Jesus and Socrates—the Parallels
January 09, 2023
We don’t know much about Socrates. If we’re called upon to read his name aloud from print, we say what an embarrassed Michael Jackson said, that he had heard the name many times but had never seen it spelled out. How was he to know it was three syllables and not two? So, what do we know about So-Crates? We know he died from hemlock poisoning. We know he drank it himself, that he had been sentenced to die. And that’s about all we know, plain ‘ol people that we are.
Of course, if we have had some training on the topic, then we know more. We also know enough to say his name correctly. But most people are rank and file, unconcerned with Socrates because Socrates does not touch upon their daily lives—or if he does, they don’t know just how. They do know about Jesus, however, because Jesus is the lynchpin of the major religion. To be sure, much of what they know about Jesus is wrong, but they do have a lot of wannabe-facts at their disposal, some of which are true, whereas for Socrates they have almost nothing.
Simplify Greek history exponentially by knowing his relationship to other big names of the era. Socrates was one-on-one teacher to Plato, Plato was one-on-one teacher to Aristotle, and Aristotle was one-on-one teacher to Alexander the Great. There, doesn’t that help?
I was already delving into the unlikely. I was already drawing some parallels between Socrates and Jesus. Both had a way of buttonholing people, prodding them to think outside the box. Both attracted a good many followers in this way. Both were outliers to the general world of their time, and were looked upon askance for it. Both infuriated their ‘higher-ups’—so much so that both were consequently sentenced to death. Their venues were different, and so we seldom make the linkage, but linkage there is. As a result of auditing the Great Courses lecture series, I was beginning to play with the idea.
Imagine my satisfaction when I come across one of those professors, J. Rufus Fears, who has not only begun but has fully developed the idea in his lecture series entitled ‘A History of Freedom.’ Happy as a pig in mud I was, for it proved I was not crazy. Nearly all subsequent points are taken from his lecture, “Jesus and Socrates:”
They were both teachers, for one, Jesus of the spiritual and Socrates of the empirical. They both refused pay, a circumstance that in itself aroused the suspicion of the established system. (Victor V. Blackwell, a lawyer who defended many Witness youths in the World War II draft days, observed that local judges recognized only one sort of minister: those who “had a church” and “got paid”—“mercenary ministers,” he called them.)
Fears may be a bit too much influenced by evolving Christian ‘theology’—he speaks of Jesus being God, for instance, and the kingdom of God being a condition of the heart—but his familiarity with the details of the day, and the class structure social mores that both Jesus and Socrates’ transgressed against, is unparalleled. Jesus reduces the Law to two basic components: love of God and love of neighbor. This infuriates the Pharisees and Sadducees, because complicating the Law was their meal ticket, their reason for existence. After his Sermon on the Mount, “the crowds were astounded at his way of teaching, for he was teaching them as a person having authority, and not as their scribes.” Depend upon it: the scribes didn’t like him. Socrates, also, did the Sophist’s work—the paid arguers who ‘made the weaker argument look the stronger,’—better than they. They were jealous of him.
Neither Jesus nor Socrates encouraged participation in politics of the day. Jesus urged followers to be “no part of the world.” Socrates declared it impossible for an honest man to survive under the democracy of his time. Both thereby triggered establishment wrath, for if enough people followed their example, dropping out of contemporary life, where would society be?
Both Jesus and Socrates were put to death out of envy. Both had offended the professional class. Both became more powerful in death than in life. Both could have avoided death, but didn’t. Socrates could have backtracked, played upon the jury’s sympathy, appealed to his former military service. Jesus could have brought in witnesses to testify that he never said he was king of the Jews, the only charge that make Pilate sit up and take notice.
Both spoke ambiguously. In Socrates case, he was eternally asking questions, rather than stating conclusions. His goal—to get people to examine their own thinking. In Jesus case, it was “speak[ing]to them by the use of illustrations” because “the heart of this people has grown unreceptive, and with their ears they have heard without response, and they have shut their eyes, so that they might never see with their eyes and hear with their ears and get the sense of it with their hearts and turn back and I heal them.” He spoke ambiguously to see if he could cut through that morass, to make them work, to reach the heart.
What if Jesus were appear on the scene today and enter one of the churches bearing his name, churches where they don’t do as he said? Would they yield the podium to him? Or would they once again dismiss him as a fraud and imposter, putting him to death if he became too insistent, like their counterparts did the first time?
If Jesus is the basis of church, Socrates is no less the basis of university. His sayings had to be codified by Plato, his disciple, just as Jesus’ sayings had to be codified by some of his disciples. Thereafter, Plato’s student, Aristotle, had to turn them into organized form, founding the Academy—the basis of higher learning ever since. Professor Fears muses upon what would happen if Socrates showed up on campus in the single cloak he was accustomed to wearing, “just talking to students, walking around with them, not giving structured courses, not giving out a syllabus or reading list at the start of classes, not giving examination” at the end. Would they not call Security? And if by some miracle he did apply for faculty, which he would not because he disdained a salary, but if he did, you know they would not accept him. Where were his credentials? Yes, he had the gift of gab, they would acknowledge, but such was just a “popularity contest.” Where were his published works?
Similarly, where were Jesus’ published works? Neither Jesus nor Socrates wrote down a thing. It was left for Jesus’ disciples to write gospel accounts of his life. It was left for Plato to write of Socrates’ life. If either were to appear at the institutions supposedly representing their names, they would not be recognized. Shultz, the chronicler of early Watchtower history, recently tweeted that when he appends a few letters to his name, such as PhD, which he can truthfully can, his remarks get more attention than when he does not. He says it really shouldn’t be that way, but it is what it is. Both Jesus and Socrates would have been in Credential-Jail, neither having not a single letter to stick on the end of their name. It wouldn’t help for it to be known that each had but a single garment.
Today people are used to viewing “career” as the high road, “vocation” as the lower. Vocation is associated with working with ones’ hands. Fears turns it around. “Vocation” represents a calling. Jesus was literally called at his baptism: the heavens open up, and God says, “This is my son in whom I am well-pleased.” Socrates had a calling in that the god Apollo at Delphi said no one is wiser than he. Socrates took that to mean God was telling him to go out and prove it. “Career,” on the other hand, stems from a French word meaning “a highway,” a means of getting from one place to another, considerably less noble than “a calling,” a vocation.
We who are Jehovah’s Witnesses are quite used to pointing out that religion has run off the rails. What is interesting from these parallels is the realization that academia has no less run off the rails. Both have strayed far from their roots, and not for the better. Both have devolved into camps of indoctrination.
****** The bookstore