Daemons in Plato

Category: Theology > On Daemons and Souls

1 Introduction

It is often taken for granted that the Platonic dialogues contain a theory of daemons – just one theory, that is, which explains what Plato meant by the word. In fact, however, ‘daemon’ occurs in a variety of meanings across his dialogues, and some of these senses are not captured by any explicit theory he advances (although later Platonists may have successfully expanded the theory to encompass them).

The present page is meant to give a basic overview of all this, to facilitate more advanced study of Platonic ‘daemonology’. I do not, however, cover derived terms such as eudaímōn or daimónios (only some instances of daimónion, which is more closely connected with the semantics of daímōn), nor the Platonic epigrams, which for a comprehensive account of the subject may have some relevancy.

2 Various meanings in the Republic, Laws and the Epinomis

The greatest weight, I think, must be given to the Laws, and after it, the Republic. These dialogues both contain well over twice as many uses of the word ‘daemon’ as any other Platonic work.

In the Republic, “the daemonic (tò daimónion) and the divine” is once used as an expanded alteration of “the gods (ho theós / hoi theoí)” in a discussion about the nature of the gods (382e), and daemons are mentioned alongside gods, heroes and “those in Hades” as subjects of poetry (392e), while in a poetic quotation, daímones simply means “gods” (391e). Later in the same work, reference is also made to the instituted worship of “gods, daemons and heroes” (427b).

Specifically, it is proposed that people who have died particularly noble deaths be honored as daemons, based on Hesiod’s story that the people of the Golden Age became “holy daemons upon the earth, […] averters of evil and protectors (phýlakes) of humankind” (Works and Days 123). From the Delphic oracle of Apollon, it should be inquired how “the daemonic and the divine” should be buried, “and with what difference between them”, and they shall continue to be revered as daemons after that, with worshipped paid to their tombs (468e–469a). The idea is repeated later: “The city shall institute public memorials and sacrifices to them, as to daemons if the Pythia approves, and if not, then as to fortunate (eudaímones) and divine men” (540c). Note that ‘divine’ here is must mean ‘divinely blessed’, certainly not that the glorious dead in question are gods (which would make them superior to daemons). (Why Plato does not bring up heroes in this discussion is puzzling to me; but this is not the place to consider that subject.)

In 496c, the “daemonic sign (tò daimónion sēmeîon)” of Socrates is briefly mentioned, but not explained.

Still another meaning of the word is found in the Myth of Er, a certain ‘prophet’ explains to the souls that are about to be reborn on Earth that “a daímōn is not allotted you, but you choose a daímōn” (617e). This daímōn is described as an actual lot taken up by each soul, so that in this passage, it is best understood as “personal fortune”, a common meaning of the word albeit not one much used by Plato. Yet not much later, it is said that the unfortunate (who have chosen a bad lot) blame “fortune (týkhē) and the daímones, and everything rather than themselves” (619c), showing that the ambiguity of the word is being played with. Then, just before the end of the dialogue, Plato actually introduces the daemons as characters, describing how Lachesis “sends along (with the soul) the daemon that was chosen by each, as the guardian (phýlax) of their life and the fulfiller of their choices. He first leads the soul to Clotho, to ratify the fate (moîra) she (the soul) had chosen […], and then to the spinning of Atropos, to make [them] irreversible; and then, without a backward glance, he walks (with the soul) under the throne of Necessity, and exists through there” (620e). This is what later Platonic tradition calls the ‘allotted (eilēkhós) daemon’. (The ‘prophet’ is identified as something like an angel of the Moeraean series by Proclus.)

As a sidenote, “marine Glaucus” (Republic 611d) is called a daemon in the ancient Scholia.

In the Laws, likewise, we see a range of meanings and uses.

[Personal fortune (877a)]

[Myth “not humans, but of a more divine and better kind, daemons” (713d), also 818c. 906a?]

[after the gods – first the Olympian, then the chthonic –, the daemons, after them the heroes, then “one’s own ancestral gods according to custom”, and finally living parents (717b)]

[local cults 738b-d, 740b, 747e, 799a, 801e, 804a, 828b, 848d, 910a]

One should treat a stranger especially well, because “the one who has the power to avenge helps them most readily, and in every case, the daemon and god of strangers (xénios), who follow Zeus Xenios, especially have the power” (729e–730a). Notably the god of strangers is not Zeus himself, but his follower along with the daemon of strangers.

[Einodia (914b + Σ)]

[Epinomis 977a, 984e]

3 Various uses in the Phaedrus and Timaeus

The Phaedrus and Timaeus also present several uses, some of which are not found in the Laws and Republic.

[add quotes: Phaedrus 240a, 242b, 246e, 274c. Timaeus 40d, 90a-c]

4 “Novel daemons” In the Apology and the Euthyphro

Famously, Socrates was accused of not believing in the gods the city of Athens believed in, and introducing “novel” or “strange divinities (daimónia)”. In the accusation, this is hardly more than a synonym for ‘gods’, perhaps one with more ambiguous connotations. But Plato’s Socrates makes an argument based on the semantics of ‘daemon’, telling us what shared preconceptions about daemons an argument could appeal to.

[add quotes: Apologia 24c, 26b-27e, 31d, 40a. Euthyphro 3b]

5 The dead (and the living) as daemons in the Cratylus

Along the lines of the Republic, and using the same quotation from Hesiod, the Cratylus interprets the daemons as certain great people who have died; but he makes the decisive attribute wisdom rather than a glorious death, and actually assigns the same name already to the wise among the living, not the dead alone.

[add quote: Cratylus 397c-398c, 438c]

6 Allotted daemons in the Phaedo

In the Phaedo, the allotted daemon we encountered in the Republic’s ‘Myth of Er’ makes another appearance.

[add quotes: Phaedo 107d, 108b, 113d]

7 Daemons and “the greatest daemon” in the Statesman

[Politicus 271d, 272e, 274b, 309c]

8 Daemons as intermediaries in the Symposium

By far the most influential Platonic passage about daemons is found in the Symposium.

[Symposium 202d, 203a, 204b]

9 Avenging daemon


[Epistulae 336b]

10 Socrates’ daemonic sign

[Alcibiades I 103a (Σ)
Theaetetus 151a
Euthydemus 272e
Theages 128d-129e, 131a

11 Some miscellanea

[Gorgias 456a (red man?)
Spuria 371 (?)
Lysis 223a

12 Conclusions