Philosophy against Misosophy


Gregory Bahnsen


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Foundations of Christian Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective, edited by Gary North, Ross House Books, Vallecito, CA, 1979, 191-239.

November 2, 2011 

The Unsettled and Complex Character of Apologetics

The Basic Question of Method

The Socratic Outlook

The Christian Perspective

Paul’s Apologetic Method: Acts 17

An Overview of the History of Apologetics

The Reformation of Apologetics 

Socrates or Christ: The Reformation of Christian Apologetics (continued)

Greg Bahnsen


The Socratic Outlook

In Plato’s eyes, Socrates was not a mere sage, cosmologist, or Sophist; he was the philosopher par excellence.15  Plato’s esteem is manifest in his description of Socrates as “the finest, most intelligent, and moral man of his generation.”16  It was clear even to the ancients that Socrates’ influence was sure to be weighty, as evident in the testimony of Epictetus: “Even now, although Socrates is dead, the memory of what he did or said while still alive is just as helpful or even more so to men.”17  

And judging from the history of philosophy, Epictetus was correct.  Commending his immanentistic motif, Cicero taught that “Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the heavens.”18  Commending his foreshadowing of the Renaissance spirit, Erasmus placed Socrates among the saints and prayed “Sancte Socrates, ora pro nobis!” [Holy Socrates: pray for us!]19  Commending his anticipation of Kant’s emphasis upon epistemic subjectivity, Werner Jaeger extolled him as “the greatest teacher in European history.”20  And commending his agreement with the modern spirit of autonomy, Antony Flew presents Socrates’ discussion in Euthyphro as a paradigm of philosophic argument and progress.21  Socrates provided a foretaste of Idealism’s resolution of the debate between Parmenides (static logic) and Heraclitus (historical flux), and yet by teaching the role of prediction in the notion of knowledge, Socrates looked ahead to Pragmatism; his independent spirit and reliance upon an inner voice were a forecast of Existentialism, while his method of critical, dialectical questioning anticipated linguistic Analysis.22  Obviously his influence has been pervasive even though his apology before the Athenian jury did not carry the day.  “Indeed, his real defense, as Plato reports it, was directed to future generations.”23  Throughout those generations Socrates’ seminal teaching has gained an extensive hearing among intellectual leaders, and through these implicit disciples Socrates has even exercised sway over the major defenders of the Christian faith.

Notwithstanding the fact that Socrates is popularly remembered per se as a philosopher, the comparison between his method of defense and that of Paul (or other scriptural writers) is not an uneven one.  For Socrates was an intensely religious thinker (despite the accusation against him of atheism—which, in Athens, was closely allied to the charge of treason against the democracy).24  Socrates was religiously motivated and aimed to provide a religious apologetic.  He viewed himself as divinely commissioned to be “the Athenian gadfly.”  In the Apology, as related through Plato, Socrates recounted how he would preface his critical discussions with men in Athens by asking if they did not care for the perfection of their souls.  Then Socrates explained to the jury: “For know that the god commands me to do this, and I believe that no greater good ever came to pass in the city than my service to the god” (30a).  His divine mission to teach philosophy so as to perfect men’s souls was deadly serious; with words remarkably like those of Peter in Acts 5:29, Socrates declared (29d),

If you say to me, Socrates, this time . . . you shall be let off, but upon one condition, that you are not to enquire and speculate in this way any more, and that if you are caught doing so again you shall die;–if this was the condition on which you let me go, I shall reply: Men of Athens I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy . . . .25

So dedicated was Socrates to his divine calling that he would not accept his legal option of exile as an alternative to execution (cf. Apology, 37; Crito); he explained that to leave Athens would be a betrayal of his divine mission as a philosopher.  In the Phaedo dialogue, Plato recounted the final conversations between Socrates and his friends shortly before the death sentence was executed upon him.  Here we gain insight to the high regard Socrates had for philosophy.  He says only those souls purified from bodily taint through philosophy (which aims to behold truth with the eye of the soul) can escape the cycle of reincarnation and pass into the company of the gods.  Hence philosophy is no mere academic discipline; it is a way of life and the path to salvation.  In philosophy, then, Socrates found his own self-established version of “the way, the truth, and the life.”

