Maxims from the Delphic Oracle

Socrates, Stoicism, and the Philosophy of Apollo

Donald J. Robertson
Dec 3, 2020 · 13 min read
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The ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Photograph by author.

Upon a column once standing at the entrance (pronaos) of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, two famous maxims were inscribed: “Know thyself” (gnothi seauton) and “Nothing in excess” (meden agan).

In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates claims that the legendary Seven Sages invented these sayings and had them placed at Delphi:

They met together and dedicated in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, as the first-fruits of their wisdom, the far-famed inscriptions, which are in all men’s mouths — “Know thyself”, and “Nothing in excess.”

The god Apollo was the Leader of the Muses, and therefore ultimately responsible for arts such as music and oratory. He was also the god especially responsible for the arts of prophecy and healing. He is the god of the kithara or lyre (harp) but also of the “far-shooting” and death-dealing bow. He is also the favourite son of Zeus, and the one responsible for putting his father’s divine will into words and communicating them, through oracular pronouncements, to mortals.

Ever belovèd to me may the kithara be, and the curved bow;
I will declare to mankind great Zeus’s infallible purpose.
Homeric Hymn to Apollo

In addition to these traditional roles, however, Apollo came to be associated with philosophy. Indeed, Plutarch calls Apollo “that god who is above all things the lover of truth”, and claims that he “is no less philosopher than he is prophet.”

Apollo’s raven, from the forthcoming book Verissimus, copyright D. Robertson

Apollo was also frequently associated with famous philosophers. Diogenes Laertius says that the followers of Pythagoras actually considered him Apollo incarnate: “his bearing is said to have been most dignified, and his disciples held the opinion about him that he was Apollo come down from the far north.” We are also told: “Of course the only altar at which he worshipped was that of Apollo the Giver of Life, behind the Altar of Horns at Delos.”

Plato’s Phaedo claims that Socrates wrote a hymn (paean) to Apollo, which Diogenes Laertius says some claim began with the words: All hail, Apollo, Delos’ lord! Indeed, in the Phaedo, Socrates describes himself as “the consecrated servant” of Apollo. There was also a tradition, reported by Diogenes Laertius, that Apollo appeared to the philosopher Plato’s father in a dream foretelling his son’s birth. Indeed, Plato’s birth happened to fall upon the very day the priests of Apollo on the isle of Delos claimed Apollo himself had been born.

We have a whopping list of 147 ethical maxims derived from the cult of Apollo, which survive thanks to a book of quotations from earlier sources, compiled in the 5th century AD, known as the Anthology of Stobaeus.

“[The god Apollo] is no less philosopher than he is prophet.”

Individual examples of many of the maxims listed by Stobaeus are, though, found scattered throughout other ancient writings. Certain themes recur such as the emphasis on moderation, friendship, contentment, virtue, and the pursuit of wisdom. We can therefore regard the temples of Apollo as propounding a sort of proto-philosophy, or perhaps even a fully-fledged philosophy of life.

The Lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign.

However, Apollo was also renowned for speaking in riddles, through the cryptic pronouncements of his priestesses. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said of him: “The Lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign.”

Plutarch likewise says that whereas the god offers many remedies, solutions for physical problems, through dreams, etc., he actually creates intellectual problems for us, or riddles. These are intended to stimulate our natural love of wisdom, i.e., our inclination to philosophy and the pursuit of truth. They’re supposed, in other words, to make us think. Just look at the famous inscriptions “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess”, says Plutarch — “How many philosophical inquiries they have provoked!” These ancient maxims are like seeds, he adds, from which countless arguments have grown over the centuries.

For inquisitive minds the Delphic Maxims often seemed to have a hidden meaning, although their intention might appear quite straightforward at first. Sophocles had long ago spoken of Apollo as being:

Unto the wise a riddling prophet aye,
to silly souls a teacher plain and brief.

