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July 26, 2013
A plea: Back to Socratic paganism
By Alice von Hildebrand *

By Alice von Hildebrand *

In the wake of Vatican II, the Church found herself in a state of turmoil. Everything was challenged; everything was put up for grabs. The media gleefully spread the great news that Vatican II had finally “liberated” man from burdensome, old fashioned traditions that had become meaningless for “modern man”, hampering his religious and intellectual “growth.”

The confusion that Christ has predicted about the end of time seemed to be realized. A friend happened to tell my husband, “I am afraid that we are going back to paganism.” I shall never forget his speedy reply: “We cannot go back to paganism; the pagan world lived ante lucem; those who have received the light of revelation and reject it, are not and cannot be ‘pagans’ – they are ‘apostates.’ And apostasy is worse than paganism.”

There comes a moment in life when one deplores being right. Dietrich von Hildebrand had reasons to be. The modest article will try to prove it.

Greece’s glory is that it gave birth to philosophy. When Thales raised the question, “Where do things come from?” He was clearly turning away from pragmatic concerns – that is, those related to guarantee survival. His mind was focusing on questions that every man – worthy to be called one – raises when facing death. His theme was to shed some light on the mystery of human existence. He was looking for meaning.

Unsatisfactory as his answer was, (all things come from water), he deserves our praise. From this moment on, budding philosophers tried to find better answers. Upon reaching the 5th Century B.C., Athens entered into the most glorious period of her history. Within a few years, she gave us a Pericles, a Sophocles, a Euripides, (already preceded by Aeschylus), a Phidias, and, last but not least, it was the cradle of an extraordinary man – Socrates – one of the noblest figures of the “pagan” world.

Kierkegaard always refers to him as the “wise, old man of Greece.” He fully deserves this eulogy. If philosophy is “the love of wisdom”, the history of philosophy proves that to claim to be a philosopher in no way guarantees that one is wise. Indeed, some famous (not to be confused with great) thinkers were and are responsible for many of the woes plaguing our world today. Precisely because philosophy aims at giving us a key to the meaning of human existence, if and when philosophers derail, (as many have) the results are disastrous and poison the whole of society.

Even though the overwhelming majority of men will never read a page of Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Darwin, Marx, Heidegger, to mention but a few, in some mysterious ways, their ideas are the very air that we breathe today and because they are contaminated by error, the consequences are serious indeed. Nietzsche’s ideal of the Superman and Marx’s promise to create a “paradise for the workers” – a prelude to the Gulag Archipelago – shed light on the gravity of the moral and intellectual sickness affecting our “monde casse” (broken world) as Gabriel Marcel characterizes the world in which we live today.

How devastating ideas can be has been admirably sketched by Chesterton in his book, The Man Who Was Thursday: “We say that the dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. … philosophers despise marriage as marriage … philosophers hate life itself, their own as much as other people’s.” (P. 81 ff); Ignatius Press Edition).

To claim that “all ideas should be welcome” in the modern world – (after all, they are “only” ideas and therefore cannot be dangerous) – is a risky mixture of stupidity and ignorance, a very dangerous concoction. When a classmate of mine at Manhattanville, Mother Betty McCormack became president of the College in the ‘60s, on the very day of her inauguration she proudly proclaimed that, “From now on, all ideas will be welcome at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart.” She kept her word. Is today this “famous” Catholic college still Catholic?

When Socrates was condemned to death – an “adequate” punishment for “corrupting” the Athenian youth by challenging the “spirit of the time” which was glorifying money, power and success – he was clearly swimming against the tide, and in so doing was putting to shame the majority of his contemporaries.

In his great dialogue, Phaedo, Plato eulogized him with the following words: “… and this was the end, Echecrates, of the wisest and the best man I have ever known.”

What is admirable is how peacefully Socrates responded to his unjust condemnation, convinced as he was that, “It is better to suffer injustice than to commit it.” (Gorgias, 469) He died, his soul untainted by moral evil. Those who voted for his death were those to be pitied.

