Was Socrates a Prophet?

By Spahic Omer

Socrates (d. 399 BC) was one of the most prominent and, at the same time, most controversial Greek philosophers. He was a pioneering moral philosopher. His thoughts featured a teleological character as well. His views were both progressive and nonconformist, as a result of which he often runs into trouble with the ruling classes. In the end, he was put on trial, found guilty of impiety (apostasy) and of corrupting the youth of Athens, and was killed.

One of the fascinating things about Socrates is a claim that he was one of the prophets of Almighty God. On the face of it, the claim may sound mind-boggling and improbable, nevertheless, if all dimensions of Socrates’ life and teachings were poured over, the claim, all of a sudden, starts coming into view as not so implausible. If nothing, it deserves to be given a try academicism-wise.

There are two sides of the issue: one that works in favour of the claim of Socrates’ prophethood, and another one that works against it.

Factors against Socrates as a prophet

As regards to the latter, nobody depicted Socrates as a prophet, neither from among his contemporaries nor from his successors or beneficiaries. What is more, he is almost universally seen as the founder of Western philosophy and so, as one of the ideological fathers of Western culture and civilization. In principle, he followed the religious propensities of his people in Athens, albeit with a deep insubordinate reformist sense that made him look radically different. He was likewise a progressive avant-gardist and crusader, admittedly somewhat eccentric and even obstinate. As a maverick he exposed the status quo, which was sufficient for the entrenched and unscrupulous officials, who felt threatened by the undercurrents generated by Socrates’ personality and thought, to initiate legal proceedings against the man.

Socrates was adamant that he was a believer and patriot. He was the upholder of the real (supra-human and supra-natural) truth, not of the one manufactured by the authorities. He reminded the audience during his trial that the accusation to the effect that he did not believe in the gods worshipped by the state, was baseless, for on many an occasion could people see him sacrificing to those gods “at the communal festivals and on the public altars.” He moreover said in his defence: “For it has not been shown that I have sacrificed to new deities in the stead of Zeus and Hera and the gods of their company, or that I have invoked in oaths or mentioned other gods.” Socrates likewise pointed out that his whole life had been spent in righteousness towards God and man, a fact that afforded him the greatest satisfaction; “and so I have felt a deep self-respect and have discovered that my associates hold corresponding sentiments toward me” (Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Oeconomicus, Symposium and Apology).

In the eyes of the state and the government, Socrates was found guilty easily, which did not surprise him, even though he reminded everybody that neither of the crimes that warranted death penalty – such as temple robbery, burglary, enslavement and treason to the state – did he commit. Socrates knew that he was “anti-state” and “anti-government”, but only insofar as the negative elements thereof were concerned. He was also aware that as long as those elements were extant, he will remain eccentric, incompatible and hence, dangerous. The problem was neither the state, the government, nor the indifferent and gullible majority of the masses, but rather particular systems, policies, standards and thoughts, as well as an influential group of bureaucrats who personified and implemented those.

The trial of Socrates was a trial of his qualities and thought. The accused Socrates decided to defend them more than himself. After all, he was what he was because of them, not because of his biological self. He also understood that he was tried by “inappropriate virtues” and thought, as opposed to specific persons or groups. The latter were the instruments of the former. They were victims themselves. For that reason did Socrates display remarkable courage and integrity, even refusing to flee the prison when he could, and thus avoid the execution. Consistent with Socrates’ model, escaping would have implied cowardice. It would have signified running away from problems, yet from a battlefield, which is a situation whereby nobody has ever covered himself in glory. 

Socrates knew he had to sacrifice himself for his ideals and for the future. He had to become a martyr of righteousness, innocence and the principles of philosophy. He had to win, but the sacrifice of his own self was needed to ensure the ultimate victory. Which is exactly what started to happen immediately after his death when some of the greatest minds embarked on exonerating him, his life story and his philosophy. Some of those minds were Plato and Xenophon, his students, who wrote a number of books which were apologies of Socrates. Indeed, Socrates knew full well that he lived by the “sword” of righteous and maverick reformation, so by the same “sword” he was preordained to depart this life.

About his courage and readiness to die for his moral principles, Socrates said: “If I am going to offend the jury by declaring all the blessings that I feel gods and men have bestowed on me, as well as my personal opinion of myself, I shall prefer death to begging meanly for longer life and thus gaining a life far less worthy in exchange for death” (Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Oeconomicus, Symposium and Apology).