Plutarch therefore describes maxims such as “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess” as resembling streams rushing through narrow, channels, whose waters appear turbid and unclear. There is so much more to say about these little maxims that, without patient study, their true significance is actually quite opaque to our mind’s eye. If you want to learn what scholars have written about their proper meaning, he says, “you will not easily find longer treatises elsewhere.” In other words, a whole Apollonian philosophy of life is compressed into these short sayings.

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Leighton, “Athlete Wrestling with a Python”. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although the vast majority of these ancient treatises are now lost, we do, fortunately, encounter many philosophical discussions of the Delphic Maxims scattered throughout an assortment of texts that survive today. Of course, the maxims about which we learn most are the two most famous examples: “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess”. As we’ll see, these can be viewed as complementing, or even depending upon, one another…

Know Thyself

In the Memorabilia Socratis written by Xenophon, we find a very interesting discussion of how Socrates interpreted the saying “Know thyself”.

And isn’t this obvious, that people derive most of their benefits from knowing themselves, and most of their misfortunes from being self-deceived?

Socrates asks a somewhat pretentious young student called Euthydemus whether he’s been to Delphi and seen the inscription “Know thyself”. Euthydemus replies that although he has, indeed, been there twice, he paid little attention to the saying because he felt certain that he already knew himself. Socrates encourages him, though, to think more deeply about its meaning…

Who do you think knows himself — the man who merely knows his own name, or the one who behaves like people buying a horse? They don’t consider that they know a horse in which they are interested until they have satisfied themselves whether it’s obedient or disobedient, strong or weak, swift or slow, and how it stands with respect to all the other qualities which make a horse desirable or undesirable as regards its usefulness; and the man I am thinking of has in the same way ascertained his own ability by examining his own qualifications in respect of human relationships. — Xenophon, Memorabilia, 4.2

We should carefully study our own nature, our character, particularly our strengths and weaknesses, because a man, he says, who “does not know his own ability is ignorant of himself.”

And isn’t this obvious, that people derive most of their benefits from knowing themselves, and most of their misfortunes from being self-deceived? Those who know themselves know what is appropriate for them and can distinguish what they can and cannot do; and, by doing what they understand, they both supply their needs and enjoy success, while, by refraining from doing things that they don’t understand, they avoid making mistakes and escape misfortune.

This self-knowledge also makes it easier for them to understand how to deal with other people.

Self-knowledge also enables them to assess others; and it is through their relations with others that they provide themselves with what is good and guard against what is bad for them. Those who do not know themselves and are totally deceived about their own abilities are in the same position whether they are dealing with other people or any other aspect of human affairs. They don’t know what they want or what they are doing or what means they are using; and, through making gross mistakes about all these, they miss the good things and get into trouble.

Through self-knowledge, particularly knowing what’s good or bad for us, we become clearer about our fundamental goals in life. We’re therefore able not only to live wisely and flourish ourselves but also to win the respect of others.

People who know what they are doing succeed in their activities and become famous and respected. Those who are like them gladly associate with them, while those who are unsuccessful in their affairs are anxious for these men to make decisions for them and to represent their interests, and pin to them their hopes of prosperity, and for all these reasons regard them with special affection.

Socrates says the same is obviously true for states. A state that does not know itself may overestimate its military strength and end up going to war with a stronger nation leading to its own people being destroyed or enslaved. Socrates says that the process of self-examination that leads to such knowledge should begin with the question “What is good or bad?”, by which he means what’s beneficial or harmful for us.

For Socrates, therefore, “Know thyself” means knowing our own character, our strengths and weaknesses, and the things that are good or bad for us. Later authors in the Socratic tradition, though, often focus more narrowly on certain aspects of self-knowledge. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus, for example, says that “Know thyself” means knowing what is “up to us”, or under our direct control, and what is not.

