Of Secular and Sacred Wisdom –– Socrates
“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Juxtaposing the ancient wisdom of the Athenian gadfly to Jerusalem’s philosopher king.
In the last entry, I examined Solomon’s life and wisdom. In this entry, I examine Socrates’ life and wisdom.
Jacques Louis David, “The Death of Socrates” (c.1787). Oil on canvas.
There is no escaping it. The ancient Near East held to a spiritually intimate, yet cosmic view of wisdom—a kind of judicial sovereignty over chaos and order—which is not directly sought by Socrates or even quite understood in Western philosophy, especially today. Not to mention Israel, specifically, identified the source of this wisdom with Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who was also the Creator of the cosmos and Author of life. Be that as it is, to throw Solomon against Socrates is not to speak anachronistically; ancient wisdom was a melting pot of sorts. While it is very clear that the prose of Solomon’s Ecclesiastes differs significantly in literary style and purpose from, say, the dialogue of Plato’s Apology, and that the thematic composition of Job couldn’t be farther apart from, say, Homer’s Iliad—Job is cosmic, theocentric, and judicial, Homer is fantastic, anthropocentric, and provocative—to juxtapose different eras of thought, on universal terms, is just philosophy, no thanks to Socrates. However, in this instance, it is surprisingly more than just universal human thought, it is very theological indeed. For Socrates, too, wisdom was a matter of theology, albeit a very different kind of theology than Solomon’s, but nevertheless entwined in a unified goal for universal meaning, moral virtue, and objective true knowledge, the likes of which thematically bridges these men together, even though these two men couldn’t be more opposite from one another.
While Solomon’s wisdom early on in his life was composed from the top down and then later became fixated in seeking wisdom from the bottom up to understand the heart of man, a regret he plaintively confesses, Socrates sought universal meaning and moral understanding from the bottom up with intermittent feedback from the top down. Like Solomon, Socrates’ sense of wisdom was grounded in moral understanding, but the application was very different. For it was none other than the integrity, humility, and justice of Socrates alongside his peculiar theological convictions that would stimulate his renowned search for universal meaning and objective moral virtue, the likes of which we see alive and well today, even in apologetics; inspiring Athenian philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle in the process, which was later propagated by medieval scholastics like Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274 AD).
His search was largely carried through a dialectical technique called maieutic (“maieutikos” in Greek), or what we now call the Socratic method, where Socrates would pose a series of questions that would target, elicit, and reveal a person’s false assumptions, misconceptions, or presuppositions as a way to bring about the truth of something latent in the mind. It’s important to mark out that his greater objective was not mere constructive criticism for personal truths, his mission was to bring out objective true knowledge through this process, that was birthed out of the implicit understanding of true and false, right and wrong, good and evil, et cetera. In other words, Socrates saw the dialogue process as a sort of birthing process. Just as a midwife assists a mother in delivering a baby, he as a teacher assists a person in bringing forth hidden certainties or discovering new ideas through reasoning and dialogue, the culmination of which builds objective true knowledge. Indeed, the word maieutic literally means “of midwifery”. But this delivery method could only be performed by a skilled worker or specialist like a physician, or in his case, a philosopher. He constantly employed dialectical reasoning in order to support, inform, and substantiate the value of moral virtue (from Greek aretê, meaning excellence) among his fellow countrymen, which, to him, was a skill or discipline of sorts; a skill that was predicated upon the acknowledgment of one’s epistemic limitations and self-realized ignorance: “So I withdrew and thought to myself: 'I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.”