Concerning the charge that he was corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates countered that he, in fact, was reforming them. He was their saviour. No counsel or guidance of his was to harm the youth. As a prelude to his defence of the youth treatment, Socrates harked back to the fact that nobody could convict him of misstatements in all that he had said of himself, due to which he reckoned that he merited praise from both gods and men, instead of reproach. He then contended that, in spite of all that, the jury maintained that he corrupted the young by what proved the vindicated statements and practices of his. Socrates asked who and how actually corrupted the youth.  He knew it was not him. The answer was obvious: the established politicization and even “desacralization” of religion and the “corrupt religionization” of corrupt politics.

Socrates explained to the jury: “And yet surely we know what kinds of corruption affect the young; so you tell us whether you know of any one who under my influence has fallen from piety into impiety, or from sober into wanton conduct, or from moderation in living into extravagance, or from temperate drinking into sottishness, or from strenuousness into effeminacy, or has been overcome of any other base pleasure.” At another place Socrates exclaimed: “How could I be corrupting the young by habituating them to fortitude and frugality?” (Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Oeconomicus, Symposium and Apology; Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Crito).

The Socratic problem and a conflict of narratives 

However, all these factors that seemed to work in favour of Socrates not being a prophet, are not decisively substantial. They in actual fact prove very little. This is the picture because there is little definite pertaining to the entire case of Socrates. Being a prophet or not is just a part of a bigger problematic picture. Socrates left no books or letters, and everything known about him is from the posthumous writings of subsequent scholars such as Plato and Xenophon as his students. Yet even those limited writings are anything but in agreement with regard to most issues, often creating unsolvable contradictions and doubts. 

It is therefore often said that any effort to reconstruct the salient beliefs and philosophical views of Socrates would be impossible, a situation known as the Socratic problem or Socratic question. According to Donald R. Morrison “the ‘Socratic problem’ refers to the historical and methodological problem that historians confront when they attempt to reconstruct the philosophical doctrines of the historical Socrates.” The problem turned out to be unsolvable and is now practically a closed issue. The focus should be shifted to identifying the principal obstacles and pitfalls that rendered the discovery of a solution improbable, or even impossible (Donald R. Morrison, The Rise and Fall of the Socratic Problem).

Owing to this, primarily, Socrates remained an enigmatic figure. Virtually anything could have been made out of his story, including that he was or was not a prophet. His relative appropriateness and suitability vis-à-vis the cultural and civilizational mainstream of Athens might have been rendered as such by the people of certain agendas. Moreover, what has trickled down to us might as well have been an expurgated or “censored” version, or the outcome of a conflict of narratives. 

What we have today might have been an officially imposed account, partly or completely. The bureaucrats of Athens knew that getting rid of Socrates connoted nothing but the threshold of another and perhaps bigger quandary, namely how to deal with his reputation and legacy. And finally, nor can it be utterly denied that a combination of the forces of “natural historical selection” and the thought-out preservation of a favoured narrative had also a finger in the conflict and in the determining of the ultimate choice.

This is essentially what happened to all prophets, apart from Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). The Qur’an tells us that since time immemorial the prophets and messengers had been sent to every nation on earth, coming one after another and speaking – that is, conveying the message of God – in the languages of their peoples. This means that there must have been thousands of prophets. As per a weak tradition of Prophet Muhammad, there were as many as one hundred and twenty four thousand prophets in history, from Prophet Adam as the father of humanity to Prophet Muhammad as the seal of prophets – peace and blessings be upon all of them. They all delivered, explained and lived the message of tawhid or the Oneness of Almighty God. 

However, the Qur’an gives us the names of twenty five prophets only. The identities of the rest are mysteries. What is undeniable, though, is that the teachings and legacies of those prophets have been distorted beyond recognition. There is nothing authentic that had survived them and had been handed down to us. In point of fact, such is not confined merely to the destinies of the unknown prophets, but also to the destinies of all the known prophets, save Prophet Muhammad. 

Take for example the case of Prophet ‘Isa (Jesus), the second last prophet. He was just a prophet of Almighty God who had been given the holy revelation or book called Injil in order to deliver and explain it to his people. However, progressively after his death, the truth about Jesus – and the spiritual realities he had represented – were twisted completely. Nowadays, as a consequence, there is no reliable trace of Injil whatsoever, and what we hear about Jesus is a complete deformity. We hear that he is neither a human being nor a prophet, but the son of God. He is the second of three persons of the trinity, which is a doctrine upon which the world’s largest religion, Christianity, was founded. 

