Come down with me from the beautiful heights of the Acropolis, and walk with me in the dust and the bustle of the agora. It is in the late years of the fourth century BC, and the temple of Hephaistos dominates the scene, just as it will do for over two thousand years. There is the stoa of Zeus with its fine columns and comforting shade. The mint, the Fountain House and the law courts, backed by the prison, are on the south side. And in the south stoa there is a little group of people just discussing.
The whole agora is busy; it is the public centre of Athens. People walk to and fro on their way to their business. Produce is sold. A juggler entertains a few bystanders. Under the porticos other groups are standing, some of them arguing energetically.
But we turn back to the south stoa because we recognise one of the men in the group. He is about 40, pudgy – nothing to look at. We know about him because he is mocked as a character in that splendid comedy by Aristophanes we went to see last week. What a card! He is one of those airy philosophers who’ll leave you knowing less than you did when you started.
And we don’t realise that this is history in the making: that pudgy man will change the thinking of the world, and he will die for it – convicted in the court a few yards from him as he speaks.
What was so dramatically new about this man? His method of teaching was radical because he did not claim to know the answers. All he could do was to ask the questions and then show the inadequacy of the answers. So his disputants got closer to the truth even if they did not quite reach it.
But his approach to philosophy was dramatically different from the academic philosophy of the time. His predecessors were concerned with lofty and academic questions like the nature of the common substance of the world or the configuration of the heavens. The pudgy man kept his eyes lower. The only philosophic question which mattered was: how should I live my life?
For Socrates, the body, and all material things, were secondary. What mattered was the condition of the soul. Our task was to “flourish”. The Greek word is eudaimonia, the good daemon which enables us to be fulfilled and content as human beings.
The route to flourishing was, quite simply, the development of virtue. Not that discussing a virtue with Socrates was always an enlightening experience. One was less likely to get from him a clear definition than to be left sitting in the wreck of one’s misconceptions, and having to start again. We may have to wait for rescue by his pupil Aristotle who will spell out the cardinal virtues in his Nicomachean Ethics.
Virtue was not to be sought, at least primarily, for the benefit of others but for the benefit of the soul. For example, to eschew the Greek tradition of revenge on one’s enemies, was not so much to benefit those enemies as to avoid damaging the one thing which mattered – our own souls.
At this point we may think that Socrates loses himself for he claims that the only reason why we do wrong is because of ignorance. With full knowledge we would never sin. But this goes against all our experience, there are all too many occasions when we know what we should do but fail to do it.
But there is a way of understanding Socrates here. It is suggested by the word for sin in both the Greek and the Hebrew scriptures: it means ‘to miss the mark’. And that suggests a mistake, albeit often a wilful one. We simply got it wrong.
We must remember that we arrive at this knowledge through the development of virtue. Those who champion virtue ethics argue that the higher our degree of virtue the more clearly we see what love demands, and so are drawn to embrace it. Knowledge is not merely intellectual, it is something which we grasp with our whole being, and on which we put the right emphasis. It follows that, when we know moral good and understand its importance, it becomes the good we must follow just as we are obliged to worship the goodness of God when we see it in the light of glory.
Few of us reach this depth of knowledge but it seems that Socrates may have done. His contemporaries recognised that he lived his life according to his principles, and with a remarkable strength of will. And so he died, unjustly accused, but determined to uphold the rule of Athenian law.
From time to time we hear of those who refer to Christ and Socrates as though they were on the same plane. And this is understandable although those who hold this opinion often appear to know little about either. But I bear in mind that the Pope at Regensburg spoke warmly of Socrates’ determination to ask the fundamental questions. And I recall his remark in 1991, that “Socrates, the pagan, could become in a certain respect the prophet of Jesus Christ”.
Such a view gives Socrates a place in the history of salvation, not as a perfect human being – for he was not that, but as an early forerunner who prepared the world for a message yet to come.