Hellenistic philosophy, the connection between Jesus and Socrates, and what atheists (and others) can learn from the Bible.
The day after Easter Sunday I found myself listening to a lecture from the 90’s on Hellenistic philosophy (Plato, Socrates, and the Dialogues), and it struck me that considering its proximity in time to the most printed book in human history, the Bible is often relegated to scrap by many modern academics.
Particularly concerning Stoicism, a branch of Socratic philosophy which I’ve grown increasingly wedded to the more I’ve read, I can acknowledge many parallels between the thoughts of Socrates, and later Marcus Aurelius, with the teachings of Jesus - and still many would much more readily accept one than the other.
The timeline of development in the stoic school of thought is largely inextricable from early Christianity, and many of the early disciples read greek and would have encountered these ideas. In fact, Seneca’s brother was the judge in the case of the Apostle Paul in Corinth.
Socrates, despite coming some 400 years before Jesus, was similarly monotheistic - an exceptional orator who was persecuted for his beliefs and died by his teachings, leaving no work written by his own hand. Sound familiar? Socrates was the son of a stonemason and Jesus, a carpenter. Neither escaped death, although Jesus asserted power over it post-mortem. However, in life, there was much worth contrasting.
Of course, I understand any historic aversion to accepting teachings from a religion that was forcibly thrust on hundreds of millions, especially among those of African origin - but I still think the Bible warrants study. If not for faith, then at least for history and philosophy.
I was accused of pussyfooting about in my last issue, and so have resolved to delve deep enough to sufficiently cover this topic rather than prioritising brevity. As a further disclaimer, you should know that I consider myself a Christian, although I try to approach this topic with modest neutrality.✓
Theologian or philosopher?
Many Christians recoil from the idea of Jesus as a student or seeker of knowledge as though this might undermine his divinity, despite the Biblical accounts that even as a boy he spent days in the temple courts “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions”. The same passage goes on to emphasise that “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:39-52).
Beyond this, there are others, especially in academia who will contend furiously the idea of Jesus as a philosopher and not merely as a theologian. Historian Humphrey Carpenter dismisses the idea off-hand by clarifying that Jesus was a Jew and not a Greek - the implication being that the Jews were devoted only to studying religious law and doctrine, rather than morals and motivations.
There is a robust argument against this view. To parse a well-phrased Quora response on the matter:
I should say that in life as man, Jesus was most definitely a philosopher and we can reach this conclusion rather quickly if we view philosophy before viewing religion. We must be wary of bias.
God would have no need to study Himself.
If you'd like an atheistic take, then the question becomes more interesting. To imply Jesus was a theologian, as I am challenging, diminishes His status as divine in that the value of the theologian is “one who is concerned with the nature of the divine". The Divine has no need to be concerned with itself. Therefore the philosopher, as one concerned with thought itself, fits amply in the case of Jesus.
Throughout the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) which recount Jesus’ life, his thoughts and teachings were primarily conveyed through his parables. These stories served as philosophical devices, stimulating deeper levels of self-inquiry.
Keith Ward, in The Philosopher and the Gospels, defines Jesus' moral teaching as “participative virtue ethics”. Participative here refers to how Jesus' audience would be gently coaxed into taking an active role in interpreting and experimenting with his ideas, rather than simply having prepackaged conceptions of "the truth" dictated to them.
So what can we learn from Jesus the philosopher?
Assuming we’ve safely cleared the hurdle that Jesus’ parables and maxims might constitute valid philosophy, what do we actually learn from studying them?
Jesus espouses a certain kind of ethical system with several key values. These include, […] prudence, non-possessiveness, non-judgmentalism, humility, inclusion, and forgiveness.
In examples below please note that I’ve often substituted specific assertions such as “the Word of God” or “the way” for the ideas they would represent in Hellenistic philosophy, e.g. “the truth” or “the path of virtue”.
