I want to make a connection between the Socratic Allegory of the Cave and the character of Jesus as understood and promoted by Christians. One of the problems facing anyone concerned about the issue of "Mutually Exclusive World Views" (MEWV's) and their relevance to the world is how one might react. That is, if suffering is about our lives being a matter of MEWV's, then mustn't we reduce, or free ourselves from, or vanquish suffering by somehow dealing with these MEWV's?
My thought is that religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism have attempted to do just that. This is their task. I want to suggest how Christianity provides one response to MEWV's. Basically, Christianity is the argument that we can be saved from suffering by a Socratic Hero. I want to talk about how this argument goes.
The first thing to understand is what, exactly, I am talking about when I mention a "Socratic Hero." The place to go is Plato's Republic, and sections vii. 514a to 521b. Here, Socrates tries to explain again how we are impaired by our circumstances from having knowledge and values unless we are able obtain access to reality, or, what he calls the Forms. In Cornford's translation, (The Republic of Plato, Oxford University Press, 1941, pages 227-231) he says,
Next, said I, here is a parable to illustrate the degree in which our nature may be enlightened or unenlightened. Imagine the condition of men living in a sort of cavernous chamber underground, with an entrance open to the light and a long passage all down the cave. Here they have been from childhood, chained by the leg and also by the neck, so that they cannot move and can see only what is in front of them, because the chains will not let them turn their heads. At some distance higher up is the light of a fire burning behind them; and between the prisoners and the fire is a track with a parapet built along it, like the screen at a puppet-show, which hides the performers while they show their puppets over the top.
I see, said he.
Now behind this parapet imagine persons carrying along various artificial objects, including figures of men and animals in wood or stone or other materials, which project above the parapet. Naturally, some of these persons will be talking, others silent.
It is a strange picture, he said, and a strange sort of prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; for in the first place prisoners so confined would have seen nothing of themselves or of one another, except the shadows thrown by the fire-light on the wall of the Cave facing them, would they?
Not if all their lives they had been prevented from moving their heads.
And they would have seen as little of the objects carried past.
Now, if they could talk to one another, would they not suppose that their words referred only to those passing shadows which they saw?
And suppose their prison had an echo from the wall facing them? When one of the people crossing behind them spoke, they could only suppose that the sound came from the shadow passing before their eyes.
In every way, then, such prisoners would recognize as reality nothing but the shadows of those artificial objects.
Socrates goes on to imagine what would happen if one of the prisoners were to be freed from their shackles and shown what had been actually causing the shadows that he had previously taken to be reality. After coming to understand how his previous life had been a matter of illusions, and that reality was about an entirely different kind of world, the ex-prisoner is brought to be concerned for his compatriots still shackled in the cave. Socrates continues,
Then if he called to mind his fellow prisoners and what passed for wisdom in his former dwelling-place, he would surely think himself happy in the change and be sorry for them. They may have had a practice of honoring and commending one another, with prizes for the man who had the keenest eye for the passing shadows and the best memory for the order in which they followed or accompanied one another, so that he could make a good guess as to which was going to come next. Would our released prisoner be likely to covet those prizes or to envy the men exalted to honor and power in the Cave? Would he not feel like Homer's Achilles, that he would far sooner 'be on earth as a hired servant in the house of a landless man' or endure anything rather than go back to his old beliefs and live in the old way?
Yes, he would prefer any fate to such a life.
Now imagine what would happen if he went down again to take his former seat in the Cave. Coming suddenly out of the sunlight, his eyes would be filled with darkness. He might be required once more to deliver his opinion on those shadows, in competition with the prisoners who had never been released, while his eyesight was still dim and unsteady; and it might take some time to become used to the darkness. They would laugh at him and say that he had gone up only to come back with his sight ruined; it was worth no one's while even to attempt the ascent. If they could lay hands on the man who was trying to set them free and lead them up, they would kill him.
Yes, they would.
A "Socratic Hero" is just that character who would come from outside the Cave, knowing the difference between the light and the dark, and enter in order to save its prisoners, those who represent us all, from the suffering of such a life.
One might wonder, at this point, whether people who came upon Jesus, or stories about a Messiah, and some of the writings involved, would have any choice about how they were to understand what they were encountering. After all, one might think that life just is an illusion, and Socrates is only pointing out the facts. In light of the truth, why would I now be questioning these basic claims about the religion?