Socrates’ epistemic humility, here, is noteworthy because it is through his self-understood ignorance that he was able to adequately reason with insight, such as in the famous philosophical case of Euthyphro, the Athenian prophet. He visits Euthyphro at the Porch of the King Archon, and presents a charge laid against him by a young man, Meletus, for corrupting youth. The ground of his indictment is that he is “a poet or maker of gods....he invents new gods and denies the existence of old ones”. Socrates, then, proceeds in asking a series of compounding questions to understand the nature of his charge. In doing, he pits his, supposed, ignorance or lack of knowledge of religious matters against Euthyphro’s “exact knowledge of all such matters”. In search for a definition of piety, “a general idea which makes all pious things to be pious”. The gist of it was that whatever the gods loved was the measure of piety, and whatever the gods hated was the measure of impiety, but since the gods, like Zeus, Cronos, and Uranus, frequently disagree on what is right and wrong, just and unjust, honourable and dishonourable, good and evil, then there is no standard of measure to differentiate piety from impiety, for what one god loves, the other hates. Upon hearing his clear subjectivity and circular reasoning, Socrates uses Euthyphro’s definition against him: “Is the pious (τὸ ὅσιον) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” The outcome was found wanting. Euthyphro thought it was a clever trick; he did not quite grasp the gravity of Socrates’ reasoning. Socrates was able to logically prove that Euthyphro, a prophet of the gods, had not only an unclear definition of piety, but in fact held to a self-contradictory definition of it, and yet he was to be on trial for impiety, a crime punishable by death.
Differences in Technique
Socrates careful reasoning slowly whittled Euthyphro’s façade and exposed the weakness of the unwarranted religious standard, at a time when religious eclecticism was not fashionable nor was it moral by cultural standards. This would later prove true when the apostle Paul brought to Athens a foreign God masked as “the unknown god” when he addressed the Areopagus in Acts 17. Religious eclecticism and syncretism (i.e., Hellenization) reached a peak under Roman rule, a tipping point in religious purity, and an audience was granted—the impiety was truly couched in preference with no integrity to last.
Socrates’ dialectical technique is the innovative benchmark of philosophy itself and is very different from Solomon’s prose and poetry, an archetypal Presocratic style. Rather than probe another person’s presuppositions to bring out truth, Solomon’s questioning process is largely implicit, inductive, and introspective, stringing the reader along a series of answers, leaving them to question the conclusions on their own accord. Rather than reveal hidden presuppositions, Solomon fishhooks the truth within concealed motivations. If you recall the famous case of the two prostitutes in 1 Kings 3:16-28; two mothers stood before him, regarded as unscrupulous and untrustworthy folk, each holding a child—one dead, one alive. One mother rolled over on her infant child in her sleep and killed it, and then stole the living child from the other. Yet both mothers were claiming the living child is theirs and charged the other with lying. It was a he-said, she-said dilemma, that which cannot be proven in a court of law today. So, which mother did the child belong to? Solomon leveraged his judicial power and license to kill to incite an independent, kneejerk reaction from the two mothers, one that did not rely on a response from the other. He did so by pitting the selfish ambition of the lying prostitute, whoever that might be, against her own grief, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.” (v.25). The first woman shrieked and pleaded, the second woman idled indifferent, if not, gnashed gratification, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him.” (v.26). Solomon possessed deeply intuitive moral insight into human character from which he exacts the truth by isolating false intention, whereas Socrates picks his way through the thickets to the truth, weeding out the false presuppositions by proving the logical inconsistency of one’s worldview; a tactic apologists know all too well. In fact, modern apologists sound more like Socrates than they do Solomon!
