Socrates and the Oracle of Delphi

DA asked:

1) What is the message of the Oracle of Delphi to Chaerephon about Socrates?

2) what is Socrates’ response and how does he go about trying to disprove the oracle? What was the effect of his probing on his felloe citizens?

3) How does Socrates finally interpret the message of the oracle?

4) What are the charges brought against Socrates? What are Socrates’ responses to the charges?

Answer by Tony Fahey

1) The Oracle of Delphi pronounced Socrates the wisest of Greeks; and Socrates took this as approval of his agnosticism which was the starting point of his philosophy: ‘One thing only I know’, he said, ‘and that is that I know nothing’. Philosophy begins when one begins to doubt — when one begins to question the accepted wisdom of tradition. Particularly the one’s cherished beliefs, one’s dogmas and one’s axioms.

2) Puzzled by the priestess of Delphi’s statement, Socrates felt obliged to seek the meaning of her remark. By questioning others who had a reputation for wisdom, he came to see that he was wiser than they, because unlike them he did not claim to know what he did not know.

Plato’s dialogue, Apology, professes to be the speech made by Socrates in his own defence at his trial — or rather it is an account of Plato’s recollection of Socrates’ defence given some time after his trial. In a typical Athenian trial of that period the defendant was given a limited time (measured by a water-clock) to answer the charges and, although he had to defend himself, he could, if he so desired, buy a suitable speech from a professional speech writer — a Sophist. Socrates, of course, rejects this approach and declares that he will speak plain and unvarnished truth. It can be argued, of course, that his disavowal of any knowledge of rhetoric (rhetoric is the art of speaking eloquently and persuasively) and that his ambition is to tell nothing but the truth, is itself a form of rhetoric in that it implies that his statements can be trusted implicitly.

3) The Apology, then, is, according to Plato, Socrates’ answer to these charges. Socrates opens his defence by accusing his prosecutors of eloquence (what he means by this is rhetoric- the art off speaking persuasively), and rebutting the same charge which was made against him. The only eloquence he admits to, he says, is that of the truth. If this approach offends the court, he says, the court must forgive him for, not being familiar with the ways of the court, he is not familiar with its un-forensic way of speaking. Socrates goes on to relate the incidence where the Oracle of Delphi was once asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, to which the Oracle answered that there was not. Socrates claims to have been bemused by this statement, since he always claimed that he knew nothing. However, he also accepts that the god cannot lie so he set out to see if he could find someone wiser than himself. This sequence is central to the Apology because it is from here that Socrates infers his raison d’etre derives. That is, he regards the Oracle’s reply as a puzzle that has to be resolved. Therefore he sees it as his life’s mission to expose false knowledge.

4) Socrates had been accused of being an ‘evil-doer and a curious person, searching into things under the earth and in the sky, and of making the worse seem the better cause, and of teaching all this to others’. He was found guilty by a majority and was, in accordance with Athenian law of that time, to propose an alternative penalty to death. The judges had to choose, if they found the accused guilty, between the penalty of demanded by the prosecution and that suggested by the defence. Therefore, it was in Socrates interest to suggest a penalty that would be accepted as a reasonable alternative to death. However, he chose the sum of 30 minas. While this was much more than Socrates could possibly afford (the sum was guaranteed by Plato, Crito, Critoboulus and Apollodorus) it was considered insufficient by the court and he was sentenced to death. From this, it can be argued that Socrates actively sought this verdict, since, to suggest an alternative penalty that would be acceptable to the court was tantamount to admitting that he was guilty of the charges against him — this of course he could not do for central to the charges made against him were that he was guilty of not worshipping the gods that the State worshipped, but of introducing new divinities, and of corrupting the minds of the young by instructing them accordingly.

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