1. The Pagan Socrates
Seeing then that the soul is immortal, and has been born many times, and has beheld all things in this world and the world beyond, there is nothing it has not learnt; so it is not surprising that it can be reminded of virtue and other things which it knew before. For since the whole of nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is nothing to prevent someone, upon being reminded of one single thing--which men call learning--from rediscovering all the rest, if he is courageous and faints not in the search.
[Socrates in Plato's Meno 81c-d]
It is not by teaching but by nature that humanity possesses its knowledge of the Divine, as can be shown by the common yearning for the Divine that exists in everyone everywhere -- individuals, communities, nations. Without having it taught us, all of us have come to believe in some sort of Divinity, even though it is difficult for all to know what Divinity truly is and far from easy for those who do know to explain it to the rest.Socrates was a Pagan, and on this point there can be no reasonable doubt. Nevertheless one often encounters attempts to portray him as a monotheist or even a proto-Christian, as well as portrayals of Socrates as some kind of secular-humanist or even an atheist. Very often this is nothing more than a transparent exercise in wish-fulfilment by those who wish to think of Socrates as one of their own, and there is actually some merit to that.
[Julian Against the Galileans]
For it is to Socrates' credit that so many people seek to associate themselves with him, and at the very least such people show that they have some understanding of the importance of the great philosopher. In fact, both Christians and secularists/atheists often go further and demonstrate an appreciation for parts (different parts, usually) of Socrates' actual philosophy. Christians respond very naturally to Socrates' intense focus on the grave issue of the proper care of the soul. Meanwhile secularists and/or atheists enthusiastically approve of Socrates' unshakable commitment to free and unfettered intellectual inquiry.
Far more troubling than the false claims of filiation coming from some quarters, though, is the fact that a great many modern day Pagans choose to think of Socrates as irrelevant to them, or even worse, to view him with hostility. In doing so, these Pagans usually repeat uncritically things vaguely half-remembered from a college "Philosophy 101" class, or some book or magazine article, or some drivel on wikipedia, to the effect that Socrates was a monotheist and/or atheist, which, in turn, merely repeats the slanders of those whose accusations led to Socrates' execution. Such mentally lazy Pagans have passively absorbed the message: Socrates was definitely not a Pagan, and whatever it was that Socrates believed or didn't believe, it was (or so these poor souls have been led to think -- inevitably without being able to clearly explain why they think it) very much at odds with the beliefs of most of the other people (ie, Pagans) who were around at the time, and also very different from the world-view of modern day Pagans.
Before going further it must be emphasized that Socrates is one of the most well documented individuals known to us from all of antiquity. Dozens of historically attested persons were among his family, students, friends, associates and enemies. Among his admirers were three of Athens' most famous writers: Euripides, Plato, and Xenophon. Another of Athens' most famous writers was numbered among Socrates' most outspoken (and, in the end, deadly) enemies, Aristophanes. A small library could be filled with materials relating to just one Athenian especially closely associated with Socrates' - the one who was easily the most famous person associated with him at the time, but about whom many people today know absolutely nothing: the infamous rogue Alcibiades, who left no writings of his own, but who nevertheless cuts quite the swath across the history of classical Greece (for, among many other things, serving as a general on both sides of the Peloponnesian War).
The entry for Socrates in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins with the philosophical equivalent of "it was a dark and stormy night": "The philosopher Socrates remains, as he was in his lifetime, an enigma ...." Despite this obfuscating, potboiler beginning, the article then goes on to provide an incredibly detailed account of Socrates' life, including personal details such as the names of his parents, and even the name of the man (Chaeredemus) his mother (Phaenarete) married after the death of his father (Sophroniscus), as well as the name of his half-brother (Patrocles) from that second marriage. We also learn the dates of young Socrates military training, and the dates of his later service in three different military campaigns.
Nor would it be credible to claim that Socrates' ideas (and especially those about religion) are somehow a veiled mystery, whereas, for examples, the occupations of his father and mother (stoneworker and midwife, respectively), and the names of his wife (Xanthippe), his children (Lamprocles, Sophroniscus and Menexenus) and even of his music teacher (Connus) are not.
In addition to the extensive writings about Socrates' ideas found in Plato and Xenophon, we also have philosophical works from at least six other of his students which, while fragmentary, nevertheless offer a wealth of information. As it turns out, written accounts of Socrates' teachings, authored by those who knew and studied with him, were extremely popular in the early fourth century BC, and this subgenre of philosophical literature is now known as the Sokratikoi logoi, a term that has only (relatively) recently become common in contemporary discussions of ancient philosophy, but which actually first appeared in the works of Aristotle. Therefore, Socrates' thought is no more "enigmatic" than that of any other philosopher of sufficient depth and subtlety.