But the tyrant will chain — what? the leg. He will take away — what? the neck. What then will he not chain and not take away? the will. This is why the ancients taught the maxim, “Know thyself”. — Discourses, 1.18

However, in a well-known fragment attributed to Epictetus, he also used the same maxim to refer to our knowledge of our role, or position, in a particular situation, and our ability to act in harmony with others.

Is, therefore, also the precept at Delphi superfluous, “Know thyself”? — That, indeed, no, the man answers. — What, then, does it mean? If one bade a singer in a chorus to “know himself,” would he not heed the order by paying attention both to his fellows in the chorus and to singing in harmony with them? — Yes. — And so in the case of a sailor? or a soldier? Does it seem to you, then, that man has been made a creature to live all alone by himself, or for society? — For society. — By whom? — By Nature. — What Nature is, and how she administers the universe, and whether she really exists or not, these are questions about which there is no need to go on to bother ourselves. — Epictetus, Fragments

The Stoic philosopher Seneca claimed that this maxim was to be interpreted as a reference to human mortality:

Those whom you love and those whom you despise will both be made equal in the same ashes. This is the meaning of that command, “Know thyself”, which is written on the shrine of the Pythian oracle. — Moral Letters, 11

“What is man?”, asks Seneca. Nothing more than a potter’s vase, which can be shattered into pieces by the slightest knock.

You were born a mortal, and you have given birth to mortals: yourself a weak and fragile body, liable to all diseases, can you have hoped to produce anything strong and lasting from such unstable material? — Moral Letters, 11

Plutarch likewise says that, among other things, to know oneself is to realize that you are not the same person you once were. Our lives are constantly changing and our old self is dying, as our new self is being born, every day of our lives. Plutarch notes that the name “Apollo” can be interpreted as meaning “not many” in Greek. This implies that the god is one and eternal, whereas we are to know ourselves, by contrast, as mortals, consisting merely of a constant stream of varying states.

These interpretations may appear quite different but they’re potentially related. The Stoics in particular would say to know oneself is to realize that because our bodies, and indeed all external things, are fragile and transient, our true good resides not in possessions but in our use of reason. Indeed, they derive that notion from Socrates who argues elsewhere that man’s highest good is the love of wisdom not such unreliable things as health, wealth, or reputation.

Nothing in Excess

Apollo was known for his association both with archery and with playing the lyre. The strings of the lyre (an ancient harp) need to be tuned properly before the sound can become harmonious. If they are too tight or not tight enough, it won’t work properly. The same goes for stringing the bow. Both instruments symbolize Apollo’s symbolic association with beauty, and the notion of health being achieved through harmony and moderation. The arts of archery and lyre-playing both require the ability to know when the strings are even a fraction too slack or too tight. The maxim “Nothing in excess” expresses the same basic idea.

According to the doxographer Diogenes Laertius the saying “Nothing in excess” (meden agan) was typically thought to have originated with Solon, the ancient lawgiver of Athens and one of the Seven Sages. Its fame today is due partly to the fact that Socrates liked to quote it. For instance, Diogenes Laertius elsewhere claims that when asked what virtue is most suited for a young man Socrates replied simply:“Nothing in excess”.

In Plato’s Menexenus Socrates explains its meaning as follows:

Of old the saying, “Nothing in excess”, appeared to be, and really was, well said. For he whose happiness rests with himself, if possible, wholly, and if not, as far as is possible — who is not hanging in suspense on other men, or changing with the vicissitudes of their fortune — has his life ordered for the best. He is the temperate and courageous and wise; and when his riches come and go, when his children are given and taken away, he will remember the proverb: “Neither rejoicing overmuch nor grieving overmuch”, for he relies upon himself. And such we would have our parents to be — that is our word and wish, and as such we now offer ourselves, neither lamenting overmuch, nor fearing overmuch, if we are to die at this time.

It’s closely-related to another well-known Greek saying “Moderation is best” (metron ariston). Today we say “All things in moderation”.

