Roll Over, Socrates

Every schoolchild knows the story of Socrates, the great philosopher of ancient Greece, who was forced to end his life by drinking hemlock. But what every schoolchild does not know is why Socrates was executed.   What did he do?   Socrates's offense was to propose a new way of teaching ethics. Parents and teachers have always trained children in three ways: by direct teaching, by setting a good example, and by systems of reward and punishment. The idea is that children need to be told what is good, to see good actions modelled, and to have the lesson reinforced by experiencing the consequences of their own actions.   Socrates ignored all this. He proposed instead that children should be taught simply to reason correctly. He argued that since human nature is rational, what children know to be right they will surely do.   Because he ignored the need to train a child's will and character, Socrates was accused of "corrupting the young" and was put to death. But his educational approach lives on. A handbook from Harvard University says we must "trust to the Socratic dictum that the knowledge of the good will lead to a commitment to the good."   I want to tell you that Socrates--and Harvard--are wrong. Just knowing what is good doesn't make one good.   My own life illustrates the point. When I went to law school in the 1950s, I developed a love of jurisprudence. I never dreamed I would violate the law. I was confident I would never be corrupted.   In fact, I took steps to be sure of it. When I gave up my law practice and went to the White House, I took everything I had earned and put it into a blind trust. I never accepted gifts. I didn't want to even give the appearance of impropriety.   Yet I ended up going to prison. So much for all my self-righteous attempts at propriety.   What I had overlooked is that every human being has an unlimited capacity for rationalization and self-delusion. Once you are persuaded that the fate of the republic rests on meeting some goal--in my case, the re-election of Richard Nixon--it is deceptively easy to judge all your actions by whether it supports that goal. You don't stop to ask, "Is this really right?" But even when we do stop and ask--even when we do clearly see what is right--the question is do we have the will to do it? I found out I didn't.   In law school I briefed case after case, honing my analytical skills to a sharp edge. But all the reasoning in the world didn't make me good. I still made the wrong decisions. I still ended up in prison.   It took God to change my will.   One of the pervasive myths of our culture is that human nature is intrinsically good. All we need to do is educate people in effective moral reasoning and we can create a moral utopia. But in Romans 7, Paul tells us what human nature is really like: The good that I want to do I do not do; the evil that I don't want to do I find myself doing anyway.   As one Christian philosopher puts it, what we need is not just moral reasoning but a moral disposition, a will to do what is right.   Changing the will--that's what was lacking in Socrates's understanding of ethics. And that's what is lacking in modern education.   So, I propose a toast to Harvard. A hemlock toast. This is the sixth in an 11-part series on Christian Ethics


Chuck Colson



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