Socrates’ Apology and the Philosophical Art of Divination: the Delphic Oracle

In: The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition
Marilena Vlad Institute for Philosophy “Alexandru Dragomir” Bucharest

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This paper focuses on Socrates’ intention of examining (ἐλέγχειν) the Delphic oracle that concerns him. I argue that Socrates does not start out by refuting an apparent meaning of the oracle, as it has been suggested, but rather reacts to the perplexing posture in which the divine message places him. In this sense, the message—which becomes a lifetime mission for Socrates—has a performative sense, even though it does not have an explicit, prescriptive form. I try to show that Socrates’ philosophical life can be understood as a constant attempt to examine, as well as to prove the oracle, and that Socrates’ defense is a final examination and proof of the oracle.


This paper focuses on Socrates’ intention of examining (ἐλέγχειν) the Delphic oracle that concerns him. I argue that Socrates does not start out by refuting an apparent meaning of the oracle, as it has been suggested, but rather reacts to the perplexing posture in which the divine message places him. In this sense, the message—which becomes a lifetime mission for Socrates—has a performative sense, even though it does not have an explicit, prescriptive form. I try to show that Socrates’ philosophical life can be understood as a constant attempt to examine, as well as to prove the oracle, and that Socrates’ defense is a final examination and proof of the oracle.

In his defense, Socrates invokes the elenchos (examination or refutation) in a few distinct senses. From the very beginning, he expresses his intention to examine those who have slanderously persuaded his judges (Apology, 18d 5-7). In order to do this, he relates about the oracle at Delphi, which said that nobody is wiser than Socrates. Upon hearing this, he intended to examine the oracle (21c 1), by investigating (διασκοπεῖν) the people reputed to have some wisdom, with the intention to find somebody wiser than himself, thus attracting the hatred and slander which led to his being convicted. Socrates eventually intends to examine everyone (29e 5), even though he knows that he is condemned because his accusers hope to avoid his examination (39c 7). In a chronological order, Socrates examines the oracle, then the people reputed to be wise and then his own accusers. While examining others, Socrates also examines himself, as indicated in 28e 5-6, thought the verb used in this context is ἐξετάζειν.1 How do these instances of examination link with each other and how do they determine Socrates’ philosophical way of life? Why and in what sense does he examine the oracle? Why does he feel urged to examine everybody else, understanding this endeavor as a divine mission? Why is his defense a matter of examination, rather than a desperate attempt to escape condemnation?

In what follows, I argue that the examination of the oracle is not intended to refute a particular interpretation of the message and replace it with another, more correct interpretation. Rather, Socrates examines the oracle, trying to find a wiser man than himself, because by doing so he escapes the perplexing situation in which the oracle places him. I then try to show how the oracle’s effect upon Socrates determines his whole philosophical life. Eventually, I discuss how the defense itself can be understood as a final examination of the oracle, which, at the same time, irrefutably proves it.

1 Does Socrates Start with an Apparent Meaning of the Oracle?

Socrates finds out about Pythia’s answer to Chaerephon, saying that there is nobody wiser than Socrates, but he is puzzled by this assertion, because he thinks he is not wise in any way. He also believes that the god does not lie (21b 6). Still, he wants to examine/refute the oracle (21c 1: ἐλέγξων τὸ µαντεῖον). Some scholars noticed that wanting to refute the god’s message would be an impious act.2 In order to avoid this problem, it has been suggested that Socrates is only refuting an “apparent meaning” of the oracle.3 The apparent meaning would be that Socrates is the wisest of all people (21b 5: σοφώτατον), whereas the true meaning of the oracle would be that Socrates does not consider himself wise, when he is not.

But this interpretation—of a first, apparent meaning that is refuted—raises some problems. In what sense would this meaning be apparent? We have two possibilities: either Socrates himself considered this meaning to be apparent (and probably not the “true” one), or he didn’t realize that it was only an apparent (not true) meaning. If we assume that Socrates started with an interpretation which he supposed to be the right meaning of the oracle, but which later (upon refutation) proved to be wrong (and so, only apparent), in this case, his act would still be impious, because he would still consider that the oracle was wrong.

Therefore, the only acceptable possibility would be that Socrates started with an interpretation that he considered to be apparent (given that he knew the oracle can speak in riddles: 21b). But, in this case, in refuting this “apparent meaning”, he would simply be refuting his own (admittedly wrong) understanding, proving himself wrong about the oracle. In this case, it would make no sense for him to want to refute the oracle and to imagine how he would contradict it directly, by saying that he found a wiser man, despite what the oracle said (21c 2).

Secondly, Socrates says that he started to refute the oracle, but in a very reluctant manner (µόγις πάνυ 21b 8). This reluctance would have no sense if all that he wanted to do was to refute his own “apparent meaning”. On the contrary, he should have been eager to refute an apparent and inadequate meaning. If he is reluctant, it can only be because he knows that, by examining the other people, he risks at any time to find somebody wiser than himself and thus, he risks to contradict the oracle itself, and not just his own, inadequate understanding of it.

Thirdly, Socrates manages to refute this supposedly “apparent meaning” very rapidly, from the very first encounter that he had with a reputed wise man. In his discussion with the politician, he discovers that he does not have more knowledge than the politician, which implies that the “apparent” meaning would be already refuted: i.e. the idea that Socrates has more knowledge than other people.4 Moreover, the “true” meaning appears already in this first discussion (i.e. that Socrates doesn’t consider himself wise, when he isn’t). This is a meaning with which Socrates is in perfect agreement. If all that he wanted to refute was an “apparent meaning” of the oracle, a misleading meaning given by himself, then, after this first discussion, he would no longer need to go on examining other people. The apparent meaning no longer needs examination, because it was already refuted. Why would he continue his examination? We have again two possibilities. On the one hand, if we admit that he continues to examine the other, “true” sense, then, again, we come back to the problem from which we started, namely that Socrates examines the oracle in an impious manner, as if trying to prove it wrong or as if not trusting the oracle completely, in this new, true sense. On the other hand, we could imagine that he continues to examine simply because he wants to prove—beyond any doubt—this “true” meaning that he has discovered.5 In this case, however, Socrates’ endeavor would no longer be a divine task, but only a personal matter, with Socrates refuting his first understanding of the oracle and verifying his second, more appropriate understanding. It would be rather immoral to see a Socrates convincing himself over and over again that he is indeed wiser than anybody else, in this sense that was suggested by the oracle and explained or discovered by Socrates himself.