The parable of the sower - accept the truth when you find it
There are many ways of responding to the truth. Some may hear it but reject it. Some may accept it but not act on it. The lesson of this parable is that we must hear, accept and act on truth when it is presented to us. Matthew 13:3-9.
- Just as a farmer scatters seed throughout the field, truth presents itself to us indiscriminately.
- Just as the seed cannot take root on the trampled and hardened path, truth is often rejected by hearts hardened with pride.
- Just as the seed that falls on shallow soil wilts in the sun, some have shallow resolve. They are enthusiastic about the truth until it becomes inconvenient or makes demands on them. Then they fall away.
- Just as the seed that falls among thorns is crowded out, the truth can be crowded out by fear and the pursuit of convenience/pleasure.
- Just as the seed that falls on good soil yields a bountiful crop, the truth is fruitful in people who listen, understand and apply it.
Related verses: Matthew 5:16, 6:25, 10:22, 2 Corinthians 4:8-10, James 2:14-17, John 3:36, 1 Peter 4:17, 2 Thessalonians 3:13, 1 Timothy 6:10, James 1:22-25, 1 John 2:9.✓
The Parable of the Hidden Treasure - virtue is of greater worth than vice
The Parable of the Hidden Treasure and The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price both feature a person willing to give up all his worldly possessions to obtain something of even greater value. Similarly, virtue and truth are more valuable than earthly vices - possessions, pleasures, prejudices or pride. Matthew 13:44-46.
It is sometimes noted that the buyer acted deceitfully in the Parable of the Hidden Treasure. He was morally obligated to inform the owner of the field about the treasure. Many say there is only one lesson per parable, and so it is a mistake to look for meaning in every detail of the story. Such a means (despite positive ends) is not in line with Jesus’ other principles.
However, I do find that aspect interesting - it reminds me of a passage in John where Jesus was confronted by Pharisees (the religious elite and the representatives of religious law) with a large mob in tow. They brought out a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery - something strictly forbidden by Jewish law (we can discuss the gender imbalances central to the religious oppression of women in a future issue).
This was a situation intended to trap Jesus - which would he prioritise, the strict interpretation of religious law, or his own tenets of forgiveness and love which, in this case, would also prove him sacrilegious. Jesus doesn’t deny the religious law outright but instead adds a small caveat: they can throw as many stones as they like if they have never done any wrong themselves.
Jesus turned this intended entrapment into a lesson in two more things: judgement, and self-righteousness. Often we cast disdain on others for failing in areas we do not, without considering our own failings. The central idea is that we all fall short of absolute virtue and thus have no stones to cast at others. Each of us will be judged individually and holistically.
Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, had some interesting words to say on a similar issue in his Meditations. For both, commitment to individual virtue should always be the primary focus. Jesus reinforces this during another confrontation in Matthew 7:5 saying “First, remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye”.
Related verses: Daniel 2:44, Luke 1:33, Romans 14:17, Colossians 1:13, 2 Peter 1:10-11, Philippians 3:8-9.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan - virtue is universal
"Love your neighbour as yourself" was part of the Jewish law (Leviticus 19:18). But the religious teachers generally interpreted "neighbour" to include only people of their own nationality and religion. An expert in the law was looking to Jesus for justification for that interpretation and asked him "…who is my neighbour?" In response, Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Context is important here so I’ll expand:
Samaria was a region of central Palestine that was once the capital of Israel. The Assyrians captured Samaria in 721 B.C. They deported many of the inhabitants but intermarried with the remaining Jews. They adopted the religion of Israel, but they also continued to worship their own idols. The Jews considered the Samaritans to be religious heretics due to their foreign nationality and ‘inferior race’. The Samaritans offered to help rebuild the Jewish temple, but their offer was rebuffed (Ezra 4:1-3). Finally, the Samaritans built a rival temple on Mt. Gerizim and proclaimed it, rather than the Jewish temple, to be the true house of God. By the time of Jesus, the Jews and Samaritans had hated each other for hundreds of years. When you consider the Israeli/Palestinian conflict of the present day, you’ll realise not much has changed in almost 3000 years.
