And in what sense could he be called wise? Can you please help me in this essay assignment?
There's a lot of interesting features to the question.
First, you need to consider how serious Socrates is being vs. how much of a joke he's making of the whole thing. Second, it's important to realize "Socrates" is a character Plato is using and the Apology is largely agreed to not be a factual representation of what's going on (See What did Socrates mean by " there is no more fitting reward than maintenance in the prytaneum"? and Did Plato record actual conversations in his dialogues?).
Building on these two considerations, we can trace the narrative form of Socrates' claim and then ask whether he's being a jerk to the people of Athens or he's just that genuinely inquisitive and naturally trusting of what others tell him. So here's the narrative as Plato writes it (at least on my reading):
- Socrates is told that he's the smartest
Socrates denies this based on a "principle of charity" argument that merges these three features:
- Socrates does not claim to be wise
- Other people do claim to be wise.
- Socrates accepts the claims of others at face value.
But this breaks down, because Socrates seeks out to prove the oracle wrong by proving others smart.
- Socrates interrogates all of the people who claim to be wise and discovers they don't have any idea what they are talking about.
- Ergo, Socrates is forced to conclude he is the wisest because he has the advantage over them of knowing that he does not know anything (whereas they claim to know things).
The face-value reading sounds plausible in a certain way, but it's also quite plausible to view him as never holding the naive belief that the people who said they were smart are not.
If we want to restructure the argument in the terms of modern logic, we would state that he's doing a reductio against the assumption that they are wise and this forces him to recognize them as fools and thus himself as wise insofar as he doesn't make the foolish claim to know things.
He could be called wise in starting from the position he knows nothing, and pursuing knowledge as something of worth he does not "own" already - instead of treating knowledge like property, as a kind of status symbol through the appearance of knowing "something", he treated knowledge as something to be gained through rigorous inquiry - and so treated knowledge as something of worth, instead of cheapening it through treating it like some kind of a status object, which, perhaps, was how the sophists treated knowledge, as my understanding is they were hired to train citizens in their art - cheapening knowledge to the position of a status object, instead of as something to be pursued at personal cost because of its inherent value to the individual person. In this sense, Socrates had wisdom, because he knew that knowledge could only be pursued at great personal cost, it could not be bought like property, but rather changed the individual person in his or her pursuit of it. In summary he could be called wise in relation to his approach to the question of knowledge, and in his appreciation of his own ignorance at the beginning of inquiry - he had an appreciation of his own "irrelevance" before the object of knowledge ... in other words, perhaps we could simply say he had an attitude of humility in inquiry (which could easily have been mistaken by others as arrogance, or simply being a nuisance!)
I am just going to quote wikipedia:
According to Plato's Apology, Socrates' life as the "gadfly" of Athens began when his friend Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone were wiser than Socrates; the Oracle responded that no-one was wiser. Socrates believed the Oracle's response was not correct, because he believed he possessed no wisdom whatsoever. He proceeded to test the riddle by approaching men considered wise by the people of Athens—statesmen, poets, and artisans—in order to refute the Oracle's pronouncement. Questioning them, however, Socrates concluded: while each man thought he knew a great deal and was wise, in fact they knew very little and were not wise at all. Socrates realized the Oracle was correct; while so-called wise men thought themselves wise and yet were not, he himself knew he was not wise at all, which, paradoxically, made him the wiser one since he was the only person aware of his own ignorance. Socrates' paradoxical wisdom made the prominent Athenians he publicly questioned look foolish, turning them against him and leading to accusations of wrongdoing. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socrates