Similar misfortunes befell the legacies of other prophets, such as Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), Sulayman (Solomon), Dawud (David), Jusuf (Joseph), Yahya (John), Nuh (Noah), and so forth. By way of illustration, the religion of Judaism, as another major religion in the world, was created and subsists just because of the altered and misrepresented narratives of those prophets. Were it not for the Qur’an as the final revelation of God to mankind, and Prophet Muhammad as the final messenger of God to mankind, people would never be able to know the truth concerning the life stories and prophetic missions of those holy persons. With regard to the dynamics of today’s life, people will never know the truth about Christianity and Judaism either. That is why the Qur’an is called al-Furqan, which means “the Criterion”, due to which, as part of the ethics of dealing with the Qur’an, we should not venture beyond the parameters determined by the Qur’an and the Prophet while exploring the fundamental truths of life – and history. 

So, what has been handed down to us concerning Socrates – who died almost four centuries before Jesus – can, in theory, be viewed in the same light as the cases of the majority of prophets. His own instance might as well have been tampered with on purpose, so as to befit some conventions and preconceived designs. But since there is nothing conclusive testifying to the contrary, Socrates’ example – or the Socratic problem – should be left alone. Whatever is said for or against the possibility of him being a prophet, such will not be able to go beyond the level of assumptions. No academic discussion of that nature will be able to add anything constructive to the world of knowledge. 

Predicated on the Qur’anic paradigm, though, the ancient Greek society – like other societies in history – must have had its prophets. However, there is no reliable evidence as to their identities and the other details of theirs. Socrates might and might not have been one of them. Both possibilities are equally compelling and otherwise equally flawed. Be that as it may, neither prospect, however hard enforced, is in a position to add to or subtract from the dominion of the truth and its certitude. 

Lastly, discussions concerning the possible prophethood of Socrates should be a standard-setter. The blueprint is to be followed by other similar debates, like those concerning Buddha, who is also presumed in some circles to have been a prophet, and concerning Kalki Avatar – according to the theology of Hinduism the prophesied tenth and final incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu – about whom some people say could be Prophet Muhammad.

Factors in favour of Socrates being a prophet

Furthermore, as regards what works in favour of the claim of Socrates’ prophethood – presenting for the sake of argument the other side of the story – there are eight issues that can be considered. They are as follows.

First, consistent with the legacies of all prophets – except Prophet Muhammad – Socrates’ own life story and legacy have been shrouded as much in mysteries as in controversies. Thus, no probability could be ascertained beyond doubts, just as no probability could definitely be ruled out. The case remained inconclusive.

Second, Socrates preached proper beliefs and supreme moral values, teaching people how to internalize those and live accordingly. He led by example, becoming a symbol of righteousness and virtues he propagated – bearing resemblance to the patterns of the prophets. Socrates said that he was convinced that “no one virtue can subsist if it is not diligently and duly exercised.” Before facing the panel of judges, Socrates was asked if he was preparing himself for his defence, to which he replied in the affirmative. He next said that he had spent his whole life in preparing to defend himself. He emphasized that all his life he had been guiltless of wrongdoing; and he considered that to be the finest preparation for a defence (Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Oeconomicus, Symposium and Apology; Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Crito).

Third, Socrates was accused not only of not believing in the gods believed in by the state, but also of introducing other new divinities (gods) which mandated and sanctioned him to do what he was doing (Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Crito). He was deemed misguided. One wonders if Socrates was reproaching his people for their polytheism and was trying to set things right and guide them to the path of (Islamic) monotheism instead and to the moral values that issued therefrom.

Fourth, despite living in the shadow of the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses, Socrates regularly referred to his God in the singular. He referred to gods in the plural only when he spoke of his people’s gods “often citing them as examples of falseness.” In their apologies of Socrates, both Plato and Xenophon capitalized Socrates’ one God. Socrates said for example about his God that He is by nature truthful and could not lie; He is absolutely void of falsehood; He alone has real knowledge; He grants children after which people should think out how they shall best train them; He adapted the woman’s nature to the indoor and man’s to the outdoor tasks and cares; He made man and woman partners in their children; He sends a storm at sea; He threatens and punishes careless fellows; where He is our teacher we all come to think alike; He gives the plants water; He has foreknowledge of the future. Without a doubt, Socrates’ obedience to his one God led him to defy men and their bogus gods and goddesses (Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Oeconomicus, Symposium and Apology; Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Crito).

