Socrates: ancient Humanist?


Socrates, Roman National Museum, photo by the Author

As part of my ongoing occasional series aiming at bringing some of my own technical papers to the attention of a wider public (after all, what the hell is the point of doing scholarship if it only benefits other scholars?), below I reprint a paper I recently published in The Human Prospect. It inquires on the possibility of interpreting Socrates as a proto-Humanist of sorts, and it therefore includes a discussion of Humanism as a philosophy of life, as well its likely stemming from the ancient Greco-Roman tradition of virtue ethics (via the mediation of the Renaissance Humanists, which were informed by, and yet were reacting against, medieval Christianity).

Humanism is defined by the International Humanist and Ethical Union as “a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality” [1]. In fact, the concept, as well as related terms such as the Latin humanitas, go back thousands of years, and have been characterized by a family of similar meanings that are very much pertinent to a discussion of “The Humanist Impulse — Past, Present and Future,” such as the one presented in this issue of The Human Prospect.

In particular, we should distinguish between two related meanings of humanism, which already exercised the second century Roman grammarian Aulus Gellius, who wrote [2]: “Those who have spoken Latin and have used the language correctly do not give to the word humanitas the meaning which it is commonly thought to have, namely, what the Greeks call ‘philanthropy,’ signifying a kind of friendly spirit and good-feeling towards all men without distinction; but they gave to humanitas the force of the Greek ‘paideia’; that is, what we call education and training in the liberal arts. Those who earnestly desire and seek after these are most highly humanized. For the desire to pursue of that kind of knowledge, and the training given by it, has been granted to humanity alone of all the animals, and for that reason it is termed humanitas, or ‘humanity.’”

So ancient “humanism” referred to either a cosmopolitan approach toward social living, or to the study of what we today refer to as the humanistic disciplines (which, however, at the time also included natural philosophy, i.e., modern science). Moreover, the two were thought to be related: the more one learns about the world and humanity, the more one is predisposed toward a humanistic philosophy. In that sense, then, I submit that one of the earliest, and most influential, ancient humanists was none other than Socrates, the man whose life and work is taken to be so important that the entire history of Western philosophy is divided into pre-Socratic and all that followed.

Before proceeding with my argument that Socrates can reasonably be considered a precursor of humanism, I need to acknowledge two caveats. The first concerns what scholars refer to as “the Socratic problem.” Socrates himself didn’t write anything, so all we know about his philosophy is from secondary sources, some sympathetic (Plato, Xenophon), others decidedly critical (Aristophanes). In what follows I refer mostly to Plato’s rendition of Socrates’ views, especially as presented in the so-called early dialogues (Apology, Crito, Charmides, Laches, Lysis, Euthyphro, and Ion), although Xenophon’s portrayal of his teacher is probably historically accurate, if less philosophically engaging.

The second caveat is an acknowledgement of a point made by Georges Canguilhem in his Études d’histoire et de Philosophie de Sciences [3]. He is skeptical of any attempt — such as this one — to talk of “precursors” to philosophical and scientific ideas, arguing that “strictly speaking if there were precursors the history of sciences would lose all meaning, since science itself would not have a historic dimension except in appearance.” I respectfully disagree. One can retain a sense of historical change even while acknowledging that some early thinkers anticipated ideas that were later adopted and developed by others, so long as one does so judiciously, resisting the temptation to read too much of the present into the past. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that if we couldn’t sensibly talk about precursors it would be more difficult to understand history, which would then become a sequence of ideas entirely disconnected from any antecedent.

With the above in mind, in what follows I will briefly present five reasons why I think that Socrates was a humanist, and then conclude with some general considerations about the relationship between the Hellenistic philosophies influenced by Socrates and modern humanism.

Why Socrates was a humanist

1. Social and moral criticism. The first reason Socrates can be thought of as an early humanist is his concern with social and moral criticism. He was referred to by Plato as a “gadfly” [4], meaning someone who keeps (annoyingly) stinging the State and society at large, prompting them into action to redress wrongs and make progress toward a more ethical stance. This, of course, is precisely what, in the end, got Socrates killed by that very State that he had served all his life, as a soldier first and as a teacher of young people later. Nonetheless, ethically minded social criticism, as well as critique of the authorities whenever they stray from the social good, is most certainly a modern humanist value, and it can be traced back, in the Western tradition, primarily to the sage from Athens.

