Socrates, a Visionary Head (1820) by William Blake
In Athenian society during Greek Antiquity, religion played a crucial role in mediating public and state affairs. It served a social function rather than a personal one. Polytheism was embedded as the cultural foundation of Athens, where “priests and officials were regularly voted honors for their sacrifices that they had performed ‘on behalf of the Athenians’ or ‘for the health and safety of the Athenians’” (Parker, 95). Assemblies were opened with religious rituals to demonstrate good faith (Parker, 100). Thus, although individualist in nature, Athens was paradoxically mostly collectivist in its interpretation of religious affairs. To go against this consensus was public suicide – and likewise, any denigration of these practices was met with scorn by Athenians, especially by the more conservative members of the ruling class. For Socrates, this would mean his eventual trial and execution.
Impiety is relative to the culture in question. When discussing the charges against Socrates, it is important to realize the society which produced them. Firstly, the assumption must be made that Athenian law was justified in prosecuting persons for impiety, despite the fact that this type of offense does not exist in the contemporary Western world. From there, having abandoned our modern biases, the real contextual controversy arises – was Socrates impious or not?
Given what is known about Athenian religion, it would be very probable to argue Socrates was in fact guilty. In Plato’s account of the trial, Socrates speaks of a divine voice that prevents him from doing certain actions.
It may seem strange that while I go around and give this advice privately and interfere in private affairs, I do not venture to go to the assembly and there advise the city. You have heard me give the reason… I have a divine or spiritual sign… This began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but never encourages me to do anything (Apology, 31c – 31d)
Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David
In alternate translations, this “divine or spiritual sign” is called daimonion in Greek. According to Socrates, this voice has been present since he was a child. He follows it to a fanatical degree, resembling religiosity, and it “continues [to come] to [him]” (Euthyphro, 3b). To the typical Athenian observer, Socrates’s daimonion comes off as antithetical to religious norms. He had a private channel of talking to the gods (Ferguson, 174), which threatened the power of priests who were seen as the mediators between gods and man. Plato hints towards the rowdiness of the crowd as Socrates truthfully explains his “inner voice,” while at the same time begging the crowd to bear with his defense and believe him (Apology, 31a).
In the earlier part of Apology, Socrates tells the story of Chaerephon and the oracle which proclaimed that there is no man wiser than Socrates (Apology, 21a). Socrates goes on to question different groups of people, each skilled in their craft, to test if their wisdom was greater than his own. “As a result of this investigation… I have acquired much unpopularity,” Socrates goes on to remark (Apology, 23a). In an effort to justify his inquiring, he appeals to the gods.
So even now I continue this investigation as the god bade me – and I go around seeking anyone, citizen or stranger, whom I think wise. Then if I do not know who he is, I come to the assistance of god and show him that he is not wise. Because of this occupation, I do not have the leisure to engage in public affairs to any extent, nor indeed to look after my own, but I live in great poverty because of my service to the gods (Apology, 23b).
However, the immediate question that arises is – when did the gods ask that of Socrates? There was no command by the gods for Socrates to do such actions. The oracle merely declared that he was the wisest of men. The story is, therefore, inconsistent. It is likely that Socrates said this to appeal to the audience and to further prove his piety, albeit disingenuously.
Socrates’s assertion that his actions were god-inspired can be interpreted differently when related to his daimonion. He describes his divine signs as never action-inducing, but are rather a means to prevent him from doing wrong. Xenophon’s account of the trial disputes this. Socrates says bluntly, “a clear divine voice indicates to me what I must do” (Xenophon, 12). This is a noteworthy distinction. According to Plato, Socrates’s spiritual visions prevent him from doing certain actions. In Xenophon’s account, these induce him to act. Therefore, Socrates’s appeal to piety is a method to mask this inner voice. Regardless of this voice’s origin, be it religiously rooted or not, such a phenomenon goes against the orthodox Athenian conception of religion. Athenians practiced a public religion, not one of unique personal revelation – if such an interpretation was to take hold, the chief structure of Athenian culture would lose its rigidity. This was the fear of the Athenian ruling class and why Socrates was deemed impious, despite his efforts to mask these “voices” through the gods. In the context of the city’s religion, it certainly went against the consensus.
There are hints of Socrates’s skepticism in Plato’s Euthyphro. In the beginning of the dialogue, he questions the basis of believing in the stories of the Homeric gods (Euthyphro, 6b). However, this by itself is not entirely impious. Dr. Manuela Giordano-Zecharya writes in As Socrates Shows, the Athenians Did Not Believe Not in Gods, “[Athens] was moving away from a focus on ‘belief’ and towards questions of ritual, power relations and symbolic ambiguity…” (Zecharya, 328). Therefore, the fact that Socrates was questioning the Homeric stories themselves was not impious – it was that he responded to his skepticism by failing to engage in religious public life as he truthfully tells the audience in Apology.
Given what is known about Athenian religion, Socrates was indeed impious. His impiety can be broken up in two parts. One, Socrates failed to engage in the public rituals which held Athens together. Religion served a social function, to maintain hierarchy and social cohesion, and his absence from these customs was seen as contrary to orthodox traditions. And second, Socrates’s daimonion angered the ruling religious class in Athens since it was unprecedented. It created a personal channel with which Socrates could speak to the gods. And if such a conception became commonplace, it would leave religion to individual speculation and action rather than to experts. Aside from being offensive to the religious ministers, it threatened the Athenian consensus on religion. Simply put – regardless if death was the proper punishment or not – Socrates was impious.
- Parker, Robert. Polytheism and Society at Athens. USA: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
- Cooper, M. John. Five Dialogues. Hackett Pub Co, 2nd Edition, 2007. Print.
- Freguson, A.S. The Impiety of Socrates. The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Jul 1913), pp. 157-175
- Giordano-Zecharya, Manuela. As Socrates Shows, the Athenians Did Not Believe in Gods. Numen, Vol. 52, Fasc. 3 (2005), pp. 325-355.