Toward the end of my three-page article about “Socrates in America” in the Christmas issue of The Economist, there are these two lines:
Socrates almost certainly was an atheist. As was his wont, however, he cared more about debating, with a man named Euthrypho on the steps of the courthouse before his preliminary hearing, what piety even meant.
(This refers to one of the two charges against Socrates at his trial, which was disbelief in/disrespect for “the gods of the city.”)
By the placement of these lines, and by the word count I devoted to them (1% of the total words in the article), readers should be able to tell how interested I, as the writer, was in this particular point.
Ie, not very.
To quote I.F. Stone in The Trial of Socrates on the matter:
It was the political, not the philosophical or theological, views of Socrates which finally got him into trouble. The discussion of his religious views diverts attention from the real issues….
But I should have known better. After all, the word atheism appears!
It is a word that makes many people, but Americans in particular, go ballistic. Indeed, it is something of a Rorschach test: Mention it, and people immediately project their ideas, fears, and beliefs into the conversation. Whatever the conversation was about, it is now about something else.
One of the online commenters, somebody named “RPB2”, tries to refute the possibility that Socrates was atheist by quoting him (presumably from English translations). Thus Socrates says in the Apology:
For I do believe that there are gods and in a far higher sense than any of my accusers believe in them. And to you and to God I commit my cause, to be determined by you as is best for you and me.
And in the Phaedo, he says:
In this present life I believe that we most nearly approach knowledge when we have the least possible bodily concerns and are not saturated with the bodily nature, but keep ourselves pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us.
In the Republic, he says:
[Society’s leaders] must be able to see the one in the many, to appreciate and realize the great truth of the unity of all virtues, have a genuine knowledge of God and the ways of God, and must not be content to rest on faith in traditions, but must really understand. Only in this way can they order all things for the benefit of all
From this RPB2 concludes:
You really have to work to find an atheist here; and thus, sadly, one can see that this article indicates that erudition often does not equate to understanding.
Another commenter, Michael Bessette, offers RPB2 his support:
… Socrates repeatedly invokes not only gods, but “the god”, as in this famous passage from the Apology: “Athenians, I honor and love you, but I shall obey the god rather than you” (29d). Socrates further asserts that he has been specially chosen by “the god” to persuade the people of Athens of their ignorance (23b) and that abandoning this mission would mean also abandoning his god (30a)…
… the most extraordinary statement in the piece is its labeling Socrates an atheist. No one can read the accounts given by Xenophon or Plato without recognizing the philosopher’s piety. His own pilgrimage to Delphi attests to this; and many, many statements exceptionlessly confirm it. Indeed, he comes across as being very close to monotheism; for, as my tutor remarked years ago, whenever in the Memorabilia he is most earnestly referring to the divine , he speaks of “the god” (ho theos) rather than of “the gods” (hoi theoi). To call Socrates an atheist for his coolness towards the conventional polytheism of the state is as misleading as it would be to so label Jesus because of his confrontation with the priesthood of the Temple…
Let’s examine some of these points.
First, what does it prove if Socrates uses, in the writings of Plato or Xenophon, the word “gods”? Not a whole lot, I submit.
All sorts of atheists today scream Goddammit every time they hit the rush hour, and atheist starlets stammer Ohmigawd, ohmigawd when accepting their Oscars. We have to distinguish between a word as figure of speech, as familiar trope to facilitate communication, and as intended content.
What I find curious in the quotes above is the capitalization of the word God. It’s a loaded capital letter, to say the least. In fact, let’s use this occasion to parse some terms:
Is it possible that Socrates believed that there was only one god? I believe we can rule this out. The Greeks did not have that concept. (Even the Jews, who invented it, were just developing at this time, in the century following the Babylonian captivity, as Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God explains quite well.)
Admittedly, the same is true for our modern concept of atheism–ie, the Greeks did not have that concept. If somebody was “godless”, that meant he had been abandoned by one god or goddess or another. It did not meant that he denied their existence.
Polytheism is how the Greeks (and most of the world at the time) understood divinity. Alas, this is a concept that has become quite alien to us (unless you happen to be, say, Hindu), so we are the ones struggling to understand it.
