Socrates’s Oracle

One of the few philosophers who is a household name, Socrates is famous for being a gadfly who was condemned to death. A citizen jury of Athens decided that Socrates deserved to die. Why? We must rely on Plato’s account in Apology to try to understand what happened and why.

I have an interesting answer to that question of why Socrates was condemned. Seems readily apparent to me, but I am similarly condemned to be a gadfly who sees what is readily apparent that the so-called experts do not.

Socrates was accused of impiety, specifically: “that Socrates is a doer of evil, who corrupts the youth; and who does not believe in the gods of the state, but has other new divinities of his own.” (All quoted translations of Apology from Project Gutenberg) According to Plato, Socrates addresses these accusations at length. Two passages are of particular interest in trying to understand the accusations against Socrates.

A person named Meletus is one of the chief accusers, and Socrates addressed him directly. In this excerpt, Socrates shed some light on why Meletus claims Socrates believes in a new divinity.

You have heard me speak at sundry times and in diverse places of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign, which is a kind of voice, first began to come to me when I was a child; it always forbids but never commands me to do anything which I am going to do. This is what deters me from being a politician. And rightly, as I think. For I am certain, O men of Athens, that if I had engaged in politics, I should have perished long ago, and done no good either to you or to myself. And do not be offended at my telling you the truth: for the truth is, that no man who goes to war with you or any other multitude, honestly striving against the many lawless and unrighteous deeds which are done in a state, will save his life; he who will fight for the right, if he would live even for a brief space, must have a private station and not a public one.

Then after the verdict against him he explains further:

O my judges — for you I may truly call judges — I should like to tell you of a wonderful circumstance. Hitherto the divine faculty of which the internal oracle is the source has constantly been in the habit of opposing me even about trifles, if I was going to make a slip or error in any matter; and now as you see there has come upon me that which may be thought, and is generally believed to be, the last and worst evil. But the oracle made no sign of opposition, either when I was leaving my house in the morning, or when I was on my way to the court, or while I was speaking, at anything which I was going to say; and yet I have often been stopped in the middle of a speech, but now in nothing I either said or did touching the matter in hand has the oracle opposed me. What do I take to be the explanation of this silence? I will tell you. It is an intimation that what has happened to me is a good, and that those of us who think that death is an evil are in error. For the customary sign would surely have opposed me had I been going to evil and not to good.

What is this voice of which Socrates speaks in the first passage? It is clearly an ethical voice that forbids him from undertaking particular actions. He links the counsel given by this oracle to fighting for the right. He also makes a distinction between a private station and a public one.

In the second passage, Socrates refers to the voice as an internal oracle which is a source for a divine faculty. He also clarifies that this internal oracle opposes him when he is about to make a slip or error. The oracle is a voice that stops him, even in trifling matters, from going to evil and not to good.

What could this internal oracle be? What would be an inner voice, present since childhood, that speaks to Socrates and stops him from doing wrong? What source of ethical wisdom would be private only to him?

What leaps out to me considering these passages is that Socrates is referring to what today we call our conscience. Isn’t our conscience a kind of voice that speaks to us about ethical matters? Does it not tell us what is good and what is bad, directing us to avoid certain actions and situations and compelling us to do what is right? And is not this internal oracle of an ethical conscience a voice private to us?

Why would the jury of Athenians condemn Socrates for following his conscience? What we can infer from what Plato tells us is that they were angry at Socrates for following his own divinity rather than the divinities approved by the authorities in ethical matters. Socrates mentions at the end of the first passage how his internal oracle was directing him in political decisions. He gives a specific example elsewhere in Apology, describing how he took a political position contrary to the authorities’ will because he believed that doing the good required it.

One constant in history is that those in power do not appreciate people disagreeing with them. Those in power really dislike it when others actively work against them and try to subvert their political actions. Socrates apparently did such actions, actively working against the will of those in power. The state-approved oracles said, “do this,” but Socrates’s internal oracle said privately to him, “no, that is evil, do the opposite.”

Worse, Socrates was apparently speaking publicly about this ethical oracle, and young people were listening. Those in positions of power in Athenian society were faced with a wise and effective speaker offering a philosophy that said, “don’t listen to the so-called authorities, listen to your inner voice.” Rather than listen to Socrates, they silenced him. That is the tactic of those who cannot answer truth.

We all have this internal oracle of our conscience. It tells us how to act but does not force us to act. That is why it is easy for those blinded by selfishness to ignore their conscience and behave unethically. Whether this private source of wisdom is divine or not is another question, but we ignore it at our own peril.



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