Category: Philosophical theories

The Divine Sign of Socrates

The “daimonion” of Socrates was his personal means of communication with the divine; it was a “voice” that presented him signs about the future. Even though we are certain that the divine sign played an important part in the life of the historical person Socrates, as well as in his conviction to death, we are not in the position to fully appraise its significance.

Socrates is accused of introducing “new gods”

Among the few things that we know with certainty about the historic Socrates is the charge put against him in 399 B.C., and eventually led to his condemnation to death. The accusation consisted of two charges: 1. Socrates did not believe in the gods the city believed in, and, in addition, he introduced “new gods”. 2. Socrates corrupted the young.

Although we are aware of the indictment, we are in the dark as to its exact content. What did the accusers mean by the term “new gods”? What were these new divinities that Socrates allegedly introduced in Athens? If we accept Aristophanes’ word in his play Cloud, we see that the new gods of Socrates are the gods of the natural philosophers; the gods of Anaxagoras and of the impious enlighteners of the 5th century B.C.

A different account is much more plausible however. Of the few things that we know about Socrates, one is his relation to the well-known “divine sign”. Often times, Socrates would listen to an inner “voice”, which conveyed signs about his future conduct. It seems that Socrates blindly trusted the signs of the daimonion. This relation was very well known to his acquaintances, but it must have also gained reputation among broader audiences. The divine sign confers a little piece of information to the “detached” (ἄτοπος) personality of this unique man.

There is evidence that the daimonion was somehow dragged in the trial of Socrates. Plato makes an allusion in his Apology by having Socrates say that “I have a divine or spiritual sign which Meletus has ridiculed in his deposition” (31d). Also, in the Euthyphro, Plato makes the fanatically devout homonymous prophet support Socrates by telling him that the accusation of novelty in religious matters was probably imputed on his divine sign (3b-c). In the same vein, Xenophon, who did not attend Socrates’ trial, was almost certain that behind the accusations against him lied the daimonion: “Indeed it had become notorious that Socrates claimed to be guided by ‘the deity:’ it was out of this claim, I think, that the charge of bringing in strange deities arose” (Memorabilia I, 1, 2).

Was Socrates a prophet?

The philosophically guileless Xenophon ponders on how it is possible to accuse of impiety someone who offered sacrifices at the altars of the state temples, and “made use of divination with as little secrecy” (ibid., I, 1, 2) through his divine sign. For Xenophon, the divine sign was a form of divine augury, which was no more different than other divine signs used by prophets, such as birds, voices of men and animals, dreams, or the innards of sacrificed animals. The daimonion allowed Socrates to foresee his own future as well as that of others. This ability of divination implied his piety, for it is only to the pious that the gods bestow such a rare grace. This line of interpretation prevails during the subsequent literature of the antiquity, where Socrates is portrayed to foretell not only the future acts of people, but also the upshot of political and military events, such as the Sicilian catastrophe.

The aforementioned information raise the questions: was Socrates a prophet? How could he reconcile his philosophical astuteness -which was predicated, primarily, on the rigorous refutation of the untenable beliefs that others held- with an unexamined belief in divine signs? Is it possible for a single man to propound the critical character of philosophical reasoning, and at the same time to exercise any kind of divination?

These questions are part of the Socratic problem – that is, the problem of discriminating between the historical Socrates, and the dramatic Socrates that we know from literature. We know with confidence that the daimonion played an important part in Socrates’ life. We assume that his personal relation to the divine was a side of Socrates that incurred the resentment of many of his contemporaries; especially because the God that Socrates called on was Apollo, the god favored by the aristocratic party of Athens. We also deem it plausible that the divine sign played a direct or indirect part in the trial of Socrates. Nevertheless, we do not have a single objective evidence as to how Socrates himself appraised his charisma, or how he integrated it into his philosophy.

Plato and the divine sign of Socrates

The daimonion is a recurring element in the so-called Socratic dialogues, barren, though, of any particular commentary. The feeling that we get from Plato is that he is too tentative in his approach of this idiosyncratic characteristic of Socrates, and also of the anecdotes that surely came with it. He does not hide it, but neither does he hold it out. He might as well intervene to the effect of containing the dynamic of the divine sign.

This is what Plato makes Socrates say in his apology:

“You have heard me give the reason for this in many places. I have a divine or spiritual sign which Meletus has ridiculed in his deposition. This began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but it never encourages me to do anything. This is what has prevented me from taking part in public affairs, and I think it was quite right to prevent me. Be sure, men of Athens, that if I had long ago attempted to take part in politics, I should have died long ago, and benefited neither you nor myself” (Apology 31d-e)

Plato -in variance with Xenophon and posterior sources- stresses the preventive function of the divine sign in an obvious attempt to confine its expansion into prophecy. Clearly, it is a lot different to have a premonition over an imminent evil, or at least a guardian angel, than to carry with you a godsend guide who orients your actions and general conduct.

It is not too hard to understand Plato’s wary against the alleged divination of Socrates. He belonged to those circles of the Athenian society that respected the established religious faith, and endorsed the institutional role of the official devotional practices. They had little tolerance, however, over the lay religious beliefs, the purification rituals, and the rover prophets.

Therefore, the platonic Socrates is not a prophet. He maintains an idiosyncratic personal relation with the divine, and especially with Apollo, but this relation does not confer the ability of divination, it does not orient his way of life, nor his philosophical standing. Even Socrates’ declaration, in the Apology, that the divine sign deterred him from entering into politics, is made to imply that the Athenian democracy was a corrupted form of governance.

The aforementioned device allows Plato to achieve two results: for one, he undermines the popular belief that his teacher exercised some sort of exclusive divination. And, also, he conjures up a cunning way to insinuate that the true reason behind the indictment of Socrates was his opposition against the Athenian demos and its practices.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Cooper, J. ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis, 1997.
  • Morison, B., Wildberg, C. eds. Socrates' Divine Sign: Religion, Practice, and Value in Socratic Philosophy. APEIRON: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Scie, 2005.
  • Nails, D. "The Trial and Death of Socrates." Griswold, C.L. , Dillon, J. M. eds. A Companion to Socrates. Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Marchant, E. C. Xenophon, Memorabilia, in Xenophon in Seven Volumes. London, 1923.
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