Salvation would be found, held Socrates, through the exercise of one’s rational soul.  For Socrates, the human mind is a spark of the wisdom that is immanent in the universe.26  Socrates states in the Alcibiades (133c), “Can we mention anything more divine about the soul than what is concerned with knowledge and thought?  Then this aspect of it resembles God, and it is by looking toward that and understanding all that is divine—God and wisdom—that a man will most fully know himself.”  Elsewhere he declared, “The soul is most like that which is divine” (Phaedo, 80b).  The logos was present within man, and as Jaeger rightly observed, “in Socrates’ view, the soul is the divine in man.”  After a detailed examination of Socrates’ view of the soul W. K. C. Guthrie wrote,

To sum up, Socrates believed in a god who was the supreme mind . . . . Men moreover had a special relation with him in that their own minds . . . were, though less perfect than the mind of God, of the same nature, and worked on the same principles.  In fact, if one looked only to the areté of the human soul and disregarded its shortcomings, the two were identical.21

In the Platonic dialogue, Symposium, Socrates taught that the supreme life is that of the soul’s contemplation of ultimate beauty in its absolute form; hereby a life of intellectual communion paves the way for sharing in the divinity of love.  In the inner center of mental contemplation the soul encounters deity and discovers ethical virtue.  As Van Til notes:

He could find no footing for morality except in the soul as somehow participant in the laws of another, a higher world. . . . Socrates sought for a principle of validity by means of his appeal to the logos ... by means of the idea of man’s participation in deity or in an abstract principle of rationality, the logos.28

Whereas the Council of Chalcedon declared that in Christ the eternal and temporal are united without intermixture, Socrates proclaimed that the eternal and temporal are combined in man by way of admixture.29  And so it is that Socrates was the prophet of the religion of immanent reason.  He had a divine commission and a message to be proclaimed even upon pain of death—a message of salvation through the incarnate logos, that is, the rational soul within man.  All of life and every thought had to be brought under obedience to the lordship of man’s reason.  Let there be no doubt then, that Socrates was a religious apologist, just as J. T. Forbes recognized:

By the testimony of his principal disciples, the whole life of Socrates was pervaded by the thought of God. . . . It was the sane religion of one who had found a faith that could bear the examination of his mind. . . . As he comes before us, it is as one who has reasoned and wrought his way to a rational creed.30

With such a view of man’s rational faculty as outlined above, Socrates was quite naturally led to exalt the intellect, to commend a neutral methodology, and to insist upon autonomy as an epistemological standard.

In the Protagoras, Socrates established that virtue is not a skill, but is knowledge; consequently, virtue can be taught.  The same conclusion was wrought in the Meno dialogue, where virtue is identified with knowledge, and knowledge is taken to be a gift of the gods.  The result of Socrates’ stress upon the intellect and his equation of virtue and knowledge was the doctrine that no man knowingly does evil.  This point is argued in the Gorgias.  Socrates said that all men desire to act for the sake of some good, and hence any man who acts wrongly must be acting in ignorance of the evil he does (in which case punishment should aim at rehabilitation through education).  If “virtue is the knowledge of the good,” then an unvirtuous act is one done without knowledge of the good; thus no man deliberately or knowingly does evil.  Wrongdoing must be involuntary or, ignorant.  In this Socrates declared, against the testimony of Paul in Romans 7, that men are not totally depraved—in which case man’s reason is not defective due to the domination of sin.  Indeed, just the opposite: man’s intellect, as the faculty whereby knowledge is gained, must be viewed as virtuous.  Socrates exalted the intellect of man as the primary faculty, one which as a charioteer must hold in check the horses of will and passion (Phaedrus); all the particulars of human experience must be subordinated under the ordering domination of the reason.  Therefore, according to Socratic anthropology, man’s reason is not steeped in sin, but man’s virtuous intellect keeps control over his irrational drives.  One can and must trust his reason to guide him toward the good.

There are three notable characteristics of knowledge in the view of Socrates.  First, as he argued in the Meno, in the course of endless reincarnations, men’s souls have become acquainted with the eternal forms and thus know all things.  When man comes to know something in this life, then, it is not a matter of acquiring some new thing but simply the recollection of something previously known.  Hence knowledge is innate in man.  

