4. Socrates the Reformer

This is the ruins of the Greek Parthenon in Athens signifying the majesty of a once great Greek civilization that included the arts and philosophy.

Socrates Upsets the Status Quo

In the previous post, we saw that there were real and contrived reasons for why Socrates was brought to trial. Even though he was implicated in support of the previous tyrannical regime, he probably would have been fine if he had kept his head down and stayed under the radar. But he did just the opposite.

He became a real irritant in Athens by asking the deeper questions of truth that nobody was asking, thus exposing the ignorance of the common people—and even, more importantly, of the rulers themselves.1 So when Socrates questioned the youth of the city about the nature of justice, not only did they realize that they did not know, but the youth started to realize that the rulers of Athens didn’t know either. This went for the common people as well since they started to realize the same about their rulers.

Imagine the family of a politician sitting, eating dinner in the evening and the politician’s son starts to ask him about the nature of justice. The politician gives some superficial answer which does not satisfy the youth, since, earlier that day, he had been talking with Socrates. And then the youth says, “Well, Socrates told us….” After a while, this would start to wear thin. The rulers of Athens could not afford to have the youth and the common people questioning their competence—thus the charge of “corrupting the youth.”

Socrates Charged with Impiety

The charge of “impiety” is a little more complicated to explain. Everyone was religious in classical times. They all believed in the gods. But unlike what we are used to in modern times, ancient religion was heavily characterized by ceremony rather than creedal statements. Creeds became important with the formulation of Christian doctrine in response to heresies during the first few centuries in the Catholic church. But even then, in pre-Reformation Europe, most Christians defined their faith more by their practice than by creedal statements.2

It wasn’t until after the Reformation when there was a need for all of the disparate groups to distinguish themselves from other groups that dogma became more important than practice. (That is, until the most recent times when both dogma and practice have waned considerably. But this is a topic for a future post.) So the default mindset in the ancient world was to define one’s religion or devotion to the gods by how one practiced their religion. This included things like religious festivals and sacrifices.

So to understand Socrates, we have to not look at him through the lens of modern revolutionaries and not look at ancient religion through the lens of what religion has become in our day. We might be tempted to look upon Socrates as something of a hero—a radical reformer who sought to upend the religion of his day. But he was not a radical reformer, and we have to be careful not to apply our romantic view of the modern religious revolutionary to Socrates.3 He was not seeking to put an end to religious sacrifices and festivals, he simply sought to expand people’s idea of what it meant to have devotion to the gods. This devotion centered around pietas. This word means devotion to the gods but it includes so much more. It would take pages to unpack. For now we will use the term to mean religious devotion.

Socrates, a True Reformer

If anything, Socrates was a reformer in the true sense of the word. He sought to deepen people’s understanding of devotion to the gods, not to destroy it. He did this by his usual method of asking questions. What exactly was piety? (In fact, Plato’s fascinating dialogue Euthyphro deals with this very topic of the search for the meaning of piety.) Socrates sought to expand the idea of religious devotion from one that consisted merely in ceremony, into one that engaged the intellect. What good is religious ceremony, if one doesn’t understand the nature of piety? And he sought to include the idea of virtue, as well as ceremony, as being indicative of what it meant to be religious. He emphasized the importance of moral virtue as essential to one’s religious practice.

What good is it if one faithfully practices religious ceremony, but is a scoundrel? So Socrates tried to expand the meaning of devotion to the gods into the moral and intellectual realm. By doing this, Socrates, in effect, dealt a death blow to the gods of mythology. He cleared the path for those who would follow him, like Plato and Aristotle, to view the gods in a different light – a more rational than superstitious perspective. This prepared people to eventually accept the message of the Christian Gospel several centuries later. In fact, Justin Marty, a second century Christian apologist discusses how Socrates’ reforms were a prelude to the Christian era. Here is an excerpt from chapter 10 of his Second Apology:

“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.”4

Socrates was not a radical in the modern sense of someone who destroys the old system and constructs an entirely new one, but he was a radical in the sense that he was transformational. He wanted to take the old way of doing things and deepen and expand people’s understanding of it both intellectually and morally. True wisdom then, in Socrates’ view, was to admit one’s ignorance, so that one could then proceed to deepen one’s knowledge in piety. The end result was so one could know what the gods required in order to live a virtuous life. The Greeks were famous for developing the idea of balance and harmony. Socrates was simply building upon that idea and stating that true pietas involved a harmonious relationship between our beliefs, our religious practices, and our moral behavior towards others.

Chaos and disorder characterize the West today. Whereas the people of Socrates’ day made the mistake of relying on religious practice at the expense of knowledge and virtue, we moderns make the mistake of relying on our intellect at the expense of religious practice and virtue. And this intellect isn’t of a spiritual nature; it is purely technological. We live in an age where “knowledge is power” and technology rules. In order to reestablish harmony, we need to reestablish a balance between religious belief, religious practice, and the development of virtue. We can start by admitting our ignorance and asking a simple question, “Who is God and what does he require of me in terms of my duty towards him and my duty towards others?”

“So, my dear Euthyphro, we must investigate again from the beginning what piety is, as I shall not willingly give up before I learn this.”5 

-Socrates

  1. Kraut, Richard. “Socrates”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 23 Dec. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Socrates.
  2. Gregory, Brad S., The Unintended Reformation, How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, pp. 74-129, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London, England, 2012
  3. Kraut, Richard. “Socrates”. Encyclopedia Britannica
  4. Translation of an excerpt of chapter 10 the Second 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.
  5. Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, Second Edition, Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, 15 c-e, p. 20, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002

Sources and Bibliography:

Collins, Phillip Darrell & Collins, Paul David, The Ascendancy of The Scientific Dictatorship, An Examination of Epistemic Autocracy, From the 16th to the 21st Century,” iUniverse, Inc., New York, Lincoln, NE, 2004

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

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

Internet Sources:

https://www.britannica.com

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Click the link below for an excellent audio rendition of Plato’s Apology that recounts the trial of Socrates:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1GhJo1QcJQ

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