Much has been written already about similarities and differences between the trials of Socrates and Jesus. This short sketch tries to understand how their sacrifices are interpreted in some key text fragments. It also tries to answer the question whether or not these sacrifices should be understood as vindications of a social order based on sacrifice or, on the contrary, as denunciations of such an order. In the process, this little inquiry also attempts to shed light on Socrates’ and Jesus’ own understanding of their sacrifice, according to the key texts. In the case of Socrates, the focus will lie on Plato’s Dialogue Crito. In the case of Jesus the texts of the canonical Gospels will be questioned, the Gospel of John especially. Readers should please note that the following considerations are merely suggestions for further reflection, as is evidenced by references to some scholarly articles in pdf (see the end).
In Crito, Socrates presents a justification of his death as he reasons from the perspective of an Athenian citizen whose duty it is to obey the Athenian laws. Socrates creates a dialogue between himself and the laws when he tries to convince his friend Crito that he, Socrates, should not escape from prison and accept his punishment. Socrates presents an argument that should be acceptable from Crito’s point of view. In Crito 50e-51c the laws say the following (Socrates impersonating the laws himself):
“Since you [Socrates] have been born and brought up and educated, could you say that you were not our offspring and slave from the beginning, both you and your ancestors? And if this is so, do you suppose that justice between you and us is based on equality, and do you think that whatever we might try to do to you, it is just for you to do these things to us in return? Justice between you and your father, or your master if you happened to have one, was not based on equality, so that you could not do whatever you had suffered in return, neither speak back when crossed nor strike back when struck nor many other such things. Will you be allowed to do this to your homeland and the laws, so that, if we try to destroy you, thinking this to be just, you will then try to destroy us the laws and your homeland in return with as much power as you have and claim that you’re acting justly in doing so, the man who truly cares about virtue? Are you so wise that it has slipped your mind that the homeland is deserving of more honor and reverence and worship than your mother and father and all of your other ancestors? And is held in higher esteem both by the gods and by men of good sense? And that when she is angry you should show her more respect and compliance and obedience than your father, and either convince her or do what she commands, and suffer without complaining if she orders you to suffer something? And that whether it is to be beaten or imprisoned, or to be wounded or killed if she leads you into war, you must do it? And that justice is like this, and that you must not be daunted or withdraw or abandon your position, but at war and in the courts and everywhere you must do what the city and the homeland orders, or convince her by appealing to what is naturally just? And that it is not holy to use force against one’s mother or father, and it is so much worse to do so against one’s homeland?”
And in Crito 51d:
“[…] and yet even so we pronounce that we have given the power to any Athenian who wishes, when he has been admitted as an adult and sees the affairs of the city and us the laws and is not pleased with us, to take his possessions and leave for wherever he wants.”
According to the speech of the laws, a citizen of Athens should act out of a spirit of obedience. An Athenian citizen is said to be “a slave [of the laws] from the beginning”. Moreover, an Athenian citizen should consider it a holy duty to accept execution and should be willing to sacrifice oneself when the homeland, structured and defined by the transcending order of the laws, demands it and when the citizen fails to convince the homeland otherwise “by appealing to what is naturally just”. Hence, “it is not holy to use force against one’s mother or father, and it is so much worse to do so against one’s homeland”.
So, in the end, from this point of view, obeying the laws seems more important than “what is naturally just”. Moreover, as Crito 51d makes clear, those who refuse to accept the order of things in Athens are advised to ban themselves from the city.
This reasoning is crucially different from Jesus’ point of view in the canonical Gospels. According to Jesus, rules (in whatever way they are defined) should be means at the service of individual human beings and society as a whole, not the other way around. When Jesus and his disciples are criticized for doing things that are, strictly speaking, forbidden by Jewish law on the rest day – the Sabbath – Jesus answers (Mark 2:27): “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
Contrary to his general ideas on the opinion of the masses (as is clear from other Dialogues), Socrates, speaking from the position of an average Athenian citizen, also uses the desire for recognition by the many as a positive factor in the speech of the laws: “The homeland is deserving of more honor and reverence and worship than your mother and father and all of your ancestors, and is held in higher esteem both by the gods and by men of good sense.” It is difficult to consider such statements as representations of Socrates’ own views in light of other Dialogues. Jesus also criticizes a desire for recognition that becomes an end in itself (see, for instance, Matthew 6:1a: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them…”).