Fifth, Socrates claimed that he had been given a revelation or a mandate by God described as voices of God or divine signs. Those voices (revelations) sent by heavenly dispensation indicated to Socrates his duties, rendering his mission godlike. By means of a divine guidance, Socrates guided others and was guided himself. Without asking or being asked, he used to be forewarned by signs “what to do and what not to do.” He was guided towards good acts and was prevented from unseemly ones only through the authority of those revelations. As if Socrates was not in full control of his spiritual and moral being. He in part spoke and acted of his own accord and partly by dint of given (revealed) signs and voices. For example, when he was justifying why he did not worry about the lack of preparations for his defence, Socrates revealed: “I have tried twice already to meditate on my defence, but my divine sign interposes.” And when it was observed that his statement was surprising, Socrates continued: “Do you think it surprising that even God holds it better for me to die now?” (Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Oeconomicus, Symposium and Apology). Socrates’ belief in those voices and signs eventually gave rise to the charge of introducing new god(s), coupled with the charge of desecrating the national ones. His conduct – yet his life – was declared blasphemous, which makes much sense in that Socrates’ people were polytheistic, whereas he upheld the doctrines of monotheism.

Sixth, Socrates’ main modus operandi was his famous inquiry method. The method is perhaps most effective when it comes to realizing mistakes and also obstacles that aid them. The method furthermore leads to a sense of self-awareness, which is the only way towards a progressive self-development. The Qur’an divulges that, while delivering their messages and while confronting their disobedient nations, almost all prophets took advantage of the benefits of this method. Yet the Qur’an itself is replete with its advanced features. There are numerous studies that sought to explain the approaches of the Qur’an to the subject matter of the inquiry method and how much those approaches could impact human creative and critical thinking (Jamal Ahmed Badi et al., Questioning Styles in the Qur’an and Their Impact on Human Thinking a Conceptual Analysis).

Seventh, Socrates’ main enemies were the al-mala’, which is the Qur’anic term for a society’s socio-political, religious and economic elites that signified the main stumbling block to each and every prophet and to their effective communication of the given messages. The al-mala’ were in charge of everything; they were the manipulators of the whole situation and of the thinking, alongside behavioural, moulds of the common people. The objective truth was the last thing the al-mala’ ever wanted or pursued, and the virtues they espoused revolved around nothing but their self-centredness and greed. Thus, neither unconventionality nor nonconformity of any kind was tolerated; nor did any dialogues ever prove constructive. The ultimate outcomes were foregone conclusions, while generally theatrical debates and hearings functioned merely as smokescreens. The prophets – as per the Qur’anic narratives – were all too aware of this and had no choice but to patiently put up with the situation. Socrates was aware of the same too, hence his valour and apparent resignation to heavenly providence.

Socrates was warned about the dishonesty of the al-mala’ of Athens. He was urged to brace himself for their deceits during the trial. His being honest, reasonable and righteous may not be sufficient. Quite the reverse, it may work against him under the circumstances whereby vices are perceived as virtues and virtues as vices. He was told: “Do you not observe that the Athenian courts have often been carried away by an eloquent speech and have condemned innocent men to death, and often on the other hand the guilty have been acquitted either because their plea aroused compassion or because their speech was witty?” (Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Oeconomicus, Symposium and Apology).

At the end of the trial, having been found guilty and facing capital punishment, Socrates could not but fire the last salvo of indictments of his own against the corruption and fraud of the panel of adjudicators and against the bigger formal framework (al-mala’) they represented. Socrates reminded everybody that the entire trial was staged and was based on the false testimonies and false witnesses. Socrates felt sorry for those who had been won over to do such a depravity as they must have felt “in their hearts a guilty consciousness of great impiety and iniquity.” Socrates in addition called attention to the fact that he was not and could not be proven guilty by any stretch of the imagination. It was evident that he neither harboured a religious impiety nor committed a national treason, as alleged by the prosecution. He did not commit any of the crimes that merited death penalty, as a result of which sentencing him to death defied all sanity. Socrates felt that his enemies would have treated him better than his own compatriots. At the same time however he knew that the aim was not to judge him fairly and thus establish justice, but instead, by any possible means, to get rid of him and the peril he exemplified. At the end of the day, Socrates resigned to his fate comforted by the truths that dying righteously and with honour was better than living without them, and that, in the fullness of time, both right and wrong, and justice and injustice, will step to the fore and become discernible. Honest people and honest history will be the ultimate judges (Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Oeconomicus, Symposium and Apology).

Eighth, just like a great many prophets before and after his epoch, Socrates was rejected, ill-treated and killed, his life account twisted and legacy distorted. So much so that his case is relegated almost to the point of a legend and even a myth, becoming a subplot of the extensive Greek mythology. Therefore, some people yet ended up wondering if Socrates was a real person and if he has ever existed. ***

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