The wisest of them all

When Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, spoke to his fellow bishops on the subject of conscience and law 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 which 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 like 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 him. 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.

Until then, Greek philosophy had been primarily concerned with the nature of the cosmos: the material world. Socrates’ 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, knowledge of the 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 uses the word ‘maieutic’ for this approach; it appropriately relates to midwifery.

His 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 he could be easily made a figure of fun. Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds was, and remains, popular. The general, 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’ pupils were often the young aristocrats – who were seen as potential enemies of the state. Amongst them, unfortunately, was Alcibiades who was to desert Athens for Sparta. Socrates was accused of corrupting youth, and it was this which led to his trial and execution. He might have escaped execution through bribery but, arguing with his friend Crito, he provides a classic apologia for the implicit contract between the citizen and the state, to which he must defer. He is true to his principles and he drinks his hemlock.

If you have a spare lifetime you might consider one problem he 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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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The wisest of them all

  1. Geordie says:

    God is good personified. He is good. He doesn’t define it arbitrarily. What is god-like is good. What is good is god-like. You can’t separate the two. Our Lord said only God is good. Eventually He will make us good if we want it.

  2. Brendan says:

    My thanks to Quentin for a brief synopsis of the life and times of Socrates – of which I am not wholly conversant – and the Greek philosophical tradition to which Christianity is indebted. I leave to others more scholarly than I to debate that debt.
    ” The prophet of Jesus Christ…” arising from this considerations then; it would seem appropriate to lay that epithet at the feet of Socrates with his ” pioneering contribution .” I recall Saint Paul ( Acts 17 ) , steeped as he was in the Graeco-Roman tradition when confronted with the bewildering amount of deities in Athens , and led to the Areopagus ; met the intellectual elite of their day with enough ‘open-mindedness’ by them to leave , among’st their many shrines to the ‘ gods ‘ ..” an altar inscribed :To an Unknown God .” ( NJBible ) – surely displaying themselves as heirs to a Socratic tradition.
    By virtue of this experiential openness to knowledge ; this paved the way for Paul to ‘ fill in the blanks ‘ for ‘knowledge ‘ of this Unknown God as none other than the Christ ..” the man he [ God ] has appointed ”..( Acts 17:31 ) – and thus laying the seeds for the better understanding of God in what is known today as Christology.

  3. Brendan says:

    I must add in passing, on Emeritus Pope Benedict ; this desideratum in man to ..” question, challenge and explore .” in order to ..” develop our understanding ..” I found in Benedict a quintessential exponent of this practice. – particularly in his ” Jesus of Nazareth ” trilogy, which at the time uplifted me to another spiritual level .
    Erudite as he is , I can imagine somewhere along the line he gave a nod to Socrates in its formation!

    • St.Joseph says:

      Is it important when reading this post, what Jesus meant when he called the children to Himself and told His Apostle’s ‘Unless you become like little children you can not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven’
      Are we to understand that as saying ‘it is better to be innocent than too clever’!

  4. G.D. says:

    Couldn’t agree more with the contents of this post. So much so i haven’t much to say.
    One thing did sprang to mind ….
    Hasn’t it always been the same persecution for those who try to embrace ‘more of the truth’ always? Has not this type of prophetic voice seeking truth, without claiming to definitively ‘know’ what it actually is, always been persecuted?

    When an individual steps outside the accepted ‘politic’ or ‘theology’ of the ‘group’ ideals (the rational conclusions) they are suspect at best, and condemned at worst.

    Ones who don’t give concrete formulas, or a set of rules, threaten those who need to proselytise their concepts as the only ‘way to be right’.
    Unfortunately, the proselytisers are usually highly intelligent ( intellectually if not otherwise!) charismatic individuals who convince (others) that they are ‘right’ in the persecution.
    And those who need to embrace such ‘intellectual boundaries’ (nothing wrong in itself) feel threatened and join the persecution.

    I believe this is the voice of perennial universal truth and morality embracing all of creation. Far above and beyond all fundamental intellectual boundaries of any ‘group think’.
    Perpetuated by Truth & Goodness. In essence God.

    The Absolute Truth is always more than we can claim to ‘know’ objectively.
    Eternity would get very boring if it wasn’t!

    Subjective ‘knowing’ might be a very different case?

    • Quentin says:

      Interestingly Socrates had his own daemon (spirit) with whom he communicated. Perhaps this was his understanding of the CCC’s phrase “When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.”

      • G.D. says:

        I envy Socrates in that! If only i could actually hear the ‘spirit’ – would save a lot of confused soul searching for what the Spirit is trying to get through to me.
        My conscience is much too ‘deafened’ for such!

      • Quentin says:

        You might be hearing the spirit without recognising the source. All I can contribute here is that when I deliberately pray to the Holy Spirit I get better and more credible answers than when I don’t. It can be very inconvenient sometimes!

  5. G.D. says:

    Of course i only conjecture ……

  6. John Nolan says:

    It used to be said that one of the benefits of a classical education was that it teaches that morality and ethics did not begin with Christianity.

  7. Martha says:

    We were taught at school in terms of the good in ancient teachings foreshadowing Christianity.

  8. Brendan says:

    St.Joseph – ” Unless you become like little children…” and ..”better to be innocent than too clever.”
    I would say that to ..” enter the KIngdom of Heaven..” – the hoped-for destiny of humankind , one can be both ‘ innocent and ‘ clever.’ …. but not ‘ clever ‘ AND ‘ un-innocent ‘. To me, Our Lord was using the word in reference to childlike innocence ; in that the stage of childhood being a ‘ blank sheet ‘ , most open to the a message ( The Gospel ) , with little or no preconceived ideas . It is to this innocent prepared ‘ vessel ‘ then , that God fills to brim ….and overflowing …” the message of Eternal Life.”
    The hoped for canonisation of two young visionaries of Fatima next May is a perfect example !
    A child is one thing , but adults ,’ grown old in the world ‘ ? The answer ..virtuous humility.
    From the lips of Christ ..” I bless you Father, Lord of heaven and earth for hiding these things from the learned and the wise [ the puffed-up members of the Pharisaic group ] and revealing them to little children .” Matt.11:25-27(NJB)
    It’s plain that God uses all people of religion and none at His own given time – the Old Testament as example – to prescient future events in the History of salvation. It would seem then , that such a ‘ prophet ‘ may have been Socrates , a ‘ wise ‘ pagan ; his ‘ wisdom ‘ predicated on a ‘ humble ‘ acceptance that he..’ knew the extent of his own ignorance ‘.
    I can say no more of Socrates. ; but this prescient knowledge of his had great implications for later Christianity and our understanding of the One True God. Strange as it may seem to us today , it seems there was no need for him to put anything in writing !

  9. Martha says:

    The gospel this morning was the story of the woman taken in adultery which contains the only recorded instance of Christ writing anything Himself.

  10. G.D. says:

    Another aspect of ‘becoming like little children’ is re-gaining the ‘childlike trust’ children have in the parent to be ‘right/good’, and so, re-learning how to trust God Our Father like that, after loosing it when we become ‘clever’ ‘un-innocent’ and full of our own importance.

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