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Socrates and Jesus – A misconstrued correlation

Philosophy opposite theology

This is a chapter from my book Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

“We must not examine who said it, but whether it is true or not”161c
Plato, Charmides

“I am the way and the truth and the life; no one can come to the Father except through me”
John’s Gospel 14:6

Some of Socrates’ positions, even the conditions of his death, simulate ideas and narrations of Christianity. But they do not identify with them, since their common elements are mostly superficial. Socrates’ idea that gods are good and only do good things, is something that alienated him from the common religion of his time. This new viewing found many Christian adherents when their religion spread from the Middle East in Europe, since they recognized some common ground in the philosophy that influenced the ancient world to such a degree. But the god of Socrates is not the one who defines what is good and bad (Euthyphro), like the god of the Bible does with his commandments. Morality’s source is, for Socrates, reason; not some divine orders.

The early Christian theology was greatly influenced by Socrates and in the early centuries AD the Christians saw him as a “saint before Christ”. In Preparation for the Gospel by Eusebius of Caesarea (3rd – 4th century AD), Plato is considered to have somehow perceived the truth of Christianity, receiving inspiration from god: “For what is Plato but Moses speaking in Attic Greek?” The Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino (15th century) makes detailed parallelisms between the trials and deaths of Socrates and Jesus. One of Erasmus’ dialogues (The Godly Feast) includes the phrase “Saint Socrates, pray for us” and likens Jesus in Gethsemane with Socrates in his cell. Saint Augustine said “Platonism is the antechamber of Christianity”. This tradition continued with Diderot (though he never finished his dramatization of the Socratic death) and Rousseau (First Discourse, 1751).

Jean Delville - The School of Plato (1898)
Jean Delville – The School of Plato (1898) (photo)

The rationalistic approach to religion of the 17th and 18th century, while rejecting fanaticism, presented Socrates as a martyr of the rational religion, since his death resulted from the actions of fanatics. Voltaire wrote a play about Socrates’ death (Socrates, middle 18th century), Nietzsche named Plato a “preexisting Christian”, while Engels considered him the great precursor to Christianity. Bertrand Russell observed that Christianity extended an idea that had already been expressed by Socrates and later by the Stoics. The one that our duty towards god is more imperative than our obligation to the state; that “we owe to obey God more than Man”.

When the early Christians heard the crimes of which the Romans accused them, they considered themselves to be in the same position as Socrates and were willing to die for the truth, like he did. Socrates did not want to conform, and would be freed if he promised to stop speaking the truth. Same with the Christians, if they would allow themselves to be forced to conformity, and deny their past behavior and their chosen way of life, they would be saved. In Acts of the Martyrs we can find references to him. During their apologies in court, the accused would evoke Socrates, as he was very liked by their pagan accusers and judges, and their evoking him was a way for them to earn their respect and their compassion, parallelizing Jesus’ behavior in front of Pontius Pilate to that of Socrates in front of the Athenian judges. But the idolaters reproached Jesus for his stance, which they deemed not a prudent one. He was too humble, submissive and silent and many thought that this behavior was not a decent one; that it was not to be expected from a saint.

In antiquity everybody thought Socrates to be a wasted hero, and the Christians utilized this. After the 2nd century though, a lot less knew of Socrates and only a few educated people would feel compassionate towards him. Several writers with orthodox Christian convictions denounced the likening of Socrates and Jesus, claiming that by accepting to drink the hemlock, he had in fact committed suicide, while others were annoyed by his homosexual inclinations and his peculiar vows (“by the dog”). And so, his influence in the official Christian thought began to decline.

The real tribulation for Socrates was not to avoid death (nor was Jesus’ of course), but to avoid committing injustice. Since he believed that there is no excuse to wrong someone, even a wrongdoer, and since the wrongdoer is harmed more than his victim, to turn the other cheek becomes, for Socrates, a basic element of a just life. Jesus might indeed also turn his other cheek, but he had come to Earth not to bring peace, but a sword[1], let alone the promise of hell. And if his rejection of reciprocity sounds like the peace loving messages of Christianity, the difference is that Socrates searched for a fully evolved and worthy life in this world and not after his death.

Besides, Socrates’ “do not reply injustice with injustice” is centuries away from the command to “love your enemy”[2]. Socrates’ exhortation concerns the behavior, ensues from reason and has a practical result in the life of the individual and in society. Jesus’ command concerns emotion, ensues from an impulsive will and promises benefits in the next life. And if we accept this divine command, we would have to say that the bigger the crime of a wrongdoer is, the more we must love him. But how could someone be commanded to feel one way or another? Jesus’ claim is as much irrational as it is impossible to follow. No one can convince himself to alter his emotional part of his soul (“θυμικό”), but only, at best, to suppress it. Meaning, one would hate his enemy but act as if he didn’t. But this is not love (or virtue), this is hypocrisy.