Secondly, we find out in the Theaetetus that mere sense perception is inadequate as a source of knowledge.  There must be something which is exempt from the constant, Heraclitean flux of historical particulars that are perceived by the senses; otherwise there could be no knowledge whatsoever.  The world of sense experience is, as recognized by Heraclitus, in continual movement or alteration.  Yet insofar as this world is known, it must be viewed against an unchanging set of concepts having the character of the Parmenidean One.  The principle of unity as well as the principle of diversity must be incorporated in knowledge.  The absolute flux of historical particulars, all diverse from each other, would be unknowable; however, the supremely knowable, unifying forms or concepts of reason are purely abstract and void of content.  Therefore, knowledge is a combination of both the changing and the unchanging.  Knowledge combines sense perception with an ordering judgment of the mind. Sense perception triggers a recollection of permanent, immutable forms of the non-material realm above history (cf. Phaedo, 75e).  Socrates’ characteristic contribution to the advance of epistemology, said Aristotle, was twofold: (1) induction, and (2) general definition.31  Socrates was inductive because he moved from the many or particulars to the one or universal; yet he aimed at logical precision by organizing the particulars under general principles.32  Induction led to general definition, for a definition consists of a collection of essential (rather than accidental) attributes which are jointly sufficient to delineate one class of objects from another.  This general definition was called the form (eidos) of the class, its essential nature.  In a unique and forceful way Socrates (as spokesman for Plato) dialectically combined continuity (general principles) and discontinuity (particular facts) in his epistemological theory.

Thirdly, according to Socrates (again in the Meno) knowledge requires the ability to give the grounds upon which an answer is established—the logos of any ousia mentioned.  True opinion is insufficient as a criterion of knowledge, for like the statue of Daedalus, unless it is tied down it walks away.  Holding an opinion which is in fact correct, but being unable to give a reason for that opinion, does not qualify as knowledge (cf. Symposium, 202a).  The proper grounding of true opinion is to be found in recollection of the truth, a kind of intuitive or direct apprehension of the absolute idea or form.  Hereby true opinion is converted into completely adequate knowledge.

Since Socrates viewed man’s reason as normal or untainted by the effects of sin, because he had a rationalized view of knowledge and the inward adequacy of man’s mind, he was led to extol intellectual independence and neutrality in the search for truth.  The philosopher supposedly has learned to avoid the deceptions of sense perception and to refrain from following the untrustworthy leading of emotions; for the philosopher, the soul relies on its own intellectual capability.  In the Phaedo, Socrates taught that the soul “will calm passion, and follow reason, and dwell in the contemplation of her, beholding the true and divine” (84a).  Expanding upon this in the Crito, Socrates described the rational man as an independent thinker who is neutral in his approach to truth.  The philosopher should be a completely detached, rational thinker who refuses to heed popular opinion in order to follow after the truth wherever it may be.  Here we find the self-sufficient, impartial, intellectual.  Hear the Socratic exhortation:

My dear Crito, . . . we must examine the question whether we ought to do this or not; for I am not only now but always a man who follows nothing but the reasoning which on consideration seems to me best. . . . Then, most excellent friend, we must not consider at all what the many will say of us, but what he knows about right and wrong, the one man, and truth herself will say.33

It is significant that, having claimed that he followed nothing but reason in his intellectual queries, Socrates came to the conclusion of his line of thought and said, “Then, Crito, let be, and let us act in this way, since it is in this way that God leads us.”34  Reason’s leading is tacitly assumed to be God’s leading—in which case the philosopher really is inwardly sufficient, and therefore he is in need of no transcendent revelation in order to carry out the epistemological enterprise.  Moreover, nothing could be a more secure method of countenancing and vindicating God’s thoughts than utter self-reliance upon one’s reasoning ability.  To such intellectual independence and self-confidence Socrates was dedicated, advocating that men should follow the critical test of reason alone: “The life not tested by criticism is not worth living,” he declared in his Apology (38a).  Dogmatism is to be forever banished from philosophy in favor of a completely detached, impartial, neutral search for truth and reality.  In short, conclude Peterfreund and Denise: “The procedures of analysis themselves must be metaphysically neutral, in the sense that they involve the testing of philosophical proposals by universal standards of reason. . . . This feature of neutrality is well illustrated in the dialogues of Plato.”35

