Previously, I discussed how Socrates was convicted of “corrupting the youth” and “impiety.”1 He was accused of impiety because he tried to expand the meaning of piety beyond mere ceremony into intellectual understanding and the development of virtue. What good is honoring the gods if you are ignorant of what you are doing and you are, in fact, a rotten person?
There was another reason why he was accused of impiety, which is a bit more interesting. Socrates claimed to hear the guidance of a divine sign.2 He said that this voice had come to him since childhood. It guided him in a negative manner—that is, it prevented him from doing wrong, rather than positively guiding him to do right. Now if Socrates were alive today, many of us might assume he had some mental illness. But what offended his fellow citizens back then was not that he claimed to be guided by a divine voice, but that he, Socrates, claimed divine guidance. For there were people in the ancient world called Seers who were officially appointed for such a task and were regulated by the civil authorities. Socrates was circumventing the usual way a city-state would seek divine guidance.
What exactly would this divine voice tell Socrates to do, or more accurately not to do? Well, for one thing, it told him not to participate in public life beyond the normal minimum requirements of citizenship. For another thing, it told him not to leave Athens, but to face his accusers when he was summoned. For (and we will come back to this later) Socrates could have left Athens months before his trial.
And regarding that unpleasant task of interrogating his fellow citizens until he exposed their ignorance, he claimed all of that to be a product of divine guidance. You could say that he was on a mission from God. Besides the divine voice, Socrates received divine guidance in other ways. Apparently, Socrates was a mystic as well. Consider the following Socrates’ quote:
“Why then do some people enjoy spending considerable time in my company? They enjoy hearing those being questioned who think they are wise, but are not. To do this has, as I say, been enjoined upon me by the god, by means of oracles and dreams, and in every other way that a divine manifestation has ever ordered a man to do anything. This is true, gentlemen, and can easily be established.”3-Apology 33 b-c
This brings us to another reason why Socrates was looked upon with suspicion.4 He was not afraid of the gods. He did not approach them in servile fear. In the ancient world, the gods were looked upon as capricious and unpredictable. But Socrates affirmed that if a person did what was right and just, he had nothing to fear from the gods. They would surely reward him. This is also why he was fearless in facing his accusers. He felt that a person must do what was right regardless of the consequences. He believed that if he lost his life for doing what was right, that the gods would treat him fairly and would not harm him. This really was the paradigm shift and enabled philosophy to develop from that point forward. Plato and Aristotle are proof of that. Plato’s and Aristotle’s view of the divine was completely different from how people had thought prior to Socrates. One could say that Socrates shifted the thinking of the divine from a more superstitious and mythological perspective to one that would eventually view the deity as being more transcendent and ordered. This deity was waiting to be discovered and is why the Greeks erected the altar to an “Unknown God” that St. Paul discovered on his mission trip to Athens 400 years later.
Since the Enlightenment, we have pitted reason and faith against one another as the secular and rational versus the spiritual and superstitious. This really is a false dichotomy. Socrates was a pioneer in developing reason in Western Civilization, and he did that not by abandoning the spiritual, but by embracing it. You could say that he separated the divine from the superstitious and used that as a basis for developing sound reason and philosophy. We have reached a dead end in the West because we have based our reasoning on empty materialism by denying the divine. As Christopher Hollis states in Noble Castle:
“The great Greeks did rightly use their reason to purify themselves of their superstitions, but reason did not lead them to the conclusion that rationalism was the explanation of all. It led rather to the conclusion that rationalism was insufficient.”5
Rationalistic materialism is the opposite error of religious superstition. They are both errors. We need to return to sound reasoning grounded in spiritual truth. That is our only hope.
Consider the following quote from Socrates:
“I have a divine or spiritual sign. This began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but never encourages me to do anything. This is what has prevented me from taking part in public affairs, and I think it was quite right to prevent me.”6-Apology 31d
Rationalism verses Mysticism
Prior to the Reformation, in the there was a healthy balance between the intellect and spiritual experience. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, is often unjustly labeled as a rationalist. This is untrue for two reasons. First of all, the term “rationalist” is a term that came afterwards to describe a modern category of thinking, i.e. rationalism verses empiricism. Secondly, even though St. Thomas was heavily intellectual in his approach, it is a little know fact that he was also a mystic. In fact, he saw a vision of Christ towards the end of his life, that was so profound, that he put his pen down and stopped writing.