2 The Paradox of the Oracle

I therefore suggest abandoning this interpretation of an “apparent” meaning. Instead, I argue that Socrates’ examination of the oracle receives its whole significance only if we link it with his complete perplexity upon hearing the oracle. It is the perplexing nature of the oracular assertion that determines Socrates to engage in a practically endless examination.

What does Socrates really examine? Why does he want to speak back to the oracle and contradict it plainly, if he admits that he didn’t really understand the oracle (21b 7: ἠπόρουν τί ποτε λέγει)? Unlike the scholars who argue that Socrates refutes one interpretation of the oracle’s saying and replaces it with another, I believe that the key element in this context is Socrates’ puzzlement in front of the oracle, the fact that—as he confesses6—he didn’t know what the oracle means, he was unable to understand it, to give it any interpretation whatsoever, and thus, he was unable either to admit it as true, or to reject it as false. According to Socrates’ own conviction, he is not wise in any way; the oracle, however, seems to say the opposite. This is the reason why, at this point, Socrates can neither admit, nor deny the oracle. A straightforward, uncritical admission of the oracle, as well as a direct contestation of it, would make Socrates fall into an endless paradox.7 Thus, if he considers the oracle right, he must admit that nobody is wiser than himself; but the only thing that he knows is that he has no wisdom whatsoever (21b 4-5). This is precisely the wisdom that must prevail: he has no wisdom and, hence, whoever considers him wise is wrong, for instance Chaerephon or even the oracle. Therefore, if he considers the oracle right, the oracle eventually proves to be wrong. This leads to an obvious contradiction. Thus, Socrates cannot admit the oracle as such.8

But Socrates cannot deny the oracle either, in a straight manner. First, this is a divine utterance, and Socrates thinks that the god does not lie. Second, it would make Socrates fall again into an endless paradox: if he considers the oracle wrong, and he sticks to his own opinion about himself as not being wise at all, this implies that his own opinion about the oracle (and also about himself) cannot prevail, hence, the oracle cannot be wrong. The paradox is endless: if the oracle is considered right, it must be wrong and if it is considered wrong, it must be right. So, Socrates is caught in a paradox from which it is impossible to step out. He cannot directly react to the oracle’s saying, either by accepting it or by rejecting it.

The oracle puts Socrates’ mind in a state of utter contradiction. For him, the oracle cannot be wrong, but it cannot be right either; in both cases, he would have to renounce his own consciousness about himself as not being wise. All that he can understand about this oracle is that it contradicts—and is contradicted by—his own state of mind. Therefore, he cannot simply ignore the divine message and its perplexing effect,9 but he has to react to this oracle and try to solve or suspend this conflicting situation in which the oracle places him.

What Socrates does in this situation is to examine the oracle in a milder sense of ἐλέγχειν, which means to question or enquire, with the ultimate possibility to refute it, but which also leaves open the possibility that the examined piece of knowledge prove irrefutable.10 It is a putting to the test.11 Moreover, he does not examine the oracle’s saying as an individual piece of knowledge, but he examines it in a context, trying to see if the oracle verifies in this or that particular case, while Socrates addresses different persons. This type of examination allows Socrates to deal with the perplexing situation in which the oracle places him. Thus, as long as Socrates is looking for somebody wiser than himself, he suspends or postpones this double paradox: the oracle is not yet wrong, because Socrates didn’t prove the contrary—i.e. he didn’t find somebody wiser than himself—and Socrates can still consider himself not wise, because he is still looking for a wiser than himself. The solution to the double paradox resides in this possibility of searching for a person who would exceed Socrates’ wisdom. It is only through this examination that Socrates finally gets to understand the oracle12 and its demand for him. Also, during his examination process, he finds out that he is thus serving the god, which also means he is pious.13

3 The Peculiarity of the Examination

The oracle does not directly give Socrates a task and an explicit mission. Nevertheless, it gives him a maximal conflicting state of mind and lack of understanding, which will determine his philosophical activity thereafter.14 Yet, in this situation, he does not react after his usual manner, by just saying that he has no wisdom at all, and hence he doesn’t even know what the oracle means, thus remaining in a state of neuter unknowing and complete indifference to the oracle. On the contrary, his usual unknowing no longer remains circumstantial—in the sense that Socrates doesn’t know this or that—, but becomes active. Once announced and confronted by the oracle, his “wisdom” (i.e. his consciousness of his lack of wisdom) is stirred and engaged in an endeavor to find out what this “wisdom” means. Its meaning consists in its dynamics. Socrates’ negative wisdom is set in motion, working upon the other people. Thus, it receives an aspect of circularity, involving self-consciousness, as well as an aspect of universality.

