WHERE IT ALL BEGAN (Part VI)
BELIEFS SHARED BY GREAT MINDS
A truly inquiring mind is never really satisfied. For each layer of strata that is removed in the exploration of a subject, it uncovers a new layer of heretofore unassimilated information that only fires the imagination to search for more. When reading a new perspective on a somewhat familiar concept, it is best to read it all the way through before determining if you have such an inquisitive thought process, so you can congratulate yourself on being an above average believer seeking to improve their appreciation for what God has given us in His great plan of salvation.
One of the most famous and oft quoted of the Greek philosophers was a man named Socrates who lived from 469-399 B.C. It is accepted in most circles that Socrates laid the foundation for the development of modern Western philosophy. He is also known for inventing “pedagogy,” which is the science and art of education.
One of the first attributes we discover with Socrates that he shares with Jesus of Nazareth, is that neither one of them ever wrote anything philosophical or biographical. In the case of Socrates, whatever information we have about him is derived from the works of four scholars – Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, and Aristophanes. The same applies to Jesus of Nazareth. All all we know about Him came by way of four followers – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Because these writings about Jesus are called the “Gospels,” and those attributed to Socrates’ associates are what some consider to be artistic and creative, many have doubts as to whether the details contained therein are truth, anecdotal, or myths. However, mythology is enigmatic to say the lest. Since it cannot be proven wrong by facts, it therefore cannot be dismissed for lack of facts. By the same token, the information on Socrates cannot be proven by any historical evidence, and some question that he ever existed; that he may have been an imaginary character in his students’ writings as a mythical figure to explain their philosophy, yet in the literary world and university hallways he is accepted more readily than Jesus of Nazareth for whom there is much greater evidence available from sources other than the Gospels. All of this can be said about the proof for the existence of a man named Shakespeare. Yet his works are studied in universities around the world, while the story of Jesus is treated with far less respect.
Whatever the real facts in the case of Socrates, he is known primarily for his original ideas, his communication skills, and his astute teaching abilities. And like Jesus of Nazareth, who was born in the home of a carpenter, yet from the age of 12 until the age of 30 we know nothing about how He supported Himself or His studies. So with Socrates, we know little about what he did for a living, although in the Silloi of the Pyrrhonean Timon of Phlius, he tells us that Socrates took over his father’s stonemasonary trade. But he became most widely known for his teaching.
One of the hallmarks of the Socratic Method in pedagogy, is that the listener is challenged with questions until they find the answer in their own responses, and the core concepts are Righteousness and Justice. This Socratic Method was designed to challenge the student to examine their own beliefs to find their value in living. Jesus used this same method on the Pharisees and Sadducees of His day, hoping they would see the truth while looking for answers to His questions. Socrates was against some of the philosophic ideas prevalent in his day, especially in Athens, because it focused on the person’s family, community and self. Socrates felt it was more important to be concerned about the welfare of one’s own soul than how those around you feel about you. He argued that successful fathers do not always produce successful sons, and furthermore, that gaining moral excellence was not done simply by following the family rules, but rather that is was a gift from above. As Jesus said, seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and then all these other things will be developed in your life.
One unique philosophical point of view espoused by Socrates, that can also be found in the teachings of Jesus, is synchronizing ‘love of wisdom,’ with the ‘art of loving.’ In other words, Socrates taught that one should concentrate more on developing oneself into being a better person before they try making others better. The better you are, the better will be those things you accomplish. That what comes out of the heart will determine one’s identity as being good or bad. Jesus espoused the same thought when he said, “…the bad things people say with their mouth come from the way they think. And that’s what can make people wrong” (Mt. 15:10). That’s why being good is not an external trait but an internal virtue; it is not the product of the mind but of the soul. That’s why Jesus alerted the critics by inquiring, “Why do you notice the small piece of dust that is in your friend’s eye, but you don’t notice the big piece of wood that is in your own?” (Mt. 7:3).
Both Socrates and Jesus were teachers, and they shared some common goals and thoughts. Both of them were intent on changing the culture around them for the better. They both came with a sense of believing beyond what one already knows. They both used metaphors or parables as tools so that their listeners would be challenged to think for themselves. They were both strong believers in humility, and that one should defend what was right no matter the cost. We know that on one occasion when a woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus, He wrote in the dust on the ground, whereas Socrates drew geometric figures on the ground to demonstrate how to find twice the area of a square.
We are told that Socrates could usually be found in the marketplace and other public areas, conversing with a variety of different people – young and old, male and female, slave and free, rich and poor – in other words, with anyone he could persuade to join with him in his question-and-answer mode of probing serious matters. Jesus also walked among the crowds in the temple and market place and often asked questions. Socrates’s lifework consisted in the examination of people’s lives, his own and others’, because “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being,” as he says at his trial (Plato, Apology 38a). Socrates pursued this task with single-mindedness, questioning people about what matters most, for example: courage, love, reverence, moderation, and the state of their souls.
While four hundred years later, Jesus never encountered a village or metropolis that fully lived by and taught these concepts of Socrates, the Apostle Paul sure did. Not only was Paul confronted by these arguments but also the streets lined with statutes to the many gods that the Greeks invested with supernatural as well as human traits both good and bad. No wonder it was difficult sometimes for Paul to persuade them that what he was preaching proved better than what they already believed.
Of course, we find that both Socrates and Jesus were martyred for their beliefs, and went to their deaths willingly. Jesus was crucified on a cross while Socrates was poisoned with hemlock until he lost feeling in his feet which eventually shut down his heart. But that’s where similarities ended. Socrates did not point people to the Way of Salvation; he did not heal the sick or raise the dead; Socrates remained in the grave, Jesus rose again; Socrates never left the ground, Jesus ascended into heaven. Socrates did not promise to return, but Jesus said He would be back and that may be sooner than we think.
Jesus warned us, that just like before Him there would be many who would come after Him who will say, “I am the anointed one.” But none of those can match what He did for mankind in transforming life from mere existence into life more abundant; making it possible to become a new creation with old things having passed away and all things becoming new; to live with joy unspeakable and filled with a sense of being significant to God and those around us; and with a guarantee of eternal life, not just a good long life.
After all, when we look at the calendar, the number we see does not represent the years since the birth of Socrates, but the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. It also signifies a point in time when God no longer left man to his own devices of trying to find a way to Him; of attempting with self regulation and internal cultivation of virtues and morals to reach the high mark God set out for His creation, but falling short. One may read the teachings of Socrates and be enlightened as to a better way to conduct oneself within the community. But the teachings of Jesus bring about a new birth and greater understanding of how one should live in the Kingdom of God. The one points to the past, the other points to the future.