While Solomon as a character is debated among liberal scholars, there is a very practical credibility that comes with trusting Scripture at face value. Ancient Israel held to very strong standards of religious purity, such as the firm cultural and personal belief that public deception and fabricating prophecies, that is presumptuously speaking on God’s behalf, was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 18:20-22), and that bearing false witness against neighbour could, potentially, suffer the same fate (Exodus 20:16). If Solomon was teaching from God-given wisdom and the Spirit, the same Spirit who compiles and compels Scripture, which he wrote, deception would be more dangerous than advantageous. Be that as it may, additional accounts and personal interactions such as these were recorded in the Acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41), which has fallen to the ages. Socrates’ personal interactions, however, have endured to a less reliable, historical standard, but nevertheless offers some insight into his character. With no surviving documents of Socrates’ written work, if he had any, we are limited to the second-hand writings of Aristophanes, Aristotle, Xenophon and Plato for an historical assessment, with the latter two authors portraying the most accurate account, in my view. Since there is no personal written work to compare him to, there is a debate (as always) about the historical Socrates: Is any of the historical data surrounding Socrates’ life reliable or was he that archetypal character writers used to forward their agenda? This we do not know for certain. But there is probable cause to rely on its historicity, given that his pupil, Plato, recorded his trial and had a similar personal yet devout commitment to “The Good”.
A Moral Gadfly
Socrates’ moral character was puzzling to Athenians. His steadfast commitment to his mission from “the God” as well as his deep conviction to place moral considerations above all else, such as justice, virtue, and the value/condition of the soul—even unto death—marked him a local stranger and gadfly among many well-to-do Greeks; especially at a time when Athens was losing the Peloponnesian War (c.431-404 BC). In fact, thirty years before his trial he enlisted as a hoplite or foot soldier when the war first broke out between Athens and Sparta, and ended up courageously rescuing Alcibiades, a supposed corrupt and vain pupil of his who would later become a well-known general and statesman of Athens, during the siege of Potidaea. Despite Alcibiades’ self-centred resolve, Socrates would give his life to improve his moral character, an endeavour, Xenophon notes, would ultimately fail. His theological and moral convictions were enigmatic to fifth-century Athenians, to say the least; he became impoverished due to his didactic mission from the God to teach all men, particularly Athenians, about human nature, immortality of the soul, and vitality of moral virtue; denied any form of payment for teaching philosophy and engaged with all walks of life; supported or criticized the actions of anyone, with no political or social incentive in mind; harshly rejected the Greek virtues of wealth, honour, reputation, social acceptance, and political power, considering each a false virtue, and Solomon too strongly rejected these virtues despite, contrastingly, obtaining such things (Ecclesiastes 5:8-20; 6:1-12); believed it was unjust to mistreat parents, murder, commit adultery, steal, rob temples, betray friends, break oaths, lie, and covet material possession and property over the improvement of your soul (cf. Exodus 20:12-17); refused homosexual relations with adolescent boys in spite of his attraction and it being culturally normative and fashionable because it went against his conscience, rather he kept his mission to improve their souls, along with all other Athenians for that matter, at the forefront of his mind; believed that a truly virtuous person places moral virtue above all else in his or her life, no matter the consequences; always listened to an inner voice or “divine something” (from Greek, daimonion) for guidance since childhood, which told him what not to do but never told him what to do; challenged the logical inconsistencies and hypocrisy of prophets/priests such as Euthyphro, yet retained strong and strange theological convictions unlike typical Athenians at the time, such as his unyielding obedience to the God “but necessity was laid upon me – the word of God, I thought, ought to be considered first”, his belief that “God cannot lie; it was out of his nature”, and “….only God is wise. And by his oracle he wanted to show us that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:25-27), among others, all of which led many Athenians to be suspicious of him.
Socrates, in the internal affairs of Athenian justice, was a polemicist and orator of the highest rank. He was inevitably charged with impiety of bringing false gods to Athens, which was called atheism, as well as corrupting the youth, a direct assault on his theological and moral devotion. Summarizing in his trial:
Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this? And if the person with whom I am arguing says: Yes, but I do care; I do not depart or let him go at once; I interrogate and examine and cross-examine him, and if I think that he has no virtue, but only says that he has, I reproach him with undervaluing the greater, and overvaluing the less. And this I should say to everyone whom I meet, young and old, citizen and alien, but especially to the citizens, inasmuch as they are my brethren. For this is the command of God, as I would have you know; and I believe that to this day no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God. For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue come money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, my influence is ruinous indeed. But if anyone says that this is not my teaching, he is speaking an untruth.
