Socrates, Divine Voices, and Listening [Only] to Reason

          Copyright 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli

In reading Plato's accounts of Socrates' views in the early dialogues, a "tension" emerges as the reader attempts to reconcile the character's commitments to philosophy and religion.  In the Apology, the Crito, and at a number of other spots, Plato's Socrates refers to his "daimonic voice"--to a voice which he hears and which he associates with the command of a deity.  As Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith note:

at 31c7-d5 in Plato's Apology Socrates tells the jury about the `something divine and spiritual'...that he has had since his childhood, which warns him away from doing what he should not do.  Both Plato and Xenophon1 explicitly tie the second charge [against Socrates in the Apology] to this daimonion [divine voice] (Pl., Ap 31c8-d2, Euthphr. 3b5-7; Xen., Ap. 12) to which Socrates refers frequently in the accounts of both men.2

These passages can easily lead the reader to conclude that Socrates is a fundamentally pious individual--someone who does what he does because he genuinely believes that he is commanded to do so by a deity.

     On the other hand, Plato's portrait of Socrates clearly shows him to be someone who is primarily motivated by reason.  In his Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Gregory Vlastos offers the following translation of Crito 45b where this commitment is most clearly stated:

not now for the first time, but always, I am the sort of man who is persuaded by nothing in me except the proposition which appears to me to be best when I reason about it.3

Clearly, some interpretive work is required here--it is not natural to suggest that an Athenian of the time could be fundamentally motivated by both reason and piety.  Indeed, a persistent characterization of Socrates holds that he is the atypical individual of his city and age, urging his fellow citizens to employ reason so that they may avoid injustice and immorality.  To the extent that this picture has room for "Socratic piety," it holds that it must take a secondary position to that of reason.

     Vlastos' translation of Crito 45b sets the tone for his chapter on "Socratic Piety"4 which he begins with the following statement:

Socrates' commitment to reasoned argument as the final arbiter of claims to truth in the moral domain is evident throughout Plato's Socratic dialogues.5

Yet, as Vlastos notes, this "commitment" seems inconsistent with Socrates' frequent claims that he is "obeying commands reaching him through supernatural channels."6  Vlastos contends that one can not separate these strands of Socrates' character and utterly remove the religious one:

if we are to use Plato's and Xenophon's testimony about Socrates at all we must take it as a brute fact--as a premise fixed for us in history--that, far ahead of his time as Socrates is in so many ways, in this part of his thought he is a man of his time.  He subscribes unquestioningly to the age-old view that side by side with the physical world accessible to our senses, there exists another, populated by mysterious beings, personal like ourselves, but, unlike ourselves, having the power to invade at will the causal order to which our own actions are confined, effecting in it changes of incalculable extent to cause us great benefit, or where they choose otherwise, total devastation and ruin.7

     Vlastos notes that there were thinkers of the time who largely omitted the religious element from their view of the world without falling prey to social sanction (or the death penalty):

a succession of brilliant thinkers, from Anaximander [~610-~546 B.C.E.] to Democritus [~460-370 B.C.E.], had solved this problem with the utmost discretion.  From their new picture of the world they had expunged the supernatural quietly, without ever naming it in a critique....They did the job in attending to their own business of physiologia, "science of nature," by so expanding the concept of nature as to make nature encompass all there is, thereby creating a new conception of the universe as a cosmos, a realm of all-encompassing, "necessary" order whose regularities cannot be breached by interventionist entities outside it because outside it there is nothing.  What room is there for god or gods in this new map of what there is?  For supernatural gods there is none.  For natural ones there is ample room--for gods existing not beyond nature but in it....
  Thus in Ionian physiologia the existence of a being bearing that name [deity] becomes optional.  What is mandatory is only that to have a place in the real world deity must be naturalized and thereby rationalized, associated with the orderliness of nature, not with breaches of its order, as it continued to be for the vast majority of Greeks.8

Anaximander, for example, is said to have made the first Greek world map, first Greek star map or celestial globe, and to have invented the sundial. According to Charles Kahn, he was the

author of the first geometrical model of the universe, a model characterized not by vagueness and mystery but by visual clarity and rational proportion, and hence radically different in kind from all known "cosmologies" of earlier literature and myth.  The highly rational character of the best indicated by Anaximander's explanation of the earth's stable position in the center: it remains at rest because of its equal distance from all points of the celestial circumference, having no reason to move in one direction rather than in another.  This argument from symmetry contrasts not only with all mythic views but also with the doctrine ascribed to Thales: that the earth floats on water."9

