by Bill Nugent
Socrates (ca. 470-399 BC) is not just another “dead white male” despised by our university elite but a man whose philosophical breakthroughs reverberate down through the centuries and profoundly affect us today. Athens in the fifth century BC was the age of Pericles. The grandiose construction projects undertaken by Pericles such as the Parthenon were being built during Socrates’ lifetime.
Philosophically, Athens was in a time of confusion, flux and disarray. The pre-socratic philosophers, namely the sophists such as Protagorus, Gorgias and Thrasymachus were teaching moral relativism in their philosophical schools. The term “sophist” means “wise man” and these wise men implicitly regarded their own personal wisdom as the foundation of understanding right behavior. Protagorus, Gorgias and Thrasymachus were not native to Athens and had traveled extensively. In their travels they had seen that what was forbidden in one culture was permitted or even encouraged in another. This led them to the erroneous conclusion that morals are relative and therefore there is no foundation of truth or firm way of determining right and wrong.
The term “sophistry” today has negative connotations as well it should. Since the sophists believed morals were relative they descended into philosophical pragmatism which is the idea that the best philosophy is that which is practical or that which “works” regardless of its moral implications. Pragmatism is very popular in western civilization today. The pragmatist philosophy of American philosopher William James is a flowering of modernist sophistry. In the West we now have a situation similar to that of ancient Athens.
The ancient sophists charged high fees for their courses of instruction and this too was a departure from Athenian tradition which had always maintained that philosophers not charge for their instruction. Socrates was trained by the sophists but could only afford the short course. The sophists taught rhetoric which is the art of verbal persuasion. Since the sophists made no firm truth claims so they just taught how to persuade. Each man made up his own truth and the more clever could persuade others. Socrates saw the emptiness of this and feared for his city that the sophists, through their relativism, would destroy the foundation of morals and eventually lead to an extinction of ethics and a return to barbarism.
Socrates’ approach to the situation was to look to the intellect to try to discover the foundation of truth. He looked to the human conscience. Socrates had stumbled onto one of God’s ways of giving revelation to man. The Bible in Romans 2:14-15 tells us that Gentiles who do not have God’s written book, the Bible, do have their consciences which tell them right and wrong. All people throughout human history have the inward witness of conscience which, regardless of cultural training, gives witness to God’s will. The Bible also teaches that all people have the witness of nature (Psalm 19:1-3; Romans 1:19-20) which reveals things about God. Socrates had no Bible but was not totally without access to revelation of God’s will. God has given light to all people including Socrates. Socrates did his best to live by the light he had. I do not claim to know whether or not Socrates ever came to true repentance and received eternal life. I do believe that he made philosophical breakthroughs that brought about moral reform.
Socrates preferred argumentation over rhetoric. He sought to tease out a solid definition of virtue. His form of argumentation is called “dialectic.” Dialectic is the practice of examining statements logically through question and answer. Thus arose the famous“Socratic questioning.” You can imagine how annoyed the older sophist philosophers were by this smart young man asking embarrassing questions. They could not answer his questions and their inadequate answers revealed the logical absurdities of the sophist positions. Socrates changed the course of philosophy and is a hero to those of us who stand up for principle against persuasive demagogues. Later on Athens lost a war with Sparta and in that turmoil Socrates’ enemies were able to level charges against him which resulted in a death sentence.
The parallels between Socrates’ Athens and contemporary western civilization are inescapable. Universities are currently rife with sophistry. Moral relativism, the idea that there is no real right or wrong, that each person makes up his own morals is taught in the college classroom. At first glance moral relativism appears to be open minded and tolerant but since it provides no basis for right behavior it threatens the erasure of ethics and a return to barbarism.
There are three worldviews:
Right now there are millions of young people who see themselves as being in the same position as Socrates. These young people see through the sophistry of the university elite. The difference is that while Socrates had no Bible these young people are born again Christians who know their Bibles and receive from the Bible a clear instruction of God’s morality. There is an army of these holy Socrates’ going forth, Bible in hand, to give western civilization absolute truth, the same absolute truth on which the West was originally founded. This truth is the Christian Gospel.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came in fulfillment of over 300 prophecies written centuries before His birth. No other figure in all of history can make this claim. The fact that Jesus would come to die for our sins and then be resurrected from the dead was foretold by Old Testament prophecies. These prophecies give Jesus Christ supernatural proof of His authority to give us absolute truth.