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Socrates’ Philosopher-King

  • June 9, 2020
  • By Donielle
Socrates’ Philosopher-King

One of the subjects that captured the imaginations of my students as we read The Republic of Plato was the idea of the truly just man, Socrates’ Philosopher-King. Influenced by Dr. Warren Gage I read the description of the this perfect man as preparing the educated world to recognize its savior when he came in the form of Jesus. I was surprised to find my students took a somewhat different view, and pleased that they thought for themselves. But I will let them speak for themselves in these excerpts from their essays:

Can Jesus be Socrates’ Philosopher-King?

(Excerpt from an essay by Adriana Dorn) The defining characteristics of the philosopher-king do not match up with the Biblical view of Jesus. The philosopher-king’s main title to rule is knowledge, which Socrates often equates with wisdom. When Paul the Apostle wrote to Greek Christians in his letters, he very often encountered this issue and wrote on it passionately. In his first letter to the Greek Christians in Corinth he addressed the topic of wisdom in the following words:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1.18-25 ESV)

Beyond the wisdom of Socrates

A commentary on this passage brings the Greek perspective to light: “Greeks were viewed in antiquity, in contrast to barbarians, as a cultured people and therefore interested in wisdom. . . A crucified Messiah was offensive to an unbelieving Jew. . ., and nonsensical to an unbelieving Greek”(Thielman). Jesus could not be the philosopher-king because he was a crucified king, and this idea could only come from God’s “upside-down” kingdom where weakness is strength. Also, the passage states that “the world did not know God through wisdom”. This means that no matter how carefully Socrates may have contemplated, he could not have dreamed up Jesus by means of his own contemplation and wisdom; it was a result of the wisdom of God.

Later, in the same letter, Paul wrote these words, “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing”(ESV). These strong words are indicative of an issue in this Corinthian church; they valued fancy and wise language over love. Jesus, as Paul was communicating, is a king who loves his people. In fact, Jesus himself embodies perfect love, and that is exactly what the philosopher-king is not.

The philosopher-king is a lover of wisdom who supposedly possesses “all knowledge”, not a loving king who came to be crucified on a cross. Thus, the defining characteristic of the philosopher-king, that is, knowledge, does not line up with one of the defining characteristics of Jesus, that is, love. Further, Jesus performed the greatest act of self-sacrifice, an act that the philosopher-king would and could never execute, as will be discussed in the next paragraph.

Jesus’ greatest actions prove that he was a greater king than the philosopher-king. In fact, it proves that he was, and is, the greatest king ever. Socrates reasoned that the philosopher-king would not be afraid of death in the following words:

“And will a thinker high-minded enough to study all time and all being [the philosopher-king] consider human life to be something important? He couldn’t possibly. Then will he consider death to be a terrible thing? He least of all (486 a-b).”

Fear of death

The philosopher-king would not be afraid of death because he does not view human life to be of importance. This seemingly small bit of discussion is in fact infinitely important to the argument, as it brings to light a great contradiction between Jesus and the philosopher-king. The reason Jesus came to earth was to pay for the sins of his rebellious people. He sees value in human life, the life he created, and wanted to restore it. Additionally, Jesus was afraid of death. Luke 22 records his pleading prayer on the Mount of Olives in these painful words:

“And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”. . . And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground (ESV).”

Sweating blood, known as hematidrosis, is a rare symptom humans experience when in immense fear or stress in the face of abuse, torture, or death. Yes, Jesus was afraid; afraid of dying by hanging, afraid of the wrath of his father, afraid of taking on hell for humanity. But he did it anyway; he faced the cross in the face of fear. Could he have reasoned himself into it like a true philosopher-king? Every human, Socrates argues, has a thrice-divided soul. First there is the rational, logical nature, next the spirited, honor-fueled nature, and finally the appetitive nature that seeks to be satisfied with food and sex.

Philosopher-kings, as they are ideal men,  must have reason rule, spirit obey, and together these will subdue the appetites. What was it, then, that drove Jesus to the cross? It was not the appetites that encouraged him; every human cringes and shrinks from being flayed alive, spit upon, cursed and kicked, and finally hung naked by the skin of the palms to die. It was not the spirited nature that drove him; nothing about dying on a cross was honorable. It was not reason that persuaded him, either. Human reason would conclude that humanity should suffer for its own wrongdoing. No, it was love; love, and love alone, would obediently suffer like this.

