Socrates and piety

22 09 2010

He [Socrates] was accused of making innovations in the religion of his country, and corrupting the youth. But as both these accusations must have been obviously false to an unprejudiced tribunal, the accusers relied for the success of their cause on perjured witnesses, and the envy of the judges, whose ignorance would readily yield to misrepresentation, and be influenced and guided by false eloquence and fraudulent arts. That the personal enemies indeed of Socrates, vile characters, to whom his wisdom and his virtue were equally offensive, should have accused him of making innovations in the religion of Greece, is by no means surprising; but that very many of modern times should have believed that this accusation was founded in truth, and that he endeavoured to subvert the doctrine of polytheism, is a circumstance which by the truly learned reader must be ranked among the greatest eccentricities of modern wit. For to such a one it will most clearly appear from this very Apology, that Socrates was accused of impiety for asserting that he was connected in a very transcendant degree with a presiding daemon, to whose direction he confidently submitted the conduct of his life. For the accusation of Melitus, that he introduced other novel daemoniacal natures, can admit of no other construction. Besides, in the course of this Apology he asserts, in the most unequivocal and solemn manner, his belief in polytheism; and this is indubitably confirmed in many places by Plato, the most genuine of his disciples, and the most faithful recorder of his doctrines. The testimony of Xenophon too on this point is no less weighty than decisive. “I have often wondered,” says that historian and philosopher, “by what arguments the Athenians who condemned Socrates persuaded the city that he was worthy of death. For, in the first place, how could they prove that he did not believe in the Gods in which the city believed? since it was evident that he often sacrificed at home, and often on the common altars of the city. It was also not unapparent that he employed divination. For a report was circulated, that signals were given to Socrates, according to his own assertion, by a daemoniacal power; whence they especially appear to me to have accused him of introducing new daemoniacal natures. He however introduced nothing new, nor any thing different from the opinion of those who, believing in divination, make use of auguries and oracles, symbols and sacrifices. For these do not apprehend that either birds, or things which occur, know what is advantageous to the diviners; but they are of opinion that the Gods thus signify to them what is beneficial; and he also thought the same. Again, in another place, he observes as follows: “Socrates thought that the Gods take care of men not in such a way as the multitude conceive. For they think that the Gods know some things, but do not know others. But Socrates thought that the Gods know all things, as well things said and done, as those deliberated in silence. That they are also everywhere present, and signify to men concerning all human affairs. I wonder, therefore, how the Athenians could ever be persuaded that Socrates was not of a sound mind respecting the Gods, as he never said or did any thing impious concerning them. But all his sayings and all his actions pertaining to the Gods were such as any one by saying and doing would be thought to be most pious.” And lastly, in another place he observes, “That it was evident that Socrates worshipped the Gods the most of all men.

-Thomas Taylor, from here