At first, it might seem that the oracle doesn’t change Socrates’ initial opinion about himself (i.e. that he is not wise), and does not bring anything new, that the others didn’t already consider about Socrates.15 As some scholars have noted, the oracle refers to a Socratic wisdom that was already mentioned in Chaerephon’s question, and which was probably already recognized by other people, even before this divinatory episode.16 It seems that the oracular answer is suggested by the question and depends on it, because it merely confirms the question, in an elliptical, negative manner: “no one is wiser” (µηδένα σοφώτερον εἶναι). The answer doesn’t announce anything new, and it doesn’t have a direct prescriptive sense.17

In addition, Socrates wants to examine (ἐλέγχω) the oracle. Plato uses here precisely the verb describing Socrates’ usual manner of discussing, applied to the oracle itself.18 This verb (ἐλέγχειν) shows that Socrates was already practicing this type of examination when he received the oracle, since he received it with his specific caution, which examines things before accepting them.19 He responded to the oracle exactly with the thing that made his wisdom unsurpassable: that is, with his desire to examine anything, including the oracle’s words, rather than to rely on one’s own wisdom. Therefore, the wisdom Socrates invokes during the trial—which would be at the origin of all the events and which would have been suggested by the god’s words—seems to have actually been present long before the divinatory episode.20

Nevertheless, if the wisdom announced by the oracle is precisely that which usually manifested through distrust and examination, what Socrates does this time is to apply the examination and distrust circularly: upon the divine word that announces this very wisdom manifested through examination.21 In other words, here, the object of the examination is the examination itself, i.e. this wisdom that does not maintain that it knows anything and does not hurry to accept some ideas, but rather carefully examines them, without any claim at knowing anything. What the oracle does it to make this examination—already specific to Socrates—return to itself and take itself as object, which implies awareness about itself. Socrates pretends to examine the oracle, but, in fact, he cannot refute the god directly. Rather, he refutes the oracle while examining himself in regard to his wisdom, namely the idea that this alleged wisdom of his would be unsurpassable, as the oracle said. Thus, the examination of the oracle is identical with the examination of his own wisdom, announced by the oracle and denied by himself.22

And this examination of the oracle and of one’s own wisdom is eventually done in an indirect manner, through the examination of the others, assumed to be wise. This examination, which consists in the search for a wiser man, is not explicitly imposed by the oracle; nevertheless, it is triggered by the oracle, namely through Socrates’ puzzlement in front of the oracle. The examination has two parts: at first, Socrates, who assumes to have no knowledge, tries to prove that the interlocutor knows something. But he discovers that the interlocutor doesn’t know either. At this point, the interlocutor and Socrates are equal in knowledge: neither of them knows. But Socrates cannot stop his examination here, because, if he did, he would have to accept that the oracle was right: first, because the interlocutor is not wiser, since neither of them knows; second, because, at this point, Socrates already has a certain superiority, and he risks being wiser, since he realizes that the other doesn’t know. Therefore, he doesn’t stop the examination here, but continues with its negative counterpart. He tries to make the interlocutor, too, realize that he is not wise either.23 Why? Because he tries to undermine this superiority that he now has. If the first part of the examination was intended to find someone wiser, once the first part fails, the second one is intended to make the other at least equally wise. If the interlocutor accepted that he is not wise, Socrates would no longer be wiser. But the interlocutor refuses to accept this, and Socrates remains with his superiority in knowledge, which proves him to be wiser, despite the fact that he doesn’t know anything in particular.

Thus, the wisdom announced by the oracle becomes identical with the non-wisdom assumed by Socrates from the very beginning, except that now, Socrates assumes this non-wisdom to be wisdom. At this point, Socrates confirms his own opinion (about himself not being wise) and also confirms the oracle (about nobody being wiser than Socrates). Yet, Socrates doesn’t stop here, but continues to examine other people, even though he had already found a meaning of the oracle with which he is in agreement and which would no longer be perplexing. Why doesn’t he stop? Because, even if he is bound to admit that, in some particular cases (in his discussion with the politician, for instance) he is wiser, this doesn’t rule out the possibility that somebody else really be wiser than himself. Therefore, he must continue to examine and possibly refute the oracle, by searching for somebody wiser.

Even though he does not find anybody wiser, still, once the oracle about his wisdom was proffered, Socrates is forced to engage in these labors directed at finding someone wiser than himself.24 Why? Because his wisdom (this consciousness of not being wise) is “true” and consistent with the oracle’s message just as long as Socrates is actually engaged in the act of contesting it, by trying to find someone wiser. He is wise only insofar as he examines people according to the god’s message, i.e. according to this paradox transmitted by the god, a paradox in which Socrates is stuck.

Socrates needs somebody wiser than himself, or, at least, he needs to keep searching for somebody wiser than himself, in order to confirm his own perception about himself, as well as about the oracle. Otherwise, he must renounce his own conviction of not being wise and, in this case, even the utterance of the oracle loses its sense, since we would no longer have this Socrates who considers himself unwise. In fact, the sense of the oracle—as understood by Socrates—is that the wisest is the one who knows that he is not wise. But this means that Socrates is wiser than anybody (according to the oracle) just as long as he does not consider himself wise, i.e. just as long as he contests his purported wisdom, and thus, just as long as he assumes this contestation as a life-long mission25 of proving himself unwise.

This is why he does not stop when he realizes that he knows more than his interlocutor (i.e. he knows that he does not know) but he tries to show to the interlocutor that he too is unwise. And this is also why Socrates does not stop examining people even after he realizes what the oracle means.

4 What Does the Oracle Mean?

The message of the god is not only an assertive, but also a performative one. It does not simply consist in the affirmation that “nobody is wiser than Socrates”, or that only the god is wise, whereas the wisest among people is the one who does not consider himself wise. In this case, Socrates would have had to simply tell this to people, instead of examining them thoroughly.26 The oracle clarifies itself and proves to be true only once Socrates reacts to it. Socrates himself explains the oracle as suggesting that the wiser is the one who does like Socrates, i.e. understands that his wisdom is worthless (23b 2-4). But Socrates understands this precisely through examination, and this is why he continues the investigation even during the trial (23b 4-5). He corresponds to this oracle (and the oracle is true about Socrates) only as long as he does not take it for granted, as a definite, determined answer, but continues his attempt to deny his own wisdom (and also to prove it) through examining others.

