In the nineteenth century, one of the most influential thinkers was Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855). He was known as the Danish Gadfly. Kierkegaard explored a number of notable ideas.
The Absurd. “The Absurd” refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any in a purposeless, meaningless, chaotic, and irrational universe.
Angst conveys a feeling of anxiety.
Authenticity, in existentialism, is the degree to which an individuals’ actions are consistent with their beliefs and desires, regardless of external pressures. The Oracles of Delphi counseled individuals to “Know thyself.” Authenticity extends this message to, “Be thyself.”
Existentialism teaches that one moment has no connection to the next, leading to an existential crisis whereby individuals’ question if life has any meaning, purpose, or value. “If one day I will be forgotten, what is the point of all my work?”
Leap of faith. This is the act of believing in, or accepting something outside the boundaries of reason, such as belief in an afterlife.
Dr. R. C. Sproul suggests that the first philosopher in history known as a “gadfly” was Socrates. He could have been called the “Gadfly of Athens” because he provoked people to think more deeply than they were. Socrates is credited with the phrase, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He wanted people to examine their lives, and to think critically.
Socrates was born c. 468 / 469 BC. It was an important time in Greek history, for Greece was at the height of its power and success as a nation, especially in Athens. However, the wars of Greece between the city-state of Athens, and the city-state of Sparta, took their toll on culture and people. The Sparta youth were trained to be warriors. They were given a shield, and sent forth to battle with the admonition: “You either come back with your shield, or on it.” They were to fight to the death.
When Sparta defeated Athens, Greek culture was unraveled. Skepticism, cynicism, and disillusionment followed. People caught up in the political and military upheaval began to question the value of searching for ultimate truth. Maybe truth is beyond human ability to discover. The result is that individuals turned their collective attention from ideas beyond themselves, to this world, and solving concrete, practical matters. Cultural primitivism, and secular humanism emerged from the obsession with self-centeredness. People became disillusioned with religion. God had let the people down.
Because history does repeat itself, America, in the 21st century, reflects the conditions of the ancient culture of Athens, with its commitment to secularism, humanism, and pragmatism. Like people in the ancient city states in Greece, many American are disillusioned with God. Atheism and agnosticism are openly promoted in public education, from preschool to post graduate studies. The theory of Evolution has prevailed over Creationism. Respect for parental and civil authority is abandoned. Private property is being destroyed. Public statues are being torn down, as history is being erased. A vacuum of leadership is being created.
In Greece, the vacuum that was created by the social unrest came to be occupied by the Sophists (Gk. Sophia, wisdom). The Sophists considered themselves to be sages, or learned people who were wise, certainly in their own eyes. The practical problem with people who are filled with self-esteem, is they tend not to be as wise as they think they are.
The spirit of the Sophists is reflected in modern America by the elite in Academia, the Media, and moguls in the tech industry, who believe they know what is best for society. The “Wise Ones” insist evolution be taught, and not creationism, internationalism be promoted, and nationalism denounced, socialism be practiced, and capitalism be abolished. Free speech is to be strictly controlled, lest someone say something that is offensive, or racist, while the hate everyone culture is given freedom to speak and scream in the most vile and degrading way against parents, the president, and preachers of the gospel.
The Sophists in Greece were teachers. They charged people a fee for the wisdom or knowledge they imparted, and people were willing to pay. It is one of the ironies of history that people will pay exorbitant amounts of money for ideas that will eventually harm, and ultimately destroy them. Princeton, Harvard, and Yale pay professors good money to pollute the minds of the youth, and instill in them ideas that will crush the spirits of people in time, and damn their souls in eternity. Socialism, Fascism, and Communism are widely popular today, and supported by the rich and powerful, even though these ideologies enslave nations, take away personal freedoms, and collapse national economies.
Though the Sophists in Greece were able to represent themselves as the elite of society, and impart their wisdom, for a fee, there was a movement towards democratic ideas in society. New leaders were rising up due to popular local elections. There was also change in the judicial system of Athens, as the concept of a jury trial gained popularity. The jury would vote on the guilt or innocence of the accused. As a result of these democratic movements, the art of public speaking took on importance. The person who was the most articulate and persuasive would prevail in politics, in the courtroom, and in the marketplace. It is an art to move the emotions, and stirred the passions of the people.
In their teachings, the Sophists were pragmatists. They believed that truth was not the root in some abstract ultimate reality, but in what works in practical ways, in the market place, in life. It did not matter if what was being promoted was true, good, or bad. The sophist only wanted to know if something worked. Persuasion, not truth was their guiding principle and interest. To advance their cause, the sophists established the school of rhetoric, the art of public speaking in order to persuade.