Polytheism was an infinitely stretchable and flexible spiritual instinct. A polytheist had mental room not just for many gods and goddesses but for new gods and for other people’s gods. Even the Greek pantheon included many gods and goddesses (Aphrodite, eg) “imported” from Mesopotamia and thereabouts, for instance.
So polytheists were also, by implication, pantheists. They had an expandable pantheon of gods, and divinity was to be found everywhere and in everything.
Put differently, gods and goddesses were often personifications of things. Zeus/Jupiter/Thor/Baal of thunder, for example. Hermes of humble door-thresholds, among other things. Hestia of the hearth. Helios/Apollo of the sun. Kronos of time (→ Chrono-logy). And so on.
Names of things in effect became potential divinities. Sophia could be thought of as a goddess of wisdom, tyche (Roman fortuna) could not just mean luck but be the goddess of fortune, and so forth.
(In fact, I.F. Stone, believes that Socrates’ indictment for “impiety” referred specifically to two such personifications/divinities: The “gods of the city” of Athens may have been understood to be Peitho, a personification of “democracy” and thus a political concept, and Agora, which meant not only marketplace but also assembly, and thus dovetailed with Peitho.)
It was, in other words, a rich and metaphorical way of expressing ideas and telling stories. Eloquent people at the time were as unlikely to avoid using tropes of divinity as we are today to avoid metaphors.
Having said all that, there was something interesting that happened in the Greek world at around this time, and we might think of it as the beginnings of “science”.
The Greeks traditionally relied on their religion (their “myths” to us) to explain the world. And they relied in particular on the corpus of stories in Homer and Hesiod.
Thus, if summer turned to winter (a perplexing process, if you think about it) it was because Persephone returned to her husband Hades, thus making her mother Demeter, the goddess of fertility and grain, so sad that she turned the earth barren for half a year. If somebody went into a rage and killed innocent people, it was because a jealous god or goddess possessed him temporarily (eg, Hera possessing Hercules). And so on.
But, starting about 200 years before Socrates’ trial, some (mainly Ionian) Greeks rejected these mythological explanations and tried to use direct observation of nature (physis in Greek, as in physics) and reason (logos) to explain the world.
These were the so-called “pre-Socratics”, such as Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras and Heraclitus. They wanted to know what things were ultimately made of (fire, earth, water, etc) and how they changed. They wanted to understand the world better and differently.
So they ignored the gods. I don’t think they boycotted temples and sacrifices and other fun cultural activities, just as even Richard Dawkins today might sing along to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But the gods ceased, for them, to explain anything. In that sense, you might say, using a modern term, that they were atheists.
Now let’s talk about Socrates. The first thing to know about him, as silly as it sounds, was that he spent the first half of his career as a pre-Socratic philosopher. (Obviously, “pre-Socratic” is a term we invented, not the Greeks). This is to say that he also tried to do “science”, to inquire into the nature and causes of the physical world and its phenomena.
This is the Socrates, aged about 40, whom Aristophanes mocked in his comedy The Clouds. In that play, Socrates runs a “thinkery” where he examines how far flies jump and how they fart–presumably, with the Athenian audience, including Socrates, in stitches.
And Aristophanes has the Socrates in that thinkery argue that “Zeus does not exist.” “If no Zeus, then whence comes the rain?” he is asked by Strepsiades, a country bumpkin. Socrates offers another explanation for rain, and Strepsiades admits that he had always thought it was “Zeus pissing down upon earth through a sieve.” But at the end of the play, he burns down Socrates’ Thinkery, saying “strike, smite them, spare them not, for many reasons, But most because they have blasphemed the gods.”
Now, folks, this is humor. I get that. But there is more to it. Aristophanes was describing a new (proto-atheistic) worldview in a hilarious way. Socrates would, twenty-four years hence, at his own trial, say that this (ie, The Clouds) is where the charge of impiety originated.
The Socratic “turn”
At about the time of The Clouds Socrates had a wrenching midlife crisis. Apparently, he came to believe that he was not very good at being a philosopher–ie, he became frustrated by his inability to explain nature satisfactorily.
So he made his famous “turn”: away from questions about nature and toward the humanistic subjects of ethics, politics and meta-physics (literally: “beyond nature”). It is not much of an exaggeration to say that he invented all three as subjects.
But he brought with him his pre-Socratic proto-atheism, by which I mean his tendency to ignore myth and gods as explanations for anything.