2. "Socrates manages"
On the urge to find daylight between Socrates and "traditional" Paganism (and between Socrates and Plato)
All of the evidence that we have clearly demonstrates that Socrates was a Pagan. But, please, don't take my word for it. Here's just one example from Mark McPherran's The Religion of Socrates (scroll down for many more quotes along these same lines from McPherran and also Gregory Vlastos):
[T]he Apology--in concert with the Euthyphro and other early Platonic works--portrays a Socrates who was not only a rational philosopher of the first rank, but a profoundly religious figure as well, a Socrates who believed in gods vastly superior to ourselves in power and wisdom and shared many other traditional religious commitments of this sort with his fellow citizens.McPherran is actually a hostile witness to the case of Socrates' Pagan-ness. But since no consistent case (based on evidence, that is) can be made for "The Religion of Socrates" being anything other than Paganism, McPherran is forced into inconsistency. After having said that Socrates believed in the Gods and "shared many other traditional religious commitments" common to the Hellenes at the time, he almost immediately feels the need to insist that, nevertheless, Socrates promoted "a unique, philosophical religion founded on a rationalist psychology and theology that devalued the old, publicly observable, external standard of piety ...." It is McPherran (not Socrates) who wants to "devalue" traditional Paganism, but he wants to use Socrates to validate his own devaluation. As far as Socrates goes, far from "devaluing the old publicly observable" aspects of Paganism, he contributed significantly to the preservation of traditional Paganism, just one example of which is the fact that the Platonic Academy in Athens had the honor of being the last place in the Hellenic world where "publicly observable" Pagan rituals were performed, over a century after any such open, public worship of the Gods had been made, in theory at least, a capital offense.
There is simply not a single sentence anywhere in Plato (early, middle or late), Xenophon, or any other writing from those who knew Socrates, friend or foe, to support McPherran's idea that Socrates "devalued" the more public, indeed the more "social", aspects of ancient, traditional Paganism. Plato, for example, uses the Athenian religious calendar to associate each of his dialogues with a traditional festival or other holiday associated with a Deity. And these are far from mere literary "window dressing" chosen and put to use without regard for their spiritual significance, as anyone who has ever pondered the timing of the Lysis on a day sacred to Hermes, or the Meno at a time of year associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries, can clearly see.
Part of McPherran's problem is that he still labors in the semi-darkness created by the long shadow cast by his mentor, Gregory Vlastos, arguably the most prominent Socrates scholar of the 20th century. Vlastos was a Christian who, in addition to his extremely influential scholarly works relating to Socrates and Plato, also produced books with titles such as Towards the Christian Revolution (as co-editor and contributor) and Christian Faith and Democracy (as author).
Vlastos did not try to make Socrates out as a Christian. He was somewhat more subtle than that. In his Socratic Piety (Chapter 6 in Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher), Vlastos zeroes in on what he refers to as the "embarrassing" "fact" of "Socrates' acceptance of the supernatural". While melodramatically announcing that he "shall waste no time arguing against" those who have sought to deny or explain away Socrates' supernaturalism, Vlastos himself crosses the line between explanation and "explaining way" when he offers his own view "that, far ahead of his time as Socrates is in so many ways, in this part of his thought he is a man of his times" [p.158].
McPherran inherits from Vlastos the need to find daylight between Socrates and "traditional" Paganism, even though he goes further than his mentor in acknowledging Socrates' Pagan-ness. What becomes clear when we look closely at what both McPherran and Vlastos have to say is that they both use Socrates to validate their own assessments of ancient Paganism, and, in particular, to promote their own personal visions of how religion and reason can be (and should be) reconciled. The problem is that in their eagerness to make use of Socrates to validate their own points of view, they blatantly pick and choose from among Socrates' ideas, ignoring the fact that "the religion of Socrates", that is, traditional Hellenic Paganism, already presents this reconciliation as an accomplished fact.
McPherran also inherits from his mentor the urge to pit Socrates against Plato, or, in his own words, the "Apollonian modesty" of Socrates against the "Platonic hubris" of his most famous (to us) student. McPherran is so desperate to build a wall between teacher and student that he declares, "The death of Socrates marked the death of Socratic religion.":
The death of Socrates marked the the death of Socratic religion. What little career it had as an independent phenomenon shows up only in the relatively conventional pieties of Xenophon and the slightly more thought-out theism found in some of Socrates' followers, notably Antisthenes and Aristippus. The real measure of its importance is found instead in its varied contributions to the thought of Socrates' most talented pupil, Plato. There, preserved in his middle and late dialogues, many of the basic tenets of Socratic religion survived intact--e.g. the complete justice and goodness of the gods--while other elements were either rejected or transformed as Plato proceeded to elaborate his profoundly influential, mystical theology.The above remarks come into sharper focus when we look at what McPherron had said immediately before. After a long, detailed, and quite persuasive argument for accepting as accurate Xenophon's ascription, in his Memorabilia, of a "teleological theology" to Socrates, McPherran caps it off with a peroration that appears to convey something of his own personal philosophy:
Socrates' endorsement of the Memorabilia's teleological argument places him at the leading edge of fifth century theological reform. Raised in a culture of passionate gods--gods hungry for honor, full of strife, morally distant, and confusedly and intermittently involved with the daily life of nature and humanity--Socrates manages to travel a very great conceptual distance indeed. For beginning there he appears to have arrived at an idea that was to dominate [sic] Western thought for many centuries to come: the existence of an immanent--albeit still anthropopsychic--cosmic intelligence and loving Maker.
