William J. Broad on Socrates and the Oracle of Delphi

"Priestess of Delphi" by John Collier (1891)

"Priestess of Delphi" by John Collier (1891)
Image credit: Society of Mediterranean Archaeology

The Oracle had her biggest impact on Socrates. A native of Athens born a decade after the Persian wars, he became the most celebrated thinker of antiquity because of his uncompromising inquiries into ethics and moral philosophy. The Pythia‘s relationship with him was beguiling in its simplicity. On a visit to Delphi, one of his students asked if any man was wiser. None, she replied. This declaration became a turning point that guided his inquiries. At the end of his life, at his trial for corrupting Athenian youth, Socrates testified that his pursuit of wisdom grew out of his puzzlement over this prophecy. Deeply aware of his own ignorance, and seeking to understand Apollo‘s claim, Socrates said he began a lifelong search to interview men of high repute for wisdom but always came away unimpressed. Even as his constant questioning made him poor and unpopular, religious duty kept him asking and searching, trying to understand the Oracle’s meaning. In the end, he decided it meant that real wisdom is the exclusive property of the gods and Apollo’s reference to him was “as if he would say to us, The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless.”
William J. Broad in The Oracle: The Lost Secrets and Hidden Message of Ancient Delphi, (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), p. 63.

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"The Oracle had her biggest impact on Socrates"

Related Quotation

The effect of these investigations of mine, gentlemen, has been to arouse against me a great deal of hostility, and hostility of a particularly bitter and persistent kind, which has resulted in various malicious suggestions, and in having that term ‘wise’ applied to me. This is due to the fact that whenever I succeed in disproving another person’s claim to wisdom in a given subject, the bystanders assume that I know everything about that subject myself.[28] But the truth of the matter, gentlemen, is likely to be this: that real wisdom is the property of the god [Apollo], and this oracle is his way of telling us that human wisdom has little or no value. It seems to me that he is not referring literally to Socrates, but has merely taken my name as an example, as if he would say to us, ‘The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless.’
— Socrates, as recounted by Plato in The Apology of Socrates. Available in The Last Days of Socrates, (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 46. Translated originally by Hugh Tredennick in 1954; revised translation by Harold Tarrant in 1993.

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"The effect of these investigations of mine"
William J. Broad Socrates Plato Posted on behalf of William J. Broad, Socrates, and Plato on Friday, February 5th, 2010 under Quotations.

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