For example, on his own deathbed he gives a moving (but confusing) speech about death and the immortality of the soul. As it happens, this should not have been necessary: Greek religion gave detailed information about what happened after death. You took a gold coin with you, went down to Hades, past Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog. Then you gave your coin to Charon, the boatman, who ferried you across the river Styx, where you would henceforth hang around as a shadow. Lots and lots of heros (Hercules, Odysseus….) had already been down there and come back to tell us about it.
But no, Socrates had none of that. No Thanatos, no Hades, no Charon. He used his reason alone. Again, I consider that proto-atheist.
Theism, Deism …
Did Socrates ever go one step further and deny spirituality or divinity? No. I doubt he was interested in that.
Did he really believe, as he claimed when addressing his jury, that his own personal daimonion (“little divine thing,” whence our daemon) talked to him to warn him of danger? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Did he consider himself a proto-atheist? Perhaps, perhaps not. The one time he could have spoken about the matter explicitly, during his trial, he reverted to form (ie, Socratic irony and dialectic) and maneuvered his accuser, Meletus, into defining atheism as both believing in unorthodox gods and no gods at all, which is impossible at the same time. He was a wise ass, in short.
So we do not know, and we will not know.
What we can agree on, I believe, is that Socrates was a highly unusual man with unusual opinions and extremely unorthodox views about everything, including religion. Whatever he believed, neither atheists nor theists today can claim his support to wage their ongoing battle.
In this respect, in fact, Socrates reminds me of another non-conformist I admire: Albert Einstein. Einstein also studied physis and inadvertantly ended up “beyond” it, in meta-physis. And Einstein also had notions about religion that still divide lesser minds today. Was he an atheist? A believer? Everybody wanted to know. So Einstein penned an answer, which concludes (page 387 in this biography):
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.
I believe Socrates might have said the same exact thing.
The Procrustean Bed, again
And so, I have spent as many words again on that one little sentence as I wrote in that entire article. Would I change the little sentence?
I’ve posted before about the Procrustean Bed that page layouts represent to writers: you must either stretch or, more often, amputate your text in order to fit the space an editor gives you. Socrates in America: Arguing about Death was not an article about religion. It was about how we talk to one another and the tension between individualism and democracy. Religion only came up en passant, and so I was forced to commit a journalist drive-by shooting.
When I said
Socrates almost certainly was an atheist
I had all this and more on my mind. Given another chance, I would say
Socrates may have been an atheist
Socrates’ views on religion were unorthodox to say the least.
And then I would have done just what I did: I would have moved on.
49 thoughts on “Was Socrates an atheist?”
After looking at your correspondence from readers, I now believe in Eris. How ironic.
Believe she exists, not “in” her. 😉
What a silly post. Still, I guess if an atheist wants to claim Socrates as a fellow atheist this would be a way to try to do that. It is kind of shrill, though.
A formidable post. Magnificent. Well done. Of course, “the gods” is a trope; even more, it’s a trope of philosophy. Heidegger (another pre-Socratic) ends his famous last Der Spiegel interview with the line, “… only the gods can save us now.” Don’t know if Socrates thought of himself as “doing” philosophy, but it seems clear that this point of terminology is beside the point.
Particularly liked the bit about summer turning to winter. Of course, how strange this is. Why have I never considered it? And the implication that it was Socrates’s satire that was the real bugbear. Everyone knows that humour — particularly satire — is the most dangerous art. And how it was the failure of the divine to “explain things” that had the pre-Socratics turn away. Merely that.
So much food for thought. Thanks. SGx
Since you’re from down under: I wonder what the Greeks would have done–cognitively–if told that at the same time their summer was turning to winter, winter was turning into summer somewhere else. Was Demeter only sad here, but not there?
Another example of how religion struggles with the progress of our understanding, but how the STORIES remain timeless.
Wasn’t “down under” the underworld in their understanding? I think the beauty of the myths, the romanticism inherent, is what makes them timeless. We still say the sun rises even though we know it is the earth revolving. We speak of the “four corners of the world” even though there are no corners on this roundish chunk of rock and water.
that said, in solidgoldcreativity’s case I meant “down under” as in Australia.
As I thought, of course. I was just being a bit of a wise ass.