2. Focus on personal integrity. I have always understood humanism as a philosophy of personal improvement and responsibility, quite aside of its social dimension referred to above. Socrates lived this aspect of his philosophy personally, and it got tested on at the least three occasions. The first episode occurred in the year 406, when Socrates was already 64. The Athenians had routed the Spartan fleet at the battle of Arginusae, but its six commanders had failed to give aid to the survivors of their own foundered ships, because they decided instead to chase the retreating Spartans. The people wanted the death penalty for the accused generals, but Socrates’ tribe, which on that day held the prytany (executive power) in the boule (the city council), rejected the request. At that point the mob threatened the executive officers themselves with death, and the latter eventually relented. This is where Socrates stepped in. He was epistates (overseer) of the debate, and held veto power, which he exercised on the ground that “in no case would he act except in accordance with the law» [5]. Needless to say, that stand — which he made on the grounds of his understanding of virtue and moral integrity — could have easily cost him his life.

The second episode occurred during the reign of the Thirty Tyrants, a few years later. Socrates and others were ordered by the oligarchy to embark on a trip to Salamis to fetch and bring back one Leon the Salaminian to be executed. Socrates refused and simply walked home, again at great peril for his life. Notice that this instance too involves Socrates opposing a death penalty.

The last episode is the most famous one, Socrates’ own trial in 399 BCE (when he was aged 71), on charges of corrupting the youth and of impiety, which meant lack of worship of the State’s official gods [6]. Plato and Xenophon agree on the reasons Socrates gave for his decision to accept the death penalty — famously, administered by drinking a cup of hemlock — even though he had easy means of avoiding it by fleeing the city. Plato gives the full reasoning in the Crito [7]. Socrates’ reasons for refusing his friends’ help included: I) he would give the impression that he feared death, which was contrary to his teachings; II) there would be no point in fleeing, because he would teach the same doctrines everywhere he’d go, likely with a similar reaction from the local citizenship or political establishment; III) he could not in good conscience betray the law of the very same city that had nurtured him and allowed him to flourish; and IV) he did not want his friends — who were willing to help him escape — to be liable to the law in turn.

In all these instances Socrates lived (and died, in the end) in a fashion coherent with his teachings and personal philosophy, setting an example not just for humanists, but for all people of good will in terms of virtue, character, and personal integrity.

3. Deriving ethics from human reflection. Modern secular humanism is largely a non-religious movement (though the word “secularism” is not synonymous with atheism), and Socrates — despite having been condemned to death in part on the charge of “impiety,” was no atheist. Nonetheless, a major reason we should think of him as a humanist is that he made what still today is by far the most compelling philosophical argument that morality cannot be derived from gods, even if they existed.

The argument is found in one of the most breezy and memorable of the early Platonic dialogues, the Euthyphro [8]. The action is set in the year 399 BCE or thereabouts. We are in Athens, walking beside Socrates, on his way to the Agora. He is not going there for commerce, nor to engage in a discussion with one of his pupils. Rather, Socrates has been summoned on urgent business at the Royal Stoa, the office of King Archon. The reason for the summons is that a young Athenian named Meletus, whom Socrates hardly knows, has leveled several charges against the philosopher, which will eventually result in his condemnation and execution by the State. At the moment, Socrates has encountered an acquaintance, also on his way to the magistrate’s office. The character in question is Euthyphro, and after exchanging greetings as customary, they inquire into each other’s business at the King’s Court. Euthyphro is aghast that someone would file suit against Socrates, but it is Socrates who is more surprised when he finds out Euthyphro’s business: the guy is going to denounce his own father, who accidentally caused the death of a household employee, who had in turn been guilty of murder. Socrates wants to know how Euthyphro can be so certain, judging from his boundless self-confidence, that this is the right course of action for him to take. Euthyphro’s response is that he knows what he is about to do is right because that’s what the gods want. But how, replies Socrates, do you know what the gods want? Completely unperturbed by the obvious irony in Socrates’ question, his interlocutor candidly responds: “The best of Euthyphro, and that which distinguishes him, Socrates, from other men, is his exact knowledge of all such matters. What should I be good for without it?”

