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. 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.
With that in mind, it makes sense that Socrates, the father of philosophy, would share similarities with Christ. In this sense, we could consider him an imitator of Christ.
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. The friends and followers of both tried to dissuade them from going to their deaths.
9. Both established a foundation that their followers built upon.
10. Both exposed hypocrisy among the ruling establishment.
11. Both ministered to the common people.
12. Both were unjustly accused of crimes against God and were condemned.
13. Jesus was sinless; Socrates had impeccable character.
14. Both were commissioned by God and were not believed by the authorities.
15. Both had their primary allegiance to God first.
16. Both had prophetic utterances spoken about them concerning their mission.
17. Both pointed out the evil of their accusers and called them to repentance.
18. Both could have escaped death but didn’t.
19. Both of their deaths were purposed for a greater good.
20. Both corrected the wrongs of the Sophists/Pharisees.
21. Both taught to pursue the highest values of virtue/love.
22. Both criticized mindless ritual.
23. Both cleared the way for a new philosophical system/new covenant.
24. Both emphasized humility to know the truth.
25. Both discussed blessings of afterlife and warned of eternal punishment.
26. Neither sought fame, wealth, or popularity, but lived lives of poverty.
27. Both used questions to expose their enemies’ ignorance.
28. Both taught not to return evil for evil.
29. Both submitted to the unjust governing authorities.
30. Both suffered for the truth.
31. Both resurrected – Jesus literally and Socrates figuratively.
32. 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.
33. Both started movements that changed the course of human civilization, Socrates through Plato and Aristotle, and Jesus through his Apostles whose evangelistic efforts and martyrdom eventually converted the Roman Empire and Western Civilization to Christianity. Greek philosophy provided the necessary reasoning tools and vocabulary to aid the Catholic Church fathers in formulating precise Christian doctrine.
The wisdom of Socrates was the wisdom of Christ. Socrates did not know who Christ was personally, but that did not mean that he could not be enlightened by his wisdom. At about the same time that Socrates lived, other cultures around the world, including India and China, were also 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 divine wisdom has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Like I mentioned in earlier posts, 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.
“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, “-Justin MartyrThat 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
“I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: “In the beginning was the λόγος”. This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, σὺν λόγω, with logos. Logos means both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (cf. Acts 16:6-10) – this vision can be interpreted as a “distillation” of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.”3-Pope Benedict XVI
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- 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.
- Translation of an excerpt of chapter 10 the Second Apology of Justin Martyr found at New Advent.
- Regensburg Address, Lecture of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg, 12 September, 2006
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