The nature of Socrates’ Divine Sign

In the Symposium, with Phaedrus, Pausanias, Agathon, Aristophanes, and Eryximachus, in turn, having fashioned their own “odes” to the god of Love, Socrates renders his own praise amongst the symposiasts.  His speech assumes a quasi-religious authority as he recalls the teaching of Diotima, a Mantian priestess.[1]  The whole of Socrates speech deviates little from merely relating the content of this conversation.  At one point, as he relates the conversation, Socrates brings up the topic of the daimonian.

 [Diotima said,] “and the entire divine (daimonion) is halfway between god and mortal”
“And it has what power?,”I [Socrates] said.

 “Interpreting and transmitting the things of men to gods and the things of gods to men, namely the petitions and sacrifices of men, and from the gods, the commands and the things exchanged for the sacrifices, and because it is in the middle, it fills up both completely, with the result that the universe itself contributes to itself.  Through this also the whole of the prophetic and the priestly art moves…”

 καὶ γὰρ πᾶν τὸ δαιμόνιον
μεταξύ ἐστι θεοῦ τε καὶ θνητοῦ.
τίνα, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, δύναμιν ἔχον;

ἑρμηνεῦον καὶ διαπορθμεῦον θεοῖς τὰ παρ᾽ ἀνθρώπων καὶ ἀνθρώποις τὰ παρὰ θεῶν, τῶν μὲν τὰς δεήσεις καὶ θυσίας, τῶν δὲ τὰς ἐπιτάξεις τε καὶ ἀμοιβὰς τῶν θυσιῶν, ἐν μέσῳ δὲ ὂν ἀμφοτέρων συμπληροῖ, ὥστε τὸ πᾶν αὐτὸ αὑτῷ συνδεδέσθαι. διὰ τούτου καὶ ἡ μαντικὴ πᾶσα χωρεῖ καὶ ἡ τῶν ἱερέων τέχνη…
Symposium 202E

I could excerpt a little more, but I think the passage above is sufficient to make my point.  There seems to have a been a consensus in the recent past that Socrates’ daimonion did not manifest; save at those times Socrates was to be prohibited and to be forewarned.[2]  This consensus seems to have been lost.  However, the above passage could offer good, but oblique, support to this view.

If the daimonion is a type of mediator, or angel perhaps, its role does seem strangely ambiguous.  First off, grammatically it is neuter, and likewise singular.  Does this mean that there is only one “divine sign” for all human beings, and it takes turns forewarning us?  Or that it is literally that, an “it”, with no personality and no mind to speak of, merely a conducive force for the voice of the gods?

In the Crito, 31D, Socrates provides a few details about the daimonion he defends his lack of involvement in public affairs.

“There is a certain divine and daimonion thing, a voice, which Meletos even ridicules in his accusation.  This thing is a certain voice, beginning from my childhood, which, whenever it occurs always dissuades me from that which I am about to do, but it never persuades [to do something].”

μοι θεῖόν τι καὶ δαιμόνιον γίγνεται φωνή, ὃ δὴ καὶ ἐν τῇ γραφῇ ἐπικωμῳδῶν Μέλητος ἐγράψατο. ἐμοὶ δὲ τοῦτ᾽ ἔστιν ἐκ παιδὸς ἀρξάμενον, φωνή τις γιγνομένη, ἣ ὅταν γένηται, ἀεὶ ἀποτρέπει με τοῦτο ὃ ἂν μέλλω πράττειν, προτρέπει δὲ οὔποτε.

Using the theology of the Symposium to bear on the issue of the daimonion we can conclude a few things related to this Apology passage.  1) The daimonion is acting on behalf of a god(s), when it relates a prohibition to Socrates.  (2) The daimonion only prohibits, “no” is its favorite and only word.

Given the above, I believe the daimonion might be nothing more than a force.  That is, it is something impersonal, like electricity, or to use a physical analogy, a reflex.  Just as certain physical actions lead to the stimulation of a reflex, so certain mental states lead to the stimulation of a daimonion.  There is more to be investigated in this, chiefly the difficulty of reconciling this definition of daimonion with its immediate application to the god Love in Symposium.  I will post later on what I have decided.


[1] Diotima (lit, honor to Zeus or the god), Mantian

[2] For example, Plato, Apology and Crito, by Dyer and Seymour, 1885

2 thoughts on “The nature of Socrates’ Divine Sign

  1. excellent thinking and wonderful interpretation of the Greek (though you drove me to the books). Most Excellent! Thanks so much. What a nice surprise in my email!
    Kali Mera!

  2. I believe Socrates was speaking about “free won’t,” or our conscience. When impulses with bad consequences arise in our minds, our brain acts to inhibit them. This is what we perceive as conscious control. Psychopaths have very little of this ability due to diminished frontal lobes. Suspension of impulses and judgments are an act of these lobes. Just another example of Socrates’ incredible prescience on the science of the human psyche.

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