Socrates then feigns much reverence for Euthyphro and declares himself to be the latter’s disciple, so that he too can learn about such important matters. This setup soon leads the philosopher to ask the obvious question: “And what is piety, and what is impiety?” In modern parlance, this query is about the same as asking what is moral and what is immoral. Euthyphro’s first answer is one that most unreflective people would give: “Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.” In other words, gods define what is moral or immoral. This same sort of reply is why so many people are absolutely convinced that morality cannot possibly exist without gods, and that therefore denying the supernatural is equivalent to embracing moral relativism, from which the distance is short to nihilism and the conclusion that life itself is meaningless — all positions strongly rejected by modern humanists. Not so fast, says Socrates. He points out to his companion that, according to the stories we hear, the gods often disagree vehemently on what is right or wrong in any particular instance. This, of course, is a problem not just for polytheistic religions but also for monotheistic ones, once we realize that the intelligent person ought to ask herself why she should embrace the moral dictates of one particular god rather than those espoused by another god of a competing religion. But Socrates this day is in a good mood, so he lets Euthyphro off that particular hook by postulating that there probably are at least some moral dictates on which all gods would agree (for example, that killing without reason is not permissible). Still, Socrates presses the point by rephrasing the question: “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.” These two alternatives represent the horns of what is now known as Euthyphro’s dilemma.

Consider first the second horn, that an action is moral because it is approved by the gods. Rather counterintuitively, this essentially means that morality is arbitrary! If God decides that, say, murder, rape, or genocide are okay, then we would have to assent, regardless of how repugnant such a thought might be or how much our own sense of right and wrong would be offended or crushed by it. Indeed, it is not at all difficult to find perfectly good examples of God’s commandments in various sacred scriptures that no person in his right (moral) mind today would follow, regardless of their alleged divine origin.

Perhaps, then, we should embrace the other horn of the dilemma and agree that a given action is approved by the gods because it is moral, not the other way around. Except that such an agreement provides only temporary relief. Think of it this way: if God approves of a given action because that action is moral, this means that there is a God-independent standard for morality by which God himself abides. But if that is the case, two astounding conclusions follow: first, we do not need gods to be moral (because there is a non-divine source to look for); and second, we are now in a position to figure out how to be moral on our own (which just happens to be the goal of secular ethics). The surprising outcome of Euthyphro’s dilemma, then, is that the religious believer has to agree that either morality is arbitrary or the divine, even if it exists, has nothing to do with it at all.

Of course, few people like this conclusion the first time they hear it, least of all our good old friend Euthyphro, who tries desperately to escape the horns of the dilemma on which Socrates has managed to impale him. He does not succeed, and his attempts reveal such a poor logic that Socrates pokes a bit of fun at him. Then, as the infinitely patient teacher that he is (or, depending on how you interpret his character, the ever sarcastic commentator on society), Socrates tells Euthyphro that they now have to begin the discussion from scratch. But Euthyphro cannot take it anymore, and in one of the most unceremonious hasty retreats ever to appear in Western literature he takes leave of the philosopher by saying, “Another time, Socrates; for I am in a hurry, and must go now.”

The Euthyphro dialogue was written twenty-four centuries ago, and its conclusion is devastating for the whole idea that divinity and morality are intimately linked. That conclusion remains valid today, despite the valiant attempts by a number of theologians — from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas all the way to Richard Swinburne — to somehow counter it. That by itself should grant Socrates the title of honorary humanist.

4. The practice of epistemic humility. Another major value of modern humanism, I would think, is the rejection of dogmas of all kinds, not just religious, but political as well. This is because dogmas are the antithesis of critical thinking, one of the attitudes that humanists everywhere seek to encourage. The opposite of a dogmatic posturing is the adoption of a habit of epistemic humility, as made clear by modern virtue epistemologists [9].

Socrates is arguably the most famous practitioner of epistemic humility, as is clear by the story of the Oracle at Delphi, told by Plato in the Apology [10]. This is the famous scene where Chaerephon, a friend of Socrates, asks the Oracle if anyone is wiser than Socrates. The Oracle’s response, that no one is wiser, puzzles the philosopher, who believes that he himself doesn’t actually know anything and is not therefore wise. But of course Socrates’ own repeated inquiries with the major politicians, statesmen, and artists of the Athens of his time clearly reveal that they know nothing either, except that they are convinced of the contrary. This, then, is what makes sense of the Oracle’s otherwise cryptic response: Socrates is wiser than all the others because only he realizes the depth of his own ignorance. I submit that the modern world too could do with a bit more wise recognition of the epistemic limits of humanity.

