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But if the subject has been, as he declares, “maturely considered,” and if his sole aim in treating it as he has done is “the establishment of truth in a momentous and difficult sphere of inquiry," we can only lament that the patient labors of an enlightened intellect have produced such results, and that the benevolent wishes of an ingenuous mind are doomed to disappointment.
THE RELIGION OF SOCRATES.*
There have been frequent and elaborate comparisons of Socrates with the inspired men of Judea, - of him who, in moral purity and intellectual vigor and ripeness, was eminently and unaccountably superior to all other philosophical teachers, with the accredited messengers of Jehovah. The comparisons have been industriously carried through, point by point, as far as the abstract character of the men was concerned; but the results have ever appeared to us unsatisfactory, for want of a due consideration of the position of the several individuals. Socrates is pronounced to be, in comparison with the prophets and apostles, blind with respect to the Divine Nature, idolatrous in his worship, superstitious with respect to the dealings of Providence in general, and especially as they regarded himself; low in his conceptions of piety and holiness, and capable of none but the crudest conceptions of a future state. His immeasurable superiority over his Heathen brethren of every rank, being at the same time universally admitted, it becomes
* The Religion of Socrates. Dedicated to Sceptics and Scepticmakers. 8vo. pp. 106. London. Fellows. 1831.
an object of deep interest to ascertain for what design, and by what means, he was thus placed in a position so far above the many, and so far below the few; and whether any considerations have been omitted by which we may rectify the estimates of him, which are too various to be correct.
The Jewish prophets were born on holy ground; they were bred up beneath the shadow of the tabernacle; and nurtured by Jehovah himself. Socrates dwelt in a land whose golden fields and gorgeous gardens were, with all their splendor, a wilderness, compared with the sandy plains and rugged fastnesses of Judea, because no visible glory shone on them from heaven. He sought the shade of temples, where no eye looked for a unity of essence amidst the diversity of the forms of beauty; and the ministrations by which his powers were matured were, even if understood by himself, unrecognised by any besides.
The Jewish prophets were sent, with the light of Deity shining in their faces, to deliver express messages from Jehovah to his people. When they preached, the thundercloud was beneath their feet, and the lightnings in their hands. They were empowered to proclaim, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is One Lord;” and their office being thus express, they were not subject to the perplexities of a discretionary power, and had only to discharge their commission, and bear the consequences. Socrates had no credentials to exhibit; his appeals were enforced by no power on which he could visibly repose, and were addressed to a people who were united by no common bond of acknowledged truth. He was compelled to exercise a caution as difficult as it must have been irksome. He could only intimate great truths by means of such analogies as would interest and engage his Athenian auditors, leaving it to those whom it might concern to interpret rightly his countenance of popular superstitions: and, after all, his
marvellous prudence, being exercised on behalf of others rather than of himself, did not avail to preserve him from persecution and martyrdom. The Jewish teachers had to deal with a stiff-necked, he with a licentious people. They were appointed to carry forward openly an ancient scheme of Providence; his humbler task was to instil the primary elements of religious truth. All these things, – the birth, the position, the office of these several teachers, must be contemplated, before an accurate estimate of their characters, or judgment of their claims to inspiration, can be formed.
It will not be questioned by any who intelligently hold the doctrine of a Providence, that the qualities of every man are conferred by God, their direction superintended, and their end appointed and achieved by him. It is likewise evident that, as a miracle is an extraordinary event, not in itself, but only to human apprehension, so, in its own nature, inspiration is only a greater degree of power which is possessed by all. To man,
appears at first a power special in kind, as well as remarkable in degree; but to the Giver of light, who knows the unity of its essence, it cannot be so. Furthermore, when man investigates the history of his kind, and prepares from its results a scale of human powers, he finds it impossible to adjust it to his satisfaction, as long as he transfers the distinction between those powers from their modes of attainment and manifestation to their inherent nature. The actual distinction which exists is enough for the purpose for which it was ordained, — for the education of the human observers of the scheme of Providence; and to carry it further than philosophy sanctions, is only to impair our recognition of Providence. The man to whom, in a barbarous age, it is given to know that which he has not the means of ascertaining for himself, is an inspired man, and consequently a special messenger of God. The man who, in an advanced state of civilization and science, knows the same truth by the means which society affords, is not an inspired man, nor is he set apart from his fellow men by a peculiar commission. In both cases, the knowledge and the power are the same: the difference lies in their origin and application to man, and not in their own nature, or in the sight of God.
There is this unity in the providence of God towards the human race, however different have been its manifestations towards the Jews and the Gentiles. The lapse of time has discovered this to us. It has discovered to us that it was for the sake of the whole race that the Jewish nation was led on, by a special process, to a lofty eminence of religious attainment. We see that while preparations were going on with extraordinary rapidity in the land of promise, there were stirrings, from time to time, in the mass of the unregenerate nations, whose causes and aims now appear analogous with each other, and with those by which the chosen people was wrought upon. Wise men rose up here and there in Heathen lands who discerned and taught something more than was generally known of the frame of the universe, or of the purposes of life, or of the nature and character of Him who gave it; and thus carried on the multitudes to successive degrees of fitness for the reception of the brighter and more abundant truth which was at length to be generally embraced. These men, whether they were Grecian moralists, or Persian astronomers, or Egyptian metaphysicians, were raised up by Providence as directly as the prophets of Israel. The mission of the latter was identical with the rest in its origin, and analogous in its end, though incalculably loftier in its manifest character, and more awful in its sanctions.
Socrates, the wisest of the Gentiles, was therefore, in as far as he taught truth, a fellow-servant with the Jewish teachers before God; their fellow-laborer in pioneering the way for the Gospel ; their brother in the truth of God, though appointed an abode in the outer courts of his Father's house.
In the contemplation of his character and services, doubts have frequently arisen as to whether his was a special commission : as to whether his attainments were no more than correspondent with his natural means, – as to whether, in short, he was inspired. We know too little of what those natural means were to be able to decide ; and to this may be added, that it is difficult to ascertain also what his attainments were. It will be long before men cease to speculate on the extent of his wisdom, the means by which he attained it, and the principles by which those parts of his conduct were guided, which were either uncommon in themselves, or rendered dubious by what we know of his doctrines.
For ourselves, we feel the impossibility of measuring the proportion of philosophical sagacity and religious wisdom which may be generated by any combination of happy natural influences; but we own a difficulty in conceiving that the ordinary powers of man, exercised in any ordinary mode, should have effected so marvellous an enlightenment as that of Socrates in the midst of Heathen darkness. What means Divine Wisdom made use of for the purpose will probably never be known on this side the grave; but we cannot imagine that any discovery which human reason may achieve, now that the process of discovery is emancipated from difficulties which can never recur, can ever equal the grandeur of his, who, in a polytheistic land, learned that God was one ; from the chaos of superstitions respecting fate and chance, wrought out a perfect scheme of Providence; and amidst the brooding gloom of Heathenism, not only discerned the dawn of a full revelation, but gathered into himself, by anticipation, something of its light and warmth. We assume it as unquestionable that Socrates did hold
doctrines, because, though there is contradictory evidence on each point, the evidence in favor of his enlightened convictions is positive, while that opposed to it is