I question it now because one has a choice about this issue in particular. My argument has been put together, in part, just to question the assumption that the world is illusion, or made up of MEWV's. Based on my reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls, I contend that at the time of Jesus the point at issue was whether one committed oneself to the Socratic belief that the world was an illusion, and the core of that belief, that knowledge and values were a matter of logical argument, or opposed that idea and committed oneself to the claim put forward by the Teacher of Righteousness that knowledge and values were a matter of both rhetorical and logical argument, a.k.a., contending points of view.
By interpreting Jesus as a "Socratic Hero," I am saying that we must understand the way Christians have so interpreted him by first consulting Socrates.
I do not think that my claim should be surprising to anyone who allows that Plato wrote over 300 years before the current era, and surely well before the Dead Sea Scrolls were created. Nor should it be surprising if we allow that Hellenism, and it's core beliefs represented by Socrates, was the contentious issue for Judaism during the period when the Scrolls were written, and possibly since the time of Abraham. Nor should it be surprising that we should find one of the central intellectual leaders of Judaism working in defense of Judaism's core beliefs being interpreted in Socratic terms. If the Greeks thought to defile the second Temple in order to undermine Judaic resistance to Greek cultural imperialism, they would have thought to redefine the popular understanding of Judaism's defenders to fit their own purposes.
At this point I want to refer to Duncan Howlett's The Essenes and Christianity, An Interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1957, for his assessment, at the time he was writing, of the limitations involved in our understanding of Jesus's life. Howlett argues that in order to understand the relationship between Jesus and the Essenes, and for my purposes the question could be about any contentious reason to talk about Jesus's life, "we must examine the evidence." (page 145) He goes on,
The greatest difficulty we face in comparing Jesus of Nazareth and the Essene sect is that we really know so little about each of them. We have seen the limits of our information about the Essenes. (His assessment of these limits would probably have changed over the 50 years of research that has gone on since the writing of his book) Our knowledge of Jesus is confined to the four Gospels and what snatches of information we have been able to discover in the Epistles of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles. Our problem is complicated by the fact that scholars have long since recognized that the evidence of the Gospels is sometimes contradictory. Yet they are the primary source of information; in fact they are virtually the only source.
We need to remember some of the things which scholars during the past century and a half have learned about the Gospels. The most obvious is that the Gospels do not always agree. We have also learned that back of the Gospels are oral traditions, and that these, too, show a variance. The Gospels were written in different times and places by different men and for different purposes. The earliest, the Gospel of Mark, was written at least a generation after Jesus passed from the human scene. The others were written perhaps two or more generations after the crucifixion. We know, through detailed studies of the Gospels, that the Jewish habit of compiling and editing ancient manuscripts prevailed among the early Christians. Generations of scholarship have even enabled the scholars to suppose the existence of a manuscript, now lost, which Matthew and Luke used. The problem for the historian is to get behind the manuscripts to the oral tradition and thence to the events from which they took their rise.
An obstacle in our study of Jesus Christ from the historical point of view is that even such sources as we possess are not themselves history, but rather polemics, sermons or exhortations which were never intended to be used primarily as records of facts. Each of the Gospels was written for a particular purpose, and we must keep those purposes in mind if we are to achieve an objectivity that the authors never possessed nor intended. (Howlett, pages 145-146)
Howlett here supposes that an understanding of Jesus must be obtained through an examination of the historical record, an examination that would reveal an understanding of the"real" Jesus. The part I quoted above suggested some of the difficulties that such a project faces. Not only does Howlett suggest that comparisons between Jesus and the Essenes, or the Jews, would be difficult without such a detailed understanding of the facts of Jesus's life, but, by implication, the truth of the religion based on his life would rest on whatever historians and other scholars might find.
This line of reasoning leading to a skeptical conclusion about Christianity has been rejected by writers like Luke Timothy Johnson in The Real Jesus, The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, 1996. Though Johnson attempts to undermine the work of The Jesus Seminar, his argument can pertain to any reliance on historical research to obtain an account of the facts about Jesus. Johnson says,
The Jesus Seminar's promise to deliver, by means of historical methods, "the real Jesus" is, we have seen, (seen in the argument he made up to this point) fraudulent on two counts. The first is that its historical methodology is flawed. The second is that even the best historical reconstruction cannot supply "the real Jesus," any more than it can supply "the real Socrates." Historians can make a number of important, indeed critical, assertions about Jesus' ministry, but the evidence provided by the ancient sources does not enable a satisfying reconstruction of it.
More mischievous than the claim to reveal the "real Jesus" is the implication that historical reconstruction provides so fundamental a critique of Christian faith that the church needs to reexamine its creeds. If historical evidence is lacking that Jesus called himself the Messiah, the implication is that the church is wrong to think of him as Messiah. If historical criticism cannot demonstrate that Jesus predicted his return, the implication is that Christians are wrong in awaiting his triumphant coming. The assumption appears to be that what Jesus said and did and thought is the object of Christian faith. The most destructive effect of the Jesus Seminar and recent Historical Jesus books has been the perpetuation of the notion that history somehow determines faith, and that for faith to be correct, the historical accounts that gave rise to it have to be verifiable.