In this sense, the oracle does not simply refer to a Socrates before the oracle, as a divine testimony of Socrates’ epistemic humility. In this case, the oracle’s message would in no way differ from Chaerephon’s opinion about Socrates. Rather, the Socrates to whom the oracular message refers is the Socrates who reacts to it by taking the message as a task upon himself: the task of never ceasing to examine the oracle, himself and the others. In this sense, it is a performative message, in as much as it provokes a certain effect upon Socrates. The message consists in the fact that nobody is wiser than Socrates who, upon receiving the oracle, wants to find out what the message is and reacts as he does, examining the oracle and trying to find a wiser than himself. In other words, nobody is wiser than Socrates while engaged in this action of constantly challenging his own wisdom, through an examination of himself, of the others and of the oracle. Therefore, not only does Socrates discover the meaning of the oracle through examination of the oracle, but the message itself is true just as long as Socrates remains engaged in his task. The message eventually consists in the fact that this Socratic examination itself is the only form of wisdom admissible for humans.27

This is why the oracle’s message becomes an endless task for Socrates, even though it was not proffered in a prescriptive manner.28 The examination—that Socrates was already practicing before the oracle—no longer remains isolated to certain subjects that he might have happened to discuss with certain people, but becomes universal: it is applied to all people, to himself and to the oracle alike. The oracle establishes a framework of unlimited search, and, in this sense, it establishes a mission for Socrates. On the one hand, as long as Socrates wants to examine the oracle, he has to verify all people. This is implicitly a verification and a strengthening of the oracle, as long as no one wiser than Socrates is found. On the other hand, however, as long as Socrates verifies people and thus certifies the oracle, he postpones the possibility of ever denying the oracle, by finding somebody wiser. But as long as this possibility exists, the Socratic examination can and must continue. And the examination must continue till the complete suppression of such a possibility.

Socrates was already kin on philosophy and examination before the oracle.29 Nevertheless, the oracle transforms the examination into an exhaustively applied method,30and at the same time it gives it a kind of self-consciousness, transforming it into self-examination, because the examination of the interlocutor is meant to contest Socrates’ own wisdom. It is the oracle that establishes this sense of Socrates’ wisdom, namely as a self-examining self-consciousness and self-contestation. This so-called wisdom discovered through a constant exercise of contestation is the reason why Socrates is ultimately put on trial.

Through this refutation of the oracle and of his own wisdom—which goes through all the other people—Socrates actually proves the oracle progressively. Proving the oracle and examining it—with the ultimate possibility of refuting it—becomes one and the same task, which consist in searching for a wiser man. After the first two discussions, Socrates decides to go systematically (ἐφεξῆς ᾖα), in order to investigate what the oracle says (21e 6: σκοποῦντι τὸν χρησµὸν τί λέγει). This shows that, for Socrates, the explanation that he gave to the oracle (i.e. that he is wiser in as much as he does not maintain to be wise) is not taken as a definite meaning of the oracle. He still needs to pursue his analysis in order to find out this meaning. In fact, he had admitted that he is wiser than the few people he had spoken with, but this cannot be reason enough to admit that nobody is wiser than him. For this, he must proceed systematically and examine everyone.

At this point, Socrates presents his activity (i.e. this continuation of the examination) as an investigation in the service of the god (ζητοῦντι κατὰ τὸν θεόν). The purpose of his work in the service of the god is to prove the oracle irrefutable (ἵνα µοι καὶ ἀνέλεγκτος ἡ µαντεία γένοιτο: 22a 7-8). He seems to turn rapidly from wanting to examine the oracle (21c) to wanting to prove it irrefutable (22a). Why? The examination is the method through which Socrates tries to discover the message of the god. But, moreover, the examination itself becomes the very message of the god, consisting in the fact that nobody is wise, except the one who does not consider himself wise, but rather challenges his own wisdom, just as Socrates does when involved in (self-)examination, trying to find a wiser than himself. This is why Socrates continues to examine the oracle, himself and the others: because the message of the god reveals only in this process, and also because it consists in this process. In other words, Socrates himself understands the message of the god through examination and he will not stop until he receives this message completely and irrefutably, i.e. beyond any doubt and beyond any possibility that he might find somebody who surpasses this sense of being wise, i.e. the one suggested by the oracle.

Socrates realizes that the effect of his examination is an indirect revealing and proving of the oracle; he therefore wants to continue examining till the oracle would become irrefutably proven. Even at the moment of the trial, Socrates still continues his investigation, as the god bade him (23b 4-5). The oracle, however, can never be definitively proven, as long as there is still someone to be examined. For the same reason, the oracle can never be definitely refuted, either. At any rate, the oracle cannot be proven, nor rejected only through an exhaustive examination, which would be infinite. But then, how can Socrates examine till the oracle becomes irrefutable, as he intends to do? In other words, where could Socrates decide to stop his examination and conclude that the oracle is already proven enough? In what follows, I will try to argue that the last episode of the Socratic examination is his own defense, which ultimately proves the oracle not through an exhaustive analysis, but through approaching and examining the usual result of the Socratic examination: slander and hatred.

5 Socrates’ Defense as Divine Message

The oracle story is central in Socrates’ defense at his trial. But what kind of defense is it, since it raises even more the hatred that led to this trial, and its outcome is death condemnation? What is the meaning of this defense? Who wins through this defense and what? But, first of all, who makes it?

The defense consists in showing that the reason for the accusation, i.e. Socrates’ “human wisdom”, is announced by the oracle, which not only confirms it, but establishes it, putting it in its own service. Socrates, however, does not invoke the oracle merely as a reinforcement of his own words. He actually says, from the very beginning, that it is the god himself who will speak: “the story I shall tell does not originate with me, but I will refer you to a trustworthy speaker (τὸν λέγοντα). I shall call upon the god at Delphi as witness to the existence and nature of my wisdom, if it be such”.31 This “trustworthy speaker” (τὸν λέγοντα) thus appears as the real author of the defense. But in what sense are we to understand this, since the so-called “speaker” does not really intervene? The fact that Socrates invokes the god as speaker and witness means that everything he says in his defense is based not only on the exact words of the oracle (heard and transmitted by Chairephon), but also on the effects of the oracle, on the fact that, once the oracle has been proffered, a whole process is triggered, in which this so-called wisdom of Socrates comes to reveal its meaning and to determine the effects that it had: hatred (ἀπέχθεια), envy (φθόνος) and slander (διαβολή).