Rather than renounce his beliefs, Socrates embraced his fate and would be executed by hemlock, in accordance with Athenian law, for introducing his strange new god and corrupting the youth, persistently urging his listeners till death on the improvement and immortality of the soul, despite having no firm knowledge of the afterlife. His words to seek universal meaning and objective true knowledge and actual moral virtue above all else grasped the few who did listen. Unlike Solomon, he is still considered, even by Christian standards, a moral man; even so far as for early Christian apologists, such as Justin Martyr, to consider him a type or proto-Christian before Christ’s incarnation. Not only is Socrates one of the most referenced philosophers in history by virtue of his unwavering scruples and self-understood ignorance, but his theological sense of wisdom, albeit phenomenological in relationship, is also what led the oracle at Delphi to say, “there was no man wiser than Socrates,” which sparked his life-long mission to teach Athenian’s moral virtue, so the story goes. To him, the most important question a person can ask was: “How ought we to live?” There is no doubt that our philosophical roots find nourishment from the basic search for universal meaning and moral understanding (cf. Proverbs 4:7, Proverbs 4:23), which was, and is—of no trivial coincidence—grounded by a theological conviction and mission.
So peculiar was Socrates’ teaching of morality and God, whom he does not name, that many liberal scholars today charge Jesus and Paul with impiety, as if they were agents of Socrates. But this is a deep misunderstanding of Socrates and Paul’s theology on natural law and global sovereignty. In fact, his life and trial almost seem to be proof of just how potent God’s natural moral law truly is, and just how hardened we can become to it, especially for blatant self-contradictions to become latent in the mind and for the lack of desire to correct false beliefs/presuppositions once uncovered.
Jean-Baptiste Regnault, “Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure” (c.1791). Oil on canvas.
Logical Order of Humility
In spite of Socrates’ personal theological convictions and his stark opposition to sophism and moral relativism, his methodology to encourage wisdom is ultimately anthropocentric, bound by horizontal moral standards. The God he clung to was private, and while personal, only personal—even though he had given credit, honour, and pledged obedience to his God in order to show the Athenians that “the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing” compared to God, he never once invited his fellow Athenians to know his God to obtain moral truth. Instead, he assumed wisdom and moral virtue was completely innate and self-contained, subject to exercise and discipline like a specialized skill. He sought moral improvement, not moral reconciliation with God, whom he admits there is none wiser. Socrates, then, did not seek moral humility—a recognition, confession, and repentance of sin, wrongdoing, or evil; a reverent, repentant, weeping in sackcloth and ashes in juxtaposition to the source of goodness and truth unified: God. Rather, he presupposed that people ought to train their sense of epistemic humility first and foremost, to improve their soul, “I interrogate and examine and cross-examine him, and if I think that he has no virtue, but only says that he has, I reproach him with undervaluing the greater, and overvaluing the less.” To Solomon, however, epistemic humility seems to necessarily presuppose moral humility first. The logical order is in reverse. You cannot obtain true knowledge and wisdom without the fear of the Lord—to hate evil, pride, arrogance, evil behaviour, and perverse speech (Proverbs 8:13)—that which acknowledges God’s divine nature and eternal power, His goodness and holiness, in juxtaposition to the temporal cosmic order and our sin condition. Without God to differentiate moral truth—good and evil, justice and mercy, truth and falsehood, et cetera—humility, of any kind, cannot be fully grasped.