Εγγονόπουλος – Σωκράτης και Πλάτων
Eggonopoulos – Socrates and Plato (photo)

In Matthew 22:39 we read: “…Love your neighbor as yourself”. The ‘as yourself’ part makes the command absolutely impossible, and condemns the believer to perpetual guilt and failure. No one can love anyone literally as himself, and this divine command to love is not limited to one’s children or spouse, but extends to all of humanity. Therefore, the believer can only compromise and never follow the command truly faithfully; only as make-believe. Make-believe, of course, only to men; you can’t fool god. But the command doesn’t settle for conciliations: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

And not a word about forgiveness from Socrates –nor about vicarious redemption. He will not hold a grudge nor will he ever take revenge. Even when he allows a punishment for the unjust, he only aims at their soul’s improvement. Because if someone wants to be called good he must only do good things, and extend goodness as much as he can. But forgiveness seems impossible. As Christopher Hitchens argued, one could pay the debts of his friend; he could take his place in prison or a torture chamber; he could even die in his place if he chose to. What he could not do is absolve him of his sins. But forgiveness and, mostly, vicarious redemption through the sacrifice of a scapegoat, are refusals of responsibility, and therefore absurd. For a free man, his responsibilities belong to him, and burden him, completely.

Nevertheless, the apparent similarities of the two figures are many, and they were exploited by Jesus’ followers: An enigmatic figure in his times (today also in a sense, since he didn’t write anything himself), annoyed the rulers and reproached every kind of injustice and abuse of power, believing he spoke in the name of a higher power. He was accused that he denied the religion of his community and introduced a new one, corrupting the youth. Extremely capable in the art of conversation, indifferent of material goods, he was only concerned with higher things. His peers turned against him along with the rulers, the powerful and the rich, who executed him as a blasphemer, and even though he could escape execution by asking for forgiveness and repentance, he chose not to betray his principles and his cause. In the end, he died as he lived, not harming anyone. All of the above can be attributed both to Socrates and to Jesus, but it is more that separate the two than unite them.

Johann Friedrich Greuter – Ο Σωκράτης και οι Μαθητές του (17ος αιώνας)
Johann Friedrich Greuter – Socrates and his students (17th century) (photo)

It has been said that perhaps there was never such a person as Socrates (as a historical figure) or that the figure we find in Plato’s work was completely made up by him as a literary trick to promote his own ideas. This (even though it doesn’t stand to criticism) has no bearing on the texts, as his ideas do not depend on the person expressing them. Ideas are ideas; it remains for logical examination to judge their value (“We must not examine who said it, but whether it is true or not”). There are no authority figures in philosophy, like there are none in science. The philosopher has to convince with reason, as the scientist with evidence. If the arguments suffice, the reader should not care whether he reads Plato or a taxi driver.

The same has been said of the historicity of Jesus; that he never existed but was an invention of the writers of the Gospels, or at least that he was not the son of god but only a mere human; that he was only Jesus and not Christ. In case this is correct, though, his teaching fall short to scrutiny, in contrast to Socrates’. It matters that what Jesus, or any other religious figure, says comes from the mind of god or by divine inspiration. Commands like “give up your families, your friends, your fortunes and professions and follow me”[3] become immoral without the quid pro quo of the entrance in heaven. Because if there indeed is a heaven and if indeed the way to get in is this, then putting our families aside and abandoning them is a trivial sacrifice when the alternative is eternity in hell. But, what could be more immoral than a mere human detaching someone from all that he holds dear, from his family, his friends and the thought of his (earthly) future, to gamble everything on one roll of the dice, when the promise of heavenly eudaimonia is false?

The dying words of Jesus reveal a grievance: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” –and then a “loud voice”[4]. Socrates’ last words in the trial were, addressing the judges: “But now it is time to go, I to die and you to live. Which of us goes to a better place, nobody knows but god.” And later, in his cell, he bids farewell to his friend like this: “Let’s leave all these, Crito, and let’s do what I propose, because god asks us to do it”. Socrates has done his duty as he saw fit and lets himself be led wherever the road he chose ends. Before he dies, and after he laughs joyfully at his friends who are sad about the execution of their teacher (another thing in which they differed was that Socrates had a sense of humor – Jesus never laughs), he asks Crito to sacrifice on his behalf a rooster for Asclepius, the god of Medicine. He owes it to him, since the escape of the soul from the body, precipitated by the hemlock, constitutes a cure; not a catastrophe.

[1] Matthew 10:34: “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”

[2] Matthew 5:44 & Luke 6:27-36

[3] Matthew 19:29: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life”. Matthew 8:22: “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead”. Luke 14:26: “”If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple”.

[4] Only if we believe Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34). The Lord’s last words did not escape the inconsistency of the biblical narration. In the other Testaments we read: Luke 23:46: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”. And John 19:30: “It is finished”.

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