Socrates meets Machiavelli, Socrates meets Marx, by Peter Kreeft

Socrates meets Machiavelli, Socrates meets Marx, by Peter Kreeft

Bill Muehlenberg


by Peter Kreeft

(Ignatius, 2003, 170pp, $24.95 each. Available from AD Books)

Peter Kreeft is a professional philosopher, a prolific author, and a zealous Christian apologist. He has written a number of books using the Socratic method of dialogue and questioning to stimulate thought, correct fuzzy thinking, and challenge our unexamined presuppositions.

He is now in the midst of a new series titled "Socrates Meets ...", the first two of which are now available. The series is designed to help introduce the reader to the major thinkers and their writings. In these two books Kreeft (via Socrates) analyses and dissects The Communist Manifesto and The Prince, two of the world's more influential works of political theory.

These volumes do a very good job of distilling the contents and ideas of the Great Books, making them easy to understand and digest. The format of a debate or dialogue between Socrates and his antagonist makes for enjoyable and illuminating reading.

The format also makes the book fun while helping the reader discover discerning and penetrating insights into the subject of the debate. Let me illustrate with an example from the Marx volume:

"Marx: All ideas are the product of social conditions.

"Socrates: But your social conditions, including your education, were thoroughly bourgeois. If ideas are nothing but products of their social order, your communism must be a thoroughly bourgeois idea.

"Marx: I need not answer your pitiful logic, Socrates. It is impotent. You seek in vain to slay the juggernaut of history's dialectic with the weapons of words. Words are mere shadows, spectres, ghosts.

"Socrates: Including your words, Karl? Are they also spectres?

"Marx: You keep doing that, Socrates! It is a most annoying habit."

And on it goes. By uniting a Christian worldview with the probing Socratic method, Kreeft is able to clarify an opponent's position, and point out the inconsistencies and fallacies therein. He is then in a position to show the superior claims of the Judeo-Christian position, compared with these works.

The contradictions and inconsistencies of Marx's thought connect to those in his own life. As Kreeft (through Socrates) points out, "You despised the actual proletariat yet called yourself a proletariat. You and all your friends came from the well-to-do middle class, the bourgeoisie; yet you fulminated against everything bourgeois as against Hell itself."

The system he founded fares no better. Socialism and communism "were spectacular economic failures nearly everywhere ... It did not free the proletariat but enslaved them, both economically and politically. Whole peoples were massacred. Well over a hundred million people were killed in its name ... Everywhere communism took power, it ruled by terror. Your ideology is directly responsible for the most enormous suffering, bloodshed, and tyranny in the history of the world."

The demolition of Machiavelli by Kreeft and Socrates continues in the same vein. The political philosopher is subjected to the same hard questioning, and his famous work, The Prince, is given a close examination.

Power and arms, said Machiavelli, make a ruler successful. This is a universal principle or formula. But what about successful leaders like Moses or Jesus? Power of arms was not what made them great. Thus these historical exceptions disprove the rule.

Societies can only work by fear, power, and mistrust, says Machiavelli. Not so, says Socrates. No society is sustained by those qualities. For men to get along, trust, love and self-sacrifice are required. That is the only way that societies can last. The kind of societies envisaged by Machiavelli have been attempted - by Hitler and Lenin. But they did not last.

Both volumes apply solid logic and the timeless truths of the Judeo-Christian tradition to some of the most influential of modern thinkers. They make "painless" introductions to these thinkers, as well as incisive critiques of their thoughts. I look forward to future volumes in this excellent series.

Bill Muehlenberg is the National Vice-President of the Australian Family Association.

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