The Philosophers (Part 4): Socrates

We continue The Philosophers series. Last week we saw the profound influence Plato had on Paul.

Paul used Plato’s Theory of Forms to explain the relationship between the visible and invisible realms. But that’s not all Paul took from Plato. Sometimes he used his words directly, plus other ideas. Look at the following examples:

  • Paul: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run their very best to win, but only one receives the prize?” 1 Corinthians 9:24.
  • Plato: “But such as are true racers, arriving at the end, both receive the prizes and are crowned.”
  • Paul: “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” Romans 7:22-23.
  • Plato: “There is a victory and defeat – the first and best of victories, the lowest and worst of defeats – which        each man gains or sustains at the hands not of another, but of himself; this shows that there is a war against  ourselves – going on in every individual of us.”
  • Paul: “For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. Romans 8:6-7.
  • Plato in Phaedo: “…to be carnally-minded was death.”
  • Paul: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21.
  • Plato: “Now if death is like this, I say that to die is gain.”
  • Paul: “I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. To be with Christ, which is far better.” 2 Timothy 4:6.
  • Plato: “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways, I to die and you to live. Which is better God only knows.”
  • Paul: “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.” 1 Corinthians 13:12.
  • Plato: “I am very far from admitting that he who contemplates existences through the medium of thought, sees them only ‘through a glass, darkly,’ anymore than he who sees them in their working effects.”
  • Paul: “See that none render evil for evil unto any man.” 1 Thessalonians 5:15.
  • Plato: “Then we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him.”

But Plato was not the only philosopher Paul quoted. He also quoted Socrates – a very short and ugly man with a snub nose and a paunch. Socrates was always dressed in shabby clothes which he hardly washed, and he went barefoot everywhere. But he’s one of the most profound influences in philosophy. He was actually Plato’s teacher.

When Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 8:2, “And if any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know,” he was referencing Socrates – “For my part, as I went away, I reasoned with regard to myself: “I am wiser than this human being. For probably neither of us knows anything noble and good but he supposes he knows something when he does not know, while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do. I am likely to be a little bit wiser than he in this very thing: that whatever I do not know, I do not even suppose I know.” There’s another reference in Romans 12:4: “For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office.” This is what Socrates said: “To begin with, our several natures are not all alike but different. One man is naturally fitted for one task, and another for another.”

We find another reference in 1 Corinthians 12:14-17 where Paul explained that “a body is not one single organ, but many… Suppose the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, it does still belong to the body. If the body were all eye, how could it hear? If the body were all ear, how could it smell? But, in fact, God appointed each limb and organ to its own place in the body, as he chose.” Socrates had asked Protagoras, “Is virtue a single whole, and are justice and self-control and holiness parts of it?… As the parts of a face are parts – mouth, nose, eyes and ears.” Socrates probes further into the metaphor by asking Protagoras, “If they agree that each part serves a different purpose, just as the features of a face do, and the parts make the whole, but each serves a different purpose– ‘the eye is not like the ear nor has it the same function.’”

Also in 1 Corinthians 12:25-26 Paul had written: “That there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care one for another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or one member is honoured, all the members rejoice with it.” Socrates says “that the best-governed city is one whose state is most like that of an individual man. For example, if the finger of one of us is wounded, the entire community of bodily connections stretching to the soul for ‘integration’ with the dominant part is made aware, and all of it feels the pain as a whole.”

You can see Paul drawing references and inferences from different cultural sources. The guy was learned. Don’t forget he dictated his letters! The man had prodigious memory. But you understand the words of Paul better reading the Platonic and Socratic references. The meaning is clearer.

Socrates’ thoughts were so powerful he was accused of corrupting the minds of young Athenians and sentenced to death. The actual charge read, “Socrates does criminal wrong by not recognising the gods that the city recognises, and furthermore by introducing new divinities; and he also does criminal wrong by corrupting the youth.” Socrates had spoken of a new divine being, daimon. He often referred to what the Greeks referred to as “daemonic sign”, a kind of inner voice he heard when he was about to make a mistake. Some say he was talking about intuition. This “deity” was not licensed by the city and so Socrates ran foul of government. Though the charges against him were framed in religious terms, the truth is he died a victim of Athenian politics. He had been given the option of exile but he chose a fatal dose of hemlock instead. He believed a true philosopher should have no fear of death, and that it would be against his principles to break his social contract with the state by evading its justice. Socrates’ trial had a jury of 501. He lost by a narrow margin – just 30 votes. He died 399 BC at the age of 70.

