As we examine the life and impact of Socrates, we can see that there are many similarities between Jesus and Socrates. It’s not that the two men were on an equal plane, for Jesus is the Son of God and Socrates was a mere man. St. John, in the opening of his Gospel, states that Jesus is the Word. The Greek word for Word is Logos. Logos is packed with meaning. Logos means order; it also means wisdom. St. Paul states in his Epistle to the Colossians that “in Christ is hidden all of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” So if Socrates was wise, and Christ is the embodiment of all wisdom, then Socrates must have derived his wisdom from Christ. It was really Christ, the eternal Logos, working through Socrates that enlightened Athens and Western Civilization. In fact, any truth found in any civilization anywhere has its origin in the eternal Logos, for there is only one truth.
Reason and Revelation
God’s revelation was entrusted to the Jewish nation of the Old Testament by Christ, the divine Logos. As St. Paul said in his epistle to the Romans, the Old Testament Jews had the very oracles of God. On the other hand and for reasons unknown to us, God chose the Greek people to be the ones that developed reason to the highest degree. Of course, people of all cultures, even primitive ones, ask meaningful questions of life. What made the Greeks unique is that they asked these questions in a very sophisticated manner, really unmatched by any other culture of ancient times in the West. Their development of philosophy laid the groundwork for later Christians to use their rich vocabulary and philosophical concepts to develop Christian doctrine in the first few centuries of the Church. No other ancient language would have provided such tools. It is no accident that the New Testament was written in Greek.
With that in mind, it makes sense that Socrates, the father of philosophy, would share similarities with Christ, the eternal Logos. In this sense, we could consider him an imitator of Christ. As the Jews gave us revelation, so the Greeks gave us reason or philosophy. What the Greeks searched for in their wisdom was answered through the Christian Gospel. Greeks reciprocated by bringing their treasures of language and philosophy into the Church where they could be utilized as tools to develop and clarify Christian doctrine. This is a beautiful picture of what the Gospel is about. Every culture that is saved brings its unique gifts into the church that can be used for God’s glory.
Jesus and Socrates Compared
The Church Fathers called Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle “virtuous pagans.” They saw Socrates in many ways as a foreshadowing of Christ. In fact, Justin Martyr stated:
“We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them.”1
Here are just some of the similarities that I found between Jesus and Socrates:
1. Both were considered outsiders and were persecuted by the establishment.
2. Neither held public office.
3. Neither left writings, but their followers did.
4. Neither advocated violence, but rather worked through a peaceful grassroots movement.
5. Both polarized people by speaking the truth.
6. Both were uncompromising in speaking the truth.
7. Both willingly and resolutely faced death.
8. Both established a foundation that their followers built upon.
9. Both exposed hypocrisy among the ruling establishment.
10. Both ministered to the common people.
11. Both were unjustly accused of crimes against God and were condemned.
12. Jesus was sinless; Socrates had impeccable character.
13. Both were commissioned by God and were not believed by the authorities.
14. Both had their primary allegiance to God first.
14. Both had prophetic utterances spoken about them concerning their mission.
15. Both pointed out the evil of their accusers and called them to repentance.
16. Both could have escaped death but didn’t.
17. Their deaths were purposed for a greater good.
18. They corrected the wrongs of the Sophists/Pharisees.
19. Both taught to pursue the highest values of virtue/love.
20. Both criticized mindless ritual.
21. They cleared the way for a new philosophical system/ new covenant.
22. Both emphasized humility to know the truth.
23. Both discussed blessings of afterlife and warned of eternal punishment.
24. Neither sought fame, wealth, or popularity, but lived a life of deprivation.
25. Both used questions to expose their enemies’ ignorance.
26. Both taught not to return evil for evil.
27. Both submitted to the unjust governing authorities.
28. Both suffered for the truth.
29. Both live on after their death – Jesus literally and Socrates figuratively.
30. Socrates made a reasoned defense at his trial, whereas Jesus made no defense, but had faith in the one who could save his soul from death.
Socrates was wise because he tapped into the wisdom of the divine Logos. Socrates did not know who the Logos was personally, but that did not mean that he could not be enlightened to receive a certain amount of wisdom. At about the same time that Socrates lived, other cultures around the world, including India and China, were waking up to the fact that there was a certain order to the universe. They too started searching for this divine wisdom. Below I have a quote from chapter 10 of the Second Apology of Justin Martyr who lived in the second century A.D. where he compares and contrasts Jesus and Socrates.
Unlike the ancient cultures, we have the advantage of living on the other side of the divide of history. We live in a time where the divine Logos has been revealed to be Jesus Christ. In the tumultuous times in which we live, when chaos and uncertainty reign, the divine Logos is the only one who can bring order, meaning, and stability to our existence. Like I mentioned in earlier blogs, Socrates taught us that the path to wisdom is first admitting that we lack wisdom. As a modern society, the path to Christ begins with first admitting that we are lost.
Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”
-The Gospel of John 9:41
“The wise man is the one who knows that he does not know.”
-Lao Tzu, Chinese Philosopher, circa 5th century, B.C.
“For they said that he was introducing new divinities, and did not consider those to be gods whom the state recognized. But he cast out from the state both Homer and the rest of the poets, and taught men to reject the wicked demons and those who did the things which the poets related; and he exhorted them to become acquainted with the God who was to them unknown, by means of the investigation of reason, saying, “
That it is neither easy to find the Father and Maker of all, nor, having found Him, is it safe to declare Him to all.” But these things our Christ did through His own power. For no one trusted in Socrates so as to die for this doctrine, but in Christ, who was partially known even by Socrates (for He was and is the Word who is in every man, and who foretold the things that were to come to pass both through the prophets and in His own person when He was made of like passions, and taught these things), not only philosophers and scholars believed, but also artisans and people entirely uneducated, despising both glory, and fear, and death; since He is a power of the ineffable Father, not the mere instrument of human reason.”2
What do you find most interesting about this comparison of Jesus and Socrates? Please leave your comments below. Thank you!
- Translation of an excerpt of chapter 46 the First Apology of Justin Martyr found at New Advent. Translated by Marcus Dods and George Reith. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0127.htm
- Translation of an excerpt of chapter 10 the Second Apology of Justin Martyr found at New Advent.
Sources and Bibliography:
Grayland, A.C., The History of Philosophy, Penguin Books, New York, 2019
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 ed., Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 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
Priestly, Joseph, Socrates and Jesus Compared, Andesite Press, Gloucester, 2015
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
New Advent, a Catholic website found at https://www.newadvent.org/