Before he was elected pope, Joseph Ratzinger spoke of Socrates as “in a certain respect the prophet of Jesus Christ”. He saw him as a philosopher who was concerned with the fundamental questions of whether man alone sets standards for himself or whether we can be confident of man’s capacity for objective truth. Socrates never wrote down his conclusions because he never arrived at one: he could only move towards truth through critically challenging his own ignorance.
Socrates tells the story of how the Oracle of Delphi said that there was no man wiser than him. This seemed so unlikely that he felt it necessary to test it by discussions with politicians, savants and craftsmen. He found that they knew many things which, on examination, turned out to be untrue. He concluded that his wisdom lay, by contrast, in not thinking that he knew things when he did not.
The philosopher’s approach was maieutic. Instead of proclaiming his own views, he asked questions which enabled his friends to explore what they claimed and, in doing so, to discover their errors. But he must, I suspect, have been a rather trying conversationalist, always ready to challenge what he heard. For instance, one debate – about whether God loves the good because the good is lovable or the good is lovable because God loves it – involves around 170 exchanges and still ends inconclusively. At one point his interlocutor calls him a bully.
But his fundamental principle is straightforward: virtue is the necessary outcome of knowledge. If we fully understand how our behaviour contributes to the flourishing of mankind, then that is how we behave. To behave otherwise is the result of ignorance. Perhaps his best-known quote, “The unexamined life is not worth living”, sums him up. This is much more extensive than a simple examination of conscience; it requires us from time to time to face up to and confirm our deepest values, and judge how well we express them in the conduct of our lives. When was the last time we set aside an hour or two for deep self-examination?
He did not, I think, use the phrase “natural law”, but this has become the description of the behaviour we require for flourishing. It was later to be explicitly identified by the Greeks as the principle of Stoicism. Stoicism was adopted by the Romans and influenced Christianity in the development of natural law, which remains the basis for moral teaching to this day.
Natural law has by no means been popular with all philosophers. Take the 18th-century writer David Hume: “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning, concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Arguably, Hume was the patron saint of logical positivism. This held that the metaphysical questions addressed by traditional philosophy had no meaning since, by definition, they could not meet Hume’s criteria.
We have assumed in the past that natural laws do not change – after all, it was God who created human nature. But perhaps we should remember that He did so through the process of evolution over some 3.5 billion years, and it continues to evolve. For example, the modern habit of women to have children later in life will eventually increase the typical age of the menopause. Moreover, as we understand more and more about human nature through genetics and psychology, we are helped towards a deeper understanding of how we may flourish in modern circumstances. Socrates would have been the first to investigate aspects of existing moral law.
An interesting example is Fr Josef Fuchs, SJ. He was appointed to the official contraception commission as an expert, and an orthodox, moral theologian. But having discussed the matter with the representative female witnesses he concluded that, through marital experience, they understood aspects of the natural law unrealised by the ecclesiastics. But others might argue that the widespread use of artificial contraception has effectively separated sexual activity from fertilisation – and so from marriage, with consequences which may be far from human flourishing.
Socrates would have had little truck with moral rules presented to him by external authority: his emphasis was always on his individual grasp achieved through questioning and confirmation. The moral theologian Fr James F Keenan SJ records Fuchs saying to him: “You Americans are so emphatic with your judgments. You finish your statements with a period. I find a question mark much more effective.” Socrates would have agreed.