Socrates’ Daemon and Ancient Oracles

(Originally posted at Modern Mythology)

“You have often heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of my being a politician.” — Socrates, Plato’s Apology

Socrates, the father of Philosophy in Greek antiquity, was known to walk around the market perpetually badgering the citizens of Athens with endless questions; a taboo act which earned him the moniker “gadfly”. His social badgering is often attributed as cause for his death, resulting in scandal and breaking with the social mores of his time. But in this article I would like to briefly address the other side to Socrates eventual execution: his daimon (or daemon), and a prophecy that cannot be extricated from the chain of events that lead to his end.

Plenty of people know about Socrates and his philosophic contributions through the written works of two of his students, Plato and Xenophon of Athens. (Socrates didn’t appear to write anything down himself, given the oratorical culture of his time). An often overlooked part of the story of Socrates is what initially prompted the man into a life of philosophy — the prophecy of the Oracle of Delphi.

It’s not surprising that this part of Socrates’ origin story is either omitted or overlooked, given the briefest of glances or mentioned in passing and never questioned by many who have read of him. For most of us in the West, Christianity has had such a pervasive influence that it is easy to interpret such things as mere barbaric superstition if not outright diablerie. Modern materialistpositivists — who probably don’t even know the terms “materialist” or “positivist” and often describe themselves primarily by their atheism — wouldn’t put much emphasis on it either, seeing it as merely another example of the strange beliefs of inferior proto-rationalism. But as an occultist and philosophic amateur, I felt that this signaled a much richer understanding of the role of the preternatural in ancient Greco-Roman philosophy.

It is said that one of Socrates’s friends took council of the Oracle of Delphi and inquired the name of the wisest person in the world, and the Oracle replied “Socrates”. When Socrates found out that his name had emanated from the Oracles lips, he tried to prove her wrong, and started on a life-long quest to search out wisdom in others by asking them questions — a method known as maieutics, or, mid-wifing, an attempt to ‘give birth’ to the latent truth inside a person . Thus was Soctrates journey prompted. It was he who said “I know one thing; that I know nothing”, which is called the Socratic paradox and started the tradition that would lead to the founding of other schools of philosophy such as SkepticismStoicismCynicism and so on.

If you track the history of Greco-Roman philosophy, how it influenced civilizations, how it influenced emperors and kings, how it spawned natural philosophy and thus natural science, it is easy to forget that at the start of it all was an Oracle.

Socrates’s death came at the hands of the Athenian polity, when they charged him for asebeia (impiety) on two counts: corrupting the youth of the city (through his maieutics) and failing to acknowledge the gods of the city and introducing new gods. They gave him the choice of exile or death, and Socrates chose death by willful consumption of a poisonous hemlock beverage. It is easy to focus on the fact that he was sentenced to die because of his philosophizing, but we cannot dismiss the latter half of his sentence of impiety, that he failed to acknowledge the gods of the city and attempted to introduce other gods. Why would they accuse Socrates of this? What did it mean?

Let us turn to Plato’s apology, where Socrates discusses his daimonion, an impersonal voice or sign that, according to his student’s text “always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything”. Many people suggest this is a metaphor, but since Socrates never refers to it explicitly akin to a ghost or supernatural entity as we would think of it, it is quite possible that Socrates was being literal. What he refers to is not a daimon in the sense of a discarnate ghost or spirit (as we commonly think of them) but a daimonion, a sign.

“My own case, the divine sign, is hardly worth mentioning — for I suppose it has happened to few or none before me. And those who have been of this little company and have tasted the sweetness and blessedness of this possession and who have also come to understand the madness of the multitude sufficiently and have seen that there is nothing, if I may say so, sound or right in any present politics” — Plato’s Republic 6.496

So how did this daimonion, or sign, become conflated with a daimon, or spirit? It is possible that what seemed a type of personal faculty or blessing for Socrates was interpreted as an independent spiritual being by the Athenian polity. They felt threatened by Socrates, and thus charged him with advocating for impious daimons over their own pantheon. Two different interpretations of the same phenomena, which Socrates was apparently open and honest about.