Considering that the Samaritans would be considered the furthest thing from a “neighbour” in the minds of religious Jews, If a Samaritan man could be a "neighbour" to the Jewish man who was robbed and beaten in the story, then the definition of "neighbour" would have to include practically eveyone.
Jesus is saying that anyone in need is your neighbor, regardless of race, religion, nationality or any other artificial distinction. Luke 10:25-37.
Wait, there’s more
There are plenty more parables below, although I’ll spare you my lengthy interpretations:
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant - forgiveness must be unlimited
We must forgive if we wish to be forgiven. There is no room for revenge, retaliation, or grudges. Matthew 18:21-35.
Related verses: Proverbs 19:11, Matthew 5:44-45, 6:12, 6:14-15, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:37, 17:3-4, Romans 12:14, 12:17-19, Ephesians 4:31-32, Colossians 3:12-14, 1 Peter 3:10, James 2:13, 1 John 4:20-21.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector - there is virtue in humility
We are all imperfect and fall short of perfect virtue (Romans 3:23). Anyone who is self-righteous and looks at other "sinners" with disdain is lacking virtue themselves. Luke 18:9-14.
Related verses: Proverbs 26:12, Matthew 5:5-9, 7:1-5, 9:10-13, 18:10, 20:25-28, Mark 9:35, Luke 6:32-42, 7:36-50, 14:11, John 8:1-8, Romans 2:1-4, 3:23, 14:10-12, 1 Corinthians 4:5, 10:24, 13:1-7, 16:14, Ephesians 4:1-6, Galatians 6:1-3, Philippians 2:2-8, 2 Timothy 2:22-25, James 2:12-13, 4:11-12, 1 John 1:8.
The Parable of the Talents - Make the best of the means you have
We will be judged by what we have achieved with the abilities and wealth we have each been given. A life of virtue alone is insufficient. We must actively use the gifts we have been given unselfishly. Some of us have been given small gifts and some great gifts, but we must all do our best with what we have. Matthew 25:14-30.
Related verses: Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 20:25-28, Mark 12:28-31, 12:41-44, Luke 6:38, 12:42-48, 19:11-27, 21:1-4, Acts 3:6, 20:35, Romans 12:5-8, 12:11, 1 Corinthians 1:24-30, 3:7-9, 4:1-2, 7:7, 12:4-11, 12:27-31, 14:12, Galatians 5:13-14, 6:9, Ephesians 4:10-12, 1 Peter 4:8-10, 2 Peter 1:5-7, Hebrews 6:10-12, James 1:22-27.
The Parable of the Rich Fool - Guard against greed
We must be rich in virtue and not focus only on wealth or temporary pleasures. Money itself is not evil, but greed and preoccupation with wealth can blind us to virtue and service. Luke 12:15-21.
Related verses: Leviticus 19:9-10, Psalms 119:36, Proverbs 23:4-5, 28:27, Isaiah 58:10-11, Matthew 6:19-21, 6:24-25, 16:26, 19:24, Mark 7:21-23, Luke 16:19-31, John 6:27, Ephesians 5:5, 1 Corinthians 6:10, 1 Timothy 6:9-11, 6:17-19, Hebrews 13:5, 1 John 2:15-17, 3:17.
The Parable of the Final Judgment - Internal virtue is evidenced in external action
A selfish, internal aspiration to virtue cannot lead to perfect virtue. It must be compounded with action through love and service to others. A person truly aspiring to perfect virtue will willingly, unselfishly and joyously do what they can to help others in need. Matthew 25:31-46.
We may have different amounts of wealth and different abilities to serve others. It does not matter that some can do more than others. It only matters that we diligently do what we can (Luke 12:48).
