Socrates or Jesus?

John Darrouzet - Jesus and Socrates




In his book, Socrates: A Man for Our Times, the author Paul Johnson suggests that getting to know Socrates better might help us through our current struggles.



While I agree with the suggestion of getting to know him better, I also sense that getting to know Socrates may better help us understand Aquinas and in turn better understand Jesus and thus better be able to take our Catholic stands with him.

Like Jesus, Socrates is mainly known by the writings of others, primarily Plato, especially in his collected dialogues. So, to get to Socrates so we can get a better grip on our understanding of Jesus, it looks like a brief outline of a journey through Plato’s writings may help.

In keeping with my writings elsewhere on this blog, I have taken Plato’s writings out on their ordinary order of presentation so that I may show how a student of Plato may see that Plato’s writings fit well into the hero’s journey we have been discussing in relation to finding faith at the movies. This is so because Plato was indeed, as John Herman Randall, Jr. says the “Dramatist of Reason.” In many ways, when you read the dialogues, you can imagine how they might be portrayed in movies.

  1. Ordinary World: Creation – Timaeus [text]; Atlantis – Critias [text]; and Athens – Menexenus [text].
  2. Call to Adventure: Teaching – Protagoras [text]; and Virtue – Meno [text].
  3. Role of reluctance: Origin of language – Cratylus [text]; and Use of language –Euthydemus [text]
  4. Encountering Wise Ones: Love of Discussion – Phaedrus [text]; and Courage – Laches [text]
  5. First Threshold: One or Many – Parmenides [text]; and Knowledge – Theaetetus [text]
  6. Tests and Helpers: Greater good – Philebus [text]; and Sophistry – Sophist [text]
  7. Inner Sanctum: Right Makes Might v. Might Makes Right  – Gorgias [text]; and Statesmanship – Statesman [text]
  8. Supreme Ordeal: Human Laws – Laws [text]; and Justice – The Republic [text]
  9. Seizing the Sword: Friendship – Lysis [text]
  10. The Road Back: Lying – Hippias Minor [text]; “Divine Madness” – Ion [text]; Temperance – Charmides [text]
  11. Death and Resurrection: Piety – Euthyphro [text]; and Beauty – Hippias Major [text]
  12. The Elixir: Defense – Apology [text]; Injustice – Crito [text]; Immortality –Phaedo [text]; Discussion of Love – Symposium [text]

As Gregory Vlastos writes, Plato shows Socrates to be the “Ironist and Moral Philosopher” and, thus, there is always a certain degree of detachment present in the dialogues when Socrates is the main character. While Plato and Socrates lived in the space described in the Timaeus and Critias, both were aware of their times, the history of Athens, and their detached view of it. See Menexenus.

Is this kind of ironic detachment what Paul Johnson is recommending for our times?

Do we want to be ironically detached like Socrates and teach others to be ironists or do we want to be passionately committed like Jesus to do what God wants us to do and educate others to be followers of Jesus?

Plato, following Socrates, was clearly interested in whether people could be taught the deeper things in life. See Protagoras and Meno. But they understood just as deeply the way in which language works and its limitations. See Cratylus and Euthydemus. They well understood the wonder of discussion and the courage to continue communicating, even with the most impossible people. See Phaedrus and Laches.

While these first four stages of the hero’s journey are reasonable enough for us moderns to read and understand, when we step through the first threshold and reach the Parmenides and the Theaetetus dialogues, we may well be baffled and stand up straight with a blow to our minds.

In the Parmenides, Plato has Socrates converse with the person after whom the dialogue is named. Here’s an image of him:




In Parmenides, Socrates is taken by Parmenides through a series of questions that all seem to turn back on themselves. They deal with whether “being” is one or many. You may want to think of this as the philosopher’s attempt to deal with whether reality or god is one or whether there are many realities and thus many gods. Some of us in our modern era who are flirting with parallel universes or outright multi-verses may want to read this dialogue carefully.

In Constance Meinwald’s book Plato’s Parmenides, she makes a persuasive argument that the structure of the dialogue reflects a way of analysis that was prevalent at the time. In effect, it would be like our eight characters (father, youngest daughter, oldest daughter, middle daughter, middle son, oldest son, youngest son, and mother) taking on the issue one-or-many, one-by-one, with Socrates and leaving him and us unsatisfied that we have convincing answers to whether being is one or many. For example, here are the eight hypotheticals:

1. Our mother character might ask: “On the hypothesis of the being of The Many, what follows for The Many in relation to themselves?” We might imagine Socrates trying to answer, only to be hit with the next spoke in the related questions.

2. Our youngest son character might next ask: “On the hypothesis of the being of The Many, what follows for The Many in relation to The One?” Again we might imagine Socrates trying to answer, only to be hit with the next spoke in the related questions.

3. Our oldest son character might next ask: “On the hypothesis of the being of The Many, what follows for The One in relation to itself?” Again we might imagine Socrates trying to answer, only to be hit with the next spoke in the related questions.