5. The Socratic method. The so-called Socratic method, also known as the meth- od of elenchus (from the Greek élenkhos, meaning “refutation, scrutiny”), is not only still very much used today in pedagogy, but represents one of the crucial tools of skeptical inquiry, and therefore a major component of humanist epistemology. The method begins with having one’s interlocutor state some belief he is willing to accept and defend. Then the teacher derives a number of conclusions from other beliefs held by the interlocutor, eventually showing that such conclusions are in contradiction of the initial belief under examination. The above mentioned Euthyphro is a spectacular case of Socratic method at work, and it is both instructive and entertaining (at the least for us readers, if not for Euthyphro).

In some instances Socrates even consciously explains to his friends how he works. For instance, in the Theaetetus, he says that he is not really a teacher, but rather someone analogous to a midwife, the difference being that his “concern is not with the body but with the soul that is in travail of birth.” Continuing “and the highest point of my art is the power to prove by every test whether the offspring of a man’s thought is a false phantom or instinct with life and truth. I am so far like the midwife that I cannot myself give birth to wisdom; and the common reproach is true, that, though I question others, I can myself bring nothing to light because there is no wisdom in me” [10]. Not only do we see here, again, displayed the virtue of epistemic modesty discussed above; we can also appreciate that Socrates is not telling his students and interlocutors what to think, he is trying to teach them how to think. That difference is at the heart of modern critical thinking and therefore of humanist discourse.

Socrates’ influence from a humanist perspective

Entire books have of course been written about Socrates’ importance on the development of ideas in subsequent philosophers [12], some of whom, like Kant [13], were themselves instrumental in shaping the Enlightenment, and therefore modern humanist thought. Here, however, I want to briefly comment on two of the Hellenistic philosophical schools that immediately followed Socrates, and that were strongly influenced by him: Cynicism and Stoicism [14].

The Cynics coined the term “cosmopolitanism,” which was then adopted by the Stoics and incorporated in their discipline of action [15], which regulated how we should behave toward other people. Arguably the most famous Stoic interpretation of the concept is known as Hierocles’ circles [16], and says, in part:

Each of us is, as it were, circumscribed by many circles; some of which are less, but others larger, and some comprehend, but others are comprehended, according to the different and unequal habitudes with respect to each other. For the first, indeed, and most proximate circle is that which everyone describes about his own mind as a centre, in which circle the body, and whatever is assumed for the sake of the body, are comprehended. For this is nearly the smallest circle, and almost touches the centre itself. The second from this, and which is at a greater distance from the centre, but comprehends the first circle, is that in which parents, brothers, wife, and children are arranged. The third circle from the centre is that which contains uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, and the children of brothers and sisters. After this is the circle which comprehends the remaining relatives. Next to this is that which contains the common people, then that which comprehends those of the same tribe, afterwards that which contains the citizens; and then two other circles follow, one being the circle of those that dwell in the vicinity of the city, and the other, of those of the same province. But the outermost and greatest circle, and which comprehends all the other circles, is that of the whole human race. These things being thus considered, it is the province of him who strives to conduct himself properly in each of these connections to collect, in a certain respect, the circles, as it were, to one centre, and always to endeavour earnestly to transfer himself from the comprehending circles to the several particulars which they comprehend.

This is in essence what modern humanists such as Peter Singer [17] are arguing about the scope of ethics: that we should be concerned with an expanding (though in Hierocles’ metaphor it is rather a contracting, as in lulling others closer to us) circle of concern, which Singer extends beyond human beings to any other creature capable of experiencing pain. The germ of these ideas — which are themselves crucial to contemporary humanism — can be traced back to the Cynics and Stoics that taught them from the fourth century BCE through the second or third century CE, and therefore indirectly to Socrates himself. He was a humanist indeed.

Literature Cited

[1] IHEU Bylaws.

[2] Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, XIII:17.

[3] Canguilhem G. (2002) Introduction: Objet de L’Histoire des Sciences. in Études d’histoire et de Philosophie de Sciences. Vrin, 7ème edition augmentée, pp. 20–21.

[4] Plato, Apology, 46.

[5] Hayek, F.A. (2011) Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 3: The Political Order of a Free People. University of Chicago Press, p. 1.

[6] Plato, Apology, 24-27.

[7] Plato, Crito.

[8] Plato, Euthyphro.

[9] Greco, J. and J. Turri. Virtue Epistemology, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[10] Plato, Apology, 27.