3. More on McPherran and Vlastos on the Religion of Socrates
Although they are at pains to deride traditional Paganism, and to make use of Socrates himself in that project, nevertheless McPherran and Vlastos are also eager to portray Socrates as a profoundly religious man. The deep bias that both scholars have against traditional Paganism blinds them to the glaring inconsistencies that result from their Christianizing paradigm that attempts to posit a Socrates preparing the way for the Gospels. Below are a selection of quotes that highlight the fact that both McPherran and Vlastos are forced again and again to acknowledge that the religion of Socrates is Paganism.
Socrates ... believed in gods ... and shared many other traditional religious commitments of this sort with his fellow citizens.Vlastos and McPherran invariably employ circular logic to explain away the glaring inconsistency in there claim that Socrates somehow had "his own" religion. Socrates was a moral philosopher, and yet traditional Paganism is assumed, by both scholars, to be inherently bereft of moral teachings. Therefore no matter how obviously Pagan Socrates was, he wasn't "really" a Pagan at all, for to admit that would be to admit that traditional Paganism was not in need of being extirpated after all.
[McPherran, The Religion of Socrates p. 2]
Socrates, for all his rationalism, appears to give clear and uncritical credence to the alleged god-given messages found in dreams, divination, and other such traditionally accepted incursions by divinity. For example, we have seen him claim that his philosophical mission to the Athenians 'has been commanded of me ... by the god through oracels and through dreams and by every other means in which a divinity has ever commanded anyone to do anything.' [Apology 33c4-7] In Xenophon we even find Socrates sending his students to oracles and seers for advice.
Socrates does not endorse a form of the intellectualist rejection of divination's efficacy ... he ... accept[s] the tradtional notion that the gods really do provide humankind with signs...
He [Socrates] will insist upon elenctic testing for all beliefs for which that is appropriate and feasibly, but he will also acknowledge that some beliefs are legitimately derived from extrarational sources (which then count as practical 'reasons').
[S]ince according to Socrates the soul [psuche] is the seat of all the virtues, and the virtues are forms of knowledge [Protagoras 314a-b], it is thus the part of us that engages in discursive reasoning. It is, in short, our mind, our nous. Throughout the early Socratic dialogues this view is linked to the idea that the psuche is not identical with the body but rules over it from 'within' .... [W]hile some have argued that Socrates conceives of the soul as a nonseparable aspect of a person's living body, rather than a distinct element 'housed' in a body .... [s]uch a view is ... incompatible with Socrates' conviction that it is genuinely possible that death results in a separation of the soul from its body followed by a migration to another 'place', a migration that leaves no part of the soul behind [Apology 40c=41d].
Burnet seems right to me when he says that the originality of Socrates' contribution lay in his combining the Ionian view of it [psuche] with the Orphic-Pythagorean doctrine of the purification of the psuche.
Socrates' commitment to reasoned argument as the final arbiter of claims to truth in the moral doman is evident throughout Plato's Socratic dialogues.... And yet he is also committed to obeying commands reaching him through supernatural channels.... Between these two commitments--on the one hand, to follow argument wherever it may lead; on the other, to obey divine commands conveyed to him through supernatural channels--he sses no conflict. He assumes they are in perfect harmony.
[Vlastos, Socratic Piety, in Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher p. 157]
If we are to use Plato's and Xenophon's testimony about Socrates at all we must take it as a brute fact ... [that] [h]e subscribes unquestioningly to the age-old view that side by side with the physical world accessible to our senses, there exists another, populated by mysterious beings, personal like ourselves, but, unlike ourselves, having the power to invade at will the causal order to which our own actions are confined, effecting in it changes of incalculable extent to cause us great benefit, or, were they to choose otherwise, total devastation and ruin.
Some scholars have expressed bafflement, or worse, incredulity, that from the the Pythia's 'No' in answer to the question 'Is there anyone wiser than Socrates"' he should have derived the command to philosophize on the streets of Athens.... But in point of fact that oracle was by no means the only sign Socrates had received ... there had been more divinations (some of them no doubt from his own daimonion) and more than one prophetic dream.
Were it not for that divine command that first reached Socrates through his report Chaerephon brought back from Delphi there is no reason to believe that he would have ever become a street-philosopher.
- An Erotic & Magical Greek Lesson: "What then can Love be?" "A great Demon, O Socrates"
- "There is no monotheism in Homer or Pindar or Aeschylus or Herodotus; there was certainly none in cult."
- "On the Gods and the Cosmos" (Peri Theon kai Kosmou) by Sallustius
- Pagan Cosmology: not quite random thoughts on Platonism, polytheism, monism, and so forth
- The Socratic Logos in Plato's Republic
- Pagan Ethics According To Socrates: The Quick And Dirty Version
- Thomas Taylor on the Religion of Socrates
- Socrates: still making people crazy after all these years
- The varieties of sceptical thought (a six part series)