4. Our middle son character might next ask: “On the hypothesis of the being of The Many, what follows for The One in relation to The Many?” Again we might imagine Socrates trying to answer, only to be hit with opposite series of spoke in related questions.

5. Our middle daughter character might next ask: “On the hypothesis of the nonbeing of The Many, what follows for The One in relation to itself?” This beginning of a line of opposite questions may be a first clue into the Eastern nature of this starting point where “The Many” is regarded as fictitious, as compared to the Western starting point in the prior questions. Nevertheless, again we might imagine Socrates trying to answer, only to be hit with another spoke in related questions.

6. Our oldest daughter character might next ask: “On the hypothesis of the nonbeing of The Many, what follows for The One in relation to The Many?” Again we might imagine Socrates trying to answer, only to be hit with another spoke in related questions.

7. Our youngest daughter character might next ask: “On the hypothesis of the nonbeing of The Many, what follows for The Many in relation to themselves?” Again we might imagine Socrates trying to answer, only to be hit with another spoke in related questions.

8. Our father character might finally ask: “On the hypothesis of the nonbeing of The Many, what follows for The Many in relation to The One?

The argumentation seems to take us up and down in a circle, like the image below:


A solution to getting out of this seeming quagmire, while noticed in the Parmenides, is more fully explored in Plato’s Theaetetus. In that dialogue, Socrates explores various theories of epistemology and helps us see that none of the ones being suggested at that time are sufficient to help us know what we mean by “knowing” anything. Thus the circular way of reasoning of the Parmenides is met with the dead-end acknowledgement of the Theaetetus.

Given these explorations, I sense the recognition of the split between the Eastern and Western ways to knowledge and wisdom. What Socrates seems to have taught Plato is that while hypothetical reasoning is useful, it becomes dialectical only when we understand the prior starting point, i.e. our ignorance. In this sense, there is a great similarity between the Socratic approach and the approach of Siddhartha Gautama who became known as the Buddha, except that Socrates admitted to relying on his daemon when he got in a jam.

To bolster the Socratic approach, we have in the Western principles of identity (sameness and other) and non-contradiction (a being cannot be and not be at the same time in the same respect).

While many, if not most, see Socrates as being an ironist who feigns ignorance, and thus is a suspicious character for some, he is better seen as one who argues for the greater good (Philebus) as opposed to those who are out for themselves like the Sophists (Sophist).

This critical difference is dramatically presented in my favorite of the Platonic dialogues: Gorgias. There Socrates, the philosopher, takes on Gorgias, one of the great Rhetoricians (politicians) of the day in the house of a wealthy businessman, Callicles. By the end of the dialogue you can sense that Socrates’ days are numbered. Of all the dialogues, I would recommend reading this one especially.

Plato, I believe, saw Socrates as the real Statesman, who had he been allowed to live, would have made an excellent philosopher-king. But with the death of Socrates, Plato faced the problems of the state by discussing human laws (Laws) and what human justice (The Republic) might really mean. For us living in the era of democracy, Plato’s approaches are not what most would consider ideal. Plato’s view was not egalitarian. While equals might be treated equally, unequals were expected to be treated unequally but justly as well.

While this latter view may be offensive to some of our sensibilities, the sword to be seized that helps rectify such a view is the way we understand friendship and give ourselves to our friends. Plato’s dialogue called Lysis treats of friendship and clearly encourages us to be friendly. He acknowledges the dark side of friendship and the problem of lying (betrayal) in his dialogue called Hippias Minor. And he understands how some who are friends, poets and the spiritual people of his day, were gifted with “divine madness,” that was not subject to philosophical knowledge. See Ion. Plato and Socrates seem nevertheless to have encouraged temperance (Charmides), though it is clear from the Gorgias that the temperance of Socrates was sometimes tested to the point of his losing it and showing his temper.


In I. F. Stone’s book, The Trial of Socrates, this modern investigative journalist took on the question of why Socrates was killed by his countrymen. His take was that Socrates was a tragic hero. Academicians were quick to respond (for example: Socrates on Trial), arguing that Socrates, though in his 70’s, had not lost it and presented sincere arguments in his trail.

Perhaps one does not need to judge which is correct, especially in light of Plato’s Euthyphro. This is the dialogue Plato writes about what Socrates did when he encountered a pious son on the way to court. Euthyphro wanted to lay manslaughter charges against his father, as his father had allowed one of his workers to die exposed to the elements without proper care and attention. Thus just before Socrates is supposed to be going to his own trial on impiety, we have Plato dramatizing a discussion of what piety really is. As one might expect, the dialogue results in our not knowing what piety is and thus sets up a reading of the trial of Socrates on charges of impiety with a essentially challenging perspective.

Those of us wanting to take a Catholic stand on the issues of our day may well want to read this dialogue.

But before we get to the elixir of our heroes’ journey with Plato and Socrates, there is one further dialogue to mention that sets up the resurrection part of the journey. This is Plato’s dialogue on beauty. Hippias Major. Those academicians who see Socrates as the philosopher par excellence are seeing, I believe, the beauty of Socrates in his defense, the dialogue called Apology.