The Christian should seek to be persuasive by presenting, and proving with sound arguments, the goodness of the gospel to people. In the act of persuasion, the Christian must be careful not to witness in order to persuade people for financial gain, or to advance a political agenda. Witnessing is not to take place for personal reasons such as more money, or to become popular. Christians persuade people out of love for them as individuals made in the image of God with an eternal soul. We persuade people in obedience to the known will of Christ. We persuade people based on a heartfelt desire to see souls go to heaven, not hell.
“Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save.
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.”
It was at this time that Protagoras lived (c. 490 – 420 BC). As a Greek philosopher he is numbered among the sophists by Plato. Protagoras is credited with being the founder of Humanism, for he said that “Man is the measure of all things” (Latin, homo mensura, “man, the measure”). Plato understood this to mean that there is no absolute truth, but that which individuals deem to be the truth. “Homo Mensura” an incredible concept. Truth is whatever a person deems it to be. Nothing else matters. No other opinion matters but what an individual believes truth to be.
A large part of modern American culture has embraced this humanistic philosophy. It is not uncommon for people to talk of something being “your truth.” The conclusion is that individual relativity is more important than other philosophical doctrines, for example, the one that claims the universe is based on something objective, outside human influence or perceptions.
Another important Greek philosopher in ancient Athens was Gorgias (483 – 375 BC) from Leontinoi in Sicily. Gorgias charged fees in public forums whereby he asked random questions from the audience and gave impromptu replies. He has been called “Gorgias the Nihilist”.
Nihilism is the philosophical view that all knowledge, and values, are baseless, because all knowledge lacks a certain foundation, and all values are subjective. For example, the science of the 15th century is different from the science of the 21st century. The values of one culture differ from the values in another culture. What is a scandal in the Arab world, women unveiled, is a virtue in the Western world.
Gorgias was a skeptic. He finally concluded that what is good, what is right, is whatever men perceives works for them, and advances their own best interests. When society embraces this humanistic philosophy, what emerges are self interest groups. Society is fragmented. In America, this results in a hyphenated citizen: Native-American, Black-American, Hispanic-American. To make matters worse, what is good, what is right, is reduced to human preferences. There is no more objective truth. Men can be women, women can be men, and a child can determine their own sex. Reality is a state of mind. Virtual reality is good enough.
When Socrates emerged as a leading voice of protest within the environment of Humanism, Relativism, and Nihilism, he became concerned. He knew what was going on around him would be fatal to science, to truth, to objective reality, and it would destroy the individual as well. Ideas have consequences.
Humanism leads to self-absorption, allowing inconvenient babies to be aborted and killed, and old people to be euthanized.
Relativism leads to chaos in society, for your truth is not my truth. If I believe pedophilia is proper for me, and you do not, my feelings and my preferences take precedence over yours.
Nihilism leads to suicide, for life has no meaning.
There is no dignity in Humanism. There is no structure. There is only raw power as expressed in the individual. Every person is a god unto himself. For Socrates it was all too much. He protested the wholesale loss of virtue.
Virtue refers to a type of behavior that reflects a person’s moral excellence. Honesty, loyalty, courage, and kindness are universally seen as positive characteristics of virtue. In the Christian community specific characteristics in a person are esteemed as virtuous.
Faith Hebrews 11:1
Hope 1 Corinthians 13:13
Love 1 John 4:7
Wisdom Proverbs 9:10
Justice Isaiah 1:17
Courage Daniel 6:1-16
Moderation Philippians 4:5-8
Integrity Ephesians 4:15-16
Perseverance Philippians 3:13-16
Because of his concern over the loss of virtue, Socrates began to engage citizens, and students in a dialogue. He wanted the people to think about the great issues of the day, and the problems that faced the nation.
The result was predictable. Rather than esteem Socrates for his good work and insights into society, he was condemned to death for corrupting the youth. He wanted them to examine their own lives.
The technique Socrates used to get individuals to think was to ask probing questions in order to begin a dialogue. This is known as the Socratic Method. His goal was to educate (Lit. to lead out).
For Socrates, the starting point in a dialogue is to admit ignorance (being uninformed). Once a person admits their ignorance, the possibility is open to gain knowledge. With knowledge comes virtue, or the understanding of what is good and right.
In order to understand what a good form of behavior is, there must be knowledge. It is at this point the Church offers a unique perspective, for the Church can share revealed knowledge, the Word of God.
The Church can inform individuals about the ruin of man due to original sin, the redemption that is offered in Christ, and the hope of regeneration by the Holy Ghost. There is the love of God to share, and the virtues of the Christian life: honesty, justice, diligence, hard work, love, mercy, and grace.