Who is Plato and Socrates' God?


I'm reading the Phaedo, as translated by Benjamin Jowett. The characters alternately mention "God" (As a monotheist would spell it with a capital "G"), for example, at one point, Socrates says:

Then there may be reason in saying that a man should wait, and not take his own life until God summons him, as he is now summoning me.

which sounds very much like a statement made about the Abrahamic God.

and "the gods", for example further down, Socrates says:

he who passes unsanctified and uninitiated into the world below will live in a slough, but that he who arrives there after initiation and purification will dwell with the gods.

which sounds much more like something an 4th century BC Greek polytheist would say.

This translation, by E.M Cope uses "God" and "Gods"

What is the original Greek term that Jowett is translating? Who is Socrates' God (with a capital "G")?

Is it an accurate translation, or are Jowett and other Christian authors just projecting their own beliefs onto Plato's characters? And if this is indeed the case, are there other, not so monotheistically inclined translations?

Alexander S King

Posted 2017-01-21T05:40:44.397

Reputation: 25 810

Personally I do not believe that Socrates was a monotheist and perhaps not even a theist in any common sense, Not so sure about Plato. – None – 2017-09-01T15:08:42.333

I joined this community because I intended to ask a very similar question. That is: what word in Plato's writing was translated as "God"? But I did a search before asking. I know that "me too" comments are frowned upon, but this is a major "me too", worthy of an exception, IMO. I won't make a practice of it. "God is a geometer!" – Steven Thomas Hatton – 2018-10-11T10:19:05.540

1Socrates' God or Plato's God? – virmaior – 2017-01-21T06:18:24.247

@virmaior I guess both. – Alexander S King – 2017-01-21T06:32:46.357



Whether Plato's character of Socrates or Plato himself believed in a God or many Gods is not perfectly clear. Additionally, we can't ascribe any sort of belief to the historical Socrates; we just don't know enough about his life that doesn't come from Plato or Xenophon. For the rest of this answer I'll say "Socrates" instead of "Plato's character of Socrates" for the sake of brevity.

The Greek word Plato used in the original text is "θεός" (theos) which is translated to "God" or "the deity". However "θεοί" which is the plural form of "θεός" is also used. The translators did not change Plato's plural use to the singular use to reflect their own monotheistic views, Plato does indeed use both in the text. Here is a chart for the declension of theos via Wikitonary:

For example, in the Apologia, we have these two sections of text.

οὗτοι, ὦ ἄνδρες Ἀθηναῖοι, οἱ ταύτην τὴν φήμην κατασκεδάσαντες, οἱ δεινοί εἰσίν μου κατήγοροι: οἱ γὰρ ἀκούοντες ἡγοῦνται τοὺς ταῦτα ζητοῦντας οὐδὲ θεοὺς νομίζειν. - 18ξ (θεοὺς - plural accusative)

These, men of Athens, who have spread abroad this report, are my dangerous enemies. For those who hear them think that men who investigate these matters do not even believe in Gods. 18c

ὅμως τοῦτο μὲν ἴτω ὅπῃ τῷ θεῷ φίλον, τῷ δὲ νόμῳ πειστέον καὶ ἀπολογητέον. 19α (θεῷ - singular dative)

But nevertheless, let this be as is pleasing to God, the law must be obeyed and I must make a defence. 19a

Before we discuss whether or not Socrates believes in a monotheistic or polytheistic god, we should state that it is clear is that Socrates and Plato rejected the Homeric image of the Greek pantheon. Of course, one of the main charges against Socrates was that he did not believe in the Gods of Athens and he preached heresy to the youth of the city. Book II of the Republic is devoted to Socrate's discussion that the real Gods must be just and honest and myths that portray them as being petty and dishonest are false and should not be taught to children. From the SEP:

Evidence for irreverence was of two types: Socrates did not believe in the gods of the Athenians (indeed, he had said on many occasions that the gods do not lie or do other wicked things, whereas the Olympian gods of the poets and the city were quarrelsome and vindictive); Socrates introduced new divinities (indeed, he insisted that his daimonion had spoken to him since childhood).

In this context daimonion is the Greek word for demon which in ancient Greek culture had a much different meaning than the meaning in, say, Christian theological contexts. From the Online Etymology Dictionary's entry for demon:

c. 1200, from Latin daemon "spirit," from Greek daimon "deity, divine power; lesser god; guiding spirit, tutelary deity."

The original mythological sense is sometimes written daemon for purposes of distinction. The Demon of Socrates was a daimonion, a "divine principle or inward oracle." His accusers, and later the Church Fathers, however, represented this otherwise.

So now on to the question of whether Socrates believed in one God or many Gods. The generally accepted answer is that Socrates believed in an ambiguous monotheistic God. This view is similar to (and I hope I do not offend anyone by giving a simplistic view of) the Brahman in Hinduism. Socrates speaks amply of paying tributes to the Gods and that the Gods are virtuous, and yet he also speaks of God being the eternal source of everything that is good. Similarly to how Hindu Gods and Goddesses are aspects of the same singular deity, the Brahman, Socrates believes that the Gods and Goddesses are aspects of the same monotheistic deity. In the original text Plato uses both singular and plural forms of "Theos" much like ancient Hindu texts use the singular and plural form of "Deva" (Sanskrit word for God). Socrates believed that his inner daimonion was his, and all of our, means of communication with this deity. On a monotheistic view it is very similar to how Christian theology considers the Holy Spirit in relation to the Godhead.

However, there is an alternative. It should be pointed out that Socrates specifically refers to Apollo (Apollo is the specific God whom the oracle of Delphi communicated with) on multiple occasions.

