You are here

Divination and Dialogue: The Construction of Philosophy in Plato’s Apology

Ethan Schwartz

Harvard University

This paper argues that the conceptual world of divination plays a central and productive role in Plato’s construction of dialogical philosophy in his Apology. The study of ancient divination has emerged in recent decades as one of the most exciting comparative enterprises in Classical and ancient Near Eastern studies, uncovering the sophistication and ubiquity of this widespread cultural phenomenon (e.g. Bowden 2005, Huffmon 2007, Maurizio 1997, and Nissinen 2017). This has prompted new attention to the surprising prevalence of divination throughout the Platonic corpus. In recent studies, for instance, Kathryn A. Morgan (2010) has shown how Plato uses divinatory language to transfer authority from Socrates himself to the very practice of philosophy, while Peter T. Struck (2014 and 2016) has discussed Plato's employment of divination as a metaphor for intuitive knowledge. Naturally, attention to divination in Plato has prompted fresh consideration of the most famous divinatory phenomenon in the corpus: the Delphic oracle by which Socrates claims to have been spurred in the Apology. Several scholars (e.g. Brickhouse and Smith 1983, Dorion 2012, McPherran 1996 and 2002, and Stokes 1992) have emphasized the significance of the connection between the oracle and the origins of Socrates’ elenchus, while Julia Kindt (2016) has compellingly shown that the Apology can be read as a subversive iteration of a discernible genre of Delphic narrative.

These studies share a sense that the Delphic oracle is not simply a cultural reference but an essential part of the literary drama of the Apology—necessary for a full understanding of its view of philosophy. They tend to present Socrates as a human spokesperson for the oracle; puzzled by its pronouncement of his wisdom, he is driven to live a life that effects the Delphic exposure of hubris inasmuch as he undermines others’ pretenses to wisdom. To be sure, several moments in the Apology recommend such a view—most notably Socrates’ famous self-identification as a divinely appointed “gadfly” (Ap. 30e). However, the present paper aims to nuance this approach by showing how the Apology mobilizes divination toward an authorization of not only philosophy in general but, more specifically, a dialogical vision of philosophy, in which truth emerges in the interpersonal space of conversation. In divination, knowledge results from the confrontation of two entities: the god and the patron or performer of the divinatory act. Plato’s Socrates seizes upon this binary mode of knowing as a model for learning through dialogue: now, the confrontation is between two human personalities rather than one human and one divine. In dialogical philosophy, the voice of the interlocutor assumes the role of the fiat of divine pronouncement. The result is that in being activated by the Delphic oracle, dialogical philosophy ultimately supersedes it: people are now able to learn and to cultivate virtue by inquiring of each other, not oracles. In this way, although the Apology does not constitute an unqualified break with the world of ancient divination, it does subtly construct such a break from within that very cultural world.

The paper proceeds in three parts. I begin by briefly reviewing the literature discussed above and making the case for reading the Apology with particular attention to Delphi. In the second section, I situate this divinatory reading in relation to debates about the purpose and procedure of the elenchus (e.g. Brickhouse and Smith 1991, Kraut 1983, Seeskin 1987, Vlastos 1995, and Wolfsdorf 2008). I argue that Plato’s use of divinatory concepts coheres with an understanding of the elenchus as a genuine conversation in which Socrates views himself as a participant within a shared cultivation of virtue, rather than a unilateral teacher. In the final section of the paper, I show how this is realized in Socrates’ closing case for dialogical philosophy as the corrective to the “unexamined life” (Ap. 37e–39e), which he expresses through repeated employment of divinatory language (e.g. χρησμῳδέω, μαντεύομαι).

Session/Panel Title

Plato and his Reception

Session/Paper Number


Share This Page

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy