Chaerephon was a childhood friend and loyal supporter of Athens’ great philosophical inquirer, Socrates. During the political chaos in Athens after the Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BCE), Chaerephon was banished from Athens by an oligarchical group, known as The Thirty. While in exile, Chaerephon paid a visit to the oracle of Apollo in Delphi, where he asked for the god’s response to an interesting inquiry. Instead of asking about his own fate, or that of Athens and Greece, he instead wanted the oracle to rank his friend, Socrates, against other prominent figures in the known world at that time. Two of Socrates’ protégés, Plato (c. 427-347 BCE) and Xenophon (c. 420-350 BCE), recorded versions of Chaerephon’s question and the answer he received. Plato quoted a speech that was reportedly delivered by Socrates: “You know Chaerephon. He was my friend from youth, and the friend of most of you as he shared your exile and your return. You surely know the kind of man he was, how impulsive in any course of action. He went to Delphi at one time and ventured to ask the oracle…if any man was wiser than I, and the Pythian replied that no one was wiser” (Plato, Apology, 21a). In Xenophon’s version, the oracle at Delphi appraised Socrates in more ways than just wisdom. Like Plato, Xenophon also wrote his account as if Socrates was the narrator, speaking, “Once on a time when Chaerephon made inquiry at the Delphic oracle concerning me, in the presence of many people Apollo answered that no man was more free than I, or more just, or more prudent” (Apology of Socrates, section 15). Socrates—always one who wanted to get to the truth of matters—was said to have been skeptical of these messages from Delphi, and he decided to investigate for himself if he were truly the wisest, most just, and most prudent man alive.
Years later, when Socrates was put on trial at Athens in 399 BCE for having atheistic or heretical beliefs, he brought up this message from Delphi during his defense speech, citing it, for one, as an example of him not being an atheist, and, two, designating Delphi’s message as the start of his downfall in public opinion. As Plato explained it, Socrates believed himself to not be particularly wise, and he thought his strength, contrastingly, was that he was not ignorant about his lack of wisdom. Therefore, as the story goes, Socrates took the message from Delphi to be a divine order for him to challenge the so-called wisemen of the world and show them that their wisdom was still lacking. Plato purported to quote Socrates talking about this: “So even now I continue this investigation as the god bade me—and I go around seeking out anyone, citizen or stranger, whom I think wise. Then if I do not think he is, I come to the assistance of the god and show him that he is not wise” (Plato, Apology, 23b). Dutifully following this mission, Socrates publicly questioned and discredited famous politicians, poets and craftsmen, a habit that angered the recipients of Socrates’ inquiries, as well as their supporters. Socrates had long been a controversial figure—the playwright, Aristophanes, had portrayed him as a troublemaker and a bad influence as far back as 423 BCE—but perhaps the message from Delphi caused Socrates to increase the frequency and ferocity of his clashes with self-proclaimed wisemen. Whatever the case, by 399 BCE, the powers that be in Athens had lost their patience with the seventy-year-old philosopher, and they sentenced him to death. Socrates famously refused to flee from his punishment, and willingly accepted the decision of the state.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (19th-century scene of Socrates in ink and chalk, created by an anonymous artist, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
- Apology by Plato, in The Trial and Death of Socrates, translated by G. M. A Grube and edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2000.