For the word which I will speak is not mine. I will refer you to a witness who is worthy of credit, and will tell you about my wisdom - whether I have any, and of what sort - and that witness shall be the god of Delphi.

In the Apologia Socrates tells the court that the Oracle at Delphi told him, through a friend, that Socrates was to be a great philosopher. The argument is made that when Socrates refers to a singular God he is referring to Apollo, as Apollo was the specific God who guided him to his wisdom. The general response to this from the scholars who believe that Socrates is monotheistic is that it is clearly different when Socrates refers to one specific God who is Apollo and one specific God who is the one deity that exists.

For the sake of more examples to illustrate why people believe that Socrates was monotheistic even though he mentions both the Gods and God, see this excerpt from the Republic:

κομιδῇ ἄρα ὁ θεὸς ἁπλοῦν καὶ ἀληθὲς ἔν τε ἔργῳ καὶ λόγῳ, καὶ οὔτε αὐτὸς μεθίσταται οὔτε ἄλλους ἐξαπατᾷ, οὔτε κατὰ φαντασίας οὔτε κατὰ λόγους οὔτε κατὰ σημείων πομπάς, οὔθ᾽ ὕπαρ οὐδ᾽ ὄναρ. 382ε (θεὸς - singular nominative)

“Then God is altogether simple and true in deed and word, and neither changes himself nor deceives others by visions or words or the sending of signs in waking or in dreams.” 382e

συγχωρεῖς ἄρα, ἔφην, τοῦτον δεύτερον τύπον εἶναι ἐν ᾧ δεῖ περὶ θεῶν καὶ λέγειν καὶ ποιεῖν, ὡς μήτε αὐτοὺς γόητας ὄντας τῷ μεταβάλλειν ἑαυτοὺς μήτε ἡμᾶς ψεύδεσι παράγειν ἐν λόγῳ ἢ ἐν ἔργῳ; 383α (θεῶν - plural genitive)

“You concur then,” I said, “this as our second norm or canon for speech and poetry about the gods,—that they are neither wizards in shape-shifting nor do they mislead us by falsehoods in words or deed?” 383a

Finally, for further textual references, the dialogs in which Socrates discusses what the Gods are like in respect to this conversation are Euthyphro, Republic book II, Phaedrus, and of course the Apologia.


Posted 2017-01-21T05:40:44.397

Reputation: 2 761

Great answer. I suspect that Socrates would have nodded when you mentioned Brahman. – None – 2017-09-03T13:03:15.297

Well - there is one problem here though: where does the Greek cited here come from? Was it for example, from a medieval (christian) source? What is the earliest/most authentic reference we have? See, e.g. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/doxography-ancient/.

– Frank – 2018-07-08T16:59:04.563

See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_manuscripts_of_Plato%27s_dialogues. We should trace more precisely where the actual text comes from, it's not like Plato wrote it all down in a medium that would have survived directly. There could be many transcriptions and re-transcriptions on the way, with the possibility of copy errors maybe? Also check out: http://www.historyofinformation.com/expanded.php?id=1880, which has an interesting reference to a reference in the Bodleian Library.

– Frank – 2018-07-08T17:03:36.737

There are many surviving copies of plato’s writings both as manuscripts and as quotation from other sources, from around 100-300 AD – Not_Here – 2018-07-08T17:13:50.093

Do you have details? I'm quite curious about this. Note also that if the earliest we have is from 100 AD, and Plato died in 347 BC, that's a gap of 447 years. I am really not an expert, but it seems reasonable to me that there could have been mistakes along the way. I don't know, I'm just raising the possibility, before we draw hard and fast conclusions. I'm wondering how we could settle this. This paper is also very interesting to see what dealing with ancient texts can be like: – Frank – 2018-07-08T17:53:52.003

It doesn’t sound really like you’re raising a possibility, it sounds like you’re arguing for the position that it was. My research has not shown that monotheists interfered with his words, it’s not only about the words, he explicitly argued for a more unified idea of God in his works. If your research shows different, feel free to make a different answer. I’m honestly not super interested in this topic. – Not_Here – 2018-07-08T19:10:36.510

Also, Platonic Ideas were not mentioned here, but maybe they should: maybe Plato had an intuition of a generic "God" or the "divine" as an Idea? – Frank – 2018-07-09T08:38:41.453

@Frank I guess my last comment wasn't clear, I'm not interested in furthering this conversation. – Not_Here – 2018-07-09T08:47:27.753


Correct; Greek religion is not monotheistic. About Socrates' "religion", it is hard to say something; see e.g. Socrates and Religious Experience by JOHN BUSSANICH and Mark L. McPherran, The Religion of Socrates.

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2017-01-21T14:38:53.390


On Plato's "theology", see Friedrich Solmsen, The Background of Plato's Theology.

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2017-01-21T14:53:27.237


Socrates opines in Book X of the Republic that, then, a god was a man with good ideas. He also gives the opinion in Ion. Socrates's opinion is relevant today with regard to formation of capital, utilitarian development, imparting of ideas and Eucharistic nihilism. Intequinism is a philosophy, which explains this matter and other related matters, important to understand reality as it is currently.

Marquard Dirk Pienaar

Posted 2017-01-21T05:40:44.397

Reputation: 173


Plato often refers to stories of the Greek gods as allegories. My interpretation has been that Plato (and Aristotle by proxy) believed in a monolithic God, and they considered stories of the various Greek gods as fictional for the purposes of controlling behavior and for entertainment.


Posted 2017-01-21T05:40:44.397

Reputation: 1

I made an edit which you may roll back or continue editing. If you have any references that take a similar view this would support your answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome! – Frank Hubeny – 2019-03-06T19:54:36.337