[11] Plato, Theaetetus, 150b.

[12] Morrison, D.R., (Ed.) (2010) The Cambridge Companion to Socrates. Cambridge University Press.

[13] Kant, I. (1784) What is Enlightenment? (translated by M.C. Smith).

[14] Pigliucci, M. (2015) Dying (Every Day) With Dignity: Lessons From Stoicism. The Human Prospect 5(1):11-26.

[15] Hadot, P. (2001) The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Harvard University Press, ch. 8.

[16] Taylor, T. (1822/2011) Ethical Fragments of Hierocles, Preserved by Stobaeus. Evergreen Books.

[17] Singer, P. (1994) How are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest. Man- darin/Reed.

79 thoughts on “Socrates: ancient Humanist?

  1. Coel

    Hi Haulianlal Guite,

    omnibenevolence is a definition, not a standard, the same way 180 degrees factors into the definition of a triangle.

    But I can define “180 degrees” without any reference at all to a triangle. I can then define a “triangle” in terms of the already-defined “180 degrees”.

    You need to do likewise: first define what we mean by “benevolence”, and then you can define the concept “God” in terms of the already-defined “benevolence”.

    So how are you defining “benevolence”?


  2. Haulianlal Guite

    You mistook the example.

    If it will be clearer, begin by defining “180 degrees” or “degrees” itself in that case. or rather, to avoid complications, begin by defining “bachelorhood”, since, conveying the idea of inseparability is the intent here. much the same way “bachelorhood” is inseparable from “unmarried”.

    The question is not how “goodness” is defined (despite Moore’s contention it is an indefinable, properly basic concept), or even how God is, but rather: whether it is possible that the concept of God is inseparable from that of goodness. I argue that it can be. If the theist can conceive of God and goodness as inseparable in that goodness inheres in God, then he has a defeater to the dilemma.

    whether such a God exists – or even whether such inseparable conception is true – is a different discussion altogether, of course.


  3. Coel

    Hi Haulianlal Guite,

    If it will be clearer, begin by defining “180 degrees” or “degrees” itself in that case.

    Sure, and I can define “degrees” and “180 degrees” without any reference to a triangle. Equivalently, you first need to define “morally good” without any reference to a God.

    If I defined “180 degrees” as “whatever the angle of a triangle add up to”, and then tried to define “triangle” as “angles add up to 180 degrees”, then I’d have a circular and vacuous definition. Under those definitions, squares, circles and 5-sided polygons would all be “triangles”.

    The question is not how “goodness” is defined …

    No, that is exactly the question being asked.

    … whether it is possible that the concept of God is inseparable from that of goodness.

    If you have first defined “morally good”, then yes you can indeed define “God” as a being that is “morally good”, such that any being that fits the definition “God” is necessarily morally good. But that doesn’t get you off the first horn of the dilemma.

    If the theist can conceive of God and goodness as inseparable in that goodness inheres in God, then he has a defeater to the dilemma.

    If you try defining “morally good” as “whatever god is” and then define “god” as “necessarily morally good”, then you have a circular and vacuous definition and are fully impaled on the dilemma. Satan would qualify as “God”.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Massimo Post author


    Alcibiades was a friend and pupil of Socrates, and yet was told by Socrates that he suffered from amathia, or lack of wisdom — unlike his mentor, Pericles. So it’s hard to pin what Alcibiades did on Socrates. Indeed, I’m toying with the idea of writing a book on the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades…

    As for the Sophists, they were the ancestors of modern relativists, and look where that got us: the age of post-truth.


    Actually, your “alternative” interpretation of what I wrote is the correct one: when I wrote that we would have to assent to god’s commands even if we find them repugnant, I meant pragmatically, not morally — or I wouldn’t have used the word repugnant.


    Your defense against Euthyphro, and a number of others, have been tried before, with little success in my opinion. I devote an entire chapter of my Answers for Aristotle to the dialogue, the various responses by theologians throughout the centuries (from Aquinas to Swinburne) and why I find them inadequate, or, often, simply missing the point.


  5. SocraticGadfly

    Per my previous comment, Massimo, it should be of no surprise that I disagree that the Sophists were the ancestors of modern relativism, or, at a minimum, that they were any more the ancestors of modern relativism than Socrates and anybody else teaching the same skills in classical rhetoric, to focus the discussion there.