The motto which Socrates set forth to the world was the Delphic inscription, “Know thyself’ (e.g., Philebus, 48c), from which it is evident that his challenge to relativistic and agnostic Sophism did not include renunciation of the anthropocentricity of the Sophists.  Socrates countered the scepticism of the Sophists by stressing rational, inward self-sufficiency as the crucial foundation of epistemology.  Socrates took the autonomous man as his starting point—the man who, as a law unto himself, can adequately arrive at self-knowledge through rational introspection and from that base move out to comprehend the truth beyond him.  The Sophist, Protagoras, said, “Man is the measure of all things,” meaning that all sense experience is subjective and all laws are mere conventions.  That perspective led to scepticism and cynicism.  In order to restore objectivity to knowledge, Socrates appealed to reason, but reason which was nevertheless man-centered or autonomous, just as it was for the Sophists.

Thus, by appealing to reason, that is to the universal aspect in man, Socrates saved the objectivity of both knowledge and ethics.  He saved both because saving one is, in effect, saving the other.  Saving knowledge is saving virtue, for knowledge is virtue.  Thus Socrates was a “restorer of faith.” . . . There is only one remedy for the ills of thought, and that is, more thought.  If thought, in its first inroads, leads, as it always does, to scepticism and denial, the only course is, not to suppress thought, but to found faith upon it.  Socrates agreed with the Sophists that the truth must be my truth, but mine “in my capacity as a rational being.”36

Socrates did not take an approach fundamentally different from the Sophists; he simply placed faith in man’s autonomous intellect (as a spark from the wisdom or logos above the material world). Reason is a divine element in man, worthy of religious trust and devotion. The Sophists had not heeded this gospel, this good news which saves the epistemological enterprise. “Socrates was destined to restore order out of chaos because, though with Sophists appealing to the self, he appealed to the self as carrying within itself the universal principle of reason and order.”37 Like the Sophists, Socrates began with man and centered his attention on man;38 unlike the Sophists, he placed supreme confidence in reason as something within man which participates in the abstract and universal laws of a higher world.39

Thus it was appropriate that the Danish irrationalist, Søren Kierkegaard, characterized Socrates as having a “passion of inwardness.”  While Socrates exalted reason and Kierkegaard deprecated its ultimate usefulness, they both found it necessary to begin their respective philosophies with man’s self-sufficient, inward experience of eternity in time.  Man’s inward autonomy was crucial to Socratic thinking.  Van Til explains that “the Socratic spirit of Inwardness” is “the concentration of all interpretation upon man as the final reference point.”40  Socrates took the knowledge of himself to be so clear that he could use it as the basis for intelligibly interpreting the world outside him.  Man’s mind supposedly participates in the abstract principle of absolute truth; a knowledge of the forms is innate to man.  Consequently, to understand anything at all, man has to look to himself and autonomously interpret his experience in the authoritative light of his own reason.

“Socrates sought to answer the sceptics in his day by thinking of the individual soul as participant in an objective world of intelligence”; however, as entrapped in the prison of the body, man’s soul (said Plato) has to be lifted to this world of light by Diotima the inspired.41  Man in his individuality, man as discontinuous from others because of his particular body, man in his character as participant in the irrational flux of history, is made the sovereign judge of truth by Socrates.  But in order to determine the truth for himself, this man must somehow loosen the shackles of the body and philosophically contemplate the abstract, universal forms of the world of pure being.  In the long run, as Antony Flew has observed, knowledge for Socrates ceases to have any connection with the historical world.42  In the Phaedo, Socrates says that the philosopher who seeks knowledge is always pursuing death, seeing that the body hinders the soul’s search for knowledge; the attempt to apprehend the forms and thereby find knowledge is an attempt to leave behind the historical world of particulars.  Therefore, Van Til rightly parallels Socrates to his Sophist opponents:

