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Between Athens and Jerusalem: Socrates for Adventists

In this series of posts (which is a continuation of the series from this summer on the thought of Aquinas, Augustine, and Anselm), we’ll continue to consider the relationship between faith and reason by examining the thought of a figure from the history of philosophy and the implications/relevance for his or her ideas for the Adventist community.

“Socrates is just like Jesus,” some student usually notes as we discuss their reading.

At the beginning of each semester, I have my students read The Apology by Plato. In it, Plato recounts the trial of his teacher Socrates, who in his old age, has been brought before the Athenian jury. He is charged with sophistry, corruption of the youth, and atheism. Socrates responds to these charges unsuccessfully and is sentenced to death.

“There certainly do seem to be some parallels,” I affirm. Some of the similarities are striking.

Socrates, himself, never wrote anything, so like Jesus, all we know of what he taught is through his students, or in this case, student—Plato. Both their lives and deaths have significantly influenced the people and history that have come after them. Then there are the so-called trials of both men, which were unjust. Jesus, we know, was tried by the Jewish and Roman courts and sentenced to death for political sedition. His enemies found his teachings and claims to be dangerous.

What about Socrates?

Socrates responds to the charges brought up against him and seeks to explain the reason for his appearance before the Athenian jury. Socrates claims that the god spoke to a friend at the oracle of Delphi, telling this friend that Socrates was the wisest man alive. When he hears this, Socrates is incredulous. In disbelief, Socrates set out to prove the oracle wrong. He does so by seeking out those with the reputation for being wise and questioning them. Socrates examines his interlocutors publicly, in the agora, systematically working his way through society; he starts with the politicians and proceeds to seek out the poets, writers, and craftsmen. He consistently discovers, as he does this, that those that he questions cannot answer his questions; although they purport to be wise, the leaders of Athens have no idea what they are talking about.

“As a result of this investigation, men of Athens,” Socrates explains, “I acquired much unpopularity…many slanders came from these people with a reputation for wisdom, for in each case the bystanders thought that I myself possessed the wisdom that I proved that my interlocutor did not have” (23a).

Socrates slowly comes to the realization that the oracle may be right after all, but not because he actually knows much more; he’s just aware of his own ignorance. He concludes after one of his interviews, “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” (21d).

As for the corruption charge, Socrates explains the young people of the city had begun to mimic what he was doing; they began to ask questions.

In short, Socrates made a nuisance of himself and many enemies in high places by asking questions and inspiring others to the same.

Socrates associates his mode of inquiry with philosophy, literally a love (philea) of wisdom (sophia). The life of a lover of wisdom, i.e. a philosopher, according to Socrates, involves closely examining oneself and others: “[T]he unexamined life is not worth living” (38a). Socrates is unrepentant of his ways when threatened with death. “[A]s long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy,” he declares (29d). Furthermore, he pledges to continue questioning, examining, and testing the citizens of Athens. His intent is to move them from a state of complacency and apathy, into a state of aporia (confusion and doubt), and eventually, through more questioning and reasoned dialogue, into true wisdom.

So from Socrates, we learn that wisdom begins with the realization of our own ignorance. Wisdom grows as we continue to ask questions of ourselves and others. (Questions, we also learn from the outcome of Socrates’ trial, are dangerous; asking them can get you killed.)

Socrates, himself, however, put forth very little when it comes to any positive claims beyond this, however. Although Socrates appears in all of Plato’s dialogues as the protagonist, scholars believe that the Socrates of the early dialogues–the Socrates that mainly asks questions, but does not offer any constructive answers–reflects the thought of the historical Socrates. In Plato’s latter dialogues, where Socrates has considerably more to say, he is being used as a mouth piece for Plato’s own views.

This, of course is a crucial difference between Socrates and Jesus. Unlike Socrates, Jesus made dramatic claims about his own identity and authoritatively interpreted Torah and God’s will.

The starting point of wisdom in the Greek sense, then, is ignorance, and the means to escape this condition human reasoning. In contrast, the Judeo-Christian understanding of wisdom, it might be argued, is dramatically different. Wisdom, in the Hebrew tradition, starts with “the fear of the Lord” (Psalms 111:10). Wisdom originates from and is sent from God. God reveals truths hidden to our reason, dispelling foolishness and ignorance. In the Christian tradition this culminates with Jesus, in whom “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).

In other words, wisdom is ultimately something revealed from God.

From this perspective, finite, humans need God to even become aware of their own ignorance. We are entrapped in our closed perspective and need someone from the outside to break through and speak into our situation. “Who is “the god” that spoke to Socrates at Delphi?” one might ask. It seems that, even for Socrates, the awareness of his own ignorance required some sort of divine intervention. Human wisdom, as in Job’s case, arises as God questions us.

Does revelation then obviate the need for philosophy, in Socrates use of the word, i.e. the acknowledgment of our ignorance and the continual asking of questions? In one sense, yes, but in another sense, no.

First of all, even if God has revealed to us truths that are inaccessible to reason, i.e. truths about God’s existence and God’s nature, and some might argue, ethical truths about the way we are to live our lives, there are other domains of truth the Bible does not address–for example, truths about the workings of the physical world. We believe, through revelation, that God created. We don’t know, from revelation, how the created order actually works. So there’s much room for continued questioning and inquiry.

But what about revealed truths themselves?

Dallas Willard (a Christian philosopher, by the way), in the introduction to his book The Divine Conspiracy, makes a salient observation. When it comes to Jesus, for many people today, “presumed familiarity has led to unfamiliarity, unfamiliarity has led to contempt, and contempt has led to profound ignorance” (xiii). Ironically, our presumed familiarity with what has been revealed actually distances from the truth.

It has been argued that revelation discloses, but, paradoxically, also obfuscates what has been revealed. For example, the same Scriptures that reveal to us God’s character also reveal God’s great distance from us. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” God thunders (Isa. 55:8).

Scriptures also record the way humans constantly misunderstand what has been revealed; we have the propensity to twist and use revelation for their own purposes—i.e. to exclude, to harm, to justify violence–“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9) Recorded in Scripture and history are the ways people get their interpretation of Scripture wrong—hearing what they want to hear, or reading what they want to read. Who’s to say that we’re not similarly mistaken in our own cherished interpretations?

We forget this important truth: the fact that God has revealed does not entail the truth that my grasp of this revelation is accurate, adequate, or complete. Thus, even if we affirm and believe that God has revealed, there is still plenty of room for questions. Forgetting this shuts down inquiry, dialogue, and the possibility of growth in wisdom.

It seems that the citizens of Jerusalem (and Battle Creek) also have much to learn from Socrates.


Zane Yi is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University, where he continues daily to discover his own ignorance.

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