Socrates (470-399 B.C.)

Dr Ben Holloway, Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

“I was almost carried away in spite of myself, so persuasively did they speak. And yet, hardly anything of what they said is true” (Socrates in Plato’s Apology).

The power of a forceful personality often finds its way to podiums, pulpits, and YouTube’s most viewed videos. But, as Socrates points out, being a powerful speaker doesn’t entail being a truthful one.

Nor does forceful speech require that the speaker says anything of substance. A preacher may have the capacity to affect his congregation without having said much at all.

But which is more important, the capacity to affect people, or the truth and substance of what is said?


In Socrates’ day, a powerful group of teachers emerged as a component of Athenian democracy. The sophists were instructors in persuasive speech and successful action. In a society driven by those who could persuade others to follow them, sophists were in high demand.

For the sophists, the power of human speech was found in its capacity to move people to action. The merits of speech were measured by skill and success. Truth was a secondary concern.

Sophists considered philosophy to be overly focused on the nature and origin of things. Philosophers were focused on normative, objective features of reality – laws of nature, essential properties of objects, and the fundamental nature of reality. But, argued the sophists, this is not what life is mostly about. Instead, ordinary life is made up of considering what human convention determines. Thus, what we should be teaching is not the nature of reality, but the features of human culture such as language, communication (rhetoric), and successful living.

One can see the same attitude today. If something doesn’t make any immediate difference to my life, then it is useless. Why bother with the truth about reality? What we need are results. To such an attitude, sophists plied their trade by offering to teach Athenians how to live successful lives now. There was an immediate tangible benefit.

Since sophists spent much of their time considering what made for powerful speeches, they ended up ignoring whether what was said in the speech was true. This initiated a species of relativism whereby “man is the measure of all things” (sophist, Protagoras). What matters is not the substance of what is said but its effects on people.


Socrates was born in Athens in 469 BC. He spent his early life as a citizen of a flourishing democracy under the rule of Pericles. This was an age of art and literature (e.g. the building of the Parthenon). In 431, the Peloponnesian war broke out between Athens and the Spartans. Socrates fought on the side of Athens and gained a reputation for courage. As a result, he was given a political appointment in Athens.

The Spartans eventually defeated the Athenians and established an oligarchy in Athens commonly referred to as the rule of the 30 tyrants. Socrates ended up disliked by both sides. He disobeyed a direct order from the new rulers but refused to join a revolution to restore democracy. When democracy was restored, Socrates was brought up on charges and sentenced to death. Famously, he died by drinking Hemlock in 399 B.C.

Socrates considered reason and truth to be at a disadvantage compared with the overwhelming force of sophistry. Nonetheless, his life was marked by highlighting the contrast between the two and the value of the former over the latter. Doing so annoyed the powers that be and ultimately got him killed.

The Apology

One of the most famous works of Plato is The Apology. It records the trial of Socrates. In it, Socrates demonstrates a philosophical life in distinction from the life of sophistry. In the opening lines of Socrates’ speech, he states the distinction. One of the accusations made against him is that he is the one corrupting people with powerful speech. In reply, he argues,

Of the many lies they told, one in particular surprised me, namely that you should be careful not to be deceived by an accomplished speaker like me. That they were not ashamed to be immediately proved wrong by the facts, when I show myself not to be an accomplished speaker at all, that I thought was most shameless on their part—unless indeed they call an accomplished speaker the man who speaks the truth. If they mean that, I would agree that I am an orator, but not after their manner, for indeed, as I say, practically nothing they said was true. From me you will hear the whole truth, though not, by Zeus, gentlemen, expressed in embroidered and stylized phrases like theirs, but things spoken at random and expressed in the first words that come to mind, for I put my trust in the justice of what I say, and let none of you expect anything else ” (Apology, 17a-17c).

Socrates considers his own speeches to fall vastly short of the standards set by the sophists. They are neither forceful nor of any literary merit. Their power lies only in their proximity to the truth. If truth is the problem, then Socrates is guilty as charged.

In the ensuing dialogue, Socrates demonstrates the foolishness of sophistry, how it leads people to ‘puff up’ their knowledge and corrupts the city.

In response to some charges brought by the ‘first accusers,’ Socrates demonstrates the foolishness of his accusers. He tells his accusers that the oracle at Delphi had pronounced that Socrates is the wisest man alive. Socrates tells the court that he intended to disprove the Oracle. His method was to find the wisest people and show that they are wiser than he. However, Socrates fails in his quest.

First, Socrates visits the politicians. However, Socrates discovers that politicians claim to know much but do not know that they lack knowledge. Sophistry has corrupted them. Thus, Socrates is wiser than politicians:

“I am wiser than that fellow, anyhow. Because neither of us, I dare say, knows anything of great value; but he thinks he knows a thing when he doesn’t; whereas I neither know it in fact, nor do I think that I do. At any rate, it appears that I am wiser than he in just this one small respect: if I do not know something, I do not think that I do.” (Apology 21d)

Wisdom comprises a capacity to know one’s limits. Sophists always have an answer. Since success rests on it, answers are more important than truth. Socrates is wiser because he knows that he doesn’t have all the answers and is prepared to admit it.

There is an important lesson here. When asked a question to which one doesn’t know the answer, we should resist the urge to make one up. Instead, we should try to discover the truth. Being honest about what we do and do not know is sign of wisdom, not weakness.

Having failed to find anyone wiser than he among politicians, Socrates turns to the poets. Poets have “a certain natural aptitude and inspiration.” Perhaps they will demonstrate great depth of wisdom. However, Socrates is again disappointed by their sophistry. The poet has great powers to depict and represent others’ skill and wisdom but, as Socrates points out, they “know nothing of the matters on which they pronounce” (Apology, 22c).

Artists do indeed have great powers to observe and portray. For example, a painter can represent in detail the craftsman making a shoe. But ask the poet to make a shoe, and he won’t be able.

Artistry employs the imagination. Nonetheless, it is a mistake to take the content of our imagination as evidence for a belief. Suppose I imagine being a pastor and discover that I am excellent at it. In my imagination, I discover that my congregation will love my preaching and personality, and that I really enjoy the task. Should that give me reason to become a pastor? Surely not!

As Pascal reminds us, the imagination only furthers our own image of ourselves. As such it has the power to turn us into fools. We are great in our own minds, but no further.

Pascal writes:

“with such self-esteem do [they] imagine themselves to be wise before the minds of others…Of course, imagination cannot turn fools into wise men, but she can make them happy to the envy of reason” (Pascal, Pensées, 2:82).

Having concluded that his is wiser than the poets, Socrates turns to one last group, the craftsmen. Surely, they demonstrate great excellence in their trade. Perhaps they will prove the Oracle wrong. The trouble is: excellence in one area doesn’t mean excellence in other areas.

The craftsmen knew one thing better than anyone else but were fooled into thinking that such expertise carried over to all other domains. Sophistry has caused the craftsmen to extend beyond their reach. Thus, the craftsmen’s arrogance “eclipsed their wisdom.” Socrates concludes that it is better to have less wisdom and less ignorance than the craftsmen. Thus, Socrates discovers that he is wiser than the craftsman.

It is a great temptation to suppose that expertise in one area automatically grants a high level of knowledge in every other area. But it isn’t true. As Christians, we should make our first expertise knowledge of what God has told us in Scripture. We may also obtain knowledge in other areas, even becoming experts, but at the very least, we should be learning as much as we can from what God has told us. We should be “ready at any time to give a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). But being able to defend one’s faith doesn’t entail being able to do everything else.

In the second half of the dialogue, Socrates demonstrates his famous Socratic method according to which one engages in a question-answer process by which truth is discovered by eliminating falsehood. Socrates assumes that anyone he is talking with can reason properly if they are guided correctly. Nonetheless, since such questioning of his interlocutors enraged them, Socrates is found guilty of the charges and is sentenced to death.


There are lessons we can learn from Socrates’ conflict with the sophists. First, powerful speakers capture people (see Paul’s comments in Colossians 2:8). We are naïve to assume that people, including ourselves, are not susceptible to even the most foolish of ideas when they are presented powerfully. In our present age, many ideas in ascendency are obviously false. Nonetheless, they are forcefully presented, not in an appeal to truth or reason, but by using forceful means of communication, and, as a consequence people will be carried away (see Heb 13:9 for an example of this phenomenon).