The objectivity for knowledge and ethics . . . which Socrates found by appealing to reason as the universal aspect in man, turns out to be an empty form, and there is no connection of this abstract universal with particulars except in terms of an irrational principle.  In other words, Socrates, as well as the Sophists, has finally come back to the realm of pure contingency.  Thus we are back to the Sophistic notion that in practice there is no known validity to any moral law except what man, irrational in his individuality, is willing to approve.43

Making man epistemologically autonomous requires the combination of rationality and irrationality.  For historical, particular man to know anything he would finally have to cease being an individual man, and for knowledge to be grasped by individual man it would have to cease being universally objective truth in some suprahistorical realm.  Socrates attempted to make man the measure of truth, thereby trying to combine oil and water—trying to mix universally rational truth into irrationally particularized (historical) man.  The autonomy involved in the Socratic “passion for inwardness” could lead to nothing but a dialectical epistemology.

Regarding Socratic inwardness, Van Til says, “This principle is that the ultimate distinctions between true and false, right and wrong, are to be made by man as ultimate.”44  Perhaps this anthropocentric, autonomous epistemology is nowhere more clearly expressed by Socrates than in the Euthyphro dialogue.  The Euthyphro portrays Socrates shortly before his trial in Athens.  Socrates, having been charged with corrupting the youth and with religious offenses, happened to meet Euthyphro, who was piously bringing charges against his own father, at the Porch of King Archon.  Socrates asked Euthyphro to instruct him in order that he might more adequately defend himself against Meletus in court.  Socrates inquired as to the distinction between piety and impiety.  When Euthyphro justified the piety of what he was doing to his father by appealing to the fact that Zeus had punished his own father, Cronos, for committing a similar crime, Socrates treated the answer as merely one more report among many of what happens in history.  There is nothing special about the activity of the gods.  What is needed, said Socrates, is not an example of piety, but a general statement of the essential characteristic of piety.  Indeed, general knowledge is crucial for correctly identifying the particular cases.  Hence Euthyphro offered a definition which is formally more adequate:  “What is pleasing to the gods is pious, and what is not pleasing to them is impious.”  Then the crucial reply of the dialogue was rendered by Socrates:  Do the gods love piety because it is pious, or is it pious because the gods love it?  Socrates holds that piety has certain characteristics which make it pious in itself—irrespective of what the gods may think about it.  Thus man should seek a knowledge of piety (or anything else) by self-sufficient, autonomous investigation into the nature of things, not by relying upon the actions, attitudes, or revelation of the gods.  At best, the word or opinion of the gods is just one hypothesis among many to be confirmed or discomfirmed by the rational man.  Man is the ultimate judge or discerner of goodness, truth, and the like; as such, he can and must critically scrutinize even the opinions of the gods.  By what standard should truth or knowledge be measured?  The rational intellect of man, not the revelation of the gods.  To find the truth, man’s soul must look to itself; to regard the word of an authority as anything more than incidental information would conflict with the very idea of man’s knowledge as sufficient to itself.

Here is illustrated, then, the Socratic exaltation of the intellect, the absolute requirement of impartial or neutral investigation for the truth, and the final epistemological standard of sheer autonomy.  Socrates was the prophet of the religion of sovereign, self-sufficient, authoritative reason; to put it as Werner Jaeger does, Socrates was

the apostle of moral liberty, bound by no dogma, fettered by no traditions, standing free on his own feet, listening only to the inner voice of conscience—preaching the new religion of this world, and a heaven to be found in this life by our own spiritual strength, not through grace but through tireless striving to perfect our own nature.45

The religion of this world has a definite doctrine of authority; whether in epistemology or any other field, the voice of authority must be found in man himself.  Socrates would not have man relinquish his autonomy at any cost.  If man is to follow the gods, it must be on man’s own terms—namely, that the gods first be scrutinized and approved by the rational judgment of man.  In Athens, the views of deity were expressed through the public opinion of the democracy.  Socrates resisted such dogma in favor of a more self-conscious and consistent religion of autonomy—for which he finally stood trial.  J. T. Forbes has aptly commented:

The question of the seat of authority has lasted through the ages, and the Socratic transference of it to the reflective reason, of which his very discussions on piety and justice were the claim, demanded an insight and moral earnestness too great for the mass of his fellows.  [Yet] the trend of progress of the human mind was with him.46

Socrates was a pioneer and religious apologist for the religion of the world; his martyred blood served as just so much seed for spreading the gospel of man’s epistemological self-authority, a dogma which he had brought to purest expression.

