In Plato's Apology, a main question is that between belief and knowledge, between the pretense of Socrates' accusers and the simple truth of Socrates, between the laws of men and the laws that transcend men.

My question is however, how much of Socrates is grounded in faith/conviction (πίστις) rather than logic or reason. Is it a faith in those things? Where does faith fit into the belief/knowledge picture?

Because in Apology he talks about the Oracle of Delphi and says...

“...that God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name by way of illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing”.

Socrates also says,

“Then I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this: but necessity was laid upon me,–the word of God, I thought, ought to be considered first.

So I guess my question is when Socrates professes this kind of faith in God which he never justifies, is he really saying that man can know nothing and that an extreme skepticism is the only tenable position? How does this square with Plato's assertion of metaphysical truth in the Forms and in cultivating virtues and reason?

In Antigone the eponymous heroine makes a similar argument about the laws of God being greater than the laws of men. She seems to be saying that faith in the laws of the gods is greater than belief, with the obvious question being how can you delineate between the two. Is there where reason comes in?

Edit: In Apology as well as Antigone the epistemic word πίστις is not used anywhere, but rather derivatives of the word νόμος are used (see the discussion in the answer below). In the aforementioned answer, a point was made that this is a sociological and political word, not necessarily part of an epistemic assertion. But it seems in the translations of both Apology and Antigone the characters are making epistemic assertions that rest on their gods/gods' laws.

  • I think there's multiple interpretations as to whether Socrates really means the bit you quote and highlight (see for instance philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/28527/… ).
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 23:18
  • 4
    I upvoted for the good textual question about pistis versus reason, but be aware that this is nothing like faith in the God of Abraham. Plato does not write of a sole "God" but of "the god of Delphi" (Apol. 23e) which is Apollo, one god among many. And Sophocles in the Antigone writes not of God but of gods (plural). Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 1:36
  • @virmaior Hi, I believe you are right that in some instances Socrates is being deliberately provocative but I think he means what I quoted, because it connects to other Platonic theories as espoused in the other dialogues. While Socrates may have been deliberately toying with the jury in some instances (perhaps to show that he does not fear death as he maintains), I believe his views here are authentic because it connects to his general skepticism and questioning of Athenian institutions. Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 2:59
  • One problem with that interpretation is that it's not entirely clear what the relationship (in terms of time) is between Apology and the other Platonic works. Is the God that works well with the forms Socrates or Plato talking in those dialogues?
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 3:21
  • @ColinMcLarty - +1! exactly: the god of Delphi. Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 8:27

2 Answers 2


Well after looking at this and reading a lot of commentaries over the past few days, I think I can venture an answer.

As was said before, πίστις is not used in the early Platonic dialogues. When referring to belief in the gods, you will most often find a derivative of νόμος such as νομίζω (in Euthyphro for example) which means law or custom. This is very interesting because it sets up the conflict that is central to both Apology and Antigone that is, whose law is higher, the law of the gods or the law of men? This has been a recurring theme throughout philosophy.

I went to the Euthyphro because it is a dialogue in which Socrates is conversing with someone who should be learned in the gods, that is the soothsayer Euthyphro himself. Euthyphro confuses piety - sanctioned by the gods (ὅσιος) - with justice - sanctioned by men (δίκη).

Throughout the course of Euthyphro Socrates demonstrates that these two are not the same thing, and hints that justice is greater than piety, especially at the end when he reduces piety to mere bartering between gods and men. What Socrates seems to be refuting is a blind belief in the gods without critical inquiry into justice, that is, what is right and wrong for men here on the mortal plane.

How does this square with his appeals to the gods in Apology? It could merely be a turn of phrase or be used in an ironic way, but also I think it is meant to be ambiguous. A key point is that in the case of Socrates, his gods do not tell him what to do in the way that Euthyphro believes he is instructed by the gods to bring a charge against his own father. Rather, Socrates asks questions and inquires after others, he knows only that he knows nothing. This makes his knowledge quite different from that of Euthyphro. When Socrates does make claims about what is true in the Apology he does so without appeal to the gods, but instead by appealing to a sense of δίκη...

I do know that it is evil and disgraceful to do wrong and to disobey him who is better than I, whether he be god or man.

Here evil is (κακός) and disgraceful is (αἰσχρός) neither of which (as far as I can tell) are specific to transgressions against either gods or men, as Socrates says. Note then that he doesn't use a negative of ὅσιος to say evil, rather he just uses a word that means generally reprehensible.

In short, just because Socrates appeals to the gods does not mean he doesn't want us to pursue critical inquiry or that he will suddenly make claims as supported by the gods, instead he is motivated by an oracle to ask questions and search not for ὅσιος but for δίκη.

  • 1
    I just want to point out that cases like this one very much contribute to a SE: Questions with a very specific direction may of course be answered by the OP, and there is also the option to answer it by opening the question already, e.g. if there was a question one found interesting and has been able to answer all by themselves by going deep into the literature. This of course helps building up a database of helpful answers as well! +1 for sharing your insights!
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 15:06

Regarding gods, we can see the discussion of the accusation that Socrates does not believe in the “the gods the city believes in”, in :

In the relevant passages of Apology (see 24b-c and 26b), Plato does not use πίστις in speaking about Socrates' "belief in (city) gods".

The verb translated with "belief" is nomizein (νομίζει), nomizo, directly derived from nomos : law, custom.

It has nothing to do with faith, nor with theology, and Socrates' crime has nothing to do with heresy.

πίστις is a Platonic term, used into Republic, Book VI, 511d-e in the context of the "classification" of knowledge:

  • νόησις (the highest form : intellectual understanding, intuition),

  • διάνοια (the second form : reasoning),

  • πίστις (belief)

  • and εἰκασία (visual imagination).

πίστις is of course not “faith” in Plato, but Neoplatonists, Christians, and commentators have confused the two ideas.

  • Am I correct in looking at it that he uses νομίζω to articulate his "belief" in the Gods, which may be more accurately translated as "belief via custom" than a "specific faith"? I guess if this is correct my question is where does fit into the classifications of knowledge you have outlined? Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 15:05
  • 2
    @SummerDeveloper - I think it does not; νομίζειν is from νόμος: law. The phrase nomizein tous theous, usually translated as "to believe in the gods" means instead "to acknowledge the gods of the city by performing their rituals". Thus, it is not "epistemic", but social and political. Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 15:27
  • it appears in the Apology that he uses νομίζειν though, correct? So is your answer then that this is a social and political statement rather than an epistemic assertion? If you could classify this assertion epistemically, how would you? He seems to go beyond merely performing rituals to be making claims about the wisdom of Apollo, at least when you look back at the translation. Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 17:52
  • It is also interesting that Antigone uses words that appear similar with regards to the laws of the gods vs the laws of men: νόμος and νόμιμος Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 19:14
  • also "word of god" sounds like a suspiciously christain translation. hellenistic religions were not confessional.
    – user20153
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 18:54

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .