Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Socrates and Jesus by J. M. Wheeler 1890
SOCRATES AND JESUS by J. M. Wheeler 1890
See also The Philosophy of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle -200 Books on DVDrom
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Rousseau, the prince of sentimentalists, never sentimentalised with less sense than when he wrote the words so often quoted by our Christian friends: "If the life and death of Socrates were those of a sage, the life and death of Jesus were those of a God." The words upon which our friends the enemy lay stress are absolutely unmeaning. How does a god live? How could a god die? All the pathos, all the interest even, that circles around the story of Jesus is there because, whatever the theological dogma may be, in point of fact he is regarded as a man. It is this alone which gives any point to his being offered as an example to man. Any infinite and omnipotent being could never be any example for a limited one. To compare any man with God would be absurdity— in the eyes of a believer, blasphemy. All that is praiseworthy in a man becomes paltry when attributed to a god; and thus Jesus is really lowered by those who seek to elevate him above all other men.
I have little faith in the historic parallels with which so many, since Plutarch, have sought to make history and biography interesting. No two men, no two events are exactly alike; and drawing a parallel often means simply pointing out items of resemblance and omitting the points of difference.
A comparison of Christ and Socrates has often been made, some of the early Christian fathers themselves tracing a parallel between the idol of their reverence and the man most generally looked up to by the Pagans of antiquity. It is easy to point to certain features common to their stories. Both were moral reformers. Both taught openly. Both inculcated righteousness. Both aimed at an ideal perfection, and taught that it was better to suffer than to do wrong. Both were accused of impiety and put to death, and though neither of them wrote personally, this was done for them by disciples who vastly extended their influence after their lifetime.
Some have sought to point out mere particular resemblances. They have compared the calling of Peter with that of Alciabades, and the conversation with Theodota the heteira with that of Jesus and the woman of Samaria, the arraignment of Socrates before the Dicastery with that of Christ before the Sanhedrin, and the scene in the prison between the Athenian sage and his disciples and that said to have taken place in an upper chamber in Jerusalem. Such comparisons are more ingenious than edifying. Racial diversity alone would suffice to make any real comparison of Socrates and Christ a contrast. The one was a Greek the other a Jew; the one primarily a moralist, the other primarily a religionist—the one an educator the other a dogmatist. Socrates too, as we find him in the pages of Xenophon and Plato, was an old man, a married man, with that strong test of philosophy a shrewish wife, and a humorist withal. Socrates was blest with that fine faculty of humor of which there is no sign in the gospel Jesus. He had a kindly appreciation of the incongruities of life and the absurdities of the human mind and conduct, which led to his accustomed good-natured irony, never degenerating into cynicism. Socrates had irony, Jesus invective. Of the Athenian it had been well said, "He made himself a fool that others by his folly might be made wise; he humbled himself to the level of those among whom his work lay that he might raise some among them to his own level."
Socrates has been accused of neglecting his wife. But in this he must be judged by the customs of his time. At least he bore her nagging good humoredly. His asking that she should be led away when she came weeping to his dungeon, was no more unkind than the saying of Jesus when his mother and brethren wished to speak with him. "Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?" and pointing to his disciples saying "Behold my mother and my brethren." Socrates was accused of detaching youths from their parents, but Jesus emphatically said he had come to set children against their parents; and when one asked permission to bury his father, replied "Let the dead bury their dead."
Socrates was essentially a sensible practical teacher. All his conversations had a bearing on practice. His conviction that ignorance of the good and evil human life was the source of all practical error, made him insist on obtaining real knowledge.
Jesus was a religionist, Socrates was a philosopher. He gave us the word philosophy. Emerson says of his disciple: "Plato is philosophy and philosophy Plato." The methods of the two teachers are dissimilar. The one dogmatises, "I am the way, the truth and the life." The other gives out no doctrines, but he questions, probes to the core and seeks to elicit from all he meets what it is they really know and what they do not know, what they really mean and what they fancy they mean, and thus destroy all false conceit of knowledge. It is safe to say the Socratic method of education by dialectic, question and answers has done far more good than all the dogmatism in the world. Knowledge was the watchword of Socrates, Faith that of Christ. Know yourself, and in consequence govern yourself, taught the poor polytheist and benighted idolater, as even Priestley regarded him. Seek the kingdom of God, taught the prophet of Nazareth, whom his worshippers believe to be very God of very God.
It may be said Socrates despised natural science. So did Jesus, who was so ignorant of the inviolability of natural law that he taught that faith could remove mountains and cast them into the sea. If Socrates did not run directly counter to the Greek mythologies, so also Jesus endorsed the fabulous stories of Lot's wife and Jonah and the whale. Jesus accepted his ancestral religion as much as Socrates, though each thought himself commissioned to reform it. Both were prosecuted for the attempt, and deemed impious blasphemers by the orthodox of their time.
