Allan Takes Aim Blog

Socrates and Jesus: revolutionary philosophers

Posted on: 15 September 2011


An edited version of the colum published in The Chronicle, Canberra, Tuesday, 13th September, 2011

Socrates, born Athens – 469 BC and Jesus, born 470 years later in Bethlehem, a West Bank Palestinian City approximately 8 kilometres from Jerusalem, are two of the world’s most quoted philosophers. Perhaps they are the most quoted because they hoped the revolutionary philosophies they espoused would change the world?

Yet much as they hoped to change the world neither left any written material. However, as more and more of the ancient civilisations in which they lived are uncovered, perhaps personal writings of both men will come to light? On the other hand perhaps they didn’t write anything because as great talkers they had little time left to write. Alternatively perhaps they didn’t think their philosophies would take on? Thus it is that to understand their philosophies we must rely on accounts that, allegedly, are accurate records of what they said.

So what philosphies did they create? In simple terms Socrates created Democracy; Jesus a religious philosophty now known as Christianity. But what do we know of Socrates’ philosophy? We are indebted to Plato, a fellow Athenian and philosopher, about what we know about Socrates. In the case of Jesus however, we are indebted to hundreds of scribes but in particular four gospel writers called Mathew, Mark, Luke and John who wrote about Him only after He was dead.

Naturally their philosophies were different: not a religious belief, Democracy supported the idea of people playing a part in their own governance; on the other hand the philosophy of Jesus, who claimed to be the son of God, gave birth to a religion called Christianity. In some respects both philosophies are similar. Needless to say neither the philososphy of Socrates nor Jesus has ever been universally accepted. Indeed people who believe in one and/or the other do not always enjoy each others company, as reading of history will verify.

But apart from creating new philosphies, Socrates and Jesus had something else in common: both died because they offended the state. Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the minds of Athenian youth and of “not believing in the gods of the state” and sentenced to death by having to drink hemlock.

Nor were Socrates and Jesus alike. Socrates liked the good life which has given rise to the story that after taking his dose of hemlock, he offered this piece of wisdom to his mourners: “I go to die, you to live. God only knows which is the better journey.”

And this is only part of the Socrates story. What was the corruption he referred to? The corruption he referred to was excess, over-indulgence and the selfish pursuit of material gain. Strangely however, as if in contradiction of his philososphy, he questioned using democracy as an ideological banner.

Socrates also questioned the idea of city walls and glittering statues. If they don’t make us happy how useful are they, he asked? Clearly too, he was centuries ahead in thought as we now seem to be adopting, albeit not conciously, the philosophy entrenched in the second section of the Declaration of Independence which reads: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As for Jesus, in His philosophy He expressed many of the same ideas as Socrates although unlike Socrates he did not think there were many Gods  something that raises an interesting idea: if there is an after life and Socrates met and talked to Jesus I’d love to have a recording of their conversation.

But at a more earthly and local level, Socrates and Jesus suffered death as a result of berating the emebers of their respective Assemblies for their failings,. Well, in a way things haven’t changed much: speak up and as some people in the ACT can testify to, while one might not suffer hemlock poisoning, or crucifiction for criticising Assembly Members, one can suffer ostracism or what might be called social death.

Which leads me to me ask: on which rung of the philosophic democracy ladder do you think the ACT Asssembly stands and is there a Socrates or Jesus among its Members?

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14 Responses to "Socrates and Jesus: revolutionary philosophers"

Alas! All too true. On the subject of the ACT Legislative Assembly, one lady, Mary Porter, who has no official office outside the Assembly, is so devoted that she is out every week meeting her constituents in shopping centres. She is a member of the Labor Party (no-one’s perfect) but, as her (lack of) political “career” attests, she is more concerned with doing her job than with “politics”. Ah, would that there were more with a similar attitude!

Perhaps we’ll strike lucky at the next ACT election and Instead of attracting a number of people using the campaign as a stage for showing their acting talents we might get enough people interested in actually working on behalf of the people they represent.

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I love Socrates i started reading him thanks to Plato. I live Jusus deepely too. We need to be beetter informed about these great men of the past and make them celebrities of today. This should bring many of us together through the world and help to make this planet a very much better place to all of us end we all enjoy live healthier, beter and longer.

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Minor correction. I believe that the phrase is inalienable rights, although it hardly changes the meaning. Also, it is entirely possible that Jesus was illiterate. He is called the son of a carpenter but I closer reading of the original text shows that the meaning is closer to laborer, a kind of laborer associated with stone. So Jesus was a common laborer and very unlikely to be able to read or write. I’m uncertain of the provenance of the Platonic writings but in the case of the Gospels we have no earlier copies than about 200 – 400 years after Jesus death. Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus is a wonderful reference (and a good read) showing how much of what we think is in the English bible isn’t in the “original” earliest manuscripts.

Scott, Your minor correction is wrong. The document in the National Archives ,Washington says UNalienable. By the way I’m opening a new website, The Sanity Games, later in September.

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