Seven Against Thebes (10)

Auguries and Fate

The Theban poet Pindar, dignified and enigmatic, begins his Sixth Nemean Ode:

There is but one, one tribe of gods and men! Both we and they take our breath from the same mother. But the relative powers of our two branches of our single tribe are very different and they divide us. One is as nothing, while the other owns the bronze house of heaven, which lasts forever. Though on occasion we approach the immortals by the dint of great thought or strength of body, we never know to what end our fate drives us – drives us day and night.1


Suddenly, the conversation at the house of Simmias (the one on the topic of Alcmene’s tomb) was interrupted by the a new arrival. It was the father of Caphisias and Epaminondas. An older man already, his name was Polymnis. He greeted the host and sat down next to him, on the bed, because the room was already very crowded. Then he turned to his son and their companions:

“I bring a request from Epaminondas; it is meant for you, Caphisias, but also all you present here. He wishes to ask you, that, unless you have some other urgent business, you may wait for him here because he wishes to introduce to you a certain foreigner. The foreigner is a worthy man and has arrived here with a noble mission. He was sent here by Italian Pythagoreans to offer sacrifices at the tomb of Lysis. He says that his journey here was occasioned by dreams and visions reported by many members of the confraternity. He has brought with him a considerable quantity of gold and he wishes to pay Epaminondas for all the costs which he incurred while supporting Lysis in his old age. But we neither wish nor ask to be aided in our poverty.”

Simmias’ face lit up and he cried:

“You speak of a worthy man and one who deservedly carries the name of a philosopher! But why did he not come to us directly himself?”

Polymnis explained:

“It seems that he spent the night at the tomb of Lysis. Then Epaminondas took him to bathe at the stream of Ismenos. Only now are they coming here, to your house. He’d spent the night by the tomb because he hopes to take the dead man’s remains with him to Italy and he wanted to see whether some deity might not appear to him and order him otherwise.”

Barely did Polymnis finish, when Galaxidorus, seated in the back of the room, piped up. He spoke with great passion:

“By Heracles! How difficult it is to find a man free from stupidity and superstition! Some fall prey to these diseases as a result of inexperience or weakness; while others wish to appear to be extraordinary men, favored by gods. This is why they wrap their lives in a nimbus of divinity, a cloud of mystery, and put dreams, visions, and other such nonsense above rational thought! One could, I suppose, forgive politicians when they do this sort of thing, appealing to auguries or oracles or omens, because they deal with the stupid, vulgar crowd; so they use superstition as a rein, to lead the masses where they please. But it is not worthy of philosophers to behave in this manner; why, it is against their very calling! After all, what is the promise of philosophy? That she will teach us that which is good and that which is useful; and that she will teach them rationally. But now, here, it would seem, philosophy, by turning to omens and dreams, looks to gods as the origin of all action and thereby disrespects reason. Here, she no longer values a well made logical argument, which is supposed to be her distinguishing characteristic, but interprets soothsayings and nightmares. Well, anyone at all can claim to be an expert in this sort of baloney, and more expert than a truly wise person, too. But if your Socrates had valued philosophical education, it was because he thought that simplicity and common sense were the noblest and the closest to the truth.”

Theocritus (a soothsayer, after all) interrupted him excitedly:

“How comes it, Galaxidorus? Have you, too, been convinced by Meletus that Socrates despised belief in gods? You know, perhaps, that this is precisely what he was accused of! Twenty years have passed since the court case of Socrates, and his lamentable death, but, surely, this business is still well remembered?”

Galaxidorus went on the defensive:

“Well, of course Socrates did not disregard gods altogether. The problem lay elsewhere: Pythagoras and his students have filled philosophy with visions, myths, and superstitions; then Empedocles blew it up full of some sort of Bacchic hysteria. It took Socrates to teach philosophy again how to look rationally at reality and to search for truth through logical analysis.”

“Very well”, Theocritus agreed, “but in such case, my dear, what do we make of the daemon, which Socrates considered his protective spirit? Is it a lie, then? One hears a lot about Pythagoras’s skill at soothsaying; but to me nothing seems quite so mysterious as the daemon of Socrates. Homer gives to Odysseus the goddess Athena as his companion in all his travels and adventures; in this same manner Divinity equipped Socrates, from his earliest youth, with the ability to foresee the future. It was his unfailing guide in life; it seemed to walk ahead of him and light the way in all difficult matters, which were beyond ordinary mind’s ability to conceive. But ask his companions, like Simmias here, about it and they will tell you more and better. I can only aver what has happened in my own presence. It happened in Athens, when I was visiting the soothsayer Euthyphron. One day – you, Simmias will remember this – Socrates was walking uphill, towards the house of Andocides, all along the way asking questions and jokingly perplexing Euthyphron. Then, suddenly, he stopped and became lost in thought. Then, he turned round and walked straight down the Trunkmakers’ Street and to those who’d gone ahead of him he cried: Follow me, I had a divine omen! Most followed him, myself included, since I always kept close to Euthyphron. But a few young men went on, ignoring Socrates’ warning, as if wanting to test the daemon’s warning. (The flautist Charillus was among them). When they arrived in the Graver’s Row, near the courthouse, their path was blocked by a huge flock of filthy pigs. There was no way to go on, and the pigs pushed on like mad. And it all ended with some of the men being knocked over by the pigs and others splattered by dirt. Charillus arrived home – we roomed together – covered in filth head to toe. Since then we always laughed whenever someone mentioned Socrates’ daemon, but we were quite impressed that the deity never left him and that she tried to warn him even in such trivial matters.”

Polymnis, the father of Caphisias, broke in:

“As for me, Galaxidorus, I have heard somewhere that the famous daemon of Socrates was no more than a sneeze, whether his or someone else’s. Now, if someone sneezed on his right, no matter whether it was forward or behind, he considered it a good omen and proceeded with whatever it was that he had intended. But a sneeze on the left would stop him from carrying out his original intention. His own sneeze, whenever he was about to commence some action, always encouraged him, but stopped him if he was already in its middle, since he considered it a warning... But... this seems odd to me. Because, if he really let himself be guided by sneezing, then why did he tell his friends that it was some sort of protective spirit which ordered him to do this or not to do that? This sort of boasting would have been alright with some young show-off, but not a worthy man who’d risen above the common rank thanks to his simplicity and honesty. It seems really odd that he should let himself be guided by some sort of a voice overheard accidentally or by someone’s sneezing. After all, Socrates showed great determination and energy because he based his actions on firm principles. For example, he remained in utter poverty his entire life out of principle – since so many would gladly have helped him out with greatest readiness. And he did not abandon his love of wisdom though so many tried to prevent or dissuade him. He did not yield to the pleas of his friends, who had so eagerly and handily prepared his escape. Truly, I do not believe that a man guided by mysterious voices and sneezing would have been capable of such principled life!”

1 Did you know? (1) Pindar's odes were intended to be performed by a choir and danced. (This is the origin of the term "foot" for a measure of poetry). Pindar is said to have composed both the music and the choreography as well as directed the performances. (2) Pindar's poetry earned him divine fame: nine hundred years after his death, the priest of Apollo at Delphi still intoned every night as he closed the temple doors: Let Pindar the poet go unto the supper of the gods.


The magical procedures (sleeping by the tomb in expectation of a prophetic dream, bathing in a sacred stream, etc.) and the reasoning (what is the difference between a daemon and a sneezing?) are readily familiar to anyone who has spent any time in India. The classical Greek milieu reminds me of no other place on earth more.


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