Who was Socrates? Socrates was the son of a sculptor and midwife (469-399 B.C.) who grew up to be an Athenian soldier and philosopher. He was known for his stoic patience in hardship. “Having the fewest wants, I am nearest to the gods,” was the way he explained it. One day a friend found Socrates at the market staring in apparent awe at a display. Aware of Socrates reputation for austerity, the man chided him for spending so much time at the market, yet never buying much. “I am always amazed to see how many things there are that I don’t need,” replied Socrates. Socrates taught that ignorance rather than sin lay at the heart of the human problem. “There is only one good, knowledge,” he said, “and one evil, ignorance.” He possessed an uncanny knack for using question techniques to expose hypocrisy and error. This earned him the enmity of many in Athens. It was these enemies that condemned him to death for corrupting the morals of Athenian youth. His wife visited him in prison protesting that “the condemnation is unjust.” “Would you prefer it to be just?” replied the sage.
Historical context. Not much is known of Socrates apart from Plato’s description of his trial and execution. Athens loss to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) led to takeover by the Thirty Tyrants. A short time later political unrest restored the democracy. Socrates was accused of corrupting education and rejecting the gods of the state. This resulted in a death sentence. Some, such as Aristophanes, accused him of misusing rhetoric to defend falsehoods for personal gain. Socrates chose to die a martyr for his cause. Socrates refused a lesser sentence such as exile. He even rejected an offer to escape which the council would no doubt have winked at.
Summary of Socrates’ teaching. Socrates is best known and oft praised for his teaching method. But, inherent in that method is a view of man and knowledge at war with the Bible. Socrates perfected the dialectic (questioning) method of instruction. This is based on the mind’s habit of challenging and interacting with facts it encounters. Feigning ignorance, Socrates would “draw out” the truth he presumed to lie within the heart of every man. He did this through a series of questions. Thus, to Socrates man was good at heart. He was simply ignorant of that fact or he could not act on his inner truth until it was revealed to him by the dialectic.
Socrates was critical of the fact that some elected leaders are unqualified because their choice is based on surface appeal. Moreover, he found fault in the Democratic requirement that equal weight be given to the opinions of all regardless of their endowments (egalitarianism). Democracy means rule of (cracy) the people (demos), as opposed to rule of (cracy) God (Theos). Theocracy is not to be confused with ecclesiocracy, which means rule (cracy) of the church (ecclesia).
Implications for subsequent history. For most of church history Christians have applied the apologetic method of Socrates to their defense of the Bible. This has had very bad results. They have modeled their defense of the faith at least in part after Socrates failed defense before the Council. Socrates began with factual and logical appeals to the autonomous mind of man (rationalism). He ended ignoring the gods with a subjective appeal to a daemon, or “inner voice” (irrationalism). Socrates has also been the guiding light for later humanists. A well-known example is the Stoic Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism teaches that moral virtue is gained by rigid self-control of appetites and feelings.
Sadly, Socrates’ critique of Greek egalitarianism has been ignored. A flood of demagoguery has deluged the West as the result. Egalitarianism insists that equal privilege and economic outcome be enforced by law regardless of differences in ability. It perverts the principle of equal justice before the law for all men.
Biblical analysis. It is doubtless true that the best learning occurs when the student is absorbed in the joy of discovery. That involves questioning, probing, exploring, analyzing. “Teaching is not telling,” as some have put it. Jesus often used questions in his teaching method. But He did not hesitate to speak authoritatively in lecture or sermon.
For Socrates the human mind is autonomous, unrestrained by any external standard. He believed the mind is capable of sitting in judgment on all external standards, including the Bible. However, the prophet Jeremiah declared “I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.” (Jer. 10:23)
Corrective or prescriptive actions. The question techniques of Socrates’ dialectic method can be effective.
But final appeal must be to the Word of God rather than the independent mind of man. Socratic autonomy must be removed from our defense of the faith. Socrates’ criticism of direct Democracy deserves renewed attention. Egalitarian Democracy should always be rejected in favor of the Bible’s republican orientation.