As Ernst Cassirer comments, the rise of Nazi ideology was so shocking because it was so obviously false. But rise it did. Just because something seems obviously false doesn’t mean no one will believe it. Many will. As Cassirer recalls,

When we first heard of the political myths we found them so absurd and incongruous, so fantastic and ludicrous that we could hardly be prevailed upon to take them seriously. By now it has become clear to all of us that this was a great mistake (Cassirer, The Myth of the State, p. 296).

Second, the effects of power are not easily dispelled. As Socrates says, “it is not easy to dispel great slanders in a short time” (Apology 37a–b). If he had had longer, he may have had a chance to rationally persuade his hearers of his innocence. But a day isn’t enough.

We shouldn’t expect immediate results in a society heavily propagandized by powerful forces. Such a world do we live in today. Society is saturated by unsubstantiated and obviously false claims. One wonders how people can be so easily led, but once they have been carried away, bringing them back isn’t usually a quick or easy task.

Since we read about the early church in a ‘highlight reel’ we might infer that the effects of Paul and the other apostles were instantaneous. But their work was long and difficult. Paul famously took time to exegete the Scripture (Acts 20).

Our work is long and hard, and the effects are sometimes minimal. But that is not to say they are useless. Indeed, as hindsight demonstrates, the power of a life invested in truth is usually vindicated over time. Just not necessarily during its lifetime. Socrates is more widely read than Protagoras! Similarly, Paul is more cited than any Roman emperor. Even if the effects are small, the value of what we proclaim always outweighs its effects (Isaiah 40:8).

Such a principle propels us to mission fields which, from an earthly perspective, have little chance of making any difference. But we aren’t entirely powerless. As Paul comments, true speeches proclaiming the gospel are accompanied by divine power. Their force does not lie in human powers but in God’s power to save (1 Cor 2:4-5).

Paul and Socrates

In a fascinating section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul contrasts himself with sophists in a similar way to Socrates. He writes,

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, announcing the mystery of God to you, I did not come with brilliance of speech or wisdom. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

As Bruce Winter argues, “Paul deliberately adopts an anti-sophistic stance…Paul’s critique of the sophistic tradition angered at least some in the congregation, namely those wise by the world’s standards (1 Cor 3:18)” (Bruce Winter, Philo and Paul, 145-146). Indeed, as Winter points out, the content of speech precludes a sophist-style presentation.

All grounds for a sophistic attitude of superiority were removed by the predetermined topic, for he had not come to establish his own reputation but to declare Jesus, the crucified Messiah (Winter, 157).

There are similarities between Paul and Socrates in their stances against sophistry, but significant differences too. For Socrates, wisdom is found in knowing nothing and seeking the truth. For Paul, wisdom is demonstrated by knowing Christ and nothing else. Both acknowledge human limitation—we don’t know everything—but Paul makes one area the sine qua non of the Christian intellectual life. According to Paul, one doesn’t need to be an expert on everything, but one should make one’s life about knowing Christ and the gospel message.

Second, for both Socrates and Paul, truth is more important than a speaker’s power. Paul despises his earthly powers. In his letter to the Philippians, he says that he considers his human elevated status as excrement in comparison to “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8). To demonstrate the value of truth over human force, Paul comes to the Corinthians “in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling” (1 Cor 2:3). In contrast to the overly confident sophists, Paul is a pathetic speaker. It is likely that he could be a commanding speaker, but he restrains his force to highlight truth.

However, gospel speech isn’t powerless. In contrast to Socrates, more power accompanies the proclamation of the gospel than any other proclamation. But it isn’t Paul’s power on display. Rather, Paul tells us that it is the power of God that is demonstrated (2:4). Why should Paul restrain his own power like this? Paul tells us that the use of his own power may have the effect that, in hindsight, it may be said that people follow the force of his character and not God. What damage we do to the gospel by making followers depend on us for their faith. Instead, since Paul came with weak but truthful speech, it could only be God’s power that explains the people’s faith (2:5).