The strange thing about Socrates though is that he wrote no book, established no school, held no particular theories of his own. Yet he is regarded as one of the founders of Western philosophy. He evolved a new way of thinking – the dialectical or Socratic method or “elenchus.” We’ll probably call it cross examination today. It’s called dialectical because it proceeds as dialogue of opposing views. It would later become the foundation of all empirical sciences. It starts with an hypothesis – the first stage towards a proof. But it draws out knowledge by pursuing a series of questions and examining the implications of the answers. Socrates questioned people’s unwarranted confidence in the truth of popular opinions. His central concern was examination of life, but he used ruthless questioning. By the way, it was Socrates who came up with the famous maxim, “The life which is unexamined is not worth living.”

Socrates didn’t believe in moral relativism. He insisted virtues were absolutes. (Christianity insists on this too). He also held that ignorance was evil and that knowledge was good. He believed in the immortality of the soul, was convinced he was singled out as a divine emissary to persuade Athenians about moral values. Instead of being concerned about mundane stuff Socrates felt Athenians should be worried about “welfare of their souls.”

As noted above Paul dictated his letters. Remember he wasn’t writing a “Bible,” he was just writing letters. It’s why he quoted liberally from philosophers, the same way we’d do if we were writing an essay. The difference though is that the intelligence and the structure of the letters were inspired by God’s Spirit. It’s why the truth of those letters can raise the dead. The difference is inspiration.

Those letters were essentially essays. He dictated his letters to scribes or amanuensis. One of them was a guy called Tertius. Tertius would add his own flourish at the end of each letter – “I Tertius who wrote this epistle, salute you in the Lord.” Romans 16:22. Paul would write the final greeting himself – “I, Paul, write this final greeting with my own hand.” 1 Corinthians 16:22, Colossians 4:18. For brand authenticity he would write what we call “the grace” – “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” 2 Thessalonians 3:17. When making a personal pledge he will write the commitment with his own hand. He wrote to Philemon: “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.” Philemon 19. In Galatians 6:11 he let us in on his handwriting: “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!”

However you dice and cut it up you’ve got to be impressed by the intellect of Paul. He was quoting those philosophers off the top of his head. He knew those texts by memory. They didn’t have Google in those days. Even if we insist the Holy Spirit made that possible it’s still impressive. The Holy Spirit can’t remind you of what wasn’t there. Jesus said the Holy Spirit will “remind you of everything I have said to you.” John 14:26. The data must be existent. The Spirit works with available data.

The reason we don’t feel challenged by the acts of the apostles is because we don’t see them as humans. We view them as special beings, the called ones; we bracketise them as rare species. Yet they were human. They had fears, had their doubts, quarrelled with each other, were sometimes petty, even childish, were discriminatory, nepotistic, hypocritical, boastful, forward, angry, quarrelsome, competitive, territorial. The apostles were fully loaded humans. Despite that they accomplished tremendous stuff for God. Our humanity shouldn’t be a barrier to accomplishing great things for God. Focus on the mission.

Clearly God is not against intellectualism. If he were he wouldn’t have allowed Paul to quote those philosophers knowing that someday those quotes will end up in the Bible. Faith is not unintelligent. Paul essentially threw a challenge to those who consider themselves intellectuals, those who consider themselves smart. If an intellectual like Paul could serve God why not you?

Christian theology is so sophisticated it is an intellectual’s playground. Intellect should not detract from faith, intellect synthesises with faith. Paul offers us a model of rational synthesis.

Are you intelligent enough to believe in God? Are you intelligent enough to intellectualise with the Holy Spirit? Can you resource the Bible?

If you’ll like to take up Paul’s challenge please pray this prayer: “Father I acknowledge that I am a sinner, that Jesus died for me, that you raised him from the dead. Father please forgive me. I accept Jesus today as my Lord and my Saviour. Amen.”

The Philosophers series continues next week.

© Leke Alder |

The Holy Spirit can’t remind you of what wasn’t there. Jesus said the Holy Spirit will “remind you of everything I have said to you.” John 14:26. The data must be existent. The Spirit works with available data. Click To Tweet Intellect should not detract from faith, intellect synthesises with faith. Click To Tweet Faith is not unintelligent. Click To Tweet