With this background to the influence, religion, and epistemology of Socrates, we can now take note of the way in which Socrates carried on his apologetic before the Athenian jury.  The Apology, along with Crito and Phaedo, forms a trilogy dealing with the final days of Socrates.  The enmity of Socrates’ accusers had been generated by his disdain for the democracy and public opinion; Socrates practiced a religious devotion to the pursuit of ultimate truth by following the guidance of independent reason alone.  The accusations brought by Meletus had now put Socrates in the position of presenting an apology for his faith.  Five strands of defense can be traced in his apologetic strategy.

First, there is the validation of the Oracle’s statement by factual testing.  Chaerephon had asked the Oracle at Delphi whether anyone was wiser than Socrates, and he received “No” for his answer.  That puzzled Socrates, and so he set out to find a wiser man.  Socrates took it to be his religious duty to determine the Oracle’s meaning, to prove by factual methods that the god was right.  To establish that the Oracle was neither lying nor incorrect, Socrates made it his job to expose the ignorance of supposedly wise men in Athens—thereby corroborating that he was, by recognition of his lack of wisdom, really the wisest of men, just as the Oracle had said.

Secondly, in his apologetic strategy Socrates made use of the logical test for coherence.  Socrates had been charged with atheism or impiety; as children, his audience had heard (for instance, in Aristophanes’ comedy, The Clouds) that Socrates pursued naturalistic scientific investigations; additionally one of the youths whom Socrates had corrupted, Alcibiades, had been blamed for the mutilation of the statues of Hermes—the obscene adornments of every Athenian front doorway—on the night before the military expedition to Sicily.  These things might be behind the charge of atheism.  However, Socrates rehearsed that Meletus, in the statement of the charges, had accused Socrates “of believing in deities of his own invention instead of the gods recognized by the State.”  As demonstration of his own logical prowess, Socrates pointed out that Meletus had contradicted himself.  Socrates was charged simultaneously for believing in no gods, and yet for believing in new deities and supernatural activities (namely, the divine inner voice).  Socrates tied other logical knots in the prosecution’s case.  By questioning Meletus, Socrates got him to say that the best influence on youth comes from the many citizens of Athens (rather than from the individual, Socrates), but the best training in other fields (e.g., raising horses) comes from the one individual expert (rather than the incompetent many).  Moreover, it is unlikely that he would intentionally corrupt the youth, for that would generate a corrupting influence upon himself through his own associates.  Thus, if indeed Socrates had corrupted the youth, it must have been unintentional—in which case he has an admonition coming, but not punishment.  Logic was a tool in Socrates’ arsenal.

Third, Socrates followed the apologetic line that the jury should take into account the great benefit which his divine service has been to the city.  Socrates had urged men to put the welfare of their souls above all else, and Socratic philosophy demonstrated how they should do this.  Therefore, if the Athenians executed Socrates, they would actually be inflicting great harm on themselves.  They would lose the restraining voice of Socrates, asking “Are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honor, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul?” (29e).  Socrates defended himself, then, by appealing to the elevated, noble, and beneficial results of his service and outlook.

Fourth, Socrates took the apologetical approach of asking the jury to examine the life of the speaker.  Socrates had given loyal service to the military.  He had continually sought to follow the path of acting rightly, whatever the personal outcome would be for him.  He was not fearful of death.  He had given his life in the service of others, being sent as a gadfly by God to Athens in order to keep it from becoming lazy like a large thoroughbred horse.  His sincerity is evident from the fact that he lived in poverty, neglecting private affairs so as to fulfill his divine duty.  Obviously the religious philosophical outlook of Socrates had transformed him into a praiseworthy individual, good citizen, and public servant.  And so he proclaimed in his defense, “You will not easily find another like me, gentlemen, and if you take my advice you will spare my life” (31a).

