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Socrates, Sneezing and Daemons December 31, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

Socrates is the bedrock on which the western philosophical tradition has been built. You can polish him like Plotinus. You can take your geological hammer and tap gently at his sides in the style of Aristotle (poor dolt). Or you can start smashing bottles of nitric acid on his stone-work as Nietzsche did. The fact is that Socrates and his tiresome amanuensis Plato remain the foundation of every philosophical argument.

It is then rather unnerving to learn what extraordinarily silly things Socrates believed in. Apart from all the self-indulgent claptrap about not escaping from Athens when he was sentenced to death, there is also his faith in sneezes.

I have it from one of the Megarian school, who has it from Terpsion, that Socrates’ sign was a sneeze, his own and others’: thus, when another sneezed at his right, whether behind or in front, he proceeded to act, but if at his left, he desisted; while of his own sneezes the one that occurred when he was on the point of acting confirmed him in what he had set out to do, whereas the one occurring after he had already begun checked and prevented his movement.

If you were an adversary of Socrates then all you had to do was have a friend with a cold go and sit to the philosopher’s left before a debate began.

More interesting and no less unusual was Socrates’ internal voice, a voice he claimed that he had heard since his youngest childhood ‘a sort of voice that comes to me’.

Beachcombing discussed in this place recently the power of auditory hallucination and perhaps even the most stolidly materialist of us can hear a voice within, be that voice the echo of long-ago parental admonitions, conscience or, why not, consciousness.

So what, this materialist might then argue, Socrates sometimes listened to himself: nothing to see, move on… He was, after all, a philosopher! But this voice was allegedly a daemon (a spirit) and it was not just a question of random thoughts become Word. Take this remarkable fragment also from Plutarch.

But once when I was present, as I went to Euthyphron the soothsayer’s, it happened, Simmias, for you remember it, that Socrates walked up to Symbolum and the house of Andocides, all the way asking questions and jocosely perplexing Euthyphron. When standing still upon a sudden and persuading us to do the like, he mused a pretty while, and then turning about walked through Trunk-makers’ Street, calling back his friends that walked before him, affirming that it was his Daemon’s will and admonition. Many turned back, amongst whom I, holding Euthyphron, was one; but some of the youths keeping on the straight way, on purpose (as it were) to confute Socrates’s Daemon, took along with them Charillus the piper, who came in my company to Athens to see Cebes. Now as they were walking through Gravers’ Row near the court-houses, a herd of dirty swine met them; and being too many for the street and running against one another, they overthrew some that could not get out of the way, and dirtied others; and Charillus came home with his legs and clothes very dirty; so that now and then in merriment they would think on Socrates’s Daemon, wondering that it never forsook the man, and that Heaven took such particular care of him.

The key-stone of western philosophy then avoided being dirtied on the street because an interior voice told him to take another route: this is bizarre indeed! It certainly has nothing to do with ‘parental echoes’ or Quakers trying, in silence, to distinguish good from evil by looking within.

Interestingly Socrates’ voice was supposed only to ever speak when it wanted Socrates not to do something.  Not sure what to make of that.

Near contemporary sources (Plato) demonstrate that Socrates really had such a voice (or believed he did); unfortunately the passages above come from Plutarch and are of uncertain value as they are late.

Any other ‘voices’ in history: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Beachcombing remembers Joan of Arc.