    If we look beyond rhetoric and arguing the law before Greek juries, of course, the lodestone is Protagoras’ “Man is the measure of all things.”

    Per IEP, I think arguments there could be in part based on taking an empirical-related view of Protagoras’ statement when applied to natural phenomena. When applied to phenomena of the polis, I think it goes back to what I said in the first paragraph.

    Sophists get too bad of a rap from too many philosophers, IMO, especially when comparing their view as filtered through Socrates & followers vs. a view of Socrates … as filtered through Socrates & followers.

    It’s almost as bad as trying to reconstruct Celsus’ plaints against Christianity entirely, or nearly so, through the words of Origen and other Xn apologists.


    Tis true that Alcibiades can’t be pinned totally on Socrates. That said, per The Cave, did Socrates fail to improve Alcibiades’ skill at remembering?

    The oligarchy, of course, wasn’t limited to Alicbiades.

    And, speaking of relative, Athenian democracy doesn’t have to have been a hotbed of modern humanist ideals. Or ancient ones. It just has to be better at that than the Socratic-supported oligarchy to support my counter to your Point 4.

    And, I stand by the contention that that’s exactly the case.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. wtc48

    Brodix: “Just as what sustains ecological equilibrium are the competing relationships between different individuals and species. Yet when you make the economic needs of a particular species into a single organism, the balancing factors are lost, until it manages to collapse the resource base of its ecosystem.”

    I don’t quite understand what you mean by ecological equilibrium. It seems to me that our species, homo sapiens, has an unbreakable monopoly, with no competition from anything but weeds, diseases, and various vermin. We have terraplaned most of the earth, and within this realm members of our species, corporate, national, ethnic, religious, and individual entities compete with each other over the available “resources”, i.e. the material of the planet, conceived as human wealth. The second sentence of the quote seems to be saying this, if I read it correctly.


  7. Markk

    Euthyphro about car repair:

    Does the manufacturer call good car maintenance “good” because it is good, or is good car maintenance “good” because the manufacturer said so?

    If the latter, good car maintenance is arbitrary; the manufacturer could say “set the engine on fire” and that would be good maintenance.

    If the former, we don’t need the manufacturer to tell us about car maintenance. The manufacturer is irrelevant!

    Oh dear. What a dilemma.


  8. brodix

    As I said earlier, I don’t see why relativism gets such a bad reputation, considering the alternative is absolutism. History gives plenty of examples where that leads. Yes, the idea took root in the aftermath of WW1 and it was a fairly nihilistic time, but this mindset and the ideas which grew from it were consequence, not cause.

    I do think it is interesting God and even humanistic morality are being defined and discussed in terms of what is good, rather than what is true. That these ideas are not synonymous should give some pause to any belief morality is not relative.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. brodix


    In an ecosystem in equilibrium, one species resources fluctuate and waste are filtered and recycled, such that they maintain a stable population, over time. Our adaptability and omnivorousness is overwhelming this. So either we use our supposed mental capacities to reintegrate with the environment, or the bigger we get, the harder we fall.
    This will require climbing out of our self constructed box, but I suspect it will be more a matter of the box being broken and scattered, leaving us cold and naked for awhile. Hopefully those who survive will take to heart the necessity of community which got them through.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. brodix


    I suppose my objective point is every species and organism seeks to grow and expand as much as possible, so there isn’t an effective counterweight to humanity, other than our own destructiveness.

    That’s why I keep making arguments for the circularity of nature, as opposed to our current linear beliefs. As such, we really are just bacteria, racing across the petri dish.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Coel

    Hi Markk,

    If the former, we don’t need the manufacturer to tell us about car maintenance.

    Indeed we don’t need a manufacturer to define “good” w.r.t. car maintenance; good car maintenance is that which leads to the car continuing to run reliably.


  12. brodix


    “Yes, the idea took root in the aftermath of WW1 and it was a fairly nihilistic time, but this mindset and the ideas which grew from it were consequence, not cause.”

    If I recall my history correctly, the reason for moral relativism arising as a popular concept at the time, was because it was broadly noted and discussed that both sides in the conflict felt God was on their side.


  13. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, remember 4 years ago at Rationally Speaking, when you did a post about most overrated philosophers of the 20th century? That got me to thinking about most overrated and underrated ever, and I blogged about that.

    Guess who’s No. 1 on the overrated?