Finally, after the appeal to fact, logic, beneficial effect, and personal betterment, Socrates came to use in his apology the appeal to inner guidance.  In answer to why he had not entered political service which would have been consonant with his convictions (if sincerely stated), Socrates claimed that he had been forbidden to carry his convictions to that consistent outcome by a divine voice which occasionally came to him.  “Plato explicitly represents Socrates turning to an inner voice (daimon)—a voice that is a product neither of social conditioning nor of reason—at crucial moments of decision.”47  “There is no question whatever that he himself regarded it as Heaven sent.”48  Socrates explained this inward, validating, convicting voice in this way: “something divine and spiritual comes to me. . . . I have had this from my childhood; it is a sort of voice that comes to me, and when it comes it always holds me back from what I am thinking of doing” (31d).  Socrates even used this subjectivistic apologetic to lend support to his four other lines of defense.  At the end of the trial, after the guilty verdict had been presented, Socrates said that in nothing he had done or said that day had the inner voice opposed him, even though in the past it sometimes would stop him in the middle of a sentence.  Thus his other apologetic devices received subjective validation.

Here we have the five-point apologetic method of Socrates.  

·         He was dedicated to the autonomy of man’s reason and to neutrality in the search for truth, wherever it should be found.  

·         He enthroned man’s intellect as the epistemological authority, even over the opinions of deity.  

·         He was the rational man, unfettered by dogma and public opinion.  

·         Whatever views were to be held had first to pass the scrutiny of his self-sufficient mind.  

·         His apologetic strategy was both rational (appealing to logical coherence) and irrational (appealing to subjectivistic conviction), factual (verifying the Oracle’s words through experimentation) and pragmatic (looking to the beneficial results, both public and personal, of his practice and convictions).

As Peterfreund and Denise rightly observe, Socrates’ efforts to meet his own criterion of the critically examined life were “characterized by a strange tension.”49  Somehow, he was simultaneously the unique, self-determining, inner-directed adjudicator of all claims to knowledge and the dispassionate, objective observer of that realm of truth which unifies all minds.  W. T. Jones says,

He must have seemed to his fellow citizens more like a Sophist than anything else.  But he had a profound, and entirely un-Sophistic, conviction of the reality of goodness, the goodness of reality, and the immortality of the human soul.  He combined an intensely realistic and down-to-earth common sense with a passionate mysticism; a cool and dispassionate scepticism about ordinary beliefs and opinions with a deep religious sense.50

Socrates could claim in one and the same dialogue (as he did in the Meno) that he was both as ignorant as his opponents and yet omniscient as a result of his preexistent awareness of the forms.  He claimed to accept nothing except upon critical and reasonable scrutiny, and yet he accepted the authority of the expert (as in the Crito) and followed the leading of a non-rational daimon (as evidenced in the Apology).  He said that nobody knows about death, and yet that he knew enough not to fear it (cf. Apology, 29a).  His autonomous apologetic was a strange combination of omnicompetent reason and mysticism, faith in himself alone, yet ready trust in the divine.  To protect his autonomy Socrates was forced back and forth between the poles of rationality and irrationality.  “What Socrates did was to rationalize the known, and to make the mysterious the divine.”51

This procedure is virtually identical with the two-step apologetic method of Roman Catholicism and Arminianism (represented by Aquinas and Butler respectively).  The field of knowledge is dichotomized into truths known by reason and truths known by “faith.”  At the outset, the apologist proceeds with self-sufficient reason to establish general truths about God or a probability in favor of them, but after this first level is built, the apologist then completes the edifice by appeals to faith and revelation.  Supposedly a set area of the known can be rationalized, but the remainder must be relegated to divine mystery.  A dialectical dance between rationality and irrationality always results from taking an autonomous, neutral approach to apologetics; such an approach is inherently destructive of the concept of authority in Christianity.  Speaking of the Romanist and Arminian notion of authority, Van Til says:

But such a concept of authority resembles that which Socrates referred to in The Symposium when he spoke of Diotima the inspired.  When the effort at rational interpretation failed him, Socrates took refuge in mythology as a second best.  The “hunch” of the wise is the best that is available to man with respect to that which he cannot reach by the methods of autonomous reason.  No “wise man” ought to object to such a conception of the “supernatural.” . . . If the Roman Catholic method of apologetic for Christianity is followed then Christianity itself must be so reduced as to make it acceptable to the natural man. . . . The natural man need only to reason consistently along the lines of his starting point and method in order to reduce each of the Christian doctrines that are presented to him to naturalistic proportions.52

Socrates transferred the seat of authority to man’s autonomous reason; Roman Catholic and Arminian apologetics follow suit, thereby evidencing the justice of J. T. Forbes’s earlier comment about the Socratic view of reason and authority: “The trend of progress of the human mind was with him.”



