Socrates, the Delphic oracle and a different public ethics for today


It turns out that what the Delphic oracle said about Socrates varies by the account given for how Socrates defended himself at his trial for impiety and corrupting the young.

Plato’s more famous version has Socrates’ recounting that the oracle pronounced no human being wiser than Socrates. Socrates then goes on to ask, Aren’t there others in fact wiser? In the process, he seeks to underscore his knowledge of his own ignorance.

In contrast, Xenophon (also a contemporary of Socrates and Plato) has Socrates saying the Delphic oracle pronounced no one freer, more just, or more prudent than Socrates. Socrates then proceeds by asking and answering nine questions which lead to that conclusion.


For my part, I like the updated composite version: wise enough to disagree, but free enough to agree.

Though apparently not symmetrically so: Socrates being wise is entailed in Xenophon’s version, whereas being wise in Plato’s version also means knowing you’re ignorant of things, including: prudently put, just how free am I?


Not quite the ethics of “Do unto others as you would do unto them.”

Closer instead is: “I am not so arrogant, as to commend mine owne gifts, neither so degenerate, as to beg your toleration” Robert Jones, 1611

Source: P.A. Vander Waerdt (1993). “Socratic Justice and Self-Sufficiency. The Story of the Delphic Oracle in Xenophon’s Apology of Socrates”. In: Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 11. 1-48.

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