In one of the early Platonic dialogues, Euthyphro, Socrates gives us a golden key to his approach to philosophy. He tells us that his one and exclusive interest was to know the truth. (XVIII) This claim deserves our full attention. Indeed, Socrates’ exclusive interest in knowing Truth guaranteed that he was “unified.” In the Republic, Plato tells us that one of the key aims of education was to “unify the child in the good.” The overwhelming majority of men have a large spectrum of interests (money making, fame, power, sports, hobbies, intellectual or artistic concerns) and run from one thing to another, ending up being “split” personalities. Modern psychologists have coined a word for it: “bipolar personalities). In our society, their name is “legion.” Socrates realized that “one thing alone is necessary”: to know truth, for this knowledge is indispensable in order to live a life worthy of the human being. The greatness of “the wise, old man of Greece” was that he remained faithful to his aim and died for it.

Truth is a word of such dignity and it should fill us with awe. Centuries later, this passionate interest in Truth was echoed by St. Augustine who wrote in his Confessions: “Truth, O Truth, how did the very marrow of my bones yearn for you when I heard them mention your name.” It is not a subjective “opinion” which by definition is someone’s opinion; it is not a clever guessing, it is not something relative to an individual or to a society. It is an objective reality (ultimately a person), offered to all without exception, but perceived only by those willing to open their heart to it and live it. This was Socrates’ position, and it justifies the words of Kierkegaard (The Point of View for my Work as an Author) when, after giving expression to his love for this wise Greek, he added that even though he knew that Socrates was not a Christian (for very obvious reasons), he was now convinced “that he had become one.” Indeed, we are told in the Psalms that God is close to all those who seek Him in truth. (Ps. 144) Socrates’ solemn declaration that he cared only for the truth, seems to be a premonition of Christ’s words to Martha: “one thing alone is necessary”.

These golden words uttered some 26 centuries ago, would strike the majority of our contemporaries are meaningless. Fed since grammar school on the contaminated milk of relativism, the very word “truth” irritates their ear drum. As one of my colleagues at Hunter College, said when I “dared” suggest that the truth should be the key concern in philosophy, “whose truth are you referring to?” There was little sense telling him that if truth is valid only for the person who utters is, it cannot possibly be true. It would just have triggered nothing but sniggering.

One of the big lies cleverly propagated in our society is that a precondition for universal peace and harmony is that people refrain from proclaiming that they know “the truth,” and consequently, feel entitled to force their views on others, thereby not only causing wars and conflicts, but also depriving others of their “freedom of thought.”

A wise Spanish proverb states, “La mentira y la torta, gorda” – both the lie and the cake should be big. When Hitler proudly proclaimed that “on the road to National Socialism, not a drop of blood had been shed”, his hysterical declaration was received with thundering applause. Small lies are easily detected; big ones are usually accepted whole sale, on the ground that they could not possibly have been invented.

Socrates perceived that a society steeped in relativism where each individual has “his own truth” is hopelessly divided.

He who “sees” a truth and has accepted to live it (for truth is demanding) inevitably perceives that this truth is not his; it is offered to all men. Those privileged to see it have, therefore, a “missionary vocation.”

This noble thinker teaches us that only the one who lives up to what philosophy should be devoted to, namely Truth, deserves the noble title of Philosopher. Even though he had no access to the Bible, he knew by experience that “there are two horses in the human soul: one who is obedient; one who is rebellious, kicks and bites.” (Phaedrus) Inevitably the word “truth” is taboo to those who claim their right to decide by and for themselves what truth is. To be told that there is something called truth and that it has such a dignity that everyone should accept it, is viewed as challenging man’s “freedom of choice.” What about his “divine” right to make up his own mind and decide for himself what is congenial to his wishes and purposes? The words of Lucifer, “Non serviam”, echo deeply in our decadent society. As a matter of fact, the very word “truth” triggers panic in secular universities and panic easily degenerates into hatred for those who have “disturbed” the peace. I speak from experience.