The great, the essential contrast between Socrates and Christ is that the one character is real, the other ideal. I do not say that all that is told of the Athenian "cross-examining missionary," as Grote calls him, is true, or that all that is told of the prophet of Nazareth is false. But the records concerning Socrates are untainted with that legendary supernaturalism attributed to Jesus. We know not one brief year out of thirty, but something like thirty years out of double the number. We have, moreover, the witness of adversaries, or at any rate caricaturists, in Aristophanes and other comic writers. It has been doubted how far the merit of the Platonic Dialogues are due to Socrates himself, and how far to Plato. What is certain is that their impulse came from Socrates. The pictures given by Plato and Xenophon of their common master are, in the main, in accordance, differing only as drawings from the same original by two authors radically different in spirit and in character. The Athenian is pictured before us, not as a supernatural wonder-worker, but as a man with human virtues and human frailties. We see the grotesque Silenic features, the snub nose, thick jesting lips, prominent eyes, round stomach, and sturdy frame of the Athenian cross-examiner; we see him shoe-less, shirtless and ragged, yet unmistakably a man; we know him as a citizen, a husband, a patriot, a prisoner, a hard drinker, a droll, and a martyr. If we reverence him, it is because we know his defects and reverence him in spite of them. Who can say we have any such portrait of Jesus? The numerous contradictory lives of Christ are sufficient to refute any such contention. On their own showing the gospels give but scanty incidents in the short career ot one who is never seen in the essential positions, for an example, of husband and father. Moreover, Xenophon and Plato substantially agree, despite the fact that the former, a man of the world, regards Socrates from the practical side, while Plato, a contemplator, regarded him rather from the theoretic side. Yet both testify from personal knowledge to his contented poverty, his integrity, his good-natured irony, and his unremitting interest for the improvement of man and society, and his serenity and playful equanimity to the last. Xenophon and Plato were extremely diverse authors, while the gospels, although said to be inspired by the same divine being, abound in manifold contradictions.
Jesus in some respects looks superior to Socrates just because he is an ideal. It is evident, for example, from St. Matthew, that the earliest conception of him was as sent "only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." To the Syrophoenician woman he says it is not mete the children's bread should be cast to dogs. Yet in the appendix to Mark, added after Christianity had been spread by Paul among the Gentiles, he is idealised and made to say "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved; he that believeth not shall be damned." Evidently the earlier Jesus was a Jew of the Jews as much as Socrates was a Greek of the Greeks.
Of the Gospel of John it may truly be said "The trail of the serpent is over it all." What critic who has compared the discourses attributed to Jesus in John's Gospel with the Johannine epistles, can for a moment think Jesus ever used such phrases as "I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth in me shall never thirst." "Whosoever eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life." "All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers." "I am the way, the truth and the life." Such phrases bear in themselves a token of being the beliefs of after ages. They are as much inventions as the speeches attributed by Livy to the Roman generals. If Plato Platonised Socrates, still more did the writers of the fourth gospel Johannise Jesus.
The ideal character of Christ is well seen in Justin Martyr, a Christian father, who lived before the compilation of the gospels, and who is the first of many who has drawn a comparison between Socrates and Christ. The tenth chapter of his Second Apology is entitled "Christ compared with Socrates," and he therein distinctly says "that Christ was partially known by Socrates" "for he was and is the Word [Logos] who is in every man." Only philosophers could be expected to worship the abstract and ideal Logos, hence it was identified with "the man Christ Jesus," a man of whom strictly speaking nothing whatever is known. If however we take the Gospel narrative of Jesus as having a historic basis, we must allow that the character of Socrates is more natural, more human. The difference between the son of Sophroniscus and the Carpenter's wife's son is the difference between a humorous philosopher and a fanatic.
One word in conclusion. The task of pointing out flaws in a character held in veneration is an ungracious one. It is only because Jesus is set up as an idol and placed on a preposterous pre-eminence above all others, that justice demands a scrutiny of his claims. To single out one man as the sole Savior of the'world is to do injustice to all its benefactors. Before him men like Buddha, Confucius, Laotse, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno and Epicurus contributed to the world's welfare. Since his time to many of his own followers, to many too who rejected his claims, humanity owes a deeper debt of gratitude. To place one man, and that a bachelor of whose life so little is known, above all the rest, as a perfect example, is to stultify human morality and sap the springs of self-reliance and progress.
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