    I think we talked about this before, and you or somebody else asked about my nom de plume. Knowing that most people with a basic knowledge of philosophy know about Socrates’ claim to be a gadfly stinging the people of Athens, whether that claim is more truth or more myth, I adopted it.

    As for Aristophanes’ take on Socrates? I think he was at least half right, per what I have already said about how both the likes of him and the Sophists were trying to, in part, teach skills of rhetoric to win in court.


  14. ejwinner

    Interesting discussion. I also am not convinced Socrates can be considered a humanist, but I have no argument for the present. But certainly Plato wasn’t; perhaps that in itself is telling.

    Massimo, have you read I.F. Stone’s book on Socrates’ trial? Some problems with it, but some interesting points as well.

    As for the Euthyphro discussion – nah, I think that’s been done to exhaustion, or maybe I’m just exhausted with it. Haven’t seen a new argument for it here.


  15. Alan White

    If benevolence omni- or otherwise is inseparable from God’s nature, then it either is constitutive of God as created by an Uber-God (therein lies regressive madness) or essentially and possibly necessarily co-existent with God’s nature from eternity, and thus not self-created by God. Either way God’s nature is not due to him/her/it-self–it is some fact that God cannot pronounce on or command to be different that what it is. Now, disregarding the Uber-God regress, if the second way is true, and God’s moral nature is eternally part of what God is, then God cannot change it, and so the second part of the dilemma holds. But in that case a funny thing happened on the way to this forum: then either God’s uncommanded moral nature has rational structure or it does not. If not, it is constitutionally arbitrary as an unalterable part of God’s moral authority. If it does have rational structure, then it is that rational structure that underlies God’s moral nature. So even if God is constituted to have a certain moral structure by eternal essential properties, the Euthyphro dilemma applies all over again.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. brodix

    Why not try evolution of the intellect as explanation?

    It does seem the origin of god developed from a tribal sense of self and this then became extended to all it encountered. The Egyptians became quite advanced and were working of some forms of monotheism, of the spirit of the universe.
    When the Jews escaped, they took this concept of one universal god, but re-set it to being a tribal god as well.
    The Greeks then filtered this, as Christianity, through their seasonal year gods and got the Trinity as a bit of a generational thing, god as past, present and future, father, son and holy ghost. Which helped to keep pushing the re=set button and clear out the authoritarianism, but since this inconvenienced the authority of the church, became lost theological posturing.
    The Arabs really took to the universal god, but expanded it beyond ethnicity to culture.
    So here we are are, a short couple millennia later, debating whether there is a universal good, or it is a function of some supernatural entity.
    Get over it. Good is relative. What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken. All the propaganda in the world is not going to change that. Truth.
    As well as that “everything” is infinite and so would be a network, not a singular node. A panorama, not monolithic.
    This is supposed to be philosophy, not religion. You are given permission to think outside the box.


  17. brodix

    As I keep pointing out though, absolute would be basis, not apex, so a spiritual absolute would be the essence of sentience from which consciousness rises, not an ideal of wisdom, judgement, benevolence, whatever, from which we fell. More the new born babe, than the father figure old guy.

    Then there is the political aspect, that having a religion of the Big Guy in charge, validates the concept of the Big Guy in charge down here as well. Lots of spirits arguing only leads to mob rule, so we need separation of church and state.

    Interesting recent article in Aeon, on the Christianization of the Roman Empire and how it went from multiple religions to one. Link in separate post.


  18. SocraticGadfly

    Brodix: Paul wasn’t a Roman citizen. He never claims that in his own letters. Only Acts does and that’s highly doubtful. That’s the first thing the Aeon piece gets wrong. I’ll read the rest with a skeptical gimlet eye.


  19. Massimo Post author


    Actually, I thought Paul was a Roman citizen, that’s why he didn’t get executed immediately when charged were brought up against him, but was sent to Rome for further investigations by the magistrates.


  20. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo: Acts has him making that claim, yes, but Paul never makes it himself in any of his legitimate letters. Indeed, Jerome knows of a tradition where Paul was born in Galilee, not Tarsus, which would almost certainly preclude him being a Roman citizen. (And for Jerome to publicly report that claim at that relatively late date in Xn history shows it had some degree of circulation.)