Already in the 8th century B.C., the prophet Amos wrote the following words: “…they abhor the one who speaks the truth.” (5:10)

Yet, Socrates’ position is unshakeable: there is something called truth, the valid perception of a reality independent of our volatile human mind, something of such power and dignity that if it can be challenged and attacked, it can never be refuted. (Gorgias, 473) It is not more true when accepted; it is not “less true” when rejected, but gloriously and invincibly existing, it calls for a due response on our part. We ought to see it, respect it and live it.

One of the overwhelming gifts of Christianity was the revelation that Truth is not just a valid, abstract statement, but a Person. For Christ said, “I am the Truth.” No other founder of a religion has dared make such a claim. If Christ is right; He is God. If He is lying, He is the worst mad man the world has produced, even though it has produced quite a few.

Once we recognize that Truth is incarnated in a Person, the only adequate response is “adoration” – the religious act par excellence.

As mentioned above, Socrates understood that the person blessed to see a truth has a duty to share it with others. This is why Plato in his Republic (Book VII) tells us that when the “philosopher,” having escaped from the dark den of ignorance, discovers “reality,” and is overwhelmed with joy upon entering into the true world, the world of light and beauty, he nevertheless freely chooses to go back to this spiritual jail to share the “good news” of his discovery with his fellow prisoners. The glorious reality he perceived is not his. It is meant to be shared with all people. The response of the prisoners to “the good news” was both shocking and tragic; they decided that this troublesome preacher deserved death.

By its essence, truth cannot be the privilege of the elite – a claim shared by all sects that arrogantly pretend that only the “chosen” ones “deserve” to know it. All secret societies are based on a similar conviction and their members gloat over their superiority. To be convinced that one belongs to the elite is the hook used to attract those of modest endowment craving for greatness.

One key purpose of education is precisely to be conscious of the noble mission of sharing truth. That is, give to the younger generation the treasures that a person has been privileged to see either by inheritance or by perception. Socrates also saw that intellectual talents alone do not satisfy the requirements of a true education. Moral education should go hand in hand with it. Hence the importance granted to the virtue of reverence in Platonic writings. Praising the Athens of the 5th Century, he tells us that “reverence was our queen and mistress,”(Laws, 698) – intimating the fact that in the 4th Century, this key virtue was no longer prominent. Indeed, it had opted to go on the path heading to decadence. He urges us to have a deep reverence for antiquity and tradition. (Laws, 798) This reverence should be manifested not only toward “truth” but also toward one’s parents. In his last work, the Laws, (931) Plato tells us that he who honors his older parents, pleases the gods. Not only does he make it clear that there is an intimate bond between religion and morality, but moreover, his claim echoes the Fourth Commandment that he had not been privileged to receive.

In his Memorabilia, Xenophon relates that one of Socrates’ sons complained to his father about his mother who irritated him by her nagging. Socrates’ reply should be mentioned in every single grammar school of the world. He told the boy that he should never forget that his mother had suffered much to bring him into the world, and therefore that he was deeply indebted toward her. Gratitude is also a key virtue and a forgotten one. Many of our contemporaries choke on the words “thank you.”

Are these two virtues given pride of place in our society? I fear that most children never hear them mentioned. Efficiency is the one “virtue” praised to the skies. It is indeed a virtue, (i.e. strength), but definitely not a moral virtue.

If this response of gratitude and reverence is required toward our parents, what should be said of man’s attitude toward God? Once again, Plato has eloquent words on the subject: “The awe which I always feel…about the names of the gods is more than human – it exceeds all other fear.” (Philebus, 576)

Expressing his grief at the rampant atheism gaining ground in the Athens of the 4th Century, Plato advises us to repress our anger, and remind the offender that “he is a creature of a day” (Laws, 923)…foolish fellow, that “he is his own god…”)( 921). In fact, modern atheism does not eliminate religion; it just proclaims that man is God. If the very frail and imperfect creature named man is truly God, it seems to me that this view would justify atheism!