Though his arguments do not win the day with the jury, Socrates must then go on to defend himself against his friends who only see the injustice of the result. See Crito. This second defense sets up Socrates’ discussion about immortality with not the end in mind, but a continuance: Phaedo.

So what kind of a philosopher was Socrates in the end? He was not a rhetorical magician like Parmenides or Gorgias. He was not a politician like Gorgias or the other Sophists. He was clearly a Statesman and has become over the ages a saint for many philosophers. Why a saint? His holiness is a form of wholeness that includes intellectual integrity, fearlessness in questioning those who want to claim to know things, relatedness to those who share the love of wisdom, and a willingness to listen to his daemon. His wholeness is best seen in his discussion of love that Plato described in his dialogue called Symposium.

As a suggestion of his admiration for the Socratic dialectical method, and jumping from ancient, classic philosophy to modern philosophy and philosophers, Dr. Peter Kreeft, takes up Plato’s use of Socrates for the purposes of philosophical discussion in a highly recommended series of books:

In Kreeft’s A Summa of the Summa, he helps us see how Saint Thomas Aquinas too used a form of the Socratic method to inquire about the topics of theology. With an issue posed, objections from a variety of sources are put forth before St. Thomas gave his own answer that was followed by further replies to the objections when needed. Moreover, in his text book on logic, Socratic Logic: A Logic Text using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles, Kreeft also uses Socrates as his philosophic guide. And in his recent Summa Philosophica, Kreeft again uses the Socratic-Aquinas way of working with philosophical issues.

In his book The Philosophy of Jesus, Kreeft helps us distinguish the way Jesus thought from that of even the best of the philosophers, emphasizing the Jewish roots of his world view.

In an earlier work, Socrates Meets Jesus: History\’s Greatest Questioner Confronts the Claims of Christ, Kreeft had Socrates deal with the claims of Jesus, though not Jesus himself.

In his book Jesus Shock, Kreeft takes his thinking even further to show how Jesus not only pursued a way like Socrates, the truth like Socrates, and the life like Socrates did, but how Jesus claimed and demonstrated how he is the way, the truth, and the life.

In Socrates Meets Kierkegaard: The Father of Philosophy Meets the Father of Christian Existentialism (yet to be published), Kreeft will hopefully be dealing with Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony: With Constant Reference to Socrates.

For in Kierkegaard’s book on irony, we find more clues to why the way of Socrates is not to be preferred over the way of Jesus.

If Socrates can seen as the archetypal, tragic personality and philosopher’s hero par excellence, Jesus can be seen, despite what he went through for us, as the prototypical, humor-filled person and human hero beyond compare.

It is not simply a matter of choice between Socrates (tragic) and Jesus (comedic). It is not just a matter of judgment based on their respective starting points in ignorance (Socrates) and faith (Jesus). To stop the suspense of judgment and no longer conduct one’s life as an ironist, one must make a decision at some critical turning point as to whether to follow Socrates or Jesus.

One need not wait for the arrival of Kreeft’s next book Socrates\’ Children: Ancient: The 100 Greatest Philosophers (not yet published) to see what the way of Socrates does. One only need to review the television series Seinfeld or read the book Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book about Everything and Nothing and see ironists at work today.

Until the decision of whether to follow Socrates or Jesus is made, it may well be that the individual is not fully aware of the power of Socratic irony and why Socrates may indeed have been killed by his countrymen: not for impiety against the gods, but for educating young people to be ironists themselves.

“The repose induced through irony can bring a certain love, the love whereby Socrates comprehended his disciples (Hamann calls it spiritual pederasty); but it is nevertheless egotistic because he stood for them as their deliverer expanding their anxious expressions and perspectives in his higher consciousness and comprehension…But the diameter of the ironist’s movement is not as great as that of the humorist (heaven – hell – the Christian must have despised all things). The highest polemical movement of the ironist is nil admirari.  Irony is egotistical, it combats Philistinism and yet it remains. It rises in the individual like a song bird, ascends into the air gradually casting off ballast until it runs the risk of ending in an “egotistical devil may care” – for irony has not yet killed itself by seeing itself, and this happens when the individual comes to see himself in the illumination of irony. Humor is lyrical (the deepest seriousness towards life, deep poesy which cannot fashion itself as such and therefore crystallizes itself under the most baroque forms. It is the golden Aare non fluens, the molimina of the higher life.”(- The Concept of Irony, page 411, footnote 42.)

© 2013. John Darrouzet. All Rights Reserved.

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6 thoughts on “Socrates or Jesus?”

  1. Pingback: HOW TO FIND FAITH AT THE MOVIES: Your Supreme Ordeal : Catholic Stand

  2. Pingback: Socrates or Jesus? | Catholic Defender Daily

  3. Sir: You should write a book based on this paper. You haven’t missed much, if anything at all. Complete and clearly spoken. Thank you.

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  5. Pingback: Socrates or Jesus? - CATHOLIC FEAST - Every day is a Celebration

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