    Acts was almost certainly not written by a Pauline companion. NT scholar A.N. Sherwin-White, in a book ignored by evangelicals (obviously), but with this particular idea also ignored by critical scholars, notes that 1st-2nd Century CE Greco-Roman romance literature invariably shifts to 1st-person plural in the narrative whenever the protagonist is on shipboard voyage. Except for one variant in one subsection of the “Western” textual tradition, the “we” passages in Acts match to a T.


  21. Coel

    I thought Paul was a Roman citizen, that’s why he didn’t get executed immediately when charged were brought up against him, but was sent to Rome for further investigations by the magistrates.

    According to the Acts Seminar (which is current mainstream scholarly opinion), Acts dates to about CE 110 to 130, and it is primarily theological rather than historical, and its writing mostly reflects power struggles in the second century church — such as countering Marcion and his heresy — but does not tell us much about first century Christianity (e.g. summary link). (Note that this conclusion then also dates “Luke” to the same CE 110 to 130.)

    It’s also worth noting that there are no versions of Paul’s letters, and no sign that anyone knew of them, before Marcion came up with them around the same CE 110 to 130, and that their provenance before that, if there was one, is completely unknown. (And further, most of the NT more likely dates back to the second century rather than first.)

    The upshot is thus that we actually know very little about “Paul”, far less than is usually supposed.


  22. SocraticGadfly

    Not quite so fast on your dates, mythicist.

    All three of the Synoptic Gospels are pre-100 in the eyes of anybody but the most radical scholars. Ditto on Paul’s genuine letters, 1 Peter and Revelation, at a minimum. The non-Pastoral pseudepigraphal Paulines may have been written pre-100 as well.

    The fact that p46, the Beatty Papyrus, contains the non-Pastoral pseudepigrapha also attests to a relatively early date for them.

    As for the idea that Marcion “came up with them,” if you’re hinting at a mythical Paul, fuhgeddaboutit.

    Otherwise, Marcion misunderstood Paul, who never preached a “clean break” with Judaism, and in fact clearly contradicts that idea in Romans.

    And, though not currently employed as such, I’m the academic in this area by training.


  23. Coel

    Hi Socratic,

    All three of the Synoptic Gospels are pre-100 in the eyes of anybody but the most radical scholars.

    The Acts Seminar dates Acts (and thus Luke) to the second century, and they are mainstream scholars, though on the “critical” wing. As we’ve previously discussed, this whole field is so bound up with the religious beliefs of the majority of scholars that we need to be sceptical about “accepted” dates and accepted accounts of Christian origins.

    The fact that p46, the Beatty Papyrus, contains the non-Pastoral pseudepigrapha also attests to a relatively early date for them.

    First, dates based on handwriting alone are always pretty uncertain. Second, quoting wiki, that papyrus has been dated as “95% confidence interval for a date between 150–250”, which is entirely in line with my suggestion that most of the NT dates from the 2nd century.

    As for the idea that Marcion “came up with them,” if you’re hinting at a mythical Paul, fuhgeddaboutit.

    It’s commonly accepted that Marcion was the first to “come up with them”, in his “Apostolicon”. [The fact that the first version of the NT, a gospel and a set of Paul’s letters, was first produced by someone now regarded as the arch heretic, is not something that usually gets emphasized in Sunday school 🙂 ]

    Now, whether “came up with them” means that he found Paul’s letters, collected them together and presented them in his Apostolicon, or whether he both collected them and “edited” them, or whether he and hs followers “originated” them in a more direct sense, is something I don’t claim to know.

    But isn’t it rather concerning, from the point of view of an orthodox Christian, that Paul’s letters were first brought to us by an arch heretic? The suggestion (by the Acts Seminar) is that Acts was then written as a reaction to Marcion’s version of Paul, to try to rescue Paul from the Marcionites.

    The point is that, if that sort of re-writing for theological reasons was going on, then we have no real basis for trusting the provenance of the Letters prior to Marcion, nor for trusting the historical accuracy of anything in Paul’s letters or Acts (or Luke therefore) … or indeed virtually anything in the NT.

    Otherwise, Marcion misunderstood Paul, who never preached a “clean break” with Judaism, and in fact clearly contradicts that idea in Romans.

    But that presumes we have original texts of Paul that are independent of Marcion, and also independent of post-Marcion re-writing as a reaction to Marcion. Do we? How do we know that? If we don’t, how can we deconvolve any pre-Marcion Paul from the post-Marcion writings that we have?

    Which is pretty much the same question as how much one can separate Socrates from Plato — to bring this crashing back to topic! 🙂


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