Socrates Walks into a Wall

This is the first in a 3 part series on the relationship between Socrates and Lutheran theology.


Tell me, Socrates, are you in earnest, or only in jest? For if you are in earnest, and what you say is true, is not the whole of human life turned upside down; and are we not doing, as would appear, in everything the opposite of what we ought to be doing? – Callicles, Plato’s Gorgias, 481

Even though I spend a lot of time reading things that others may find boring (trout taxonomy, comparative Latin and Greek grammar, etc.), there’s one subject for which I have a hard time mustering any enthusiasm: philosophy. Admittedly, philosophy is a very broad category, and so more specifically, it’s the philosophical classics that bore me to tears: Aristotle, Kant, Hume, etc. That said, I am 27 episodes into a series of podcasts called The History of Philosophy Without any Gapsa medium that I find more palatable. 27 episodes puts me squarely in the realm of Plato, and it’s gotten me thinking about a question that intrigued no less a Lutheran than Søren Kierkegaard. The question is: What’s the difference between Socrates and Jesus? Now, I’ll come back to that question in the next couple of posts, but for today, I’d like to highlight the one dialogue of Plato that I think every pastor needs to read.

The dialogue is Plato’s Gorgias. And most of it is as boring as his others. But, at line 481, Socrates encounters an opponent that stonewalls him: Callicles. Socrates is trying to convince Callicles that people ought to pursue virtue. Callicles, on the other hand, counters that virtue is simply a convention; might ought to make right. The substance of their argument is food for thought, but even more so, it’s the way that Callicles argues against Socrates ethics that elevates it into the required reading category. Callicles denies all common ground between Socrates’ “virtue” and his “might makes right.” Every time that Socrates tries to get a chain of logic going that will force Callicles into admitting the need for virtue, Callicles bursts it by denying Socrates terms. In the end, Callicles finally grows frustrated and refuses to continue, and so Socrates is left talking to himself (for a long period of time).

The take away for pastors (and Christians in general) is getting rid of the illusion that ethics are A) self-evident and B) founded on logic upon which all people will agree. Callicles shows that Socrates is only persuasive if he can get people to agree with him on foundational principles. But an opponent who denies those principles can’t be corralled. In the same way, pastors need to realize that many of the things that they hold to be moral and ethical “no-brainers” are not founded on self-evident or irrefutably logical principles. Christianity is not simply the best ethical system that all people will agree with once it’s adequately explained. There’s something more going on here. What that something is, I will explore in the next couple of posts.