In Plato’s Alcibiades Socrates implies that knowledge of the good and the true depends on knowing yourself, Knowledge of yourself, however, depend on the friendship of another. We only know ourselves, Plato suggests, by knowing and understanding those who we love and who love us in return.
Think about it this way: if you wake up one morning to realize that all of your friends are crass and shallow, this suggests something about both the kind of things you love and the nature of your love. You chose your friends because of something that you found attractive. Perhaps you share in some of their qualities. Moreover, if they remain crass and shallow it might suggest that your own love is lacking, as you haven’t, in the course of your friendship, been able to move them to higher ends. Happily, it’s more generally the opposite case. Whatever the faults of ourselves or our friends, they usually surprise us with their generosity and, we hope, that we occasionally do the same for them.
In the Apology Socrates claims that he has tried to be a good friend to Athens. For the Athenians who convicted him to death, this might seem hard to believe. After all, Socrates often looks like real jerk – asking all those leading questions, making you want to know the answer, but never telling you what it is – it’s enough to make you want to kill him. Oh. Oops.
What we might miss in all of this frustration is that Socrates is just trying to be a friend. He truly wants to know what others think: what is it that they love and why? Not so he can show them up, but because he thinks it will help him to understand the beauty and goodness of the world. And in so doing, maybe he can also help them.
Still skeptical? Take the Republic for example. Glaucon and Adeimantus put him on the spot, asking him to prove to them that they would prefer to live a just life more than anything else. And then, having laid out the foundation of the just city and the just soul (if they would just think to ask why would doing our own work, the work of a human, make us just?), they interrupt and ask him instead to talk about how much sex they’ll enjoy. And, wanting to be as a good as friend as possible, he has to change tacks, veering off in a totally different direction. In so doing, Socrates follows the desires of his friends, hoping that the might lead him and them to the good. (And he probably is keen to know about the sex too.)
Assuming that Socrates asks all of those questions in good faith, we might reinterpret his eventual death. In the Apology, Socrates tells the Athenian jury that, if they think he has mistaken what is true and good, that rather than punish him, they should instead try to teach him. After all, he thought they were friends and never intended any harm.
Athens then sentence him to death. And we know that Socrates spends a sufficient time in jail prior to his last moments that he can recount stories to his friends and the same friends can make plans for an escape that he refuses to take.
Socrates’s friends are, of course upset. Their friend and teacher is going to die what they think is an unjust death. It appears hypocritical to them. If the verdict is unjust, and if he truly loved justice, Socrates would seek to live. He would want to stay with his friends.
Socrates, however, tells us in the Crito that Athens is like a parent to him. It has raised, nurtured and educated him, provided for his marriage and granted him the freedom to philosophize. In the end, he makes a final request of the city – if I am wron, then show me what the good and the beautiful truly are. Show me what I do not know.
That he is then sentenced to death is not the punishment that his friends think it is. The city, perhaps unintionationally, tries to answer Socrates’s request. After all, what he wants to know is not fully apprehensible in the finite realm. Having been sentenced to death, Socrates tells his friends in the Phaedo that he will die in good hope. His hope is that all of his desires will be consummated, that he will know in its fullness the beauty of the good that he has spent his life searching for. And that in so knowing, he will somehow be able to continue to love his city and his friends as he always he has