Yeh, down here in netherworld it’s hot and sunny and Demeter’s feeling frisky …
Revised: What a silly post. Still, I guess if an atheist wants to claim Socrates as a fellow atheist this would be a way to try to do that. It is kind of desperate, though.
“Atheist.. Whatever the conversation was about, it is now about something else”.
pardon my ignorance, andreas, your livelihood is made by writing for The Economist and the letters from readers are clearly disturbing. are the letters screened by The Economist? do they impact your worth to the magazine?
it must feel wonderful to vent on this blog in such a safe place.
also you must realize by the number of blog readers and their type of posts – few seem to share this abhorrence of the term atheist. even fewer of your blog followers bother to broach the subject of faith/religious based responses since it brings out such strong and biased feelings in people.
so wherefore the dismay? do you not get an equal number of favorable letters from the readers of The Economist? and must it always be the damned Americans that cause such a fuss. perhaps they have more free time on their hand?
personally i enjoy the hannibal blog pattern – story slips to philosophy then to science even to the metaphysic then back to story.
i seem to sometimes be the last word on a thread – i hope this is not the case. i would have enjoyed a response to my last post on the previous (similar) thread regarding readers reactions 🙂
cheers to you and your blog followers and for the record i an entirely indifferent to the question of socrates atheism, but i thoroughly loved the quote by Einsten.
“… The Economist and the letters from readers are clearly disturbing…. wherefore the dismay? do you not get an equal number of favorable letters from the readers of The Economist?…”
Oh, I think you’ve misunderstood me. I don’t find the letters “disturbing” at all. Some are annoying, but it’s great to get letters, and we (both The Economist and I) like to run toward and into controversies.
So I’m far from dismayed–I’m delighted OVERALL. This piece in particular was a great success from the feedback I’m now getting.
So yes, we get an equal, in fact a greater, number of favorable letters.
The best letters, in fact, are neither positive or negative per se but simply carry the debate forward.
I didn’t realize I had a patter (“story > philosophy > science > metaphysics > back to story”) until now, but I like it! 😉
Will continue the pattern.
1) Oh man! I am amazed the mess one short sentence caused.
2) I looked for my copy of Ideas and opinions by Albert Einstein and found this fitting quote. Copying and pasting from a Google search here (I hoped they re-typed it right),
The Religious Spirit of Science
By Albert Einstein
in Mein Weltbild, Amsterdam: Querido Verlag, 1934.
You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a religious feeling of his own. But it is different from the religiosity of the naive man. For the latter, God is a being from whose care one hopes to benefit and whose punishment one fears; a sublimation of a feeling similar to that of a child for its father, a being to whom one stands, so to speak, in a personal relation, however deeply it may be tinged with awe.
But the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality; it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work, in so far as he succeeds in keeping himself from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.
3) I copied and pasted most of the text in this comment which indicates how much I had hoped the alternative, “Socrates’ views on religion were unorthodox to say the least.” was used in the original article. Ah, too late for asking for my time back in reading and writing this comment. 🙂
Great quote by Einstein! Thanks.
Oh me oh my, oh me oh my.
Socrates in America: Arguing about Death was not an article about religion. It was about how we talk to one another and the tension between individualism and democracy. Religion only came up en passant, and so I was forced to commit a journalist drive-by shooting.
Maybe I am off my I.F. Stone rocker, but why was your mention [that Socrates was probably an atheist] a drive-by shooting? Seemed more like a set of parentheses to me.
Can’t wait to read the reader comments coming in after that splendid tongue-in-cheek obituary in this week’s Economist for Oral Roberts.
Did you pay the author for that one? I read it three times today. Talk about a crucifixion.
Oh me oh my.
Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham.
Parentheses is better. You got it.
I still think it’s the most fitting one line description.
The Oral Robers Obit was great, wasn’t it? Captured the sheer vulgarity of his faith without ever saying it explicitly. Show, don’t tell, as the storyteller’s law goes.
Good thing you didn’t say anything about alleged sexual practices of Athenians.
Now that you mention it, I’m tempted …. 😉
You answered as if the line was the issue, but wasn’t the issue the response itself?
Welcome back, Adrian. Long time no see.
Let me check: You’re saying that the readers’ “response” (which, presumably, you consider eristic?) was the “issue”?