According to Vlastos, however, Socrates is not one of these thinkers.  He does not busy himself with the questions of physilogia, but, instead, confines his inquiries to the moral sphere.  Nonetheless, according to Vlastos, Socrates, like the Ionian naturalists, offered a fundamentally rational world-view:

the Ionians had rationalized deity by making it natural....Socrates makes a parallel move: he rationalizes the gods by making them moral. His gods can be both supernatural and rational so long as they are rationally moral.  This, I submit, is his could, and did, produce a moral theology, investigating the concept of god no further than is needed to bring it into line with his ethical views, deriving from his new vision of human goodness norms binding on the gods themselves.10

     Vlastos maintains that since for Socrates wisdom and knowledge are to be reflected in practical action (another way of saying that he is a moral thinker rather than a metaphysical one), the deities whose knowledge is to surpass any human knowledge, would, truly, be incapable of immoral action.  This view, no less than those of the Ionian metaphysicians, runs radically counter to the predominant Athenian and Greek views.  As Vlastos notes:

to heirs of Hebraic and Christian traditions this will hardly seem a bold conclusion.  For those bred on Greek beliefs about the gods it would be shattering.  It would obliterate that whole range of divine activity which torments and destroys the innocent no less than the guilty, as careless of the moral havoc it creates, as is, for instance Hera in Greek traditional belief, who persecutes Heracles relentlessly throughout his life beginning with infancy, when she sends snakes to finish his life almost before it is started, and so repeatedly thereafter until the day of his death, when she dispatches Lyssa, the divinity of madness, to unhinge his mind so that he murders his own wife and children in a fit of insanity--all this simply because Heracles has been the offspring of one of her consort's numerous infidelities: the calamities she contrives for Zeus' bastard is one of the ways in which she makes the son pay for the father's offenses....11

Thus, in the Euthyphro, Socrates makes it quite clear that he believes the gods are incapable of the sorts of activities which Hera and the others are generally held to engage in all the time.  In his discussion with Euthyphro, Socrates clearly evinces his view that priests like Euthyphro could, at best, be accidentally right about what piety requires of us, if they don't employ human reason to inquiry into what course of action is right (e.g., when one contemplates trying one's father for murder, by appealing to the actions of the deities).  Similarly, in the Apology, when he relates the surprising statement of the oracle at Delphi, Socrates does not counsel acceptance of the statement without question but, instead, says he subjected it to critical analysis, trying to rationally understand what the divinely-inspired statement might mean.  Vlastos contends that:

for Socrates diviners, seers, oracle-givers, poets are all in the same boat.  All of them in his view are know-nothings, or rather, worse: unaware of their sorry epistemic state [unaware that they don't have the requisite sort of understanding], they set themselves up as repositories of wisdom emanating from a divine, all-wise source.  What they say may be true; but even when it is true, they are in no position to discern what there is in it that is true.  If their hearer were in a position to discern this, then he would have the knowledge denied to them; the knowledge would come from the application of his reason to what these people say without reason.12

     What, then, of Socrates own daimonion--does he assign it some privileged status over and above that of reason?  According to Vlastos, it provides

...a "divine sign," which allows, indeed requires, unlimited scope for the deployment of his critical reason to extract whatever truth it can from these monitions [warnings].  Thus without any recourse to Ionian physiologia, Socrates has disarmed the irrationalist potential of the belief in supernatural gods communicating with human beings by supernatural signs.  His theory both preserves the venerable view that mantic [that is, of or pertaining to divination] experience is divinely caused and nullifies that view's threat to the exclusive authority of reason to determine questions of truth and falsehood.13
For Vlastos, then, the "tension" noted at the beginning of this supplement is resolved by appeal to a rational theology.

