Socrates as social entrepreneur: a visit to the oracle


Chaerephon of Athens trudged up the Sacred Way toward the temple at Delphi. Soiled clouds hung across the face of Mount Parnassus and the limestone facing on the steps was slippery with rain. Chaerephon kept one hand on the balustrade, sounding out each step with the tip of his staff. He paused at the tier of Athena to catch his breath. Ah, Delphi! It was a splendid view from the spur of rock upon which the ancient temple sat across the flank of the mountain and the valley. One could imagine Apollo flying down that flinty slope to choose the location for his sacred temple. In the valley below, Dionysus and his nymphs had cavorted in the days when deities walked the earth, when the myths were as alive as the forests and the corn in the field.

Chaerephon the Elder rapped his staff resolutely on the ancient stone. He had to stop Socrates. Gathering his toga about him, he continued up the stair. The sun was breaking through the clouds and Chaerephon had a date with the oracle.

A slave was stuffing herbs into a brazier when Chaerephon reached the foyer of the temple. In a room thick with smoke, he lay honey cake before the altar of the Chians, marveling at the images on the temple walls around him: the battle of the Titans, and Iolaus astride the Pegasus, swooping into battle. The shriek of a lamb, cut short, shattered his reverie. Tugging off his sandals, Chaerephon entered the atrium. A priestess led him to the Vestal font and dropped petals in his path. She washed his feet and daubed holy water on his brow. She hung a necklace of flowers, tears of Io, about his neck.

“The Pythia is waiting,” she said.

Chaerephon took his place in a queue before the entrance to the holy sanctum. There was firelight through the open door. ‘Gnothi seauton’ was carved into the keystone over the door. ‘Know yourself’. Chaerephon meditated on the teaching as he waited for his turn to pass through the portal. When a priest called his name, he stepped into the chamber.

The air was thick and metallic. High above the statue of Apollo loomed in a splash of light. Chaerephon could scarcely see the oracle, who sat on a chair in the centre of the chamber before a jagged crack in the floor. The Pythia was bent beneath a heavy shawl. Her face was fair but a brown and withered hand took grapes from a copper bowl.

‘Know yourself’, a voice whispered in the darkness. The prompt brought Chaerephon’s mission into focus. Of course, this was just what Socrates had wrong, Chaerephon thought. Socrates thought that ‘Know yourself’ meant: ‘Examine yourself – look into every thought and feeling and put it through the mill of inquiry’. As Socrates liked to say, an unexamined life is not worth living. But this was a misinterpretation of the Delphic inscription, Chaerephon thought. Even children knew that ‘know yourself’ meant: ‘Know your place and speak respectfully when you stand before the oracle’. The fact that Socrates didn’t appreciate this was evidence of his basic impiety, if more evidence were needed. Chaerephon had come to Delphi to settle the matter for good.

‘Oracle’, he said. ‘I know a man named Socrates, who thinks he is wise. Show me the wiser man, so that I may put him before him and show Socrates the error of his ways?’

The oracle spat seeds into the bowl. ‘No man is wiser than Socrates’, she said.

Chaerephon held his breath. The Pythia was known for making elliptical statements – the birth of babies with animal heads; two suns rising; an urgent need to revalue the drachma. This one was uncommonly direct. No man wiser than Socrates? This wasn’t what Chaerephon had expected at all. Socrates was a clown – everyone knew that! He was a philosopher who went about claiming that he didn’t know anything at all.

Chaerephon waited for more. But the oracle seemed to have fallen asleep. The sibyls struck up a chorus of harps, swaying the gloom. Their music couldn’t fill the space, or compensate for Chaerephon’s confusion.

This is a true story, if Plato is to be believed. Around 440BC, Chaerephon, a citizen of Athens, travelled to the city of Delphi to ask the oracle there what she thought of the philosopher Socrates. Socrates, who would have been about thirty, was establishing his reputation in Athens at the time. No doubt Chaerephon had hoped the oracle would put the young upstart in his place.

What happened was unexpected. The oracle told Chaerephon that there was no man on earth wiser than Socrates. The ancient Greeks took the pronouncements of the Delphic oracle very seriously. Even Socrates, who was skeptical of oracles and seers, could not ignore this statement or dismiss it out of hand. Instead Socrates devoted his life to interrogating the statement of the Delphic oracle in an effort to prove that it was incorrect.

This was an event of singular importance for the history of the West – and not only the West, but the East and South as well – anywhere that the tradition of critical reason has made its mark. Chaerephon’s visit to the oracle set Socrates on a path that determined the course of his philosophical career, and the history of Western reason after that. It was a dangerous, disruptive, iconoclastic path. Yet it was a creative, affirmative path as well – a path of innovative thinking that shook the foundations of the world and fed directly into the development of the world today.

This is the first instalment in a four-part series. It is the story of one man, Socrates of Athens, who philosophers know well but who is unreasonably ignored in many discussions and debates today. Socrates lived in the fourth and fifth centuries BC in Athens, Greece. For better and worse, he is the father of critical reason. Socrates started it all.


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