Athens: The Delphic Oracle

Today, I visited the Delphic Oracle.  I asked her if there was anyone wiser than Socrates.  I just wanted to double check, to make sure.  Well, that’s what I’m going to tell my seven year old anyway. 😉

There’s so much to say about the importance of this site for the history of philosophy…  I think it might take more than one blog post.  The Delphic Temple of Apollo is in the mountains, roughly 2-3 days’ walk from Athens.  In the ancient world, the journey there was like a sort of pilgrimage.  Apollo was the god of prophecy and his priestess and oracle, known as the Pythia, was arguably the most important women in the whole of classical Greece.  People travelled to Delphi to ask the Oracle a question and she was known for giving cryptic answers that came true in unexpected ways – just ask Oedipus.

For philosophers, though, the most important event was when Chaerephon, the childhood friend of Socrates, asked the Delphic Oracle “Is any man wiser than Socrates?”  She replied “Of all men Socrates is most wise.”  Chaerephon was a bit of a character and the very fact he dared pose this question to the oracle seems to have been a cause for controversy.  When it’s mentioned during Socrates’ trial both Plato and Xenophon suggest that the jury of 500 Athenians reacted with uproar and had to be calmed down.  This is the version of the question and pronouncement in Diogenes Laertius, which is similar to Plato’s account in the Apology.

However, Xenophon gives a slightly different version in which the oracle says not only that Socrates is most wise of all men but also that he is more free and just than other men.

Once, when Chaerephon made an inquiry about me in Delphi, Apollo replied – and there were many witnesses – that I was the most free, just and wise [sophron] of all people. (Xenophon, Apology)

Socrates explains in this dialogue, in paradoxical fashion, that he is most free because he is less enslaved to bodily desires and does not accept gifts or payments, which would indebt him to others.  He says that he is most just because he accepts his immediate circumstances, having no need for anything more than he already has.  And he is most wise because he is always seeking to learn about everything good.  Notice that, ironically, Socrates is “wise” because he’s a committed student rather than because he claims to be an expert teacher like the Sophists.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates likewise interpreted the oracle’s answer in a paradoxical manner, claiming that his philosophical method of questioning exposed that men lacked wisdom, at least with regard to the most important things in life.  He was only a tiny sliver wiser than anyone else because he realized that he knew nothing, whereas they presumptuously assumed that they had wisdom they didn’t really possess.

The Temple of Apollo where the oracle gave her pronouncements had several inscriptions.  The most famous, of course, was “Know thyself”, which became somewhat associated with Socrates’ philosophy.  In one of his dialogues, for instance, Xenophon portrays Socrates asking a young student of philosophy called Euthydemus “Have you ever been to Delphi?” (Memorabilia, 42.).  Euthydemus says he’s been twice so Socrates asks: “Did you notice somewhere on the temple the inscription ‘Know thyself’?” This leads to a discussion about the nature of self-knowledge.  Socrates asks Euthydemus whether he paid heed to the inscription at Delphi and tried to consider who he was. The youth says that he ignored it, though, because he took it for granted that he already knew who he was, at least as well as he grasped anything else in life.

However, Socrates asks “What must a man know in order to know himself?”  Surely not just his own name.  Must he not consider more deeply what sort of person he is and what his abilities are in life?  Someone buying a horse, says Socrates, doesn’t just settle for a superficial glance but checks whether the animal is docile or stubborn, strong or weak, fast or slow, and in general whether he’s useful as a horse or not.  So he concludes that a human being who doesn’t know his own abilities, in a similar fashion, is ignorant of himself and lacking in the sort of knowledge that the Delphic maxim advocates.

Socrates tells Euthydemus that it’s clear that men come to much good through self-knowledge and much harm through self-deception.  Someone who knows himself also knows what is useful for him to obtain and where his strengths and weaknesses lie.  As a result of that knowledge they’re more likely to prosper and flourish in life because they will refrain from doing things beyond their power, and avoid mistakes and failure.  On the other hand, those who are ignorant in this regard and self-deceived, not knowing their own strengths and weaknesses, do not know what they want or need.  Not knowing what benefits or harms them they don’t really understand their interactions with other people either.  They miss what is good for them and stumble into what is bad, live in dishonour, and appear ridiculous.

By contrast, those who have self-knowledge achieve their goals more easily in life and are honoured by other men.  People respect them and those who lack understanding themselves turn to them for advice and protection.  So those who truly know themselves are loved, says Socrates, for their wisdom.   Euthydemus asks how he can begin learning this self-knowledge.  Socrates tells him to begin by questioning which things in life are good or bad, beneficial or harmful, and so on.  This soon leads Euthydemus into confusion (aporia).  However, we’re told by Xenophon:

Now many of those who were brought to this pass by Socrates, never went near him again and were regarded by him as mere blockheads. But Euthydemus guessed that he would never be of much account unless he spent as much time as possible with Socrates. Henceforward, unless obliged to absent himself, he never left him, and even began to adopt some of his practices. Socrates, for his part, seeing how it was with him, avoided worrying him, and began to expound very plainly and clearly the knowledge that he thought most needful and the practices that he held to be most excellent.

One reply on “Athens: The Delphic Oracle”

It is so wonderful that you are visiting the Delphic Oracle. We visited there in 2012. It was an enlightening experience and I only wish there was somewhere the actual maxim, KNOW THYSELF. Nothing in excess. Γνωθι σεαυτον. Μηδέν άγον. (Pitch marks are not correct). But I never saw anything stating this. I was disappointed. Nevertheless, it was in mind. This particular phrase is what lead me on my own journey towards philosophy, learning Ancient Greek, traveling the ancient world, and teaching this to others. Thank you again.

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