BMCR 2006.07.57

Socrates’ Divine Sign: Religion, Practice, and Value in Socratic Philosophy. APEIRON: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science, Vol. 38/ no. 2 (June 2005)

, , Socrates' divine sign : religion, practice and value in Socratic philosophy. Apeiron ; v. 38, no. 2. Kelowna, BC: Academic Printing and Publishing, 2005. xii, 180 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0920980902 $26.95 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The most curious feature of Socrates’ religion is his mention of τὸ δαιμόνιον and the role it plays in guiding his actions. Cognate with ὁ δαίμων, a term with its own imprecision, τὸ δαιμόνιον is often rendered in Plato as the “divine sign” or simply transliterated: “the daimonion.” Described as a “kind of voice” ( φωνή τις, Ap. 31d2, cf. Phdr. 242c1-2), or a “sign” ( σημεῖον, Ap. 40b2, c2-3, Phdr. 242b9) of which only Socrates was aware, the daimonion raises many questions. One of them is, what role could the daimonion play in the life of a person whose commitment to rational examination of matters of fundamental practical importance is unrivalled, yet who also receives private indications concerning his interests that intrude into his actions or intentions to act, prompting him immediately and unwaveringly to stop?

The essays in this volume, which were among those presented at a conference in Belgium in 2003, are generally concerned to see whether the experience of the daimonion is consistent with Socrates’ commitment to reasoned argument and rational justification. Most essays offer varieties of rationalist interpretations, even when they (rightly) hold that Socrates daimonion, whatever it consists in, is of divine origin. On this rationalist view,1 Socrates’ receptivity to the daimonion is not irrational, nor is his grip on the authority of rationality loosened. On the contrary, the daimonion offers “extrarational” information that does not supplant reason because it does not compete against reason as such. Put another way, its occurrence is taken by him to be another reason, a better reason, for not doing or saying what he was about to do or say. In fact, several essays show that far from pitting reason against revelation, the daimonion’s characteristics, function, or source complement Socrates’ divine mission and the elenchos by which he attempts to fulfill it. Finally, some essays contribute to the vexing question of how, at the end of Plato’s Apology, Socrates can cite the non-occurrence of the daimonion at any point before and during the trial as evidence bearing on the question of whether death is a harm, in light of his disavowals at 29a4-b6 and 37b5-7 (cf. 42a4-5).

Brisson (“Socrates and the Divine Signal according to Plato’s Testimony: Philosophical Practice as Rooted in Religious Tradition,” 1-12) begins his essay with a careful assessment of the characteristics of the experience. He agrees with Vlastos that τὸ δαιμόνιον is an abbreviation of τὸ δαιμόνιον σημεῖον. It does not refer to a god, tutelary divinity, or guardian angel. Rather it is a nondiscursive acoustic sign or signal that occurs adventitiously and that is believed to come from an unidentified daimôn or theos. Further, he shows how the actions that the sign inhibits are not intrinsically moral—the sign is not Socrates’ moral conscience—but that the moral significance of the actions, if any, must be determined by retrospective interpretation (6). This clears the way for Brisson to discuss how the sign poses no threat to Socrates’ moral autonomy; the sign does not supplant practical reason, but “fixes its limits and orients it” (12). His compressed treatment of the significance of the non-occurrence of the sign at Socrates’ trial, and how this is a μέγα τεκμήριον (Ap. 40c2) of the goodness of his death, merits careful unpacking and evaluation but is ultimately not decisive. He concludes that “Socrates can claim not to know anything about death or anything else, and he can interpret the result of the trial, which implies death, as a good thing” (9). This is because, at Ap. 29b6-c1, he takes himself to be a good man to whom nothing bad can happen (10). But even if, as Brisson holds, the “well-foundedness of divine action” is an “axiom” in Socrates’ interpretation of the divine sign (10), the non-occurrence of the sign seems at best to support only the belief that death is not a harm to Socrates.