Yes, I suppose. Let me say (I think a lot of you guys misunderstood me) that the overwhelming majority of readers “got it” perfectly. There is always room for some irony, when an article about eristic conversations leads to some…. eristic conversations.
All quite amusing.
Fascinatingly well written. I understand the need to cut something short due to the constraints of space, or the attention span of the reader, but I wonder… was your chosen sentence using the word “atheist” in the context of “godless” as the ancient Greeks saw it? That, at his end, he was abandoned by those gods? If so, that is a concept that would have been hard to discern by the average reader of any periodical.
You see, Andreas, you spent a lot of words in this blog post that did not clarify what you meant. Well, at least to me. And I am assuming you don’t think we are the commenters at economist.com.
I always wonder why a person’s words must be explained and/or interpreted. And I marvel at how the reader/listener forms them into the context of his own reality.
“…you spent a lot of words in this blog post that did not clarify what you meant…”
Oh dear. What I was trying to say is that I still think that Socrates “was almost certainly an atheist”. I would say the same about Einstein. With large minds such as theirs, we must allow for the possibility that their religious feelings exceed the confines of our terms, however.
“… I always wonder why a person’s words must be explained and/or interpreted. And I marvel at how the reader/listener forms them into the context of his own reality. …”
Bingo. Socrates wondered the same thing. That is why he refused ever to write anything down, as I mentioned a while ago.
He predicted what in fact happened: that we would fight over his words, which he chose two millenia ago for each audience he was addressing at a given time and for that audience only.
I obviously do not visit your blog often enough. And, when I do, I should remain the respectful student. I visited the linked post and realized I am “only an egg”, as Valentine Michael Smith might say.
Wasn’t Valentine Michael Smith an earthling on Mars? That makes me the martian. 😉
And aren’t we all at one time or another? It, “I am only an egg”, was one of the things in that book that impressed me as a very useful image/word.
Socrates certainly was an atheist. Inserting “almost” is outrageous, and it indicates that, deep down, the author doesn’t really believe it. In fact, he (or she–after all, there are no bylines in the Economist) is saying that Socrates may not have been an atheist, thereby abusing his (or her) First Amendment privelige as a journalist to promote religion by speculating, however cunningly disguised semantically, that Socrates may very well have been a man of faith.
However, I hadn’t really gotten all the way down to that part of the article before I cancelled my subscription. What galled me a lot further up were the spellings manoeuvred and recognised–wherefore (thanks for the word, Dafna) the need to suck up to the British? Methinks the War of Independence was waged and won a long time ago. No American writer should cave in to spelling conventions of these global Red Coat companies.
What the British want is to re-conquer the globe by forcing their ways upon us. We must stop them, not help them.
Boy, this really gets my knickers in a twist.
Oh thank god you’re here. It was getting too serious up above. 😉
Yes, we will retake the world via … spelling!
Forgive the digression, but we should have a discussion about this one of these days. The French handle my highschool French better than the Redcoats handle it when I slip and say “zee” instead of “zed.”
Peter G and I say Zee all the time. Ve vish you zee very best for 2010.
Zed is not true.
I know zat.
I don’t know why you get so uptight about the American Revolution. Just take it easy, Peter G.
Manchester? MANCHESTER??? This is what I mean!!!
Note to self: Spell “A-R-G-H” and “M-E-N-E”. Now I’m completely lost.
ditto thank goodness for peter g (not god), lest i set off another debate.
note to self… never read a peter post with liquid in mouth – i laughed so hard i nearly “spat” all over my screen 🙂
thank goodness also that i don’t make my living writing so’s i can embrace my titbits and typed o’s with zeeeel!
Just back from Sicily. Great post but I read it too quickly being tired for the trip. I’ll be here soon though I have a reflection on heroes I care for more than Socrates being non religious, atheist or whatsoever.
Surely, Socrates was accused of not believing in the gods of the city, which is open to many interpretations … and surely, -though of lesser impact on history- I was stunned when I realised that saying one is a non believer in America is kinda socially not correct.
See you soon then Andreas. I had your copy of the Economist when I was walking on the ancient stones of Syracuse.
Ah, Syracuse. Where Athenians died, Archimedes walked, Romans fought….
Never been there, but thinking about it a lot as I fact-check my book research.
Which parts of ancient history are still visible? Is any of the Greek character observable?
