Socrates' Daemon

The favour of the gods has given me a marvelous gift, which has never left me since my childhood. It is a voice which, when it makes itself heard, deters me from what I am about to do and never urges me on.

Socrates and his Daemon by Eugène Delacroix
Ceilings of the Library, French National Assembly, Paris.

Socrates used the word Daemon to name that voice in his inside that would to talk to him when he was about to do something wrong. Daemon (also Daimon or dæmon) is Latinised spelling of the Greek δαίμων. The word has been used to distinguish the daemons of Greek mythology, good or malevolent supernatural beings, from the Judeo-Christian demons, malignant spirits able to possess humans. Daemon in Ancient Greece had no devilish meaning. It referred to any upper power, including friendly spirits.

Socrates spoke familiarly of his daemon, joked about it and followed blindly its advice. He considered it to be a gift from the gods allowing poetry, mysticism, love, and philosophy itself. “The one who knows what is the right thing will do the right thing”, he would say, because he thought a good view of things makes people acts for the good — which means they behave wrongly when they are mistaken only. It is therefore of greatest importance for everyone to deepen their knowledge, he thought.

Socrates wanted to define clearly what is fair and what is not. Unlike the Sophists, he thought that the ability to distinguish the good from the evil lies inside the reason of the individual, not in rules of the society. “You cannot be happy when you act against your convictions” he believed, and who wants to be unhappy? If you know how to be happy, you will do everything you can to be happy. Therefore, the one who knows what is fair will also do what is fair.

Using a modern terminology, Socrates' daemon would be called intuition sometimes. However, the Greek word was clearly used to name an entity akin to what we would now call a guardian angel, and Socrates certainly attributed personality and voice to his daemon.

Jacques-Louis David — The Death of Socrates (1787)
In classical psychology, it was frequently translated as moral conscience. It's not perfectly accurate though — although the daemon was giving negative advice only: he would only tell Socrates what he should not do, not what he should do — because many things his daemon prevented Socrates to do were not evil things per se: doing politics, for instance, and especially steering clear of his own death sentence.

In psychoanalysis, one could parallel Socrates' Daemon to Superego. In fact, Carl Jung himself used the term daimon to describe a unique, independent spirit — neither good, nor evil — living in everyone.

2 comment(s):

    I wish to read more about Socrates now. *smiles* I agree with him that we ultimately do what is right when we know what is right. Knowledge is the key.

    My daemon is very strong. Although I do not anthropomorphize my daemon as Socrates did, it certainly has been guiding me.


    You should goo deeper in the Jung Issue.


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