The message of the god was not clearly given from the beginning, but it clarifies and is transmitted gradually, according as Socrates tries to examine the oracle and the other people. The message is transmitted through examination, an examination that continues up to the moment of the trial. Therefore, in the trial, the god is summoned to speak for Socrates, not just through the words proffered to Chaerephon, but also through the whole task undertaken by Socrates, in which these words clarified themselves and through which the message of the god became manifest, i.e. through the whole process in which Socrates was engaged, in order to examine, as well as to clarify and certify this message.

Moreover, when telling the judges the story about the oracle, Socrates is actually continuing to transmit this divine message, which clarifies through examination. Indeed, he says that even during the trial, he continues his examination (23b 4-5). Right before starting the defense, Socrates says, “I must surely defend myself and attempt to uproot from your minds in so short a time the slander that has resided there so long. […] Even so, let the matter proceed as the god may wish (ὅπῃ τῷ θεῷ φίλον).”32 This “as the god may wish” does not mean to say that it depends on the god whether Socrates will succeed in removing the slander from the souls of the judges; basically, he thinks this would be very difficult. Seen in the current context, this claim suggests that the defense must be as the god pleases, that is, precisely in the sense of the task that the god gave him. In other words, his defense itself is an effect of the oracle, the last consequence of the words of the god, and thus, a manner in which Socrates transmits the message of the god, which clarifies itself while Socrates examines it.

6 The Defense as Examination

In the case of the accusers, the message is transmitted in two manners: directly, through explaining the origin and meaning of the examination, but also indirectly, through the examination exercised upon them. The defense itself is presented as another instance of examination and, thus, as another instance of the god transmitting his message.

Thus, from the very beginning, Socrates says that what struck him most is that the accusers called him an “accomplished speaker”, but, in fact, he intends to presently examine—and maybe even refute—this idea through the evidence (ὑπ’ ἐµοῦ ἐξελεγχθήσονται ἔργῳ: 17b 2).33 In addition, Socrates explicitly describes his speech as examination, when he speaks about the method of his defense: he will have to examine, even though nobody answers (18d 5-7). Socrates explicitly says that his examination will concentrate on the slander in the accusers’ minds (19-22a 1-2). Thus, the defense will be an examination: both of the three accusers known by name and who can answer the questions, but also of all who ever accused Socrates, and who will not answer the questions,34 because they are absent.35 Also, at the end of his defense, after being convicted, he tells those that convicted him that, even though they did this because they wanted to avoid the examination (διδόναι ἔλεγχον, 39c 7), in fact, they cannot escape, because other people will come to examine them. Thus, the defense is an examination of the accusers, but one in which the examined ones are silent: either because they are absent, or because they do not want to give account of their life and their beliefs, trying to escape examination, by getting rid of Socrates.

Socrates examines his own accusers: not only the three who brought him to trial (with which he deals rapidly36), but also those who persuaded the judges since they were young, as well as those of the judges who, being convinced, started to convince others.37 The examination will be a general one, which focuses not just on a particular person, but on all those who have preferred to slander Socrates, instead of recognizing their own lack of wisdom. In a certain sense, Socrates is once again examining “the many” (28a 7) i.e. all those who have been examined and then slandered him, as well as those who have been influenced and convinced by the slanderers. It is a general re-examination of everybody who ever entered in Socrates’ entourage, either directly or indirectly, and who reacted after the usual manner of refuted people: by hating Socrates. In the trial, this hatred and slander are outspoken as accusations and thus, as a kind of knowledge, the accusers assuming a certain knowledge over Socrates’ case. Socrates applies his examination precisely to this kind of “knowledge” (which manifests as slander).

The slander (τὴν διαβολήν) he examines consists in the fact that Socrates is considered wise (18b 7).38 Socrates is trying to show the judges that he is not wise in the sense in which they consider him to be, but only in this sense that was announced by the oracle, as a message intended not only for Socrates, but also for all people. Just like in any other examination, Socrates also refers to his own wisdom, which he is trying to subject to test. He shows that he doesn’t possess any proper wisdom, consisting in knowledge of any sort.39 Therefore, in an implicit manner, the defense (just like any other instance of examination) can be seen as another case of examination—and also implicit confirmation—of the oracle. This time, however, the examination has a general character and it can be seen as a final proof of the irrefutability of the oracle.

7 The Defense as Final Proof of the Oracle

How can the defense be a final proof of the oracle? Through its circular structure: as examination, the defense does not refer to a specific knowledge, but to the very effect that examination usually had—and could possibly have—in the mind of the examined people. More precisely, this time, the examination refers to the effect that any examination can have in the mind of people who reject the god’s message and the bearer of this message. By refuting the slander, Socrates proves that the divine message cannot be rejected.

Socrates examines the slander against him (18e 5-19a 7), i.e. the very fact that examined people do not assume their lack of wisdom, but prefer to be upset, to slander, and finally to accuse. Through his defense, Socrates is trying to show that this slander is not legitimate, and that it is essentially triggered by people’s inability to assume that they are not wise and to accept the divine message.

The slander has a very particular form. On the one hand, it consists in accusing Socrates of being “wise” (18b 7; 23a 3) in an inacceptable form, i.e. through a personal wisdom, which risks to overthrow the religious and social rules of the city, by not believing in the gods and by corrupting the young (23d). On the other hand, from the point of view of the accusers, the slander appears rather as their particular wisdom and moral knowledge over Socrates’ case. What Socrates does is to refute this supposed “wisdom” of his, showing them that he is not wise as they slanderously consider him to be, and that his usual endeavor is precisely that of trying to prove that he is not wise. In this manner, he is also refuting the slander itself, showing it unfounded, and he is again and explicitly transmitting the message of the god: i.e. that the accusers are not really wise, as they consider themselves to be when accusing Socrates.

In this sense, the defense is a circular examination, attacking the “hatred and slander” that the examination produces in the souls of those concerned.40 The defense attacks the very possibility that anyone, faced with the Socratic examination, which transmits the divine message, might not accept this message, but reject it and react with slander.

