Why Did the Oracle of Delphi Call Socrates the Wisest Man?

Socrates’s humble beliefs about wisdom led the Oracle of Delphi to believe he was the wisest man.

Dec 19, 2023By Natalie Noland, BS Politics, Philosophy, and Economics
oracle of delphi socrates wisest man

 

Socrates is one of the most influential figures in Western thought, and his teachings have impacted a wide range of philosophers and fields. Some of his most well-known beliefs are about wisdom. He believed that wisdom was essential to virtue and living a good life. The importance he placed on wisdom shaped his legacy and even caused the Oracle of Delphi to proclaim him the wisest man. 

 

Socrates Was an Ancient Philosopher

socrates louvre statue
Socrates, Lysippos, 1st Century CE

 

Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was active during the fifth century BCE. His thinkings centered largely around ethics and morality, and he spent most of his time asking questions about wisdom, virtue, and justice. Perhaps his most well-known contribution was his method of teaching, known as the Socratic method. In this format, he asked his students questions and focused more on the thinking behind their answers rather than right or wrong. Unfortunately, his works challenged the status quo of his times, and ultimately, Socrates was executed

 

Although he left a lasting legacy on Western philosophy, unlike other philosophers, Socrates didn’t leave any written records of his teachings. In fact, most of what is known about the great thinker comes from his students, especially Plato, who wrote extensively about him in his dialogues. 

 

He Taught Other Philosophers Like Plato

socrates statue full 19th century
A full statue of Socrates by Leonidas Drosis, 19th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Plato was another influential philosopher. He studied with Socrates and became known for his theory of forms, cave allegory, and idea of a philosopher-king. He even began teaching his own students after opening his Academy in Athens, one of the earliest higher education institutions in the Western world. It was such a well-renowned school that other great philosophers, such as Aristotle, went there to learn. Plato’s teachings were diverse and have gone on to influence a variety of philosophical branches, such as ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology. 

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

 

His most enduring written works are his dialogues, where most modern-day knowledge of Socrates comes from. While Plato’s dialogues were not word-for-word quotations of real conversations, the literary works were Plato’s way of using Socrates as a character to explore philosophical concepts. One of these dialogues — Apology — describes Socrates in conversation with the Oracles of Delphi. 

 

Socrates Sought Out the Oracle of Delphi

miola oracle of delphi painting
The Oracle, Biacca Camillo Miola, 1880. Source: J. Paul Getty Museum

 

The Oracle of Delphi was a priestess in Ancient Greece. Also known as the Pythia, she was a channel through which the Greek god Apollo communicated his prophecies. The Oracle was highly sought after, and she appears in many famous myths— from Hercules and his twelve labors to Paris and the Trojan War. Her influence hit its height during the classical period, between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE, the same period when Plato wrote his dialogues. It makes sense, then, that Socrates would feature in a tale with the famed prophetess. 

 

Like other characters in his dialogues, Plato used the Oracle of Delphi to prompt questions and answers. When it comes to her interaction with Socrates, the Oracle of Delphi was a conduit to facilitate discussions about wisdom. 

 

Socrates Didn’t Believe He Was the Wisest

Reconstruction of the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, Albert Tournaire, 1894. Source: Wikipedia
Reconstruction of the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, Albert Tournaire, 1894. Source: Wikipedia

 

One of the greatest quests philosophers have embarked on — metaphorically speaking — is the quest for true wisdom. And for Socrates, continuous searching for wisdom was essential to living a good life. In the work Apology, Plato writes that Socrates visited the Oracle of Delphi to ask if there was anyone wiser than him, and she responds that there is no one wiser. This seemed false for Socrates, who was humble and modest regarding his intelligence. To better understand the Oracle’s response, Socrates set out to find someone wiser than himself.

 

He determined that anyone who knew what was worthwhile in life would be the wisest, but the more people he spoke with, the more he realized that no one had a good answer; everyone just pretended to. This, he realized, was why the Oracle proclaimed him the wisest. Only Socrates could admit that he didn’t know. 

 

The Key to Wisdom Is Humility

The Thinker, Auguste Rodin, 1880. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Thinker, Auguste Rodin, 1880. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

When the Oracle of Delphi called Socrates the wisest man, it was not because he knew the most or had the highest IQ. Socrates thought himself to be a smart man, for sure, but he understood his limits. In fact, his question-and-answer discussional method of teaching was designed to expose the contradictions and inconsistencies in people’s beliefs, including his own. Acknowledging his faults led the Oracle of Delphi to say he was the wisest. 

 

Socrates knew he didn’t know everything and was willing to admit it. His humble approach to wisdom set him apart from others, leading to a famous Socratic paradox that influenced philosophy in Ancient Greece and beyond: “I know that I am intelligent because I know that I know nothing.”

Author Image

By Natalie NolandBS Politics, Philosophy, and EconomicsNatalie is a freelance writer from Rhode Island. She has a BS in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Northeastern University with a minor in Writing. Her academic interests include ancient philosophy, logic, and game theory. She enjoys reading, watching movies, and kayaking in her spare time.