Is there a more timelessly comical term than “thinkery?” I suppose there is but nothing comes to mind immediately. I’d say you’ve done a top notch job in creating an extensive explanation for your apparently odious claim (really, what on urrth were you thinking?!) of Socrates’ atheism. The “I Will Have You Know’s” will have a solid week of fact checking before they niggle out some other narrow facet of contention to buoy their fragile intellectual vanity.
Thanks for the visit and the comment. We appreciate all feedback but feedback from those we cite is especially nice.
Thanks, Munroferguson. And I’m highly intrigued by your blog and the personas (“personae”?) of the contributors.
Must find time to wrap my mind around them adequately. 😉
I think these are wonderful articles. I am very happy to
see it is possible to think about Socrates in America, especially
today, when my opinions bewilder me more than they ever
Sorry for arriving beyond fashionably late to the party, but better late than never.
It does not matter whether Socrates believed in (the) god(s) or not, although it is another opportunity to make the ‘argument’ for reason over faith and appropriate the ‘founder’ of Western philosophy as yet another *reason* in the age of reason, religion is a debasement humanity (more on that later).
Afterall, its Christmas, tis the open-season to mock the faithful and maybe convert a few to atheism along the way. At least insult millions of people, get attention (sell ‘controversial’ magazines) and have a few good chuckles. Not bad, if you are feeling that the religious are having all the fun – why not pee in the party punchbowl, its Christmas! Remember offended Christians, its your job to forgive me — nah-nah, nah-nah, na-NAAAh. Suckers!
Ah, those foolish little simpletons, if only they could think and not be so gullible to swallow what they are taught by “Religion.” Those pesky ignorant masses….what to do, what to do with them? (Perhaps a little -reeducation a la Mao. The possibilities are mouth watering for the wretched.)
Pardon, my digression. Its a straw man, isnt it?
While matters of faith and science do from time to time brush up to one another, they often do not.
To poke fun at any particular custom or tradition that would be a faux pas in another light, proves little, and hardly invalidates more important matters such as the existence of god and related spiritual matters.
It would equally easy to poke fun at some of the silly ideas and brain farts that science has produced such as Lamarkian theory of evolution, for example.
But that does not get to the heart of the matter. Religion or lack thereof, is being manipulated as a political weapon — yet another case of divide and conquer and more…
Those most pleased with political attacks on religions, especially of the Abramhamic variety, are not by co-incidence those who own and operate the economist,
It is no less that an attack on the MORAL VALUE SYSTEM of major world religions that are in direct OPPOSITION to their esoteric beliefs.
Please dont advance that agenda.. The funny .thing is atheists attacking Christians are only serving the VERY RELIGIOUS Satanic/Luciferian masters who own assets like Time, CNN, Economists and the Journal of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Be a good servant: dont forget to wear your gloves and apron while serving your Master.
You lost me at this assumption :
“Monotheism: Is it possible that Socrates believed that there was only one god? I believe we can rule this out. The Greeks did not have that concept. ”
So socrates was a guy who had teachings that’s in line with his society’s norms?
Why did he got a trial and killed again?
It seems you have retreated to this hug box, where your faith would be reinforced, rather than confront the arguments against your claim upon Socrates, where they were made and to the people who made them.
The categorization of broad religious and philosophical traditions into narrow boxes such as “Jewish Monotheism, Hindu Polytheism, and Greek Pantheism” is a poor foundation for your argument.
The understanding that Polytheists/Pantheists conceive of the gods as metaphor or personifications of nature is how an atheist such as yourself would practice Polytheism/Pantheism.
In Hinduism, where as you claim, these traditions are still practiced today, the gods are conceived of as real living beings with whom one can interact with on a personal level. They are souls like you and I who have been elevated by their karma to positions of universal management. As we are conscious of our bodies, they become conscious of different aspects of nature. Nature is divine because it emanates from the divine, a transcendent reality beyond nature, which is conceived of as either personal (A Supreme God) or impersonal (A Divine Light). The gods are not “named” into existence by humans, rather it is very much the other way around.
The various mystery schools which claim to represent ancient Greek (and Egyptian) tradition present a similar picture of the Greek understanding of Polytheism/Pantheism. The gods circling around Plato’s One. Although there is much correlation between Greek and Indian thought, It does not mean Socrates held the above mentioned conceptions regarding divinity. It does however; show that the categories you began with are incapable of describing a potentially fluid system which contains elements of all three.