     A number of other scholars of ancient philosophy take this sort of position regarding this "tension."  In his "The Impiety of Socrates," M.F. Burnyeat concurs with Vlastos' view maintaining that if we speak in terms of the conceptions of his contemporaries, then Socrates is, and is clearly, guilty of the charge of impiety: "...indeed...we shall not understand Socrates, or the enormous and permanent impact he has had on human thought, unless we realize that he was guilty of the impiety charge for which he was condemned."14  His "piety," is not only atypical of his day, but atypical within the Western tradition--it demands that one question the prevailing social mores, and that one accept only what can be rationally supported.

     In her Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato's Crito, Roslyn Weiss maintains that:

the daimonion is not...a voice independent of Socrates' own thinking and intuition that instructs him to contravene their guidance but rather a voice inspired by Socrates' thinking and intuition, by beliefs that are for the moment "subconscious"--if the reader will forgive the anachronism--a voice that gives him the strength to implement these "subconscious" beliefs when he is tempted to do otherwise.  Indeed, when there is no tension between Socrates' imminent act and his deeper sense of what is right, when Socrates has no reservations, no qualms, about the course he is about to pursue, his daimonion is silent.15

     Finally, in their Socrates on Trial, Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith maintain that

...when the daimonion warns him away from an action, there are at least four significant gaps in Socrates' state of cognition: (a) Socrates does not know precisely in which aspect or aspects of the act...the wrongness lies; (b) Socrates does not know which aspect or aspects of the environment of this act...if any, contribute to the wrongness of this act...(c) Socrates does not know what it is about the elements of the act...and environment that make this act...wrong; and perhaps most importantly, (d) Socrates does not understand what it is for a thing to be good or evil, beneficial or harmful.16

They contend that

once we notice how little information Socrates gets from a diamonic alarm, we can see why Socrates could never be made wise by his daimonion's alarms.  After all, when the daimonion tells Socrates that he should desist from what he is about to do, he can be completely certain that he must not continue what he was about to do.  But this information tells him nothing about what it is that is wrong, when it is wrong, why it is wrong, and what it is to be wrong.  The god does not lie to Socrates, but does manage to tell him next to nothing through the daimonion.  What Socrates gets from his sign, therefore, is virtually worthless for the pursuit of the sorts of truth Socrates seeks philosophically--truth that explains and defines, and which thus can be applied to judgments and deliberations required for the achievement of the truly good life for men.17

     These authors provide us with good reasons for thinking that the "tension" noted above is merely apparent, and that there is not a fundamental conflict between Socratic religion and piety, on the one hand, and Socratic philosophy and morality, on the other.

Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

1 Xenophon (~430  B.C.E.-350 B.C.E.) was a respected Athenian citizen, writer, and soldier.  His Apology of Socrates and Memorabilia (Recollections of Socrates)  provide a valuable confirmation of the picture painted by Plato of Socrates' character, philosophical method, and morality. 

2 Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith, Socrates On Trial (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1989), p. 35. 

3 Gregory  Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1991), p. 157. Emphasis added to passage.   

4 Cf., ibid., pp. 157-178. 

5 Ibid., p. 157. 

6 Ibid

7 Ibid., p. 158. 

8 Ibid., p. 159. 

9 Charles Kahn, "Anaximander," in The Encyclopedia of  Philosophy v. 1, ed. Paul Edwards (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1967),  pp.  117-118, p. 117. 

10 Gregory Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher,  op. cit., p. 162. 

11 Ibid., p. 165. 

12 Ibid., p. 170. 

13 Ibid., pp. 170-171.  Later in his book, in an extended note to his discussion on Socratic piety, Vlastos  explicitly contrasts Socrates and Abraham in regard to their orientation when presented with "divine signs:" "...for Abraham faith trumps reason and he is praised for this by Kierkegaard as a "knight of faith."   Not so in the case of Socrates, who lives with a commitment to argumentative reason...for which there is no parallel in Abraham or any other Old Testament figure.  The god Socrates serves has only the attributes which Socrates' elenctic reason would approve" (ibid., pp. 285-286). 

14 M.F. Burnyeat, "The Impiety of Socrates," Ancient Philosophy v. 17 (1997), pp. 1-12, p. 1.

15 Roslyn  Weiss, Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis  of Plato's Crito (N.Y.: Oxford U.P. 1998), p. 19. 

16 Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith, Socrates on Trial (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1989), p. 253. 

17 Ibid., pp. 253-254. 

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File revised on 02/20/2014