When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke to his fellow bishops on the subject of conscience and law in 1991, he referred to Socrates, the pagan, as being, in a certain respect, “the prophet of Jesus Christ”. So perhaps we should think about the part Socrates played in the history of human thought. He is not easy to pin down, for tradition tells us that he wrote nothing. We only know him through writers such as Xenophon and Plato; and Plato, his student, undoubtedly extended his master’s teaching to fortify his own philosophy.
Charitably assuming that Socrates was not illiterate, this in itself is significant. He held that to write things down was to close the argument. But he taught that knowledge was a dynamic process: we can never claim to know the truth and the best we can do is to recognise our ignorance. In that way, we beat down the barriers to knowledge.
The Oracle at Delphi had declared that there was no man wiser than Socrates. He was ready to challenge even the Oracle and set about quizzing statesmen, poets and craftsmen to establish their wisdom. He found that they shared a common error: they all believed that they knew things which they did not know. His superior wisdom, he concluded, was that he knew the extent of his own ignorance.
So his first contribution is the reminder that we know very little of reality. Our own understanding of our Christian faith is dynamic: we are all required – whether in dogma or morals – to continue to develop our understanding. We must question, challenge and explore. And we may make the better progress if, in humility, we accept how little we know. If we cannot always reach the truth we can, at least, reduce our errors. Our need to use metaphor to express things of the spirit reminds us of our limitations.
Greek philosophy had been primarily concerned with the nature of the cosmos: the material world. Socrates’s pioneering contribution was his declaration that our real objective was to seek the truth of human life and human affairs. Knowing who we were, and recognising what we should be, were the only important questions. His claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living” has rung in our ears since his trial before his fellow citizens. And the solution was knowledge: in particular the knowledge of the good and, by default, the knowledge of evil. Both he and Ratzinger would agree that it is our failure to reflect deeply on our human condition which leads to error and evil.
Socrates was not popular. Going around pointing out people’s errors is not a recipe for popularity. Indeed, even his friends could find him aggravating as he picked holes in their common-sense ideas. And he did so simply by asking questions, which obliged his victim to discover his errors for himself. Ratzinger used the word “maieutic” for this approach; it relates appropriately to midwifery.
Socrates’s great enemies were the sophists. These were the pseudo-intellectuals who went around Athens selling their false truths. We have plenty of these nowadays on our media. And Socrates could easily be made a figure of fun. Aristophanes’s comedy The Clouds was, and remains, popular. The general and public view was that Socrates was a comic old idiot, subject to mysterious superstitions and capable of “making the weaker argument defeat the stronger”. That view is a familiar experience for us in an agnostic society.
More serious was the attitude of the authorities. In a volatile society fragmented by the Spartan wars, Socrates’s pupils were often young aristocrats – who were seen as potential enemies of the state. Among them, unfortunately, was Alcibiades, who was to desert Athens for Sparta. Socrates was accused of corrupting youth, and it was this that led to his trial and execution. He might have escaped execution through bribery but, arguing with his friend Crito, he provided a classic apologia for the implicit contract between the citizen and the state, to which he had to defer. He was true to his principles and drank his hemlock.
If you have a spare lifetime you might consider one problem Socrates leaves with us: does God love the good because the good is lovable? Or is the good lovable because God loves it? Put another way, does the good exist independently of God? Or does God define the good arbitrarily? If you can answer that, you will have outplayed the myriad philosophers who have attempted to solve it over two millennia.
Throughout history we have associated great developments in human understanding with heroic individuals. Historians will often quarrel with such simplification, perhaps rightly. But we like our heroes, and recognising Socrates as the prophet of moral virtue to be consummated in Christ, is an indulgence I am happy to grant myself.
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