McPherran (“Introducing a New God: Socrates and His Daimonion,” 13-30) looks to take forward his important work of examining the historical Socrates’ religion 2 by addressing some of the “outstanding problems” in the sign. These are: how the god of the daimonion foretells the future, and why it makes only apotreptic indications and only to Socrates. While he acknowledges that Xenophon’s treatment of the sign is part of a “suspiciously normalizing” portrait of Socrates’ piety (14), he finds that Plato’s and Xenophon’s accounts have many points of contact, and uses testimony of the latter to corroborate that of the former. For this reason (and because he seems to have the historical Socrates in view) he is more inclusive than Brisson and others in this volume, collecting evidence that Socrates “probably” thought that the divine sign came from Apollo, that its divine provenance supports Socrates’ belief that it is “unfailingly correct,” and that it could even concern the actions that others intend (16), though this last item is not supported in Plato’s dialogues. When considering more substantive questions about the daimonion’s role in Socrates’ life, McPherran considers its origin. On his “admittedly speculative” (25, n. 32) account, drawn principally from Xenophon, the god of the sign knows its own mind (24) and all events are “the expression of an immanent intelligence” (25) and therefore inherently providential. The sign’s non-appearance in Plato’s Apology grounds the rational expectation ( elpis Ap. 40c4), not certainty, that death is good, because the sign comes from an omniscient and cosmos-governing god. As for why the sign in Plato is solely apotreptic and only occurs to Socrates, McPherran’s answers are linked. Given the apotreptic form of the elenchos, which he alone was enjoined by the oracle to practice in service of the god Apollo, “it is he who is singled out for Apollo’s gifts of an apotreptic daimonion” (27). Finally, McPherran concludes by examining additional reasons for both the partiality of the sign and its apotreptic function that are consistent with Socrates’ commitment to reasoned argument.

Van Riel (“Socrates’ Daemon: Internalisation of the Divine and Knowledge of the Self,” 31-42) argues that it was the exclusivity of the sign that aroused Athenian ire, but goes beyond recent examinations of this question 3 in claiming that the real problem was that Socrates’ sign was evidence of “the intervention of a private divine force” whose existence is “exclusively linked to the personality of the recipient” (35). While we may never know whether Socrates’ jurors believed the charge of καινὰ δαιμόνια picked out such an internal “private god” (35) as Van Riel proposes, we can be sure that Plato’s Socrates did not. While Van Riel alternates between the terms daimôn and daimonion, Plato did not; moreover, Plato never suggests that τὸ δαιμόνιον picked out any sort of personality, and thus Socrates never speaks of “the voice of the daimonion” (36), as if τὸ δαιμόνιον referred to a god among others (40) with motives (38). In spite of his confusion over this dimension of the supernaturalness of the daimonion and thus the distinctiveness of its occurrences, Van Riel stands with others in this volume who show how the phenomenon coheres with Socrates’ philosophical practice.

Brickhouse and Smith (“Socrates’ Daimonion and Rationality,” 43-62) offer a novel defense of Socrates against the charge of irrationalism and persuasively criticize other rationalist interpretations. They provide thorough criticism of Vlastos’ “reductionism,” which seeks to assimilate the phenomena of the sign to a “hunch” or “rational intuition” of the inadvisability of a course of action, and his “interpretationalism,” which grants to the sign a supernatural origin but leaves reason “unfettered scope” in the task of determining its meaning. They also reject Reeve’s view,4 here dubbed “foundationalism,” according to which “the authority of the daimonion’s oppositions derives ultimately from certain more fundamental (‘elenctically sustained’) reasonings about the divine nature of the source of such oppositions” (56). Their worry rests on Socrates’ claim to have experienced the sign “since childhood” (Ap. 31d2), long before Socrates could have provided the foundations for justifying his obedience to it. This means that initially, Socrates either did not trust his daimonion or trusted it without adequate justification (56). Their positive account, an “empiricist” or “reliabilist” view, takes the evidence of this early intervention along with the frequency of the sign to support Socrates’ rational reliance on a sign that is, nevertheless, supernaturally (or “extra-rationally”) based. They argue persuasively that Socrates’ reliance on the daimonion can come to be reasonable given sufficient corroboration, that is, multiple instances of its occurrence over time.

The next two papers challenge something of an orthodoxy among recent commentators, namely that the sign is unique to Socrates and, further, at least partly constitutive of Socrates’ uniqueness ( atopia). Destrée (“The Daimonion and the Philosophical Mission: Should the Divine Sign Remain Unique to Socrates?” 63-79) finds support in Rep. 496c2-4 that for Socrates, the sign could operate in the lives of others. Indeed, since the sign is so closely connected to his divine mission (68), it is in principle available to other philosophers. Insofar as the practice of philosophy is not for Socrates alone, though he is a paradigmatic figure, so too the aid of a sign should not be restricted to Socrates. Why it has not appeared in others is answered by the fact that Socrates is the “only true philosopher” (75).

Like Destrée, Weiss (“For Whom the Daimonion Tolls,” 81-96) thinks that the daimonion could happen to others, so long as they are committed to justice. It is “a warning bell; it keeps those concerned for justice away from injustice” (85). She goes further, however, and argues that the sign is a naturalistic phenomenon and that the religious language Socrates uses to describe it is chosen because the experience is rare and adventitious, that is, felt to come from outside of him (85). Her reductionist view of the nature of the sign denies that the daimonion is an external voice, “but rather a voice inspired by Socrates’ thinking and intuition, that is, by beliefs that are for the moment insufficient on their own to guide him aright” (88-89). This interpretation 5 seems poorly equipped to explain the orientation of the sign to future harms, even trivial ones (cf. Ap. 40 a5-6: πάνυ ἐπὶ σμικροῖς), and its ubiquity in Socrates’ life. As a consequence, Weiss must either dismiss the sign’s appearance in the Euthydemus as “a comic spin” (89) or supply Socrates with a subconscious sense that in leaving the gymnasium, he would narrowly miss the chance to converse with two sophists (89, n. 20). Moreover, while Socrates is routinely depicted as not knowing, adequately, what he aims to know, he does not act or intend to act unadvisedly in the way that Weiss’s theory requires if the sign occurs often. We would then have a Socrates who takes himself to require constant reminders to do or say what is consistent with his considered beliefs, rather than one who frankly understands the limits of human understanding and welcomes the extrarational indications that he receives.

Joyal (” To Daimonion and the Socratic Problem,” 97-112) argues in painstaking detail that the canonical presentation of the sign in Plato’s Apology, to which all other Platonic and non-Platonic depictions refer, is nevertheless sufficiently unlike those other depictions that attempts to construct a single account of the sign are doomed. Rather, the evidence of the sign that Plato presents always bows before the literary and philosophical demands particular to the dialogue in which it appears (105). More radically, for Joyal “… to daimonion in Plato’s works is presented inconsistently, even incoherently, and is so often influenced by the demands or the convenience of context that it is sometimes hard to know whether we are dealing with the same phenomenon from one of its appearances to another.” (111). He goes on to liken this vacillation to the inconsistent treatment of the soul in the Platonic corpus (111, n. 32). It is, I agree, sensible to despair of ever grasping the “historical nature of Socrates’ divine sign” (112), but does it follow, as Joyal might be taken to imply, that no single, comprehensive account of the sign in Plato could be given? Not without understanding more about Plato first, he says (112). Joyal is certainly right that Plato’s treatment of the daimonion eschews the consistency that would neatly convey a full, systematic understanding of it—his or Socrates’. But the incompleteness of Socrates’ knowledge of the daimonion is consistent with Plato’s portraiture of Socrates’ disavowal of knowledge (and, some might add, Plato’s depiction of Socrates’ piety). In addition, Plato routinely has Socrates examining the reason for its appearance in a given instance, and Socrates always endorses whatever he determines the reason for the sign’s occurrence to be. Many in this volume believe it is possible, within the constraints of the limited and perhaps inconsistent evidence that we have, to argue from the Platonic Socrates’ own interpretations of specific cases and his generalizations to the outlines of an account of the daimonion’s role in the Platonic Socrates’ life. Nevertheless, Joyal is quite right to identify several difficulties for rationalist interpretations of the sign (on p. 111). His rich contribution here and elsewhere 6 is indispensable.

