How Ought We to Behave? A Response to Socrates

By Wayne Jackson

Socrates (ca. 469-399 B.C.) was the greatest philosopher of ancient Greece. He left no writings, but his teachings have been preserved (with some embellishment) by Plato and others.

In one of his Dialogues, Plato records a conversation between Socrates and Alcibiades. The great philosopher informs Alcibiades that there is a risk in approaching his god in prayer, lest he should be refused and even penalized. He counsels Alcibiades therefore to keep silence and “wait until we find out how we should behave toward the gods and towards men.”

When Alcibiades inquired as to how long he must wait, Socrates replied that he must wait until “he [comes] who takes a special interest in you” and removes the “darkness . . . in which your soul is now enveloped. . . Afterwards the means may be given to you whereby you may distinguish between good and evil” (Alcibiades II.150; Jowett 1937, 805). This passage is remarkable from several vantage points:

First, it confesses there is a manner in which we should behave. Human beings are not free to act merely as they will. They have an intrinsic sense of responsibility.

Second, the philosopher confesses that we wander in a state of darkness in terms of knowing how to behave. Through all the centuries of human history, the moral confusion and ethical depravity of the human family have been painfully obvious.

Third, it acknowledges then the need for instruction as to how men ought to behave. There is the implication that this instruction will be external to man, i.e., an objective body of truth that lies beyond the mere inclinations of his own conscience.

Fourth, Socrates suggests that human beings have a dual obligation—that which is directed toward deity and that which is obligatory toward one’s fellow man. The former we would call religious responsibility; the latter we would designate as moral or ethical obligation. It is amazing that so many labor under the illusion that simply being “good” to others represents the totality of their spiritual duty.

Fifth, it is clear that this admonition from the famous philosopher is illustrative of the void that was resident in the ancient pagan heart—a longing for release from the heaviness that burdens the soul, and seeks relief from the guilt of wrongdoing.

Finally, the sage of Greece suggested that man’s ignorance would be remedied only when “he who takes a special interest in you” comes. There is the implication that a personal interest in mankind must be evidenced by a higher source.

It is truly thrilling how the revelation from God, as embodied in the mission and message of Jesus Christ, has addressed these basic needs of the human family. Consider the following:

  1. The prophets of God repeatedly stressed that without divine revelation, humanity is in a state of “darkness.” At the commencement of his preaching ministry Jesus himself emphasized that through his message those who “sat in darkness” would be granted the illumination of a “great light” (Matthew 4:16).
  2. Because of the Creator’s deep “care” (compassion) for fallen man (cf. Matthew 18:27), he lovingly sent his own Son to teach us how to behave (John 3:2; 14:6).
  3. The Savior’s instruction was complete, tutoring us as to how we might fulfill our obligation to both God and man. He masterfully summed up the matter with the word “love” (agape), which entails the idea of obedience toward God and service to our fellows (Matthew 22:35-40).
  4. The divine instruction was embodied in a library of sacred literature which found its culmination in the New Testament. When Paul penned his first letter to Timothy, he suggested there is a manner in which “men ought to behave themselves” (3:15). The word “behave” translates the Greek anastrepho, which literally means “to turn back.” Associated with the word, therefore, is the idea of “return” (cf. Acts 5:22). In the larger context of the Scriptures, it has to do with returning to a divine standard of conduct, and a “manner of life” consistent therewith (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:12; 1 Timothy 4:12). Later the apostle would say, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”(2 Timothy 3:16-17).

How amazing it is that the deep and manifold longings of the antique pagan world were so wonderfully satisfied in the advent of God’s Messiah. We can only stand in awe of the sacred plan of redemption.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Jowett, B., translator. 1937. The Dialogues of Plato. Vol. 2. New York, NY: Random House.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.