Academic journal article Philosophy Today

From Daimonion to the "Last" God: Socrates, Heidegger, and the God of the Thinker

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

From Daimonion to the "Last" God: Socrates, Heidegger, and the God of the Thinker

Article excerpt

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Blaise Pascal famously distinguished between the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and of Christians) and the God of the philosophers. The first is the God of the religious beUever, the "personal," loving God (of whatever reUgious tradition) that offers hope of salvation to the beUever and fear of punishment and damnation to the nonbeliever. The second refers to all those abstract "ultimate realities" that have accumulated throughout the history of Western philosophy that complete some comprehensive, inteUectual view of all that is (and has been or will be). To this distinction we also might add another sort of God, what Richard Rorty caUed the God of the theologians, the sort of God that results from "running together the needs of religious beüevers with the needs of the philosophers" by changing the label of the latest philosophical costume.1 Rorty specifically had in mind Paul TilUch's theological "knockoff" of Heidegger's Sein and Mark Taylor's appropriation of Derrida's différance, but his label would include everything from Philo's use of Plotinus and Aquinas's use of Aristotle to process theology's reinterpretation of Whitehead, to recent efforts by philosophers working in the Continental tradition to reconcile postmodernism with Biblical themes.2

These distinctions, however, overlook a more original, more primordial sense of what is divine: the god of the thinker. The early Greeks named this understanding of divinity daimon (...), a naming which is heard at the crossroads between philosophy and religion, between eariier and later Greek thinking, in Socrates' talk of what inspires and drives him. Interestingly, the twentieth century philosopher Martin Heidegger wrestles with the meaning of daimon in his interpretations of Plato, Aristotle, and early Greek thinkers, hinting at his own understanding of what is divine named in "the last god" (der letzte Gott). This is the field I want to survey in this paper: what are the meanings of daimön and the "last" god, and how do they name the god of the thinker.

We begin with Socrates, the paradigmatic thinker of Western philosophy. In the course of his trial, Socrates notes that:

I am subject to something divine (daimonion; ...), which Meletus saw fit to travesty in his indictment. It began in my early childhood - a sort of voice which comes to me, and when it comes it always dissuades me from what I am proposing to do, and never urges me on. (Plato, Apology, 31c-d)3

Socrates' daimonion apparently was well known; both Plato and Xenophon note or have Socrates refer to his daimonion a number of times. In addition, as Socrates observes here, his daimonion is part of what is at issue in his indictment; aU the sources note that Socrates was charged with introducing or bringing in "strange daimonia" (...).4 Socrates' daimonion was clearly important to who he was and to what he was charged with being.

As a first reading, the noncommital translation of daimonion as "something divine" seems most appropriate. On the one hand, many of the earliest Greek writers (e.g., Homer, Pindar, the Greek tragedians) use the term daimon in conjunction with theos (...), such as in the stock ending for Euripides' plays:

Many forms are there of the divine (daimonion; ...). Many things the gods (theoi; ...) accomplish unexpectedly. What we waited for does not come to pass, while for what remained undreamed the god (theos; ...) finds ways. Just such doing was this doing.5

The two terms - daimoni and theos - are and are not exactly interchangeable. Lacking an image or a cult, ... often indicates a strange sort of activity or power rather than a class of beings. In that sense, daimön is similar to o theos (...), which means "god" or "the god" in a generic sense, not the particular and individual gods of the Greek pantheon. Naming "a force that drives man forward where no agent can be named," one way to understand daimon then is as "the veiled countenance of divine activity" that is invoked when the event or action eludes characterization and naming. …

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