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Socrates and the Nobility of the Soul

“O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called: 21 Which some professing have erred concerning the faith. Grace be with thee. Amen” (1 Tim. 6:20).

In the sixth century before Christ a few men began to inquire once more into the ancient fundamental questions about the universe and the nature of man. They would in time be called “philosophers”. The word “philosopher”, which means “lover of wisdom”, is attributed to Pythagoras of Crotona in southern Italy, a man of extraordinary intellect, and no little modesty for he considered himself a semi-divine character.

Taking his place alongside of Pythagoras (c. 582-500 BC) was Empedocles (c. 490-430 BC), who believed that all men had originally been gods, banished to earth through some impurity or violence. He in turn was followed by Pericles (c. 495-429 BC) who at least tried to be more modest by postulating that if things in the universe were so conveniently arranged as Pythagoras and Empedocles insisted, it must be the work of a transcendent mind (Greek, nous). Said Pericles, “Mind is infinite and self-ruled, and is mixed with nothing, but is alone, itself by itself.”

Feigning even more humility than Pericles, in this golden age of philosophy, where the arrogance of the Greek spirit soared into extreme individualism, and intellectual incompetence to the point that skepticism, and inquiry came to characterize the age, was Socrates. By all accounts, in his more mature years Socrates was not physically attractive. He was a man with a bald plate, bulbous nose, an extended stomach, and the look of a satyr due to his mustache and beard. Socrates did not deny his uncomely appearance, and told people he hoped to reduce the paunch by dancing.

Growing to manhood during Greece’s wealthiest period, Socrates displayed no interest in riches, perhaps in part because he had enjoyed them. His father was a sculptor, and his mother a midwife. He himself had learned the trade of being a sculptor. As a teacher, with a wide and devout following riches became his with ease. He turned away from much wealth, but not all.

As a young man Socrates had made a reputation as a soldier during the Peloponnesian Wars. His heroic deeds against the Spartans became legendary. During various military campaigns we are told that he excelled all in endurance and courage, bearing without complaint hunger, fatigue, and cold. At home he worked as a stonecutter and statuary. He had no interest in travel, and rarely journeyed outside the city. He married Xanthippe, who would become angry with him for neglecting his family, a charge he did not deny. When the mortality of males in the war led to a temporary legislation of polygamy, he took a second wife.

He “took fire” at the sight of Charmides, but controlled his homosexual urges by asking if the lovely lad had also a “noble soul.” Plato speaks of Socrates and Alcibiades as lovers, though he reported that Socrates remained platonic “in chase of the fair youth.” However, this did not stop Socrates from giving advice to homosexuals, and intellectual courtesans, on how to attract lovers.

With a life filled with the toys of time, much wine, adventures in warfare, and sensual pleasures so that all the physical senses, and natural appetites were satiated, or dulled, it is not difficult to discern why Socrates would eventually become a student of philosophy. His mind was inquisitive having dissipated the body. In this way his life parallels that of another philosopher who pursued the path of pleasure only to turn to intellectual pursuits of things “under the sun”. His name was Solomon, king of Israel (970-930 BC), and his story, which predates Socrates (469–399 BC), is told in the Bible in the book of Ecclesiastes. It was Solomon who first said, “there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

There being “no new thing under the sun” would include the moral, and immoral, behavior, and questionable philosophical concepts of Socrates, who contended that morality is to be found in the individual conscience rather in social good, or the unchanging decrees of heaven. In other words, man is a law unto himself, a god capable of “knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).

The reason Socrates believed this is because he began with a presuppositional belief that all vice is the result of ignorance, and that no person is willingly bad; correspondingly, virtue is knowledge, and those who know the right will act rightly. It is this noble view of the innate goodness of man that suppresses what the modern philosopher Francis Schaffer (1912-1984) called “true truth.”

Socrates postulated an epistemology on the nobility of man that does not correspond to objective reality, or to honest self-inquiry. Still, he embraced this worldview because he believed that morality could survive without supernatural belief. Philosophy, by molding an effective secular moral code, could save civilization which its freedom of thought threatened to destroy.

