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Auguste Bouché-Leclercq-Socrates’ Attitude Towards Divination

Eugène Delacroix, ‘Socrates and his Daemon’, 1838, Library, Palais Bourbon, Paris.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Auguste Bouché-Leclercq’s monumental and ground breaking study, ‘Histoire de la Divination dans l’Antiquité’, published in 1879 in Paris in 4 volumes. It has been an irreplaceable resource due to the high standards of its organization, the quality of its research and the clarity of its analysis. HYGEIA’s translation from the original French.


‘…So to wrap up, philosophy up to Socrates, did only pay a distracted attention to the problem of human destiny and consequently to divination. Man was not holding much space or status in these great cosmogonical theories. They would consider him as a little part of a great whole and did not feel obliged to place him into the center of things.

Socrates absorbed philosophy’s into an exclusive concern for humanity’s best moral interests, and would acknowledge this concern to originate from his great Being, the craftsman of the world.  He admired how Providence has arranged all things for the sole good of Man and converged the movements of the world, the properties of matter, animals instincts and even our very own natural instinct, towards this very aim. He links Man to the whole Creation through multiples threads along them his appeased thought can freely journey either towards the past or either the future. This  optimistic ‘teleology’, upon which everything concurs to the benefit of Man, offered to divination a wide range of matter that Socrates’ disciples would shape and diversify as they wished.

Socrates didn’t have to demonstrate the possibility of divination, because he accepted its whole reality. “When, he says, we cannot predict what would be useful to us in the future, the gods do they not come again here to save us? Do they not reveal through the use of divination (mantic), to who consults them,  what is going to happen some day, and  do they not teach him the most favorable outcome to the events?…When they talk to the Athenians who question them through divination, do you not believe that they do not talk to you too? And in the same manner, when working through wonders, do they not manifest their will to the Greeks, and to all mankind?” Xenophon, Memorabilia, IV, 3-12 and I, 4-14.

Determined to not stir things up through theorical speculations the concord he wished to established between philosophy and common sense; not so curious towards benevolent science, Socrates saw in divination a tool for success, consequently of happiness; and as Man’s happiness is Providence’s main concern, he thought that divination, whose existence was a common knowledge in his society, was justified enough, in theory by its usefulness.  He was obeying, on his own behalf, to the oracles and recommended to his friends to seek for them. He would gladly add to his teaching the teaching of the oracle of Delphi, who by proclaiming him ‘wisest of the wise’, gave him the mission to  instruct others. Alike Lycurgus, alike Solon the lawmaker, the legislator of consciousness placed his work under the seal of revelation.

Only, in recommending the use of divination, Socrates did not intend to encourage scruples or intellectual  laziness. He did not want Man to reach out to the gods without first having reached the threshold of his own intelligence. The divine seership was to prolongate but not replace the effort of the human spirit. “He was calling mad those who would consult the oracles upon what the gods gave us to study about ourselves…ourselves….To consult the gods upon which or which subject seemed to him an impious attitude. He said that we must learn what the gods granted us to know, but for what has been concealed to Man, we must try, though divination to question the gods; because the gods reveal them to those who made themselves agreeable to them.” Xenophon, Memorabilia, I, 1-6.

Socrates had enough wisdom to understand that if the faith in divination could degenerate easily, with  worried or  timid individuals, in spirit weakness, the danger was even more serious with states. He lived during a time where the Athenian orators were making people vote under the pressure of the ‘oracles’ they were seeking as arguments. A monarchic state, whose ruler would have become superstitious, would inevitably fall into the hands of seers. Socrates did not express his thoughts about this touchy question, but we can find echoes of them in his disciples’ defiance against tools of revelation. Xenophon, in his ‘Cyropedia'(Cyrop, I,6-2), advises kings, through  Astyagus’ speech, to learn themselves divination so to not depend upon anybody, and Plato took great care to guaranty his model Republic against the abuse of revelation.

In limiting the use of divination, Socrates was not establishing a distinction between the diverse divinatory methods. He was accepting without doubt all those which were consecrated by usage. But, he had a particular predilection for internal revelation, which connects the soul directly, even though often confusedly perceived, with the divinity. He was convinced that he carried in himself an oracle which he would listen to the voice with  deference. It was what he would call, his ‘daemon’, δαίμων, or spirit, a spiritual being, through which he interpreted his divine inspiration, distinct from his own consciousness. He believed also into dreams and premonitions, which do not differ to much from the other inner revelations forms.

Socrates, therefore, practiced divination for himself and at the same time for others; he was a prophet in sharing the warnings of his daemon, a seer in interpreting dreams-like he did a few day before his death. Faith in divination did not suffer any rebuke from him; he even introduced it into philosophy with its supernatural character and placed it into a position of honor.’ …/…




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Auguste Bouché-Leclercq-Socrates’ Attitude Towards Divination

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