practicing what he is best at, he is open and alert to the fact that he does not know everything and that there is always more to learn. Realizing where you stand at is of crucial importance as positively accepting ignorance leads to curiosity, innovation, exchange of ideas and practices- all vital factors for the health of a nation.

As a person examines himself actively and understands well himself, he frees himself of prejudices and is able to not only see what is best in his interest, but also in interest of the society. Once again, the best way to illustrate this is to look at the actions of Socrates himself: when he serves as a senator he repeatedly runs the risk of being killed for opposing the government: “I must run the risk to the end with law and justice on my side, rather than join with you when your wishes were unjust”. When Athens’ citizens decide to make an expedition to Sicily in 435BC in order to gain wealth, Socrates stands alone in opposition well aware of how dangerous this operation will be (as revealed in “Crito”), caring “for the state itself rather than its interests”. Therefore, when people treat themselves as their highest moral instance, they are more responsible, more fearless to make their voices heard and more actively pursuing the interests of the state.

Ultimately, when a person is constantly challenging his beliefs and improving himself, he comes to the realization that self-development is a process that can be undertaken by anyone willing to develop himself. This is primarily why Socrates takes the time to share his beliefs and educate his fellow citizens. Had he tought they were uneducable, he would neither devote his life to exposing and educating them, nor spend the time to defend himself in such a way: “For I tried to persuade each of you to care for himself and his own perfection in goodness and wisdom… and to follow the same method in his care for other things”. Such an attitude even if demonstrated by only a single individual cannot be without any impact on the society, because it is contagious and it spreads far and wide.

Challenging your beliefs and examining yourself is empowering. Not only it make you strive to learn more, develop yourself and become better, but it also helps you be an active citizen and contributor. The dream of Socrates and Plato of a better society based on self-responsibility, respect of the laws and zeal for inner and outer improvement is still alive, and dependent on each and every one of us.