The influence of the daimonic on philosophy does not stop here, and actually begins earlier. While Socrates is often deemed the father of philosophy, there did exist a category of philosophers known as the “Pre-Socratics”. Heraclituswas one such philosopher, and one of his most well known statements was “ethos anthropos daimon”, which is usually translated into English as “Character is Fate”, but could just as well be translated to “Character is Spirit”, or “Character is to a man, his daimon.”

In Stoicism, we find writings on the daimon (or daemon) in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman co-emperor (with Lucius Verus) from the years 161 A.D. until 180 A.D. and whose work still survives today. What later became known as the Meditations was a personal journal, a collection of personal reminders meant to aid Aurelius in keeping to the Stoic virtues of Wisdom, Prudence, Courage and Justice. Such journals were common in those days and were referred to as “hypomnema” in Greek or “commentarii” in Latin.

Of particular interest is that he makes reference to a ‘daemon’ being inside of himself, and such daemons being inside of every human. Aurelius, in line with Stoic thought, believed all of humanity to be intrinsically rational — or perhaps more accurately, latently rational — yet simultaneously ignorant. He attributed this ignorance to their ‘evil’ actions and behaviors. The “faculty” that was intrinsic if latent inside of humans is called by Aurelius the ‘daemon’.

“Live with the gods. And he does live with the gods who constantly shows to them, his own soul is satisfied with that which is assigned to him, and that it does all that the daemon wishes, which Zeus hath given to every man for his guardian and guide, a portion of himself. And this is every man’s understanding and reason. “ — Book Five of the Meditations

“Eudaemonia (happiness) is a good daemon, or a good thing. What then art thou doing here, O imagination? Go away, I entreat thee by the gods, as thou didst come, for I want thee not. But thou art come according to thy old fashion. I am not angry with thee: only go away.” — Book Seven of the Meditations

As we can see, more than a few references to the daemonic are made by Marcus Aurelius, a constant thread between the Greek and Roman traditions. According to Stoicism, the whole universe was Zeus (or Deus), and destined for a never ending cycle of destruction and rebirth, eternal recurrence. The portion of ourselves that was capable of rationality was thought to be a portion of Zeus, of divinity. This was a pantheistic type of deity, not to be confused with the Zeus of every myth and tale told from antiquity. The idea that a pantheistic, universal divinity which they gave the name of the ‘highest of gods” of their time, but which they also called the Logos; the all pervasive active intelligence that animated the world. The daemon, in this system of thought, was a shard of the Logos intrinsic to humanity that gave us the ability to reason.

The Stoic understanding of daemon is not so different from the Socratic understanding of the daimonion, or the divine sign which was responsible for keeping Socrates out of politics and instead passionate about a life seeking wisdom. A faculty of divine rationality.

It is easy to dismiss these little loose threads that spring up when researching people who lived thousands of years ago, to act as though they are thoughtless, savage superstition held by a more bestial humanity. It is easy to chalk it up to ignorance, or to diabolical influences. Considering that philosophy properly started after the predictions of an Oracle — or at the very least were prompted into motion by the self-fulfilling prophecy of the Oracle — and philosophy and occultism subsequently birthed science and the technological revolution, I think it is fair to say that the event is one worth looking at with a critical eye, as is the influence of these preternatural faculties and events such as Socrates’s daimonion or the Oracles prophecy on the seemingly mundane world. It is easy to dismiss talk of uncanny senses or divine signs as hogwash, and yet, they persist.

Equanimous Rex
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Equanimous Rex

Writer/Podcaster/Esotericist at The Witch-Doctor
Equanimous enjoys wandering verdant forests, playing with dogs, and cascading ontological shock. He is a writer of non-fiction for Disinfo, and Modern Mythology.

He is one of the active participants in the Fallen Cycle mythos, a transmedia project that includes comics, music, podcasts, novels and more.

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