The last three essays examine non-Platonic treatments of the sign. In Xenophon, unlike Plato, τὸ δαιμόνιον quite clearly refers to a divinity of some sort (though it is never called ὁ δαίμων, it certainly acts like one); its activity is both protreptic and apotreptic; and it can concern itself with the affairs of others besides Socrates.

Narcy (“Socrates Sentenced by his Daimon,” 113-125) begins by showing how Xenophon defends Socrates from the charge of lying about the daimonion; for from its failure to prevent Socrates’ death, many would conclude that Socrates’ had not spoken the truth about the daimonion. But he goes further by showing that Socrates understands why the daimonion prohibits him from preparing his defense beforehand. It is because Socrates should receive the divine benefaction of a beautiful death. Support for this thesis follows an examination of Prodicus’ “On Heracles” (X. Mem. II 1, 21-34). For Narcy, “…that which Heracles, in Prodicus’ tale, is urged to become, Socrates actually became. And the reasons given to urge Heracles to follow Virtue are the same ones that, according to Xenophon, prove that Socrates benefited from divine benevolence even in the matter of his death” (120). Socrates’ confidence at his trial, then, flows from his understanding that the daimonion’s interference is a clear indication that it knows that Socrates should die and that, having lived justly, he will receive the rewards of justice.

Dorion’s treatment of Xenophon (“The Daimonion and the Megalêgoria of Socrates in Xenophon’s Apology,” 127-142) also centers on the differences between his and Plato’s account and suggests that Xenophon is consciously correcting the account given by other Socratics. Like Narcy, he holds that for Xenophon, Socrates’ death proves not that the gods abandoned him, but that they favored him with a beautiful death (129). Does it then follow that Socrates’ megalêgoria is a “suicidal strategy,” chosen as the surest means of provoking the jury to convict him and sentence him to die? No, for as Xenophon insists (Mem IV 8, 1), Socrates’ defense was “the most true” ( alêthestata) precisely insofar as it corresponds to the just life that Socrates led; it is a defense based on ergon, rather than logos. For this reason, Socrates’ megalêgoria, his “boastfulness,” is appropriate. For in his defense he “exalt[s] the ergon of his life” (133) and praises himself for the virtues and merits that he believes are his own (132). In Plato’s Apology, by contrast, Socrates’ acknowledgement that his speech may be provocative shows he chooses his defense strategy without the prior assurance that death is not a harm.

Brancacci (“The Double Daimôn in Euclides the Socratic,” 143-154) carefully examines the fragmentary work of Euclides ostensibly to determine why Panaetius would exclude him and Phaedo from the list of major Socratics whose dialogues he took to be genuine. Brancacci first gives reasons for thinking that a passage in Stobaeus, in which Sleep and an unnamed Death are represented as daimones, is part of a consolation speech given by Socrates when he was about to die, probably in Euclides’ Crito. He then examines a passage preserved by Censorinus in which Euclides holds that “each of us without distinction has been assigned a double genius ( duplicem genium).” Brancacci believes that this second assertion, since it explicitly denies the uniqueness of Socrates’ daimonion, supported Panaetius’ reservations over Euclides’ dialogues. The more interesting question, though, is whether the Sleep-Death pair in the first fragment may be identified as the double genius all of us have. While he reaches no firm conclusion on this question (151), Brancacci shows that if the identification is permitted, then Euclides’ δαίμων does not have the same meaning as τὸ δαιμόνιον in the Socratic tradition (152). If the identification is denied, and Euclides’ duplicem genium refers to the Socratic conception of the daimonion, then it may be that Euclides is trying to resolve the difference between the always apotreptic sign in Plato and the sometimes protreptic daimonion in Xenophon. This “double daimôn,” then, would refer to the double function of Socrates’ daimôn in the Socratic tradition. Specifically, this “could have been, for Euclides, a coherent way of reconciling the tradition of the two personal daimones with the more advanced concept of the daimôn, or daimonic sign, maintained by Socrates and revived, in the Socratic sphere, by Antisthenes, Xenophon, and Plato” (153).