This sort of combination between the intellect and the experience is very foreign to our contemporary ears, for these were separated partially during the Reformation, and more completely during the Enlightenment. Prior to the Reformation, there was a distinction, but not a dichotomy between the two. In the modern era, everything became weighted toward the material. The two schools of competing thought that emerged were the rationalists and the empiricists. Anything remotely experiential or emotional was labeled as “superstitious.”
One can try to suppress human nature, but it will return quickly as the Roman poet Horace stated in the quote below. Since we have a body with emotions, as well as a mind, this sort of rationalistic thinking had the effect of alienating people from themselves. People separated from themselves find themselves alienated from everything else, not just other people, but the physical creation itself. Pure rationalism leaves a person dry and parched, searching for a fuller, more comprehensive experience of life.
“You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, and she will hurry back.”-Horace, Book of Epistles, 1:10:24
The Romantic movement of the first half of the 19th century, was a response and overreaction to this. But it made the opposite mistake. It jettisoned propositional truth for the sake of, not just emotions, but the desire to feel human again. I can see the attraction to Romanticism in light of the alternative. In the 20th century, the same thing happened within Protestantism in response to the dry rationalism of Protestant thinking, spawning the various charismatic and experiential movements we are all familiar with.
Returning to Socrates
The purpose of the above digression was simply to say this – we are in a precarious situation in postmodern times. Enlightenment rationalism has gone to seed, producing a dark, introspective emotionalism. People today, for the most part, do not think. Many bemoan the loss of “critical thinking skills.” In reality, we are at the point where many do not think at all, they are simply driven by emotions. The irony is that the Enlightenment ideas that labeled the Catholic Church as irrational and superstitious, have produced a world that is highly irrational and at times hysterical.
This is a major blind spot of many academics who study the ancient Greek philosophers. They fail to see that these men were spiritual as well as intellectual. If they do recognize it, they neglect to give it any credence. Not only were these philosophers spiritual, but many were mystics as well. We will see more of this when we discuss the Presocratic philosophers in future posts. Men like Heraclitus and Parmenides appeared to receive divine revelation as well as use their intellects. There was no dichotomy.
Neglecting this aspect of Socrates and the other philosophers has two detrimental effects. This first is that we fail to obtain a comprehensive view of these men, seeing only a truncated or one dimensional view of them. Secondly, if we don’t recognize this error in our view of them, we will not recognize this error in our own lives. Even though some Christians understand this, many do not. I would say that most people in our society at large do not.
It is the simplicity of Socrates that instructs us today. He was a man both in touch with God in an experiential sense and his intellect at the same time. He sought to clothe his ideas and divine insights with virtue. For without virtue, it is all for naught. This legacy that he began carried all of the way through the medieval period up until the Reformation.
Our lives have become too chaotic and complex simply because we lack this simple unity within ourselves that Socrates and others had. If we are disunified in our souls, then this will result in chaos in society. The more chaotic things become, the more we seek for answers in the external word, when in fact the peace and order that we seek is within us.
“The Kingdom of God is within you.”-Jesus, Luke 17:21
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From Amazon: “After the execution of Socrates in 399 BC, a number of his followers wrote dialogues featuring him as the protagonist and, in so doing, transformed the great philosopher into a legendary figure. Xenophon’s portrait is the only one other than Plato’s to survive, and while it offers a very personal interpretation of Socratic thought, it also reveals much about the man and his philosophical views.”
- “What Was the Charge Against Socrates?” Thought Co., https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-charge-against-socrates-121060
- Plato, Apology, Five Dialogues, pp. 35-36, Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002
- Kraut, Richard. “Socrates”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 23 Dec. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Socrates. Accessed 24 May 2021.
- Hollis, Christopher, Noble Castle, p. 81, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941
- Plato, Apology, Five Dialogues, p. 36
Bibliography and Sources:
Coppleston, S.J., Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book One, An Image Book, Doubleday, New York, 1985
Grayling, A.C., The History of Philosophy, Penguin Press, New York, 2019
Hollis, Christopher, Noble Castle, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941
Hughes, Bettany, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life Paperback – Illustrated, Vintage Publishers, 2012, New York City
Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, Second Edition, Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002
Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, Revised Ed., Harold Tarrant (Editor, Translator, Introduction) and Hugh Tredennick (Translator), Penguin Classics, New York, 2003
Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 2: The World of the Polis, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018
Wilson, Emily, The Death of Socrates, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007
Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates, Waterfield, Robin H, Editor and Translator; Tedennick, Hugh, Translator, Penguin Classics, Ney York, Revised ed., 1990