Solomon’s epistemic humility, then, was grounded in a reverent, awestruck Godfearing sense of cosmic majesty, whereas Socrates’ epistemic humility was strung tight between human discourse and innate to our mental faculties, even though credited a theological source of some kind. The result of which, if left untethered to God, as history has revealed leads only to total agnosticism or global skepticism, that truth is unobtainable, unknowable. Yet, Socrates’ humility was partial of his dialectical method maieutic that which presupposed true knowledge and moral virtue was obtainable through reason. A contradiction no doubt residues; Socrates cannot prove that men ‘ought’ to be morally good without appealing to something outside of Athenian culture, outside of the Greek religion, for their gods—Zeus, Kronos, Daedalus, among others—were no more moral or immoral than them. It antagonized pragmatism. What was the point in this ‘moral virtue’ he was espousing? He was appealing to a moral transcendence outside of human thought. If Plato’s Socrates is, indeed, the historical Socrates and not just a puppet of Plato’s philosophical itinerary, he considered moral virtue transcendent of humanity, as an ontological fact we inwardly ‘look at’ to refine our soul, comparing the sun illuminating the world with its ray to “The Good” illuminating humanity with wisdom and moral aptitude (cf. John 1:1-4, 9-13). He did not, however, ground this notion of ultimate goodness in a supreme conscious being, such as God, whose Spirit could reside within. By his own standard, then, any philosophy ratifies an existential warrant on itself if it is against God because the search for ultimate meaning and objective true knowledge and moral virtue will ultimately lead to God, however nebulous, especially considering the influence he seemed to have had on Plato’s “The One” or “The Good” and Aristotle’s “Prime Mover”. Its futility otherwise is plainly visible without God as the ontological epicentre of wisdom and ground for moral truth, the essence and existence of being.
Socrates was no evangelist by Christian standards, nor was he a prophet like Jonah to Athens, despite his theological mission. The God was not the ground of his wisdom or for others’, but a supporter of his work, whence moral virtue and universal meaning were sought not through or for God but separately from God, unwittingly acting out what the prominent sophist Protagoras (c. 481-411 BC) famously claimed before him, “Man is the measure of all things.” He challenged, if not, charged Euthyphro for his lack of a universal definition of piety, yet it was only a human who could give him a definition in the first place! A definition that neither of them could hope to produce, which was his point, of course, but his search had no ultimate end in sight outside of human dialogue. His motive and greater objective runs contrary to Solomon who inundates his writings with a theocentric foundation, anchoring moral standards to a vertical, invisible, relational God from which morality, justice, knowledge and wisdom can abound with an ontological stake in the ground.
Be that as it may, despite his theological incompleteness or the misdirection his moral virtue may communicate, which all Christians are guilty of to some extent, he devoutly pointed to a new strange God, whom the Athenians did not know, as the reason for his persistent gadfly tactics and determination to morally improve their souls, “I believe that to this day no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God. For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul.” Obeying the word of God, even unto death.
Was Socrates sent by the one true God? Was God preparing the way for the Christian faith through philosophy? God only knows. But it sure seems like it.
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Matlock Bobechko | March 14, 2023 – 9:00 AM EST
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 Plato, Apology. Classics Archive (c.399–? BC), translated by Benjamin Jowett.
 Plato, Euthyphro. Classics Archive (c.380 BC), translated by Benjamin Jowett.
 Plato, Euthyphro (10a), Volume 1 (2a–16a).
 Nails, Debra, "Socrates", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/socrates/>.
 Plato, Apology. Emphasis added.
 Plato, Apology. “[B]ut the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. And so I go my way, obedient to the god, and make inquisition into the wisdom of anyone, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise; and this occupation quite absorbs me, and I have no time to give either to any public matter of interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god.”
 Plato, Apology, 28b-c. Rep 443a-b. Extracted from Parry, Richard, "Ancient Ethical Theory", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/ethics-ancient/>.
 Plato, Apology, 20e–23b. “Let me explain their origins— Some of you know my good friend Chaerephon. Before he died he went to Delphi and asked the religious oracle there to tell him who the wisest man in the world was. The oracle answered that there was no man wiser than Socrates.”
 Plato, Republic (507b-509c).
 This might be why Socrates is so often labelled a sophist among historical philosophers. While he was largely deconstructive through logical consistency, Socrates was not a sophist by desire or belief.