Not well acquainted with the Western intellectual heritage, some Christians readily dismiss all philosophical endeavor because of the results arrived at by many ungodly thinkers seeking to elevate their own finite speculations above God’s revelation. However, it must be remembered that all truth is God’s truth. Made in the image of God, man can mirror to a small degree a portion of his Creator’s rationality if he is seeking after that truth in an honest fashion.
It has been remarked that Western civilization owes its foundation to the two ancient cities of Jerusalem (representing Judeo-Christian theism) and Athens (representing Greek philosophical inquiry). And while the primacy of the Judeo-Christian contributions must not be forgotten as it represents God’s direct relationship with man, the Athenian connection must not be forgotten either. For it represents man trying to come to grips with the world — both the terrestrial and the human — made by that divine Creator.
Ranking among the foremost of ancient Greek thinkers was the Athenian Socrates. It must be remembered that the thought of Socrates rested outside the accepted canons of orthodox Christianity.
For example, Socrates believed that man existed prior to his earthly incarnation. However, the idea professed by Socrates that absolute morality exists apart from human culture and convention has a great deal of truth about it.
Like the current era, those living in Athens during the time of Socrates found their culture awash in the chaos of moral relativism. This situation arose in part as a result of Sophist teaching.
The Sophists were a group of traveling teachers who would share their insights with those willing to pay, namely the well-to-do of the Athenian aristocracy. The Sophist worldview was epitomized by the following aphorism attributed to Protagoras, pivotal member of the movement: “Man is the measure of all things.” This meant that man had to rely on his own experience with the highest arbiter of conduct being the collective conventions of any given reality and objective morality nonexistent.
Protagoras was not willing to live out the implications of his own ethical theorizing as he maintained that individuals ought to follow the practices of their own particular culture in order to guarantee social stability. The doctrines promulgated by other Sophists were just as dangerously inconsistent.
Gorgias said truth did not exist nor could it be communicated. Apparently with the exception of this truth of course. Thrasymachus believed might did indeed make right.
It was in such an atmosphere that Socrates undertook his relentless pursuit of the truth in order that he might live what he termed “the good life”, defined as living in such a way as to maximize virtue. He attempted to discover what constituted this morality by subjecting the truth claims propagated within his culture to careful scrutiny and reflection.
To Socrates, the knowledge of morality and truth were not merely intellectual commodities to be touted out to score points in public debates or used to pass the next philosophy exam. Similar to the Christian view of truth, knowledge of the ethical was to serve as the basis of action.
It was this conception of truth that Socrates sought after despite the hardships it eventually brought him. The events leading to the trial of Socrates occurred approximately 405 BC when Socrates as a member of the Committee of 500 refused to convict a number of generals accused of military negligence. The thoughtful sage reflected that to try the military leaders as a group violated the established judicial norms.
Throughout his trial for allegedly corrupting the Athenian youth, Socrates was confronted with several occasions where he could have escaped from authorities or played on their sympathies in order to spare his life. But instead Socrates let the truth stand on its own and accepted whatever consequences the defense of it brought.
Socrates’ quest for morality and truth is to be commended, especially in light of the cultural conditions in which he found himself. However, the Christian must be careful when employing this thinker as an historical example worthy of personal emulation.
For starters, Socrates was only partially correct when he argued that individuals do evil because they do not know it is wrong. This might be true in some circumstances like when one eats an extra cupcake thinking it will be pure pleasure when in fact it ends up resulting in a stomachache. However, such is not always the case.
I Timothy 2:14 says, “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” Adam, therefore, fell into sin knowing full well what he was doing when he went against God’s command not to eat the forbidden fruit.
Even though Socrates is to be commended for searching for the truth in light of the spiritual darkness that gripped Athens in the form of Sophist philosophy and pagan religion, that search was only partial at best. For Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. If one’s quest for truth is not to be washed away like the house built on the sandy shore mentioned in Matthew 7, it must ultimately be based upon Him.
By Frederick Meekins