The Trial of Socrates

 Three of Plato’s dialogues—Apology (defense), Crito (a refused offer of escape), and Phaedo (reflections on immortality)—are devoted to the conviction and execution of Socrates. The charge was two-fold: atheism and corrupting the youth of Athens. His defense was that he invoked the gods and that there was no youth to come forward with a complaint. The jury, consisting of the mass gathering of citizens, didn’t buy it, and he was sentenced to death, which was effected by his drinking the prescribed hemlock.

The Bible seems equally unimpressed with philosophy. Indeed, the only direct comment on the enterprise is a warning in Colossians 2:8, where Paul says, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit . . .” Granted, this same apostle reasoned with Epicureans and Stoics on Mars Hill in Acts 17, even quoting the philosophically-trained, Greek poet, Aratus, to make a point. Some invited him to come back for more conversation, but he moved on down to Corinth, determined to focus on his message of the crucified Christ and not some broad theistic apologetics.

Of course, Christian philosophers have stepped forth in the succeeding millennia and have drawn on secular thinkers, Thomas Aquinas most notably in his appropriation of Aristotle and Augustine in his broadly Platonic framework, but the relationship has always been fraught with tensions and even outright warfare.

But back to Socrates. Was he guilty? Well, for one thing, if he’d done a thorough job of corrupting the minds of his students, then they wouldn’t have known they’d been corrupted. (What if someone ask a member of Hitler Youth if Hitler had corrupted him or a disciple of the 1960s, drug enthusiast Timothy Leary if he’d been wrecked by the counsel to “Turn on. Tune in. Drop out”? Chances are they would have both said things were just fine and that their leader had taken them to a higher level.)

As for his atheism, he did, indeed, speak respectfully of such gods as Pan and Asclepius, but he was quite content to ask impiously (in Euthyphro) whether they were the source of morality or whether they could even agree on it. A contemporary version of that might fall along the lines of admitting there was a “higher power” but discarding particular doctrines.

For Christians, it often boils down to the question of whether parents might be pleased that their child, just off to college, has enrolled in a philosophy course. After all, there are countless stories of freshmen being “liberated” by secular professors from the notions they absorbed in Sunday School.

So, what is it about philosophy that’s so dangerous? Well, it deals with “the big questions” (e.g., “What is man?”; “What’s the big story?”; “Who’s worth listening to on these matters?”), and many are the answers which are either indifferent or hostile to Christianity. But must a philosopher come out with answers antithetical to the faith? Not at all. Many world-famous and influential philosophers have professed faith in Christ and worked within a biblical framework, from Augustine to Leibniz to Berkeley to Plantinga.

Still, since the 17th-century, “modern”/secular philosophers have pretty much ruled the roost, including the likes of Hume, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche, Russell, Ayer, Derrida, and Dennett. And since philosophy departments, professional journals, and academic societies are self-perpetuating, they “fill the airways” with more or less dismissive perspectives when it comes to traditional Christianity. So, the believing freshman at most schools is more than likely to walk into territory not particularly friendly to his spiritual upbringing, if interested at all.

That being said, a fair number of well-trained Christian philosophers have surfaced in the last several decades and formed both the Society of Christian Philosophers and the Evangelical Philosophical Society, with journals of their own. Some big names have joined in, including tenured professors at Notre Dame, Michigan, Wisconsin, UCLA, Brown, and Chicago. And they’ve been invited to publish books with Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, and a range of other secularly-influential presses. So, Christian philosophers aren’t lepers, though they do, indeed, work in a discipline where many of their counterparts are quite guilty of the charges leveled against Socrates: They are, indeed, atheists, and they do, indeed, corrupt the youth.

So what are Christians doing in the field? Is the point to fight the good fight, engaging in apologetics at every hand? Well, there is that, but there’s much more. As American pragmatist William James put it, philosophy is “an uncommonly stubborn attempt to think clearly.” And there’s a lot to think clearly and stubbornly about that’s not covered explicitly in the Bible. For instance, what are we to make of democracy? Is it the best system? There’s no verse addressing it directly, so there’s room to think and talk things over with other people who don’t mind the rough and tumble of pointed discourse. And so we have “political philosophy.”

What about abstract art? Is it kosher? Should one invest in it or hang it one’s home? Again, no verse settles the matter decisively, so we jump into the field of aesthetics. And what shall we make of the testimony of “experts?” What makes them experts in the first place, and how much weight should we give them when sizing up their medical, diplomatic, economic, climatic, etc. declarations? Welcome to epistemology. And so on.

Ah, but shouldn’t we be talking only to Christians on these matters, consulting people who share our world view. Why consort with people don’t operate with the proper intellectual context? Well, they’re made in the image of God, they come equipped with a measure of reason and conscience, and they can get a lot of things right. All truth is God’s truth, and we shouldn’t turn up our nose at any of it, no matter where it comes from. And besides, they often make more sense than fellow believers, who are themselves often divided of many of these issues. So let’s all pitch in together and try to figure things out.

Sometimes I tell my students that a philosophy paper should not only accord with the counsel of Scripture but should also be cast in terms that could gain purchase with someone who didn’t accept the Bible as either authoritative or helpful. They shouldn’t rely on chapter and verse to settle their point out in the public square. Nothing wrong with chapter and verse; indeed, we rely upon it for life and light. But where it’s not decisively on point or where the audience couldn’t care less, we have recourse to other arguments.