This is why, Socrates’ defense is not simply a discourse intended to save him from being condemned. Rather, Socrates also fights back,41 and the defense turns against the accusers, putting them in front of their own limitations. How? Although nobody is personally targeted by the defense and by the examination, yet, upon hearing the message of the god, any of those present at the trial (and also any of us, readers) is challenged to examine themselves.42 The defense produces in the listeners two types of response: either that of acceptance, which involves admitting the limitation of one’s own wisdom, accepting the oracle’s message and acquitting Socrates, or that of a rejection of the divine message and accusation of Socrates. But this also means self-indictment for the accusers, in the sense that they fail the test of the examination, thus proving themselves unwise. This implies an indirect confirmation of Socrates’ words and of the oracle. For Socrates, the fact that his defense provokes hatred and is rejected by the judges is still a demonstration of what he is saying (24a6-8)43 and thus, a demonstration of the oracle.

From the point of view of the judges, the defense is a loss for Socrates, since they eventually convict him. However, being the god’s defense for Socrates himself, the winner is Socrates, and he is a winner in two ways: either the judges accept their limitations, receive the divine message and vote for Socrates’ acquittal, or the judges fail to receive the divine message transmitted through the defense and prove themselves unwise, which implicitly proves Socrates right. In either case, the defense reaches its goal: that of proving the oracle and that of proving Socrates right.

The circular structure of the defense—which is directed towards the usual effect of any Socratic examination, i.e. against slander—means that, through this defense, Socrates not only refutes his accusers (past and present), but he a priori refutes anyone who would ever react with slander, rejecting Socrates’ message, i.e. anyone who would ever attempt to reject the oracle’s message. After this final examination, one can no longer expect to find someone out there wiser than Socrates. A truly wise person does not react with slander, but rather assumes that he is not wise, and thus, can only be just as wise as Socrates, but not wiser than him.

Socrates no longer needs to explicitly examine all people, in order to prove the oracle right. His defense is this final proof, because it shows that the rejection of the oracle, as well as the slander of the bearer of this message, are unfounded. Socrates could not have done an exhaustive examination in person. The dialogue, however, assumes precisely this role of a comprehensive examination, which is not limited to the accusers—present or absent—but becomes an open examination, for all of us. Thus, as readers, we too are invited to judge Socrates’ case. While judging him, we are also submitted to the elenchos, testing whether we have real wisdom or not. This, in turn, urges us to ponder on the nature of true wisdom and to accept the recognition of our ignorance, as a threshold towards a philosophically lead life.

To sum up, the oracle puts Socrates in a paradoxical situation: he cannot directly admit, nor reject it. He can only postpone this double paradox, through a systematic process of examination, in search for someone wiser than himself. Through this examination, however, the message of the oracle becomes manifest: it consists in the fact that nobody is wiser than the one engaged in examination. The message is irrefutably proven through the examination of Socrates’ accusers. This particular and final examination dismisses the slander with which people react while incapable to admit their own lack of wisdom and to accept the message of the god. The defense accomplishes Socrates’ task of proving the oracle, with a final and conclusive demonstration, which, in a way, is still continuing, upon us, readers.44

Biographical Note

Marilena VLAD is researcher at the Institute for South-East European Studies, Romanian Academy and Associate Lecturer at the University of Bucharest (MA Department of Religious Studies: Texts and Traditions). She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Bucharest (2009) and a second Ph.D. from Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (2011). Recent publications: Damascius et l’ineffable. Récit de l’impossible discours (Paris: Vrin, 2019, coll. Histoire des doctrines de l’antiquité classique), “Invoquer, nommer, être présent. Pseudo-Denys l’Aréopagite sur la prière”, in Théories et pratiques de la prière dans l’Antiquité tardive, Eds. Philippe Hoffmann, Andrei Timotin (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020); “Dionysius the Areopagite on Angels. Self-constitution versus Constituting Gifts”. In: Neoplatonic Demons and Angels, Eds. Luc Brisson, Seamus O’Neill, Andrei Timotin (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2018) 269-290; “Stepping into the Void: Proclus and Damascius on Approaching the First Principle”, in: International Journal of the Platonic Tradition 11 (2017), Issue 1, pp. 44–68; “Denys l’Aréopagite et l’image divine: symbole, empreinte, statue”, in: Kristina Mitalaité, Anca Vasiliu (éd.), L’icône dans la pensée et dans l’art (Turnhout: Brepols, 2017), pp. 64-88.


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See also Plato, Apology, 38a 5-6, on the unexamined life that is not worth living.


See for instance Ryle (1966) 177 and West (1979) 106.


Cf. Burnet (1924) 174: “Socrates sets out with the idea of refuting the oracle […], at least in its obvious sense”. Guthrie (1971) 87: “what he set out to refute was the obvious meaning of the oracle, its words taken at their face value, in order to discover the answer to its riddle”. According to McPherran (2002) 129, Socrates refutes “the apparent meaning of the oracular pronouncement taken at face value, not […] the oracle or the god”; Brickhouse and Smith (1983) 663, note 15: “he sets out to refute the oracle’s apparent meaning. This is not an impious attempt to prove the god wrong, but only an attempt to understand what the god sought to convey”. Peterson (2011) 20: “Socrates might refute the surface meaning of the divination to approach accurate understanding of it,” see also Peterson (2011) 36: “To understand the oracle superficially is to think that its comparison that no one is wiser than Socrates means that no person is wiser-in-Athenian-reputed-wisdom than Socrates. It is to suggest that Socrates thinks he has a kind of wisdom that actually only the gods could have”. See also Colaiaco (2001) 70: “Socrates succeeded in ‘refuting’ not the oracle itself, but its literal interpretation, the meaning of Apollo’s pronouncement was that humans are ignorant, and if Socrates is wise, it is only in the limited human sense that he acknowledges his own ignorance”. McPherran (1986) 543 suggests that piety demands Socrates to refute the apparent meaning and to find out the real one, and then, piety again demands of him to do that which “best promotes the development of goodness” and thus, continue to investigate people. See also Reeve (1989) 22-23.


