Socrates vs. Christianity

In class we learned about Socrates and his belief in the natural forces that govern things. For this reason he was accused of being an atheist for impiety on the basis that he inspired questioning of the gods of Athens, and of corrupting the youth of Athens. Despite these accusations, I was very impressed by the fact that much of his concepts and perspectives resonates with some of the basic Christian perspectives. Being a Christian myself, I have often pondered just how atheist is Socrates, and how he might view Christianity and the Christian God if he had more opportunity to get to know such a faith in his time.

What originally prompted me to compare Socrates’ perspective with the Christian perspective was his concept of justice. We learned that justice to Socrates take on two basic forms, the justice of the city and the justice of the soul. He believed that the human soul consists of mainly three different parts: the rational, the spirited, and the appetites. If a person aspired to achive justice of the soul, he or she must be trained to place the appetites and the spirited under the control of the rational. Therefore, a person who craves and loves ice cream should be careful not to let his appetite, his bodily needs control his being. His soul’s rational side, based on some standard of logic, should let the person be aware of how much he is eating, and when it is no longer right or beneficial to consume anymore ice cream. In another case, if the person experiences righteous anger at an unjust act, such as seeing someone gets bullied by others, though the anger might be of good intention, ultimately the rational needs to step in and make sure that the anger doen’t get out of hand and becomes rage that adds even more to the damage already done. The Bible often warns against the works of the flesh. The book of Galatians talks about the acts of sinful nature: sexual immorality, selfish ambition, rage, envy etc. These examples are, in a sense, almost exactly the same as the injustice Socrates would think of as the result of someone who let his appetites and spirited part of the soul take control over the rational.

Socrates’ concept of the justice in the city is also interesting because besides addressing the individual soul, its needs, and its state of condition, he also addressed the natural tendency of people’s need to belong to a group or organization. This concept itself reminds me of what the Bible says about the church being the body of Christ in the book of 1 Corinthians. It talks about the concept of one body, many parts: “The body is a unity, though it is made up of many parts, and though all its parts are many, they form one body. … Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. ” Socrates goes on to claim that justice in the city will be achieved when people stay in the roles they’re assigned to, with everyone contributing in only a particular area of the society. Although it’s not considered against the Bible (injustice) for christians to serve in different ministries at church, the concept of different spiritual gifts or tasks according to each individual is mentioned in 1 Corinthians: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given… the message of wisdom… the message of knowledge…faith…gift of healing…miraculous powers…prophecy…distinguishing between spirits… speaking in different kinds of tongues… interpretation of the tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and He gives them to each one, just as he determines. Socrates talks about assigning roles for different individuals, here the Bible states that it is the Holy Spirit which assigns the spiritual gifts.

What’s fundamentally different about Socratic perspectives versus the perspectives of Christianity is the difficulty of grasping Socrates’ ideal of the rational. Since everyone comes from different cultural backgrounds, the standard and opinions of what’s right and what’s wrong may differ. Christianity offers that one perfect standard which can be applied to everyone: God’s. The problem is that Socrates thinks through the study of philosophy, a person can achieve the perfect balance of the rational control over the spirited and the appetites, whereas in Christianity, people can’t reach God’s perfect standard by their own efforts. In the christian perspective, there might be more successful attempts to achieve a just life than others, but “all have fallen short of the Glory of God”, and that’s where salvation steps in. In some ways I think Christianity completes what Socrates was looking for in his search for the true meaning of justice. It’d be interesting to see his reaction if he ever had the chance to hold the full Bible in his hand and studied it in more depth.


2 Responses to Socrates vs. Christianity

  1. onyango kennedy says:

    in my convinced view concerning this matter would be that socrates actually has no difference to christianity, i would not like to say that he inspired christianity but his concepts are actually the same to that of the bible, consider nicolas of cusa – if at all you may have read any of his books and more so “on learned ignorance” though cusa was a christian but he latter on found socrates’ concepts useful , consider the republic on his idea of the good and reflect it to the bible, i think socrates and the christian book are both the way to go

  2. thesinowatcher says:

    One thing to think about is that Christian beliefs that emerged were a synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian mysticism. In a sense the Platonic beliefs communicated in Socrates are deeply intertwined with modern Christian doctrine. At the same time, Socrates leaves a poor answer to the question of how to teach wisdom and bravery to the soldiers and rulers – because human institutions are imperfect. It is only the intervention of God that can ensure that these parts of the Republic are good.

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