-Though Socrates frequently mentions one God AND many gods AND the divinity of nature as the source of the divine in man, he believed in none of these but loved metaphor like any “eloquent” atheist of our time.
Your argument here is essentially: Socrates was smart, smart people are atheists, Socrates was an atheist (or would be today).
There is no evidence he secretly didn’t believe his own words. The man was willing to die before softening his convictions, do you honestly believe that if he were an atheist he would couch his language so as not to offend Athens?
Why would he refer to a “one God” as a metaphor so as not to offend Polytheists?
Besides all of this, the idea that “eloquent atheists speak in religious metaphors so the fools can understand” is condescending to the level of cringe worthy. So much for being wise because “the only thing I know, is that I know nothing”.
-He was an ancient atheist speaking as if he believed in divinity only because those around him, including his disciples, were not as elevated or uninhibited as myself.
You are emptying him of his own philosophy and filling him with yours.
-He was a martyred atheist, killed for blaspheming the goddess of Democracy Peitho.
This is a very strained conclusion. You are making assumptions regarding the degree with which Democracy was seen as a religion in Athens and the degree with which it was open to criticism and reform. After all Peitho herself, is the goddess of fine speech and rhetoric, blesses one with the vocal power to influence how Democracy is used.
“The cult of Democracy, didn’t allow Democracy!”
It also mimics the emotional need of the religious to create martyrs, which some atheists criticize in others.
-“the gods ceased to explain anything for the ancient scientists, so they were atheists”
The idea that science is antagonistic towards belief in divinity here leads you to the logical fallacy of “false dichotomy”.
Only Anaxagoras is recorded as not believing in the gods. This is not enough to warrant projecting modern atheistic notions of science vs religion onto natural philosophers whom we know almost nothing about.
“Ignoring God”, does not “make you an atheist”.
Socrates would find the atheism of our time repulsive, as it is completely materialistic and opposed to the divine and denies the eternity of the soul.
The Phaedo claims that Socrates began in his youth as a natural philosopher, but rejected it and specifically rejected Anaxagoras. You failed to mention this, falsely leading the reader to assume Socrates held the so-called “atheistic” views of the same philosophers he rejected.
-“folks, this is humor. I get that. But there is more to it (wink wink)”
How so? Someone humiliated him by accusing him of blasphemy, so it MUST be true, otherwise why is he being accused. This is the logical fallacy known as “hasty conclusion”. Where there is smoke, there MUST be fire.
-“Socrates mentions the charge of impiety began with ‘The Clouds'”
He says this in his defense. “The Clouds” is the origin of the claims of impiety, as opposed to his own behavior. He is not saying it is true, rather he is implying it is untrue because he says it in his defense.
It was a rumor spread about him 24 years earlier which has distorted public opinion.
You are here maintaining that same distortion. You are again charging him with “impiety” thousands of years in the future. The Athenians charged him because they opposed impiety, you charge him because you support impiety.
Again, studying the mechanisms of nature rather than looking towards the divine as an immediate cause does not make you an “atheist”. This is the same false dichotomy.
Earlier you had identified Greeks as Pantheistic, finding “divinity in everywhere and everything”, now the pre-socratic natural philosophers are no longer seeing the mechanics of nature as divine? Their inquiry into nature has somehow developed the hard nosed empiricism of the atheist opposed to all divinity?
Given that Anaxagoras believed in a universal intelligence which ordered reality, creating nature from chaos, would his philosophy be closer to a branch of Pantheism or a modern atheistic opposition to Pantheism?
Actually, this idea is similar to the concept of the Demiurge, of the Platonic (and later) schools, and similar to the sub creator god Ptah of Egypt and Brahma of India. He rejected the Greek pantheon but substituted it with his own creator, the Nous. How many atheists do you know believe in Intelligent Design?
-“He uses reason to conclude there is an immortal soul, this is proof he is an atheist”
You have to redefine the term “atheist” to somehow squeeze Socrates into it. Now an atheist is someone who disagrees with prevalent religious concepts, even if he has his own religious concepts.