The ultimate belief in the innate nobility of the soul is rather ironic in Socrates, since his fame rests in large part on skepticism, and a feigned humility, which allowed him to avoid declaring what his own ultimate position on a given matter might be, while challenging the thoughts of others. “Were I to make any claim to be wiser than others, it would be because I do not think that I have any sufficient knowledge of the other world, when in fact I have none.”

If Socrates pretended to be but a “midwife”, in the realm of ideas, helping others to deliver themselves of their conceptions, his students discerned the implications of his thinking or there would be no need to study his influence so many centuries later. Therefore, it is not improper to raise several specific questions of concern with an appropriate response.

First Question. “Was Socrates correct to teach that every person has full knowledge of ultimate truth contained within the soul, and needs only to be spurred to conscious reflection in order to become aware of it?”

First Response. To this religious inquiry, under the theology branch of Anthropology, I would respond with a qualified answer in the affirmative. I would agree that full knowledge of ultimate truth does reside within the soul, but I would argue that this ultimate truth is God, of whom knowledge is being consciously suppressed. Why? “Because that, when they [humanity] knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Romans 1:23).

Every law demands a Law Giver. The Ultimate Law Giver is God, not an abstract ethical principle. As everything cannot come from nothing, neither can the concept of virtue arise independent of God. No creature has ever given himself physical or spiritual life. To postulate an ethical philosophy apart from a sovereign God is non-sensible.

Second Question. “Was Socrates correct to teach that morality is found in the individual conscience, rather in social good or the unchanging decrees of heaven?”

Second Response. To this inquiry I would answer, “No”, because the presuppositional thought is that nothing has ever happened to damage the will, intellect, or emotions of humanity. I believe that something terrible has damaged the soul so that individuals do not always think correctly, choose correctly, or respond in the emotions correctly. The trial and murder of Socrates confirms this observation for injustice, and murder it was. Socrates was not put on trial and then brought to a chamber of death because men did not know in their hearts they were unrighteousness in their thinking, or decision, or emotions. It was nothing more than the will to power. Men killed Socrates because they could. They cared nothing about the ethical aspects of the matter. Knowledge is not enough.

Third Question. “Was Socrates correct when he taught that all vice was the result of ignorance, and that no person is willingly bad; correspondingly, is virtue knowledge, and will those who know the right act rightly?”

Third Response. To this inquiry I would say, “No”, not all vice is the result of ignorance. The Islamic terrorist who cut off the head of Nicholas Berg on May 13, 2004, knew they were willingly engaged in raw evil, or they would not have hidden behind a mask. Men who rape women do so, not out of ignorance, but out of the will to power, and a pleasure principle. There is an experimental knowledge of evil, which is not virtuous.

According to the Judeo-Christian religious belief, the first recorded lie to a man and woman was that if they ate of a forbidden fruit they would have knowledge of good and evil. The implication was that this knowledge would be virtuous. Socrates perpetuates the original lie by not understanding some experimental knowledge is not virtuous. Confirmation for this truth can be found by asking any drug addict, sex addict, or alcoholic if they are more virtuous with their experiential knowledge of raw evil.

Stripped of his personable demeanor, which charmed so many in his day, Socrates was nothing more than a self-centered secular humanist who, like others before him, postulated a nobility of man that does not exist, apart from regeneration by the Holy Spirit, while failing to take into consideration that something terrible happened to the nous, or mind, of man so that he does not, by nature, want to know ultimate truth, nor does he want to be virtuous if that virtue condemns his attitude and actions, or blocks his will to power, and pleasure principle. Vice is not always the result of ignorance but the will to power based on a pleasure principle.

Finally, much knowledge is not of necessity virtuous. The apostle Paul said, “knowledge puffeth up” (1 Cor. 8:1). Socrates is a philosopher to be pitied, not praised.

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