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 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
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.
“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
- “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
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