In conclusion, anyone interested in the prospects for a comprehensive understanding of the daimonion and its operation and function will need this volume. Happily, it may be enjoyed by a wider audience as it is beautifully produced and eminently useable: the citation of ancient texts and modern works is standardized; all Greek is transliterated and passages in the text are translated; and there is a bibliography of works cited, along with an index locorum, index of modern names, and a general index with both English and Greek words and phrases. Unfortunately, the essays retain the brevity that made them suitable conference papers and, as the title indicates, there is little discussion of the daimonion’s appearance after Plato and Xenophon. In addition, these essays do not break new ground in the wider study of Athenian religious practices or legal customs; this is less a criticism of them than an acknowledgment of the recent work that precedes them and the difficulty of generalizing from the sign to the broader religious and legal contexts that gave the divine sign its particular significance. The exact nature of the sign, then, remains mysterious—as it should, I think, if we read the evidence with care. These authors have, by and large, done so, and yet at the same time shown where reasonable disagreements over the significance of the phenomenon in Socrates’ life reside. Above all, they have shown that neither must we, nor may we, dismiss or distort the evidence of the daimonion if we wish to retain a conception of Socrates’ deep and abiding commitment to rational justification and argumentation.


Luc Brisson, “Socrates and the Divine Signal according to Plato’s Testimony: Philosophical Practice as Rooted in Religious Tradition”

Mark L. McPherran, “Introducing a New God: Socrates and His Daimonion

Gerd Van Riel, “Socrates’ Daemon: Internalisation of the Divine and Knowledge of the Self”

Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, “Socrates’ Daimonion and Rationality”

Pierre Destrée, “The Daimonion and the Philosophical Mission: Should the Divine Sign Remain Unique to Socrates?”

Roslyn Weiss, “For Whom the Daimonion Tolls”

Mark Joyal, ” To Daimonion and the Socratic Problem”

Michel Narcy, “Socrates Sentenced by his daimôn

Louis-André Dorion, The Daimonion and the Megalêgoria of Socrates in Xenophon’s Apology,” trans. Matthew Brown

Aldo Brancacci, “The Double daimôn in Euclides the Socratic”.


1. Prominent rationalist interpreters include Vlastos, McPherran, and Brickhouse and Smith. See Smith and Woodruff, eds., Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy (Oxford, 2000), reviewed BMCR 2002.04.10, for an edited correspondence among them mainly devoted to the question of whether the sign provides knowledge and of what sort and scope.

2. The Religion of Socrates (Penn State University Press, 1996), reviewed BMCR 1997.12.11.

3. Kraut, “Socrates, Politics, and Religion” in Smith and Woodruff 2000 (op. cit.); Parker, “The Trial of Socrates: And a Religious Crisis?” chapter 10 of Athenian Religion (Oxford, 1996), reviewed BMCR 1997.05.01 and reprinted in Smith and Woodruff 2000; and Garland, “Sokrates and the New Daimonia,” chapter seven of Introducing New Gods (Cornell, 1987), reviewed BMCR 1992.06.07.

4. Socrates in the Apology (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989).

5. This interpretation was first offered in Socrates Dissatisfied (Oxford, 1998), reviewed BMCR 2000.06.25. Another reductionist account can be found in Nussbaum, “Commentary on Edmunds,” in Cleary, ed., Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy, Vol. 1 (University Press of America, 1985), 231-240.

6. “Tradition and Innovation in the Transformation of Socrates’ Divine Sign” in Ayres, ed., The Passionate Intellect (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1995), 39-56; “‘The Divine Sign Did Not Oppose Me’: A Problem in Plato’s Apology?” in Joyal, ed., Studies in Plato and the Platonic Tradition (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 43-58); The Platonic Theages (Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2000).