Related verses: Leviticus 19:9-10, 25:35, Deuteronomy 14:28-29, Deuteronomy 15:7-11, Isaiah 58:6-7, Psalms 41:1-3, Proverbs 11:25, 14:21, 19:17, 22:9, 28:27, Isaiah 58:10-11, Matthew 5:42, 6:1-4, 19:21, Luke 3:10-11, 6:38, 11:41, 12:33-34, 21:1-4, Acts 20:35, Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 13:1-13, 2 Corinthians 9:6-7, Galatians 2:10, 1 Timothy 5:16, 6:17-19, Hebrews 13:3, 13:16, James 1:27, 2:2-9, 2:15-16, 1 John 3:17-18.
Can you subscribe to Jesus’ philosophy without faith?
I think there are already many people who, perhaps unwittingly, transmute the philosophy of Jesus into eudaimonistic philosophy - maintaining a secular spirituality, i.e. an emphasis on personal growth and the inner peace of the individual rather than a relationship with the divine, but discarding the accompanying guide to morality. Unfortunately, Jesus himself doesn’t appear to court moral relativism.
Reading the parables of Jesus in congruence with the rest of the bible would push you from Virtue Ethics, concerned with heart, character, and values of the individual, towards Deontology, which is more concerned with absolute right and wrong. In this vein of thought, ends will never justify means - committing certain acts, irrespective of circumstance, would therefore always be “wrong”. Right takes priority over good.
That said, even Socrates preached of virtue as a form of knowledge (the knowledge of good and evil) that is required to reach the ultimate good (eudaimonia) which according to him is what all human desires and actions aim to achieve.
I’d argue that even for atheists, Jesus’ brand of “Eudaimonism”, as a system of virtue ethics, warrants consideration alongside Stoicism and Neoplatonism, and is worth study for anyone seeking to live a life guided by virtue.
If you have thoughts on any of the above feel free to share them with me, and if you’re interested in learning more, feel free to reach out via email or drop me a tweet!
This week on The Knowledge
This week on the podcast I share a conversation with Claud Williams, a serial-entrepreneur and founder of Dream Nation. We had an amazing discussion about Claude's journey, the life cycle of an entrepreneur, managing mental health, values, vision and legacy!
It’s well worth tuning into - Claud dropped a lot of gems, so please do share it with anyone you know that might find the discussion useful!
You can listen to the episode now on ‘The Knowledge’ wherever you listen to podcasts!
Books I’ve read/seen/will impulsively buy and add to my “to read” shelf on Goodreads:
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte - impulsively bought. I can’t believe I put off reading this for so long. It’s amazing! That said, I need to have words with the girls I’ve previously seen saying “Heathcliff 😍”
- The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb - wishlisted. This was recommended by Jeremiah, a newsletter reader, who has been gushing about it. I would buy it now, but I’ve read 7 new books in the fortnight since I promised to finish a prior recommendation, and the madness must end.
- Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor - impulsively bought. Despite feeling like every African fiction is now dubbed "the Nigerian Harry Potter”, I’ll grant that this read has a better claim than most. This was recommended by Lynette.
Things I’m loving
Audio and Video:
- Levar Burton Reads is an amazing podcast that was recommended to me by Dele, a reader. He reads fascinating short fiction from a variety of authors, especially ethnic minority ones. He has an amazing voice and I love it.
- Shtisel is a compelling two-season series on Netflix. It’s an incredibly written Israeli drama that is now a worldwide hit. Recommendation courtesy of Rebecca, a newsletter reader.
- I’ve been spending a lot of time working on my Mandarin and have been inundated with requests for Mandarin resources. If you’d like a list of good books to learn from, email me. I also can do tutoring for beginners :)
- If you’re working from home right now, you can claim £6/week tax back. This link explains how to make your claim, and was recommended by Richard, a capeless hero and newsletter reader.
Special thanks to Tomi, a newsletter reader, for reminding me that it’s okay to delve as deep as necessary to convey the required message.
Until next time!!