15 The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967), VI, 216.

16 Phaedo, 118.

17 Discourses, IV, I, 169.

18 Tusculan Disputations, V, 4, 10.

19 Cited by Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1945), II, book 3.

20 Ibid.

21 An Introduction to Western Philosophy (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), p. 28.

22 S. P. Peterfreund and T. C. Denise, Contemporary Philosophy and Its Origins (New Jersey: D. Van Nostrand, 1967), pp. 63-69, 123-124, 182-185,232-239.

23 W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1952), I, 96.

24 Ibid., pp. 58,95-96.  The actual indictment, recorded for us by both Xenophon and Diogenes Laertius, read, “Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state and introducing other, new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth.”  Because the state was a religious institution dedicated to Athena, the charge of “irreligion” could apply to any offense against the state.  Socrates was a critic of the traditional establishment education (cf. Aristophanes’ The Clouds) and thereby a corruptor of youth; Socrates saw this as the real issue, as evidenced by his conversation in the Euthyphro (2c-3d).  Zeller states that, while it was not the primary motive, “Socrates, it is true, fell as a sacrifice to the democratic reaction which followed the overthrow of the Thirty. . . . His guilt was sought first of all in the undermining of the morality and religion of his country . . . “(Die Philosophie der Griechen, 2. Teil, I. Abteilung, Sokrates . . . , 5. Auflage, Leipzig, 1922, p. 217).

25 B. Jowett, trans., The Dialogues of Plato (New York: Random House, 1937), I, 412.  The reader should note that in the account of Socrates which follows I have not attempted to separate the historical Socrates from Socrates-the spokesman-for-Plato.  Such a delicate and debated task would be tangential to this essay.  For present purposes, the view of “Socrates” given herein stems uncritically from the Platonic dialogues; thus “Socrates” tends to become a label for a Platonic-Socratic hybrid.  This is adequate for the purposes of contrast with the scriptural outlook.

26 Cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia I, iv, 8.

27 W. K. C. Guthrie, Socrates (Cambridge: University Press, 1971), p. 156.

28 Christian Theistic Ethics, In Defense of the Faith, vol. III (Nutley, N. J.: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1971), p. 183.

29 Ct. Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, In Defense of the Faith, vol. II (Nutley, N. J.: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1969), p. 31.

30 J. T. Forbes, Socrates (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905), pp. 212, 213.  No less an authority than W. K. C. Guthrie has said with respect to the religious character of Socrates’ thought: “Belief in a special, direct relation between himself and divine forces must be accepted in any account of his mentality which lays claim to completeness” (Socrates, p. 84).

31 Metaphysics, 1078b, 27.

32 Francis N. Lee, A Christian Introduction to the History of Philosophy (Nutley, N. J.: Craig Press, 1969), p. 83.

33 H. N. Fowler, tr., Crito, in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1924), at 46b.

34 Ibid., 54e, emphasis my own.

35 Peterfreund and Denise, op. cit., p. 237.

36 Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics, pp. 160, 161.

37 Ibid., p. 159.

38 Lee, p. 81.

39 Cf. Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, tr., D. H. Freeman and H. De Jongste (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955), I, 51, 355.

40 Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), p. 144.

41 Ibid., p. 153.

42 Flew, p. 77.

43 Christian Theistic Ethics, p. 162.

44 Ibid., p. 173.

45 Jaeger, loc. cit., emphasis mine.

46 Forbes, op. cit., p. 270.

47 Peterfreund and Denise, op. cit., p. 184.

48 J. T. Forbes, op. cit., p. 221. Guthrie says, “he put himself unreservedly in the hands of what he sincerely believed to be an inspiration from heaven” (op. cit., p. 163).

49 Peterfrund and Denise, op. cit., p. 183.

50 Jones, op. cit., p. 93.

51 Forbes, op. cit., p. 230.

52 The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955), p. 127.

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