PHILOSOPHY 101 MEETS SOCRATES
by Peter Kreeft.
(Ignatius Press, 2002, 149pp, $22.00. Available from AD Books)
Peter Kreeft has taught philosophy for over forty years. He is also a Christian. So what does philosophy have to do with Christianity? Or as Tertullian put it long ago, what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?
Well quite a bit really, according to Kreeft. For example, both are, or should be, concerned with truth, or the discovery of truth. Both are concerned about going beyond appearances and getting at reality.
Thus Kreeft thinks philosophy, properly understood and practised, can be a real aid to the believer. This book is an introductory primer to philosophy, or more specifically, to doing philosophy. Kreeft thinks that Plato/Socrates may have been our greatest philosopher, and his works make for an excellent entry point to philosophy.
Kreeft concentrates on three dialogues that exemplify Socrates' method and manner: the Apology of Socrates, the Euthyphro, and the Phaedo. Kreeft enjoys using these dialogues as they do not just talk about philosophy but they actually show us philosophy in action.
The Apology is the main text focused on. In it Kreeft tells us forty different things about philosophy and the philosophical method. As we all know, philosophy is the love of wisdom. It differs from mere knowledge, and God is its source. While God has wisdom, man pursues it. In this Socrates and biblical religion are on common ground.
Moreover, the quest of philosophy is not for truth as found in the physical sciences, but moral and eternal truths, as found in religion. Moral questions, like "What is justice?", cannot be answered by the physical sciences.
A key issue raised in the Euthyphro is the connection between God and goodness. Can we be good without God?
The two options presented are, 1) that God chooses what is good (Euthyphro's position), and 2) that God is subject to what is good (Socrates' position). Of course Christians tend to say that this is a false dilemma, and argue for a third position, that God's goodness is coterminous with his nature. Position one seems to make God arbitrary, and position two seems to make goodness greater than God. But the third option fully equates goodness with God. What God commands is good because it is in accord with his own good nature.
The last work examined, the Phaedo, is the story of the death of Socrates. It is also the argument of Socrates for why life extends beyond the grave, for why the soul is immortal.
To refer to the earlier discussion about historicity, Kreeft reminds us that while Christianity cannot survive without Christ, philosophy can survive without an historical Socrates. Even if he is just the creation of Plato's pen, his timeless truths live on.
It was Alfred North Whitehead who once said that the European philosophical tradition "consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." No one can improve upon the greatness of Plato/ Socrates. His greatness and wisdom live on. Thus there is so much we can learn from Socrates, so much we are indebted to.
He is not the equivalent of Christ, but he bears many similarities, as Kreeft points out throughout this book - although there are real shortcomings to Socrates. His insistence on the importance of the soul was as valuable as his denial of the importance of the body was flawed.
Believers need not be ashamed of nor afraid of philosophy. In its proper form, it leads us to truth. In the Christian tradition, God is truth, so that in a fallen world, external revelation is needed to supplement internal inquiry.
But is it possible that God can use pre-Christians like Socrates to teach us much about life and even Himself? Kreeft thinks so, and this book goes a long way in showing Christians how to appreciate the beauties of philosophy.
In other books in this series, Kreeft shows the dark side of reckless philosophy (as in his discussions about Sartre and Marx). But here we learn of the good purposes which philosophy can serve.
Bill Muehlenberg is National Vice-President of the AFA.