But this is simply not true. The first reason is the obvious one: historical reconstructions are by their very nature fragile and in constant need of revision. They cannot sustain the commitment of the human heart and life. Even the most casual survey of all the Jesus reconstructions offered just in the last twenty years, furthermore, discovers a bewildering variety of conflicting portraits of Jesus, and a distressing carelessness in the manner of arriving at those portraits. If historians cannot be pious at least about their own trade, why should their suggestions be taken as the guide to religious piety?
The second reason is that, although the Christian creed contains a number of historical assertions about Jesus, Christian faith as a living religious response is simply not directed at those historical facts about Jesus, or at a historical reconstruction of Jesus. Christian faith is directed to a living person. The "real Jesus" for Christian faith is the resurrected Jesus, him "whom God has made both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36). And since Christians understand by the resurrection not simply a resuscitation of Jesus' body but his entry into God's own life (symbolized by his "enthronement at the right hand of God"-Acts 2:34), which is manifested in the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit among believers (having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he poured out this which you see and hear"- Acts 2:33), the real Jesus for Christian faith is not simply a figure of the past but very much and above all a figure of the present, a figure, indeed, who defines believers' present by his presence.
The point can be made one more time, by an analogy (borrowed and adapted from Karl Rahner, "On the Development of Dogma"). The situation with the Christian's memory of Jesus is not like that of a long-ago lover who died and whose short time with us is treasured. The situation, rather, is like that of a lover who continues to live with the beloved in a growing and maturing relationship. In such a situation, the memory of the past is constantly affected by the continuing experience of the other in the present. For me (and I am sure, for my wife), the issue of where my wife and I had our first date, or realized we were in love, or even made our vows, is of much less significance to each of us than the issue of whether our love is alive and powerfully real now, in the present. Moreover, even though the love shown me by my wife is experienced as continuous with that she showed me in the early years of our relationship, in no way do I find that love dependent on the right interpretation of those earlier experiences. Our relationship is confirmed or disconfirmed not by settling the issue of who we were back then but by engaging the issue of who we will be together now. So also is the Church's memory of Jesus constantly affected by his continuous and powerful presence, and confirmed or disconfirmed by the reality of his presence.
I think there is something right about Johnson's account of Christian faith. That is, he is right that it does not seem to be based on an acceptance of certain historical facts where the significance of those facts would support or disprove the substance of what Christians believe.
In an interview with Johnson on Beliefnet, he mentioned another point relevant here. When asked about the creeds of the church, creeds being the core beliefs approved by the church's leaders, and why he came to see their importance, he said,
The final thing that has grabbed me is the sense of what peril the church is in when it doesn't have a clear articulation of its construction of reality, both inwardly in terms of guiding its practices, and outwardly in terms of presenting any kind of credible conception of the world that would make sense to outsiders.
There seem to be two concerns. One is about how a clear account of reality that serves as the foundation for its beliefs about God, and so on, directs Christianity's practices. He says without a "clear articulation of its construction of reality" there's an "...impoverishment of Christian consciousness." The other concern, though unstated, would be that believers and unbelievers would have to start any dialog between them from some shared ground. He's thinking, I believe, that we all have to at least share the same reality in order to understand or communicate with one another. You can only determine that we all are on the same page, to begin with, if you clearly explain what page you are on.
However, this is the point where I want to insist the question, then, becomes whether the religion that Christians profess is based on the mechanics of the Socratic Allegory of the Cave, so that Jesus can be understood as a continuous presence because he is a "Socratic Hero." Have Christians all along founded their lives on the sand of Socratic lies?
The dilemma for Christians, as I see it, is that the issue between Socrates and the Teacher of Righteousness, whether or not he is understood as an Essene, or even a Jew, being about a matter of principle, that is, about what account of knowledge and values should one adopt, raises two questions. One is whether the historical account we have of Jesus could be accurate, i.e., reflect the facts, and not just a story in the service of Socratic interests. This goes to the concern that the facts may not support a Christian's Socratic understanding of a historical Jesus. The second is whether the account of Christian faith as suggested by Johnson is about a Socratic Hero. And, if so, whether the worth of the commitments they've made to that idea stands or falls on our assessment of the Socratic view.
Well, I think that, tragically, if you live by the philosopher, you die by the philosopher.