One of Socrates’ paradoxes, according to Xenophon, was the notion that people who exercise self-control and moderation actually obtain more pleasure from their desires than people who indulge to excess. Someone who eats moderately will enjoy his food more, for instance, than someone who stuffs himself and spoils his appetite.

Aristotle is famous for propounding the related concept of the “Golden Mean”, which states that the best course of action is often “in the middle” between vices that lie at two extremes. For instance, courage lies in-between the extremes of recklessness and cowardice.

Some vices miss what is right because they are deficient, others because they are excessive, in feelings or in actions, while virtue finds and chooses the mean. — Nicomachean Ethics

However, this isn’t quite what the Delphic Maxim said. For Socrates, as for the Stoics, the emphasis was on avoiding excess, and finding the appropriate amount to do something. The appropriate amount doesn’t necessarily lie at the mean or middle between two extremes, though — that’s overly-simplistic advice. Rather we need to study ourselves very carefully in order to ascertain, for instance, when we’re sleeping, drinking, or eating too much and when we’re doing so too little.

“But it is necessary to take rest also.” It is necessary. However, Nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds to eating and drinking, and yet you go beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient. — Meditations, 5.1

Every individual is different; what’s appropriate for me might not be for you. Moreover, what’s appropriate will vary depending on our circumstances. The right amount of food to eat during a siege might be quite different from the right amount to eat during a wedding feast. Sometimes the right amount might be nothing; at other times it might be as much as possible.

Xenophon, in fact, claims that Socrates made no distinction between the virtues of wisdom and temperance (sophrosune). In order to exercise, self-control we have to know and understand what’s appropriate for us. When we really perceive the value of things clearly we’ll act accordingly.

“For I think”, he said, “that all men have a choice between various courses, and choose and follow the one which they think is most to their advantage. Therefore I hold that those who follow the wrong course are neither wise nor temperate.” — Memorabilia

Self-knowledge is therefore not only the basis for identifying when we’re doing something too much. It’s also self-knowledge, of a sort, that potentially helps us to change our behaviour — the knowledge of what is good or advantageous for us. Of course, people will say that they often know something is bad for them, such as smoking cigarettes, but they can’t help themselves and do it anyway. Socrates would reply by claiming that they don’t really understand how important it is to stop, though.

Although this seems like a perennial controversy, we can actually settle it quite easily by means of a simple example. Even someone who says they can’t quit a bad habit, no matter how hard they try, would normally succeed if we increased the stakes dramatically. Even the most weak-willed smoker would be able to voluntarily stub out their cigarette if they had a gun pointed at their head (threat) and were being offered a million dollars (reward) for putting it down. That’s true even if it turns out the gun is loaded with blanks and the bank notes are fakes — what matters is what we believe. Socrates would say that proves that it is our belief in what’s advantageous for us that ultimately determines our behaviour.

Conclusion

If Plutarch is right and we should consider Apollo “no less philosopher than he is prophet” then these two sayings appear to capture the essence of the Apollonian philosophy of life. Self-knowledge leads to what Stoics called the virtue of wisdom. It requires understanding our own nature so that we can grasp what’s truly good for us, throughout the course of life, and what isn’t. That means understanding that the sort of things people typically value such as health, wealth, and reputation aren’t entirely up to us, but always at least partly in the hands of fate. We’re fragile creatures and our true good lies in our ability to accept that while nevertheless making the best use of our circumstances, and thereby living wisely.

Knowing ourselves means genuinely understanding what’s in our own self-interest, in a way that changes our experience of ourselves at an emotional level. By studying our own natures carefully, we can learn how to judge better what “excess” means for us as individuals. Seeing this more clearly is the key to finding the balance, and living wisely and with moderation.

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Donald J. Robertson

Written by

Cognitive psychotherapist, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019), featured in Forge, The Guardian. http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002Q2WSPA

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

Donald J. Robertson

Written by

Cognitive psychotherapist, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019), featured in Forge, The Guardian. http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002Q2WSPA

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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