Socrates and Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ and Socrates are often compared:
- Both were put to death for their beliefs.
- Both sought to make the people they lived among better, which is the reason they were killed.
- Both believed in the immortality of the soul.
- Both sought to teach humans how to be the best humans they could possibly be.
- Jesus taught in parables; Socrates by asking questions. Not the same thing, but both subverted ordinary discourse.
Both lived at approximately the same time in the same corner of the world. Socrates died first in 399 BCE. Jesus died around year 4 of the Common Era, about a 400 year difference. There was contact between Judea and Athens. Paul’s longest sermon was delivered in Athens (Acts 17:16–34), where Socrates lived and died. People have wondered about cross-cultural influences, but there probably were little or none. Philo of Judea, a Hellenistic (Greek) Jewish philosopher, sought to harmonize the Torah with Greek philosophy. Evidently, he persuaded more Christians than Jews, but played no role in the development of Christianity or Judaism.
Western Civilization, it has been wisely said, is a combination of Athens, the home of Socrates, and Jerusalem, where Christ was crucified. Classical Athens valued reason, the examined life, or at least her philosophers did. Jerusalem represents the value of faith. It is this combination that has characterized life in the West for almost 2,000 years. For most of that time faith was dominant. More recently, faith has taken a back seat to reason, even if this reason is not always very reasonable.
I’m assuming that most readers are more familiar with Jesus than Socrates, so I’ll tell you a little more about Socrates. When I refer to Socrates, I refer to Socrates as the main character in about 24 dialogues of Plato. Socrates never wrote anything, and so we depend upon Plato, his student, to tell us what he said.
Socrates’ mother was a midwife, and he compared the question and answer method he developed to midwifery, drawing out knowledge that was present but hidden beneath the ignorance of his partners in dialogue. His approach is sometimes referred to as Socratic method, asking seemingly simple questions such as “What is justice?” or “What is the good life?” People generally became confused and contradictory in their answers, and Socrates concluded that he must be the wisest man in Athens, for everyone else thought they knew something but didn’t. Socrates was wise to the extent that he knew he didn’t know anything for sure.
Still, he knew something. “Know thyself” (gnothi seauton) is the saying most commonly attributed to him. It comes down to taking care of your soul. The Greek term for soul was psuche (ψυχή), transliterated as psyche. The same term is used 105 times in the New Testament, and is the only Greek term translated as soul. It corresponds to the Hebrew Nephesh in the Old Testament. Like Christ, with the term soul Socrates meant that part of yourself that never perishes, is independent of body, and lives on after the body dies.
Socrates taught people to care for their souls, the most important thing they possessed. It was his most important lesson, and the one that got him killed. Above all, caring for your soul means thinking about what you are doing. Don’t go through life mindlessly, but consider what it is to be a just man, a good man, and act accordingly. A stinging insect he was called, and he stung people, particularly important people, by going up to them and asking what it meant to be just, or courageous, or wise. Most thought they knew, and Socrates revealed their ignorance to them, as well as anyone who might be listening.
This did nothing to make him popular, and he was put on trial for believing in gods unrecognized by Athens, and corrupting the youth. The charges were spurious, and everyone knew it. The real terms of the trial were, shut-up, get out of Athens, or die. We are tired of being made to look foolish by you. Socrates chose to die. It did not make him any more popular with the jury when he proposed as his penalty (as was the practice at the time) that he be treated as an Olympic victor for life.
Socrates was given the opportunity to escape from Athens, and refused to take it. Instead he drank the Hemlock and died. In the dialogue that describes his death, Socrates is asked how he wishes to be buried. Anyway you like, he said, if you can catch me. He meant that his soul would have left his body at the moment of death (Phaedo, 115c-115d). Socrates was his soul, not his body
And what were Socrates’ last words? We know the last words of Christ, or at least we think we do, and while the gospels are contradictory, Christ’s message is clear: either he feels forsaken (Matthew and Mark), or he commends his spirit to God the father, or he says “It is finished” in Luke. The last statement may appear ambiguous, but it is not. The Greek word he employs, tetelestai (τετέλεσται), has as its root the word teleo (τέλειος), which means to complete or finish a task. A telos, in English, means a goal. Christ’s is saying that his work on earth has been successfully completed.
Socrates’ last words are puzzling, and you would never guess them if you did not know. To his friend Crito, he says “we owe a cock to Asclepius; pay our debt and no forgetting.” (Phaedo, 118a-b) Asclepius was the Greek god of healing. Socrates was saying that embodied life has the quality of a sickness. In dying he will enter into another state, that of abundant health. As was the custom when someone recovered from an illness, a rooster was sacrificed to the god of healing. Socrates, who genuinely seemed to enjoy life, understood that a greater health lay beyond this world.
The Christianization of Plato
Saint Augustine baptized Plato it is sometimes said. The statement is not meant to be taken literally. Augustine came along roughly 600 years after Plato. The statement means that one can see a similarity between the basic teachings of Socrates, as recounted by Plato, and Christianity.* One should not, however, overemphasize the similarity.
The difference with Christ
The Greeks of Socrates’ time held that there were four cardinal virtues:
Someone who practiced these virtues was said to possess arete (ἀρετή), or human excellence. Ancient Greece, it is rightly said, was an agonal culture. Agony here means struggle or contest. The ancient Greek ideal was to “always to be bravest and excel over others” (Iliad, 11.780) Plato sought to civilize this ideal, so that men could live together in harmony, one reason self-discipline is so important. Nevertheless, an ancient Greek would have considered the virtues of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), which esteem the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, and the one who turns the other cheek as the virtues of fools, losers, and weaklings. About these virtues Socrates has nothing to say.
Christ, and his disciple Paul (1 Corinthians 13), introduced a different set of virtues:
- Faith (πίστις, pistis)
- Hope (ἐλπίς, elpis)
- Love (ἀγάπη, agape)
And of these the greatest is love. Agape, the Greek word, suggests a self-giving, deeply caring love, not the eros (έρως) of romantic love. These three virtues represent a vastly different worldview, one of self-giving love, faith in God, and hope for the future.
Most ancient Greeks believed in their gods, but they did not have faith in them. They did not love them; they were not good, just powerful. Greek gods had little to do with ethics or morality; they were jealous beings who required constant sacrifice. About hope, the ancient Greeks thought it was more likely to get men into trouble than save them (Thucydides, 5.102). And while agape was not just for suckers, it was Eros that occupied them (Plato, Symposium).
Wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and justice are important virtues. But they are not enough. Enough for a rational society perhaps, not a good society. A good society takes love of God (and a God worthy of love), and love of neighbor. It takes a willingness to turn the other cheek, to forgive, and to sacrifice. Without these Christian virtues, Western Civilization would be a harder and crueler place.
Unfortunately, it seems as if this is exactly what is happening, at least in the United States. Not necessarily in private life, but as Christ as well as the Greeks understood, the virtues are public as well as private. You can practice all the virtues, Greek and Christian, in private, but they are most fully expressed in communities, societies, and nations. The virtues reinforce each other. It is easier to be a good father or mother in a good, that is, caring and generous, society. And a caring and generous society is made up of people who practice all the virtues, both Greek and Christian.
* The usual parallel between Plato and Christianity is based on Plato’s doctrine of the Forms (Ideas, or είδος), which posit a world of perfection beyond this world. A discussion of the forms, above all the Form of the Good, which sounds a bit like God, is found in books six and seven of the Republic. I’m taking a different approach. The usual parallel stands, but it is overdrawn.