restricted access The Philosophical Rhetoric of Socrates' Mission
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The Philosophical Rhetoric of Socrates’ Mission

"We shall dismiss this business of Chaerephon, as it is nothing but a cheap and sophistical tale [sophistikon kai phortikon diegema]"

—Colotes, according to Plutarch's Moralia 14, 1116f-1117a.

Socrates' account of his "mission" on behalf of the god at Delphi is one of the most memorable parts of his most famous memorial in Plato's Apology. But it is also controversial as to what it means to Socrates and what it should mean to readers of Plato's text.1 First, there is the curious fact that the story occurs nowhere outside the competing versions of Socrates' defensespeech in Plato and Xenophon, and in the latter version the oracular report differs significantly in content and import: there the Pythia proclaims, not that no one is wiser than Socrates, but that no one is more generous or more just or more "soundminded" (sophron), and Xenophon's Socrates uses this as evidence that he "outshone the rest of mankind" and "deserves congratulations from gods and men alike" (Apology 14-18).2 Furthermore, the sequence of events that make up Socrates' "mission" is itself difficult to discern, from its apparent prompting by the oracular message to Chaerephon, to Socrates' initial effort to refute it, to his ultimate practice of elenchos in order that the oracle (or, at least, his interpretation of the oracle) might remain unrefuted.3 Not surprisingly, it was already a matter of controversy in the third century BC, as we read in the above quotation from Plutarch's Moralia. Whereas Arcesilaus interpreted the story of the Delphic oracle, and the account of elenctic practice occasioned by the oracle, as a model for his own skeptical orientation, Colotes, the Epicurean, charged that he had been duped by Socrates' sophistic oratory.4 To be sure, Colotes' charge of sophistry is meant to be abusive and has value for us only insofar as it counters a piously uncritical reading of Socrates' self-portrayal in Plato's Apology.5 In what follows I shall argue that an appreciation of the irony and mock-humility with which Socrates accounts for his "mission" to philosophize [End Page 143] affords us insight into the philosophical rhetoric that is essential to Socrates' practice of elenchos.

But let us begin by examining those strange elements in Socrates' account that have made it "notorious" in the way suggested by the ancient debate.6 Socrates introduces the story of the oracle only after he dismisses, somewhat cursorily, the charges circulated by his "first accusers"—namely, that he investigates the things under the earth and heavenly things, and that he educates people for money (19b-20c). Insisting that he does not dishonor the knowledge involved in these activities (19c, 20b-c), Socrates nonetheless offers little defense apart from simply disowning such knowledge, presumably because these activities are not related to that "matter" (pragma) which has earned him his peculiar reputation (20c-d). It is here, in his explanation of this matter, that Socrates recounts the story of Chaerephon and the Pythia.7 As he begins the story he repeats his vow from the beginning of his defense to tell the jury only the truth (20d), assures them that he is not joking, and then is compelled to plead with them not to make any disturbances—"even," he says, "if I seem to you to be boasting [mega legein] somewhat" (20e). These successive declarations are all necessary, for the story has it that Socrates acquired his reputation through the human wisdom for which Socrates was singled out by the oracle at Delphi (20d-e).

Socrates' puzzlement over the oracle and his effort to subject it to elenchos are offered as an explanation for the elenctic practice by which he comes, over time, to acquire his reputation.8 Although he does not say that his practice of elenchos begins with his investigation of the oracle's meaning, he does portray his subsequent practice of elenchos as being "in accordance with the god [kata ton theon]" (22a), an activity for which the god stands as a trustworthy witness (20e), and thus as a "matter of the god [to tou theou]" (21e). Ironically, the account Socrates...