Know Thy Self

Socrates: "Those who are lovers of the vision of truth.. . . the true lover of knowledge is always striving after Being -- that is his nature; he will not rest in . . . appearances only, but will go on -- the keen edge will not be blunted, nor the force of his desire abate until he have attained the knowledge of the true nature of every essence by a sympathetic and kindred power in the soul, and by that power drawing near and mingling and becoming incorporate with very Being, having begotten mind and truth, he will have knowledge and will live and grow truly, and then, and not till then, will he cease from his travail." Republic, §§ 475, 490

Socrates is thought to be the father of western philosophy. His student Plato, and Plato's student Aristotle are the most famous of the Greek philosophers. However, something that is not discussed or widely known is that Socrates got his philosophical insight from The Pythia – the Oracle at Delphi. Much to his annoyance, she proclaimed him “The wisest of men” – and since he had been walking around saying that he actually knew nothing – he had a hard time explaining himself. Finally he decided that what she meant is that men knew nothing, and because he knew that he knew nothing he was “the wisest of men.” He was eventually executed (forced to drink hemlock) for being “an atheist and corrupting youth.”

Socrates believed in the superiority of argument over writing and therefore spent the greater part of his mature life in the marketplace and public places of Athens, engaging in dialogue and argument with anyone who would listen or who would submit to interrogation. Socrates was reportedly unattractive in appearance and short of stature but was also extremely hardy and self-controlled. He enjoyed life immensely and achieved social popularity because of his ready wit and a keen sense of humor that was completely devoid of satire or cynicism.

Socrates' basic prescription for wisdom is to "know thyself" (the words that were carved over the the entrance of the Oracle at Delphi - along with "Nothing in Excess"). Simple words -- but an immensely difficult task. Socrates, however, understands human nature, and his first objective is to penetrate the greatest barriers to true knowledge, presumption and false belief, to help us realize how profound our ignorance is. As in the ancient Greek Mystery-schools, before one can be admitted to the precincts of truth, one must first submit to purification -- a catharsis -- to purge the mind of false and degrading thought. Or as modern mystics would say: "we must dispell our glamours". This is an incredible painful process ... Chogyam Trungpa says "Your spiritual friend is like a doctor with a sharp knife and no anesthesia." That's what Socrates was. Some friend!

The Oracle at Delphi was for over a thousand years the prevailing voice of God. Oracles were presided over by “A Sybil” – a woman who let a God speak through her. The god Apollo spoke through The Pythia – the name given to the position of the oracle at Delphi, apparently Apollo killed a serpent at the spot where stream rose from a chasm in the earth. This was where The Pythia sat (on a tripod) when she became the oracle. When the Pythia mounted the tripod she received the pneuma, the divine "breath", defined as a divine imparting of knowledge and power and of inspiration, meaning in this case the divine wisdom or breath of Apollo. Often there would be several Pythias who lived at Delphi – in the beginning they used young women – but later they found that older married women were more suited to going into a trance. But they always dressed like young tarts!

Plutarch, an initiate and careful biographer, explained how the Pythia transmitted the inspiration of Apollo:
"The prophetic priestesses are moved [by the god] each in accordance with her natural faculties . . . As a matter of fact, the voice is not that of a god, nor the utterance of it, nor the diction, nor the metre, but all these are the woman's; he [Apollo] puts into her mind only the visions, and creates a light in her soul in regard to the future; for inspiration is precisely this." -- Moralia, The Oracles at Delphi

Plutarch also rejected the idea that the god in any way possessed the body of the prophetess or that there was mediumship involved. For him the Pythia's inspiration was her reception of divine force, for she had been trained to receive "the inspiration without harm to herself ", and could receive it safely only when she was rightly prepared. An example is often cited of an ill-prepared priestess who was forced against her will and better judgment to enter the adyton and respond to a questioner. She gave a response, but suffered acutely, collapsed, and died a few days later.

The Pythia was knowledgeable in many areas: history, religion, geography, politics, mathematics, philosophy, etc. She uttered advice on where and how to build cities, which laws to incorporate, and which prayers to utter. Her predictions were often very shrewdly phrased, which caused many supplicants to misinterpret the advice. The most famous instance of this comes down to us through a Delphic prediction given to Croesus, king of Lydia. In 550 BCE, Croesus was preparing to invade the Persian Empire when he consulted the Oracle about his chances for victory. After sacrificing 300 head of cattle to Apollo, he had gold and silver melted down into 117 bricks, which were sent to Delphi, along with jewels, statues, and a gold bowl weighing a quarter of a ton. With these gifts, Croesus sent his question of whether he should attack Persia.
The Pythia answered that, if he crossed a river, "Croesus will destroy a great empire." Encouraged by this response, he invaded Persia, only to suffer a decisive defeat. The Persians invaded and then conquered Lydia and captured Croesus, who thereafter bitterly denounced the Oracle. He sent his iron chains to Delphi with the question, "Why did you lie to me?" The Pythia correctly answered that her prophecy had been fulfilled. Croesus had destroyed a great empire -- his own.

Why doesn't god still speak through an oracle? Maybe God does. Is still possible to receive such inspired advice? Perhaps it is. If we take to heart Apollo's (and Socrates') injunction, Know Thyself, and turn inwards for counsel, we will find that all answers reside within. Having the courage to look inside is our challenge.

This was culled from a variety of sources, plagiarized mercilessly, and formatted to fit my intuitive sense of what they were actually up to. - Jen

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