See for instance Peterson (2011) 21: “Socrates initially thinks the oracle’s comparison has to do with knowledge of something ‛fine and good’”.


McPherran (2002) 134 suggests that Socrates continues the examination “driven by a concern for piety and justice,” because he wants to confirm the god’s message “to the highest degree of truth possible”.


Plato, Apology, 21b.


This is why Socrates admits that he is at a loss regarding the meaning of the oracle (ἠπόρουν τί ποτε λέγει: 21 b7). He was in a state of aporia. Haraldsen (2018) 212-214 suggests that the benefit of the Socratic examination consists in the aporia (both the one in which Socrates finds himself, as well as the aporia induces in the examined people). The author describes the aporia as “a negation that invites reflection” and notices that “in Socrates himself, an instance of aporia was central in initiating his conversational practice”.


Cohen (2007) 202 notices that Socrates “responds to the divine not by blindly accepting it but by trying to make sense of it using human reason”. The author considers that Socrates’ reaction to the oracle was not motivated by religious beliefs, but by a rational interpretation. However, it is difficult to elude any religious trace from Socrates’ attitude to the oracle episode. Socrates could indeed not accept the oracle “blindly,” because it was completely against his own innermost convictions and even against logic, if he would follow its consequences. A religious attitude, however, does not need to be blind. The very fact that Socrates does not deny the message, nor ignore it, despite his incapacity to admit it—but preferred to consider that he did not understand it, rather than to contradict it—shows a religious attitude. The same message (as already stated by Chairephon in his question) was deniable, but, once the oracle says the same thing, the message can no longer be false, as Socrates admits.


See also Carvalho (2014) 46-47, who shows that “Socrates performs an elenchus on the pronouncement of Apollo […] without implying it is false or that the god is a liar,” even though he does not use “his ‘standard’ method of argumentation against Apollo”. The author argues that, if Socrates would not have tried to refute the oracle’s message, but would have accepted it as such, he would have been forced to “question his belief in his own ignorance”. In this case, “He would be forced to re-evaluate his contribution to the well-being of the polis, perhaps taking a more active part in political deliberations, […] and refraining from practices which threaten to remove him from public life. At any rate, he would be forced to change his life”.


Goldman (2004) 19-20 discusses the different verbs indicating the examination: “we find early on other words for ‘examine’ or ‘investigate’, particularly forms of skeptomai and skopein, meaning to examine or to turn and fix one’s eyes at length upon something; zeteo, meaning to search after or inquire into; and elenchein, to question. Exetazein and its various forms are introduced for the first time at Apology, 22e 6 […] Thus, an exetasis is presented, so to speak, as the sum of, or perhaps the umbrella concept for what all of the other forms of examination and inquiry have produced”. The author underlines the military sense of the verb exetazein.


Adams (1998) 287 distinguishes a stronger sense of elenchos (“proof that some claim is false”) and a second sense (“‘testing’ or ‘cross-examination’ of a witness to show that the witness is not reliable”). See also Vlastos (1994) 287, who argues that elenchos is a “search for moral truth,” rather than a form of eristic.


As Doyle (2004) 33 notices, “the oracle’s meaning does not ‘exist from the beginning in completed form’”. It only appears through Socrates’ examination of it. See also Woodruff (2000) 136: “the elenchus is helpful; it is the principal tool for explaining the oracle in the Apology”.


On Socrates’ notion of piety see McPherran (1985). See also Vlastos (2000) 64-65, on piety as “doing god’s work to benefit human beings”.


Guthrie (1971) 86 notices that “Socrates himself chose to take the oracle very seriously, and regarded it as a turning-point in his life”.


Doyle (2004) 31 notices: “We know that Socrates came to be wise before Chaerephon went to Delphi. The evidence for this is […] the fact that Socrates’ initial response to the oracle was puzzlement, because he ‘knew [himself] not to be wise in anything, great or small’ (21b5-6); so he already conformed to what would be his own interpretation of the god’s later definition of human wisdom”. Yet, even though Socrates is conscious of not being wise in any way, after the oracle and after the first examination, he realizes that this consciousness that he previously had is wisdom. So, Socrates was wise even before the oracle, but the oracle brought this wisdom to consciousness.


See, for instance, Leibowitz (2010) 63.


Cohen (2007) 193 argues that the oracle gave Socrates no command at all and implies that Socrates is not a “devout believer who acts upon divine inspiration”. See also McPherran (2002) 118. Brickhouse and Smith (1983) 663 show that, even though the oracle itself had no prescriptive message, Socrates took it as a mission assigned by the god, given his own perspective about piety which we can find sketched in the Euthyphro: “Socrates’ sense of obligation to the god derives from his already held belief about the requirements of piety which are not based on a direct commandment issued through the Delphic oracle”. Corey (2005) 214 suggests that Socrates understood the oracle as a prescription, in the light of similar divinatory experiences, like “oracles and dreams” (Apology, 33c). Brickhouse and Smith (1984) 127 also argue that Socrates interprets the oracle as a command, corroborating this interpretation with “other divine revelations”. Vlastos (2000) 62 gives the same interpretation. See also Miller and Platter (2010) 106.


Cf. Carvalho (2014) 46: “Socrates is made to say he intends to refute the oracle (AP 21c1) using the technical term that identifies his particular method (elenchein) and serving notice on the pronouncement reported by the god’s representatives (to manteion). He also makes clear that it is the oracular response itself, personified as tô chrêsmô (AP 21c1-2), whom he will show (apophanôn, AP 21c1) to be mistaken”.


As McPherren (2002) 122 notices, “Socrates’ characterization of his puzzlement upon learning of the oracular response indicates that he already thought that he was without wisdom (21b4-5), and the best explanation for this piece of self-understanding is that he had come to it by means of his primary tool of self-examination: the elenchos”.