Another contrast between the Athenian laws and Jesus is perhaps highlighted by the following comparison. Socrates says (Crito 51c): “It is not holy to use force against one’s mother or father, and it is so much worse to do so against one’s homeland.” Compare this with the following words of Jesus (Matthew 10:34-36): “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Opposed to the small and big forms of “peace” based on oppression and violence, of which the Pax Romana in the time of Jesus is an obvious case of course, Jesus challenges people to build peace differently. Family members who belong to a “home” where they can have debates with each other, members of enemy tribes who end age old feuds by questioning their own perception of “the other tribe”, former criminals who start to behave like “moles” to clear their violent Mafia gang, fundamentalists who – realizing what they do to those who supposedly don’t belong to “the chosen ones” – liberate themselves from religious indoctrinations, employees who address a reign of terror at their workplace, individuals who criticize the bullying of their own clique, pacifists who dare to dissent with the violent rule of a dictatorship and unveil its enemy images as grotesque caricatures – Jesus advocates it. “Love your enemies”, Jesus says (Matthew 5:44). Everyone who no longer condemns the external enemy of his own particular group because of a stirred up feeling of superiority, generates internal discord: “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” It’s only logical. In short, Jesus argues in favor of non-violent conflict in order to end violent peace. Hence Jesus’ conclusion in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”
The Athenian laws in Socrates’ speech justify a sacrificial order of things (a sacrificial peace) by demanding the death of Socrates. If Socrates would not accept his death, the laws suggest that he then is in a state of “trying to destroy the laws and his homeland”. Equally, the enemies of Jesus justify Jesus’ death by referring to a potential destruction of the nation. However, by effectively accepting his death, Socrates paradoxically demonstrates that the accusations he is charged with are fundamentally false, and by that he also demonstrates the injustice of his death sentence. Biblically speaking, Socrates “turns the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). In Crito, Socrates does not sacrifice the laws of Athens to establish his own rule. Instead, he accepts the legal verdict and, thus, resists a competition between his potential own sacrificial order of things and the actual one. In short, Socrates paradoxically “sacrifices himself against sacrifice”, much in the same vein as René Girard (1923-2015) describes the death of Jesus. It could be argued that, like the Gospels, Crito already reveals the scapegoat mechanism structuring communities, albeit in a slightly different way.
The Gospel of John perhaps more elaborately reveals how the scapegoat mechanism is at the origin of human culture (and sacrificial ritual).
It is noteworthy that Jesus does not believe in a God who wants him dead. If Jesus paradoxically sacrifices himself eventually, it is a consequence of his obedience to a Love that “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). He does not want to live at the expense of others, not even his “enemies”. That’s why he says, when he is questioned by Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Jesus does not want to start a civil war. He does not want to establish a rule based on the sacrifice of a previous order. In other words, Jesus refuses “mimetic rivalry” (for more, click here). He does not want to abolish the law, but wants to put it at the service of neighborly love (which was the intention of the Jewish law all along).
In the Gospel of John, the devil is a personification of the scapegoat mechanism (which means that an innocent individual or group is wrongfully accused). Jesus knows that the leaders of the Jewish people, the Pharisees and the chief priests, want him dead and that they try to justify his death with certain lies. They obey “the devil” – indeed the mechanism that justifies the elimination of people based on lies.
John 8: 39-44
“If you, Pharisees, were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.”
“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.“
The Pharisees and chief priests are afraid that the growing popularity of Jesus might become a threat to their power. That’s why they try to present him as a rebel leader who could lead an uprising against the Roman occupier of Judea. A war with the Romans would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture. Therefore the Jewish leaders see no other solution than to get rid of Jesus. It’s their way of justifying his elimination.
John 11: 45-50
Many of the Jews who had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
In the case of Jesus, the Gospel of John leaves no doubt that these allegations are false. The Evangelist lets Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, unwittingly declare “the truth” about the arrested Jesus, namely that Jesus is innocent. Jesus does not wish to establish a “kingdom” or “peace” in competition with “the kings of this world” (whose kingdoms are based on sacrifices and the expulsion of certain people – like the “Pax Romana”). In other words, the Gospel of John reveals the plot against Jesus by the Pharisees and the chief priests as a scapegoat mechanism: Jesus is wrongfully accused. He refuses to start a civil war that would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture.
John 18: 33-38
Pilate summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”
René Girard comments on how the Gospels, in principle, destroy the devil or “Satan” as the endless violent cycle of mimetic rivalry and scapegoat mechanisms ruling the human world (in I see Satan Fall like Lightning, Orbis Books, New York, 2002, p.142):
“By depriving the victim mechanism of the darkness that must conceal it so it can continue to control human culture, the Cross shakes up the world… Satan is no longer able to limit his capacity for destruction. Satan will destroy his kingdom, and he will destroy himself.”
In yet other words (Col 2:15):
“Having disarmed the powers and authorities, Christ made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
In what way Socrates also made a “public spectacle” of “the powers and principalities” as a kindred spirit to Christ, is open to further debate. An important difference is the fact that Socrates fought in the Peloponnesian war (431 – 404 BC), while Christ radically refused violence (see Matthew 26:52).
Some scholars have argued that the speech of the laws actually represents Socrates’ own view – see, for instance: Socrates Misinterpreted and Misapplied: An Analysis of the Constructed Contradiction between the Apology and the Crito (by Masha Marchevsky, Macalester College). Others understand the speech as an attempt to persuade Crito and indeed reveal something fundamental about the nature of politics – see, for instance: Law, Philosophy, and Civil Disobedience: The Laws’ Speech in Plato’s Crito (by Steven Thomason, Ouachita Baptist University).
As for now, I tend to side with those who consider the speech of the laws as not representing the views of Socrates himself. On a personal note, I should thank my friend George Dunn, who, after a lively and sharp Facebook discussion, forced me to reconsider my initial position and made possible the above reflection.