Socratic and Biblical Wisdom

“But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? Man does not comprehend its worth; it cannot be found in the land of the living. The deep says, ‘It is not in me’; the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’ It cannot be bought with the finest gold, nor can its price be weighed in silver. It cannot be bought with the gold of Ophir, with precious onyx or sapphires. Neither gold nor crystal can compare with it, nor can it be had for jewels of gold. Coral and jasper are not worthy of mention; the price of wisdom is beyond rubies. The topaz of Cush cannot compare with it; it cannot be bought with pure gold. “Where then does wisdom come from? Where does understanding dwell? It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing, concealed even from the birds of the air. Destruction and Death say, ‘Only a rumor of it has reached our ears.’ God understands the way to it and he alone knows where it dwells, for he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. When he established the force of the wind and measured out the waters, when he made a decree for the rain and a path for the thunderstorm, then he looked at wisdom and appraised it; he confirmed it and tested it. And he said to man, ‘The fear of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.’” (Job 28:12-28)

After the Delphic oracle reported that there was no one in the world wiser than Socrates, Socrates, astonished, decided to test the claim. He went to various sorts of people reputed to be wise – politicians, poets, artisans – and attempted to have it shown that they were far wiser than he. However, in every case he found that those reputed to be wise were really not wise, but had mistaken their proficiency in one chosen area for a general quality of wisdom. The politician, wise in his own eyes and in those of his panderers, wound up hating Socrates for demonstrating his lack of wisdom. “[U]pon the strength of their poetry [the poets] believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise.” Likewise, the artisans “because they were good workmen though that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom” (Apology 21-22). For Socrates, “God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing.” Wisdom consists in a man “know[ing] that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing” (Apology 23).

In the course of his trial, Socrates exclaims, “Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you” (Apology 29). Keeping in mind that the “God” Socrates speaks of is the voice of the Delphic oracle, recall that Job had said “The fear of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.” For Socrates, to cease teaching philosophy, the love of wisdom, would be to dishonor God and embrace evil. Socrates even goes so far as to claim that he is “the gadfly of God,” a gift that God has given the State to arouse and persuade and reproach it as needed (Apology 30-31). From his youth he has heard a voice inside him which “always forbids but never commands [him] to do anything which [he is] going to do” (Apology 31).

The Preacher said, I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1:17-18) Certainly Socrates both brought and experienced vexation of spirit, grief, and sorrow. As one reads the dialogues, one sees time and again how the false wisdom of the Sophists continually throws men (sometimes even Socrates himself) into turmoil of soul. Eventually, the claims of false wisdom, the counsels of “the pretenders to wisdom” who advocate only what is expedient for the State’s rulers, cost Socrates his life. And yet, even at the hour of his death Socrates shows a wisdom that parallels biblical categories nicely. To his friend Crito’s attempt to get him out of prison, Socrates argues that one should not try to beat evil by doing evil oneself: “…we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to any one, whatever evil we have suffered from him” (Crito 49). Or, as the Apostle Paul put it centuries later, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else” (1 Thess. 5:15).

In facing his death, Socrates also shows wisdom. Having at his trial argued that “no one knows whether death, which men in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good” (Apology 29), Socrates later tells his disciples that the reason men may not take their own lives is because they are the possessions of the gods and it would be the height of effrontery for a possession to take its destiny into its own hands without the command of its owners (Phaedo 62). This sparks an intriguing conversation. Cebes asks his teacher to explain how the wise man, who communes with and is ruled by the gods in his pursuit of wisdom, could logically then desire to depart from such a life. The god-given pursuit of wisdom being the wise man’s master on earth, Simmias likewise asks Socrates, “what can be the meaning of a truly wise man wanting to fly away and lightly leave a master who is better than himself?” Socrates answers, “…I ought to be grieved at death, if were not persuaded in the first place that I am going to other gods who are wise and good…I do not grieve as I might have done, for I haev good hope that there is yet something remaining for the dead, and as has been said of old, some far better thing for the good than for the evil” (Phaedo 63).

“The real philosopher,” says Socrates, “has reason to be of good cheer when he is about to die, and that after death he may hope to obtain the greatest good in the other world…[the true philosopher] is always pursuing death and dying; and if this be so, and he has had the desire of death all his life long, why when his time comes should he repine at that which he has always been pursuing and desiring?” (Phaedo 63-64) Centuries later, Paul said it this way: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far…” (Philippians 1:21-23). Where Socrates does not quite measure up to Scripture, however, is in his belief that the philosopher seeks death because it means the dissolution of the connection between soul and body: “He would like, as far as he can, to get away from the body and to turn to the soul,” wherein alone can true knowledge of reality be found (Phaedo 64-65).

By contrast, for Paul the body is an indispensable part of (if I may say it this way) the wise man’s life: “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor. 4:10-11). We know that Christ’s death and resurrection was a foretaste of physical redemption (1 Cor. 15:20-21), that the whole physical creation groans in anticipation of its recreation (Rom. 8:22), and that we ourselves are to look forward to the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:23-25). For the Christian, then, it is not true that “if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body” (Phaedo 66). Aristotle was closer to Scripture on this point than Plato.

At any rate, here is another interesting Socratic parallel with Scripture. “Whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? Wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body…” (Phaedo 66). That’s not too much different from “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.” (James 4:1-2) and “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Again one is struck by Augustine’s idea that with only a change of a few words and phrases, Plato could have been a Christian. Perhaps not always a sound Christian (as with his deprecation of the body), but what Christian is always sound?

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