As Socrates was a man of reason, he would have similarly concluded through reason that there is a one Supreme God before mentioning him repeatedly. (Oh, I forgot, this must be just a metaphor to connect with those who believe in many gods, yet were somehow familiar enough with the one God concept to not make it an issue)
-He didn’t deny divinity because he just wasn’t interested.
He was SHOWING them divinity through the use of clear non-fallacious logic.
-He didn’t REALLY believe in his daemon
I like how you just prune away anything that contradicts your claims. You are molding the Atheist Socrates in your image.
-He was a wise ass
His entire path to the divine was based on clear non-fallacious reasoning. He demonstrates this under threat of death, breaking apart the conceptions of his accuser as a means of uplifting anyone who would listen. They accuse him of being against divinity, yet he breaks through their ignorance to show them divinity.
Yet you call it “being a wise ass”. This shows that you are confined to reducing this noble figure to the length and breadth of your own personality. “He’s just trollin’ the theists, just like I gently do with my articles on The Economist and overtly on this here blog.”
“So we do not know, and we will not know.”
Taking refuge in obscurity. “My arguments cannot be proven, so no arguments can be proven”.
You just spent a long time giving your opinion about something “unknowable”.
-“Einstein sensed divinity, understanding it was beyond the reach of intelligence”
Yes, he is saying there is something beyond the grasp of his intelligence which he reveres, without being arrogant enough to comment on that which is admittedly beyond his grasp. You should follow his example.
The problem in comparing him to Socrates is that Socrates mentions clearly the belief in a one Supreme God, and he believes in the immortality of the soul. These conclusions he arrived at with his reason. From a theistic perspective, he simply went further than Einstein, breaking the barriers of orthodox conservative empirical thought that Einstein would not.
In conclusion, rejecting aspects of the current Greek religious milieu and substituting them with his own, does not make Socrates an atheist. Especially considering he believed in a one God, the immortality of the soul, and a personal “spirit guide”. You attempt to discount his reasoned conclusions through bad logic driven by the need to project your own personality and beliefs onto him.
Thank you for that long and thorough comment, Edward. Much food for thought.
Personally, I find the question of whether Socrates was a theist or an atheist intriguing. Of course, it is difficult—perhaps even impossible—to communicate with complete accuracy on the issue. Even many ancient Athenians seem to have had difficulty understanding Socrates’s exact meaning, what to speak of people so far removed as we are. And I grant that people who try to fit Socrates into their own belief system often clumsily make claims that are easily refuted. But even though we cannot understand precisely what Socrates’s views were, it may be possible to understand whether or not he believed in a being or beings who exist beyond our visible material environment and toward whom he felt respect or even reverence. It is unfortunate that rather than explore this issue you choose instead to equate what we know of Socrates’s views on the subject of a divine being or beings with tropes such as “scream[ing] Goddammit” during rush hour or “stammer[ing] Ohmigawd, ohmigawd” when accepting an award. You state, “We have to distinguish between a word as figure of speech, as familiar trope to facilitate communication, and as intended content.” To claim that Socrates’s statement, “For I do believe that there are gods and in a far higher sense than any of my accusers believe in them,” is not intended content is silly.
I enjoyed this. Thanks.
I’m thinking that Socrates would find the question rather uninteresting – and indicative perhaps that the enquirer is missing the point.
Einstein’s comments are perfect and describe my own experience of almost spiritual wonder and excitement perfectly.
This is plainly untenable, not to say ludicrous. To pretend that Socrates used the word “God” as a rethorical device like “Oh my God” is simply false. If you read the apologia, you can see how Socrates believes he has been sent by God. I don’t see any atheist claiming prophethood for rethorical purposes..
So no, Socrates was surely not an atheist. I’m sorry if this hurts you but he wasn’t.
Having ruled out this outlandish claim, it remains the question of which was the cosmovision of Socrates.
1)He laughed at and refused to serve the greek objects of worship.
2)He believed himself sent by an unique God,
I would argue he was a monotheist. This also creates problems, because he also mentions “the gods” in Plato’s apology.
So it remains a mistery, the most probable option being monotheism.
I lost you at “surely”, that is simply untenable, not to say ludicrous. the points OP raises may not be to your liking but they are important points none the less. Perhaps you should follow Socrates’ own advice lest he haunt you at night proving that you don’t know anything, not really.