Cf. Brickhouse and Smith (1983) 662-663, contradicted by Cohen (2007) 195. In this article, we will try to argue that even though Socrates was already practicing elenchos before the oracle, this elenchos itself reaches its mature sense and aim after the oracle.


Cf. McPherren (2002) 122-126, who systematically displays the steps of this “elenctic interpretation”.


See also Carvalho (2014) 49, who notices that “the test of what Socrates believes the god’s meaning to be necessarily entails an examination of Socrates’ belief that he knows nothing of any importance”.


As Benson (2002) 109 puts it, if the interlocutors “turn out not to have the knowledge that they claim to have—as of course none do—he will attempt to persuade them to join him in the search”. See also Benson (1996).


Howland (2018) develops the analogy between Socrates’ enquiry and Heracles’ labors.


Colaiaco (2001) 71 speaks about “Socrates’ illogical leap from the oracle’s declaration of his wisdom to the inauguration of a philosophical mission […]. In essence, Socrates elevated himself to the status of Apollo’s dialectical instrument.” However, this leap is not illogical, if we consider that this mission is not directly imposed by the oracle, but rather deduced from the only logical manner in which Socrates can react to the otherwise perplexing oracle.


McPherran (1986) 543 suggests that people would not have accepted the message, if Socrates had transmitted it as such, without a proper demonstration. This explanation, however, is not entirely reflecting the facts. In reality, people didn’t accept Socrates’ message once the “demonstration” was delivered, but on the contrary: the demonstration (that they were not wise) was painful and made people reject Socrates’ message. The demonstration didn’t facilitate the transmission of the message, but obstructed it.


Thus, the examination is not intended to provide certain knowledge, but has a protreptic goal. See on this Gonzalez (2002).


As Doyle (2004) 32 proves, the explanation of why Socrates considers the oracle as a mission is to be found in Socrates’ own interpretation of the oracle. “Thus, the god, according to Socrates, has used the oracle to bring about his purpose by means—odd as this may sound—of an implicit prophecy which is in a certain respect self-fulfilling. For the very conduct (questioning) which is triggered in Socrates by puzzlement at the oracular pronouncement is an important part of the conduct in respect of which he has been chosen by the god to serve as a model”.


See for instance Brickhouse and Smith (2004) 98: “First, it is reasonable to infer that Socrates must have already been engaged in philosophical activity of some sort with a circle of friends before Chaerephon’s journey.” See also McPherran (2002) 120-121: “we can hypothesize that he was quite proficient at elenchos-wielding, sufficiently proficient that Chaerephon came to think of him as being wise”. Guthrie (1971) 87 points out that Socrates was already engaged in the “care for the soul,” and this is why he could “accept the impulsive act of Chaerephon and its consequences as a sign that he was on the right track, and allow it to make up his mind for him”.


Plato, Apology, 21e-22a.


Plato, Apology, 20e 6-8 (transl. by G.M.A. Grube, slightly modified). McPherran (2002) 115 notices that “to attempt to employ a god in Socrates’ fashion is virtually unprecedented in Greek forensic literature”. Metcalf (2004) 146 shows that, when Socrates describes his discussions with the first interlocutors, the rhetoric of the text suggests that Socrates is not the agent of the elenchus, but rather the one who undergoes it: “the effect of the passage […] is to shift attention away from Socrates’ active role in the process toward the divine agency”.


Plato, Apology, 18e 5-19a 7 (transl. by G.M.A. Grube).


Socrates wants to speak in the very same manner in which he used to speak “in the marketplace […] where many of you have heard me” (17c 8-10). Indeed, in the marketplace, he is usually engaged in refutation.


The defense can also be understood as a more focused refutation of the jurors, in regard to their capacity to judge right and to accept the truth. See in this sense Blyth (2000), who describes the Apology as a “mirrored judgment,” in which “Socrates […] presents the jurors with a moral test” (p. 7), namely in Apology 29b 9-30a 2, and “The condemning jurors are thus themselves convicted of judicial murder.” (p. 4).


Socrates’ defense is a tricky one: the accused (i.e. Socrates) becomes an examiner, while the accusers become subjects of examination, thus reversing the roles.


See Burnet (1924) 186-187, Allen (1980), Blyth (2000) 4.


Plato, Apology, 18d. Socrates expends the number of accusations against him, addressing not just the three accusations brought by Meletus, Anytus and Lycon, but also older accusations. According to Brickhouse and Smith (2004) 105, “even if he narrowed the scope of his defense to a tightly worded and effective rebuttal of the “newer accusations” that Meletus wrote up, the jury would nonetheless be disinclined to release him, for they would still be convinced that he was in fact a criminal of the very sort they had heard about for so many years.”


See Burnet (1924) 177: “the name of ‘wise’ is the chief διαβολή” (at 23a 3). See S. Peterson (2011) 19-36, who explains why being “wise” is a slander. Cohen (2007) 197: “according to Socrates, the real cause of the slander is a kind of wisdom that he tentatively calls human wisdom, distinguishing it from a wisdom that is more than human (kat’ anthropon sophian) (20e1).”


See King (2008), who shows that the Socratic wisdom should not be understood as knowledge, but rather as sophrosune.


Socrates explicitly states the subject of his examination this time: “to uproot […] the slander” (Apology, 19a 1: ἐξελέσθαι τὴν διαβολὴν).


For the Socratic examination as agon (combat, contest), see Goldman (2004) 14-33.


Woodruff (2018) 187 argues that the very essence of the Socratic examination lies in the self-examination that it can induce in people: “Socrates’s mission is to set an example of self-questioning that ordinary Athenians can apply to themselves.”


Plato, Apology, 24a 6-8 (οἶδα σχεδὸν ὅτι αὐτοῖς τούτοις ἀπεχθάνοµαι, ὃ καὶ τεκµήριον ὅτι ἀληθῆ λέγω).


This work was supported by a grant of the Romanian National Authority for Scientific Research, CNCSUEFISCDI, project number PN-III-P4-ID-PCE-2016-0712.

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