Socrates’ Daemon

If you start to read Xenephon’s The Memorable Thoughts of Socrates on your Kindle, or Kindle reader on PC or Mac, you will encounter in Book 1, Chapter 1, the following passage:

What, in my opinion, gave his accusers a specious pretext for alleging against him that he introduced new deities was this–that he had frequently declared in public he had received counsel from a divine voice, which he called his Daemon.  But this was no proof at all in the matter.  All that Socrates advanced about his daemon was no more than what is daily advanced by those who believe in and practice divination; and if Socrates, because he said he received intelligence from his genius, must be accused of introducing new divinities, so also must they; for is it not certain that those who believe in divination, and practice that belief, do observe the flight of birds, consult the entrails of victims, and remark even unexpected words and accidental occurrences?  But they do not, therefore, believe that either the birds whose flight they observe or the persons they meet accidentally know either their good or ill fortune–neither did Socrates–they only believe that the gods make use of these things to presage the future; and such, too, was the belief of Socrates. The vulgar, indeed, imagine it to be the very birds and things which present themselves to them that excite them to what is good for them, or make them avoid what may hurt them; but, as for Socrates, he freely owned that a daemon was his monitor; and he frequently told his friends beforehand what they should do, or not do, according to the instructions he had received from his daemon; and they who believed him, and followed his advice, always found advantage by it; as, on the contrary, they who neglected his admonitions, never failed to repent their incredulity.  Now, it cannot be denied but that he ought to have taken care not to pass with his friends either for a liar or a visionary; and yet how could he avoid incurring that censure if the events had not justified the truth of the things he pretended were revealed to him?  It is, therefore, manifest that he would not have spoken of things to come if he had not believed he said true; but how could he believe he said true, unless he believed that the gods, who alone ought to be trusted for the knowledge of things to come, gave him notice of them?  And, if he believed they did so, how can it be said that he acknowledged no gods?

This passage jolted me. Here, suddenly, at the fountainhead of Western sceptical rationalism, was an utterly unexpected entity. To Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, we must add a spiritual adviser, on the evidence of Socrates himself. In Plato’s account, the daemon acts only to inhibit Socrates. For example, when Socrates attempts to prepare for his trail, he finds that he is prevented by his daemon. In Xenephon’s account, as we see above, the daemon is not so restricted.

It brought to mind a passage from Acts that I quoted in my previous post.

As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying. She followed Paul and us, crying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days. But Paul was annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the rulers… [Acts 16; 16-19]

Divination, except for the gift of prophecy, is forbidden in Judaism and by extension, in Christianity. It is the forbidden fruit of commerce with an invisible world of spirits; a world populated by some very unsavoury characters indeed; a world with which human beings have always had commerce; a world well known to the Greeks, as to the Romans, as to Islam; a world which has seemingly been lost to the West.

Socrates’ daemon creates an obvious problem for Christian (and Jewish) admirers of Socrates. In 1872 the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Henry Edward Manning, presented a paper to The Royal Institution. It’s title was The Daemon of Socrates. Manning surveys the references to the daemon in Plato and Xenephon, and a number of attempts by Christian authors to rehabilitate the daemon, before concluding that the “daemon” was nothing more than the universal voice of conscience. I’m not convinced. At any rate, the daemon has quietly disappeared from discussions of Socrates.

I think that the main reason for that is not that the near-universal admiration for Socrates remains problematical for Christians and Jews, but that the very notion of a spirit world has become problematical for generations of academic theologians and the priests and ministers they have trained. In essence, the academy has succumbed to an intellectual mono-culture of materialism. For those who inhabit this milieu, intellectual respectability trumps religious orthodoxy. The inherent incompatibility of  such a position for Christians and Jews is a small price to pay for acceptance at the Staff Club and a career-enhancing flow of publications in various journals of “religion.” This contradiction should surprise no-one: a huge percentage of Humanities-educated Westerners are wedded to the completely unsupportable belief that human beings are solely material entities; and this belief has the unassailable character of fervent religious conviction.

When you deny the spiritual reality most immediately present to your understanding–yourself–is it any wonder that the Second Person of the Trinity soon disappears in a puff of rationalisation, and we are left with a purely material Jesus of Nazareth; a purely material, non-resurrected, completely dead, Jesus of Nazareth. But he was a very great teacher, and his “spirit,” if I may use an outdated metaphor, lives on. Now about that Trinity. It’s like a three-legged table without the second leg, isn’t it? It doesn’t stand up. But we do have a universe; self-creating, self-elaborating, self-sustaining. Quite awe-inspiring, really. So many Christians become, by various paths, some open, some carefully obfuscated, pantheists.

Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward… All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’
‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet— and yet— O, Mole, I am afraid!’

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.
The Wind in the Willows, Chapter 7, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

No, not like that. Pantheists without Pan. But it’s a short enough path to Rat and Mole’s backwater. The desire to worship will find expression somehow, somewhere.

2 thoughts on “Socrates’ Daemon”

  1. You obviously are unaware that God’s spirit that indwells man speaks to te person in a still silent voice that shows him the way that he shold go. Socrates was simply being guided by the inner voice of God. The fact that he followedthis voice accounts for his greatness among men. How telling that people try to makethis out to be some kind of demonic, evil thing rather than give credit to God. Darkness is always trying to destroy the light. Of course, we think ourselves ever so intelligent while we proclaim our errors.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Edmund. I am aware of the voice of conscience, and that was the conclusion of Cardinal Manning, back in 1872. However, I think that the spirit world is heavily populated with angels holy and angels fallen. The latter we also know as daemons, but the term originally just referred to a spirit. Angels appear at critical junctures throughout the Bible. Your understanding that Socrates had a close and ongoing relationship with the Holy Spirit may well be the correct one. It may also be the case that his personal angel had been given an important assignment. I hope that we will both find out.

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