Plato stands firmly in defense of marriage and tells us “that no one shall venture to touch any person … except his wedded wife…” (Laws, 841) He strongly condemns incestuous relationships which are “…unholy, hated of God and most infamous…”(838) To my knowledge, no one in antiquity has been as eloquent as Plato in his condemnation of homosexuality. He urges us to “abolish altogether the connection of men with men” which is “against nature” and threatens the very foundation of any sound society. He remarks wisely that by the word “love” people can refer to things which are essentially different, and should be distinguished. Bestial pleasure has such an attraction for some that they suffer defeat. Indeed, Plato had made it clear that victory over pleasure should be one of the main aims of education. He sadly acknowledges that it is almost impossible to eliminate this perversion just referred to, but urges those caught in its deadly nets “to conceal” their vice.

Many are those who (purposely) refer to Plato’s symposium to claim that he, in fact, condones homosexuality. Any honest and intelligent reading of the dialogue would reject this interpretation. This dialogue is a “drama” in which six speakers expound their ideas on love. Not surprisingly, they have different and conflicting views. The final speech is given by Socrates at the end of which Alcibiades tells us explicitly that, being young and handsome and spending the night with Socrates, he clearly made himself “available,” but he ends by telling us that he got out of bed the next morning untouched.

It cannot be denied that this vice “contra naturam” had ravaged Greek society but it never was legalized. To “modern man” the Greek society had not “progressed” enough. The word “progress” just means to be going forward. But the salvation of those who move toward an abyss can only be to “regress.” This should be a clarion call for us today.

In our “advanced” society, pornography is not longer “under the counter,” but prominently displayed wherever one goes. Indeed, “why not?” But wisdom teaches us that we deserve to be condemned by the nature of the questions that we dare raise. For some questions should never be raised because they betray the depraved outlook of the questioner. Why can’t spit in my neighbor’s face? It would be fun to see his reaction. Why can’t I marry my lovely mistress? Why can’t I play sex games with toddlers? It is so much fun to watch their reaction, etc.

To raise such questions is an implicit condemnation of the person who raises them. Indeed, Jeremiah was right, “men no longer know how to blush” – for there is a “shame” which is the due response to things and actions that are shameful.

Today, any “why not?” is given a place. Indeed, everyone should be given boundless freedom to ask the questions that happen to cross his mind.

Let us not forget that the Serpent brought Eve to sin by raising a question that should never have been raised for it implicitly denied God‘s right to give commands to His creatures.

Let us again turn to the “wise, old man of Greece” and ask him to teach us, as he taught Plato, how to philosophize. The name of his disciple will echo through the centuries, because the truths that he has unveiled and shared with us, being true, are above time. Truth never ages.

The conclusion that we can draw is that the word “paganism” can refer either to any society which without any fault of its own, did not know the “good news” of the Gospel. But this did not deprive truth-lovers of their “longing” for answers. Indeed, if sin has weakened man’s moral perception, it certainly has not totally erased its message from the wounded human heart. God Himself has imprinted it into man’s soul. Socrates and his spiritual son, Plato, are living proofs that it is still perceptible to men of “longing.” There are indeed certain truths – mostly moral truths – which have been darkened by original sin; in such cases, reason needs to be “baptized” by faith to “see” what has been stained by sin. By making this claim I am in no way implying that faith should dictate the answer. I mean that it teaches man intellectual humility – the golden key which protects him from innumerable errors.

By pagan, one can also refer to a disgraceful moral decadence that led both Athens and Rome to their self destruction. What a caveat for our contemporary world.

Let me conclude with words borrowed from Gabriel Marcel, the talented French philosopher who reflecting upon the broken world that we have referred to above, tells us the modern world needs “une cure de Platonism.”

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.
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