Jesus vs. Socrates

Socrates vs. Jesus - image by   vs. Socrates vs. Jesus - image by

John Durham Peters writes in Speaking Into Thin Air Socrates and Jesus represent two contrasting but enduring models of communication.  Jesus serves as a model for dissemination, while Socrates models dialogue, which Peters claims has been widely accepted as the superior method.


Socrates is well known for his dialectic method of engaging with others in a back and forth question and answer style of interaction. He himself never wrote anything down, and we only have documentation of his interactions thanks to his student, Plato. This refusal to write is an embodiment of his belief that it takes two people to philosophize – to actively engage in a discussion.

InPhaedrus, Socrates argues against the art of rhetoric, elevating the position of philosophy and the importance of audience. As Peters puts it:

“To be an adequate speaker, one must also be a good philosopher. Even to deceive, one needs a grasp of the truth… Good rhetoric is guided by knowledge of both the truth and the audience.”

Writing can never achieve this, because it is impossible to know all of the future audiences for a piece of writing. Plato, for instance, could not have possibly anticipated my reading Phaedrus and tailored the message for me. For Socrates, this is clearly a loss. I would be much better off conversing with Plato than simply reading his work.


Contrast this stance with the parable of Jesus, in which the meaning is clearly the audience’s job to work out for themselves. Stuart Hall explores this relationship through television using the terms encoding and decoding. The producers of content encode the message, but the receivers – the viewers – must then decode it. The message they decode can be vastly different that the message that was intended by the producers. For Jesus, the communication is a one way act similar to that of widely disseminating seeds. There is no one-on-one cultivation.

Peters claims that one advantage of this is that it allows the message to reach a much wider audience, which will be heard by “those who have ears to hear it.” Comparatively, the audience of Socrates and those accepted into Plato’s academy are much fewer – a more elite audience. This spreading of the seed is compared to Christian love – it is meant to transcend the personal; we ought to love everyone as we would love our own family. It’s a broadcast of the message and a broadcast of love to wide audiences.


Ultimately, Peters characterizes the differences between the two methods in this manner:

“The Phaedrus and the Symposium figure love as the yearning for oneness; the synoptic Gospels as compassion for otherness… Platonic eros passes through the particular to arrive at the general; Christian agape passes through the general to arrive at the particular.”

Somewhat strangely, in my opinion, Peters argues that the most problematic side of dialogue is the reciprocal nature of justice that it entails, being both violent and fair. Dialogue represents the eye-for-an-eye model of justice. This seems to be quite the huge leap, and I’m not sure why a method of communication necessarily demands a similar method of justice. Do I really have to demand that type of justice if I prefer that type of communication? I see no reason that’s necessary, and no evidence that Socrates himself held this view. In fact, quite the opposite view emerges in the Crito:

Soc. Again, Crito, may we do evil?

Cr. Surely not, Socrates.

Soc. And what of doing evil in return for evil, which is the morality of the many-is that just or not?

Cr. Not just.

Soc. For doing evil to another is the same as injuring him?

Cr. Very true.

Soc. Then we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him.

Clearly Peters believes that the dissemination model used by Jesus is the preferable model moving forward in our society today. And while I’m interested in exploring that argument further, it’s not fair to do so in a manner that falsely characterizes the nature of the dialectic as done here.

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