Beyond death

Finally, Jesus did what no philosopher-king would or could do; he rose from the dead and therefore defeated death. In taking on humanity’s sins and clearing away all the charges once and for all, death can no longer assert dominance over those who cling to Jesus. Through no philosophizing, no long-winded sermons, and no detailed dialogue, Jesus made a way for those who accept his reign in their lives to live eternally ransomed and loved. Thus Jesus demonstrated through his greatest acts, his death and resurrection, that he is not the philosopher-king, and that he is, indeed, greater.

  In the book of Isaiah there is a famous prophecy that describes Jesus as a “Wonderful Counselor (ESV)”. Some may use this to dispute the thesis “Jesus is not the philosopher-king, but instead he is better” by arguing that this labels him as wise and knowledgeable, and thus a philosopher-king. This argument, in fact, does point out that Jesus is a philosopher-king, but it does not prove that he is the philosopher-king that Socrates had in mind.

Better than a philosopher-king

Socrates argued for the best philosopher and king he could imagine in earthly, fallen terms, but he did not describe the loving and just God-man, Jesus. Others may argue that Jesus possesses too many virtues in common with the philosopher-king to be a better king than Socrates’ ideal. They may argue that Jesus possessed the same four cardinal values, that is, moderation, wisdom, courage, and truth, as the philosopher-king, and thus one cannot be greater than the other. However, this essay has already argued that Jesus’ characteristic of sacrificial love is not shared with the philosopher-king, and without love, the philosopher-king is only a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”(ESV).

Thus, it is clear that by Jesus’ characteristics and actions he demonstrated that he is not Socrates’ philosopher-king, but is, in fact, better… This loving king did not control and regulate his people through his superior wisdom. Instead, he came to his rebellious children, humbled himself to their level, cried with them, experienced hell for them, then rose and redeemed them. He asks that they simply receive this gift of love. Indeed, what the world needs is a wise king, but the wisdom of every Solomon in the world will never compare to the upside-down wisdom of God where the God-man, to demonstrate his love, hangs like a thief on a cross. (Excerpts from an essay by Adriana Dorn)

Can this Philospher-King ever exist?

(Excerpt from an essay by Arizel Sosa) The philosopher king could never exist is because Socrates describes this ruler to be free from greed and lust. A German psychologist named Erich Fromm once said, “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” Fromm is saying that our greed will never be satisfied. Greed can take on many forms, such as hoarding, comparison, entitlement, and overspending. Everyone is a victim to at least one of these forms of greed.

Have you ever felt the need to save impractical, ineffectual items like magazines, clothing, or broken things? Or have you ever compared your grade to someone else, or how you dress, or how big your house is? Have you ever gone out and spent more than you anticipated? If you said yes to any of these, then you are a victim of greed.

Mark 7: 21-22 says “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immortality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” It is in our human nature to have flaws, and according to Socrates the philosopher king does not have any flaws. The philosopher king is perfect. It is impossible to be free from greed and lust and therefore, it is impossible for the philosopher king to exist as a human being.

The second reason the philosopher king could never exist is because the philosopher king alone can gain full knowledge of reality. John Ryman, who was a British member of Parliament, once said “What happens when we’re dead? The irony is that all our questions will be answered after we die.” As human beings, we will never have all the answers. One question will just lead to another and to another and the cycle continues.

1 John 3:20 says “For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” Psalm 147:5 says, “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.” Both of these verses from the Bible state that God is great and that He knows everything about everything. Human beings cannot even begin to compare to a deity. People are limited, mortal beings, but God is all-powerful and all-knowing. Therefore, because it is impossible for human beings to gain full
knowledge of reality, it is impossible for the philosopher king to exist as a human being.

A special education for philosophers

The third reason the philosopher king could never exist is because this remarkable and rare ruler must have a special education. Socrates says that a philosopher king has not yet existed because potential philosophers have not been raised the right way. He says that people born with a philosophical nature, who are courageous, high-minded, quick learners, with faculties of memory, are preyed upon by their family and friends. He says that they are pushed toward the political life in order to win money and power. The philosopher’s family and friends are like leeches slowly and gradually sucking the potential philosophical nature from their prey.

Socrates says that in the end, these potential philosophers are led away from the philosophical life. Thus, Socrates says that these philosophers must be educated in the right way so that there could be a philosopher king. However, if a philosopher king has never existed, then who will
teach the future philosophers? Some have tried to raise great philosophers, but they will never be good enough to be a philosopher king. John Locke once said, “No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience.” Therefore, it is impossible for the philosopher king to exist because
philosophers have to be raised a certain way, and if one has not existed yet, one cannot exist, because one cannot teach what he or she does not know. (Excerpt from an essay by Arizel Sosa)

I hope you enjoyed reading these essays as much as I did. And I really hope it inspires you to pick up a copy of The Republic of Plato for yourself!

By Donielle, June 9, 2020
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