Joseph Priestley on Jesus and Socrates Compared

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) was an English theologian, philosopher, and scientist who is credited with the discovery of oxygen and the invention of carbonated water. He published more than 150 works and became controversial both for his scientific positions and theological notions. A liberal in politics, his unpopular advocacy of the French Revolution resulted in his flight to the United States where he spent his final years writing and continuing to be involved in political controversies. Since Priestley was, like Isaac Newton, that rare phenomenon of a scientist with a passion for theology, it is interesting that he was able throughout his works to find unifying principles of religion and science at a time when many in the world of science and religion were moving away from such an accommodation. He was, for instance, able to argue that materialism and determinism were consistent with religion, a view that came in for serious criticism in both camps of science and religion from the time of Darwin to now.

At the end of his life Priestley decided to find another way to explore the tensions between philosophy and religion. He noted the similarities and differences between Socrates and Jesus in his short treatise Socrates and Jesus Compared published the year before his death. Those fans of Socrates who idolize his brilliance at logical dialectics (though it is arguable how much is Socrates and how much is Plato) may be surprised to learn that Priestley fully recognizes the far greater worth of Jesus as an important historical figure.

Jesus and Socrates as Martyrs

The first point to consider is obvious. Socrates was set upon by the elders of the Athenian establishment as a public enemy who opposed their interests by teaching young Athenians to think in a way that would challenge the traditional values of pagan Athens. Likewise did Jesus enrage the high powers in the Jerusalem synagogue who were vested in opposing any self-proclaimed prophet, and least of all a “saviour” who had exposed the hypocrisy and venality of the synagogue authorities. As a consequence, just as Socrates accepted his trial and condemnation to death by drinking hemlock without resentment or the desire to escape, Jesus voluntarily drank the “cup” of his crucifixion. Both Socrates and Jesus stood silent before their accusers, refusing to defend themselves, and died for a cause greater than themselves.

Socrates’ Religion

Socrates was no atheist. Plato and Xenophon have him speaking frequently of the various gods he honored, including the god Asclepius, to whom he wished to pay tribute as he lay dying in his prison cell. According to Xenophon, Socrates was a polytheist, “Though on one occasion he speaks of one God that constructs and preserves the world.” This would be in stark contrast to Hesiod’s account of the gods and the eternity of the world, which became the “bible” so to speak for Greeks everywhere. Socrates, who had no way of knowing Judaeo-Christian theology, still believed in a teleological creation account, similar to the one given in Genesis, by which we learn that God designed everything just-so to work in harmony with all other things. Likewise, Socrates saw the gods as omniscient; they know everything, past present and future. They even know our thoughts so well that if we truly believed them to be omniscient, we would refrain from all base thoughts and deeds.

Socrates believed that human souls were given by the gods to men to separate them from all other creatures “so that they only know there are gods, and can worship them.” All the gifts the gods give us, such as water, fire, the seasons, etc. show us that the gods care for us. The gods even endow us with a natural understanding of right and wrong, so that we know instinctively that we ought to be grateful to them, that we ought to obey our conscience, that we should not have sexual relations with our children, etc. “When Aristodemus, with whom Socrates was discoursing on this subject, said that he did not deny there were gods, but he thought they were too great to stand in need of his worship, Socrates replied that the greater they were, the more they were to be honored.”

Greek versus Jew

From these remarks of Socrates it is easy to see how the Jews in the Old Testament era, centuries before Socrates lived, seem to have been developing a similar though not identical theology. The essential difference would be in (1) the worship of a single God, (2) a history of miracles that were performed for the sake of God’s chosen people, and (3) vital revelations given to the prophets that circumvented any need to labor intellectually at creating a theology from whole cloth. With polytheism the Greeks never knew for a certainty which gods were with them and which were against them since the gods often sided with different parties. But with Moses, and especially with Jesus, it was believed that God was on the side of humanity and Satan on the opposite side.

Jesus versus Socrates

Regarding Socrates’ own character, there is no doubt that he was considered praiseworthy by all. His disciple Xenophon called him religious, just, generous, temperate, grateful, prudent and generally virtuous. Even his enemies, who were dead set on destroying him, acknowledged him to have the reputation of the wisest man in Athens. There is some question as to his vanity in this regard, yet he was also reported by Plato to have said that he was most wise in knowing what he did not know, which is a profound kind of humility. On the other hand, we never hear of Jesus talking about his own virtues, but rather showing his virtues by his actions. With Jesus there is never a question of debate in which one person shows himself to be smarter than all the others, as Socrates inevitably did in Plato’s dialogues. Jesus rather speaks as the one who knows truth, not as one who is trying with all his might, by way of a labyrinth of logic-chopping, to get the truth out of others. Whereas Socrates claimed to have been under the influence of a guiding spirit, Jesus claimed to have been the Spirit who was guiding everything, even before the Creation.

Was the philosophy of Socrates somewhat limited? Yes, says Priestley. Socrates had no use for the natural sciences, astronomy in particular, and viewed them as wasted efforts when the true object of our search should be how to live the moral life. But even here Priestley finds Socrates oddly reluctant and unwilling to take the strongest stand possible in regard to human vices, such as sodomy and prostitution, which he tended in his conversations with young people to mildly ridicule rather than to condemn. Compare this to the powerful outrage of Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple and driving out the money-changers. Socrates would have been unable to be so bold, since he had already committed himself so often to the view that morality consists mainly in obeying the laws of the country, even the unjust law that condemned Socrates to his death. Yet Jesus too, in the end, submitted to an unjust law that condemned him to death.

Certainly one of the principal differences between Socrates and Jesus would have been whether one believed in a future state after death and the other did not. The view of Jesus is in stark contrast since he makes repeated references to heaven and hell. With Socrates we cannot be so certain. In Xenophon’s biography of Socrates we cannot find Socrates discoursing on a future life, and this omission of so important a topic suggests Socrates either did not believe in a future state or Xenophon simply did not know of Socrates’ views on the subject. With Plato we get an opposite view, yet Plato was known to have invented many views uttered by Socrates. Even in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, where Socrates expounded brilliantly on a future state, a question arises: how did Plato know of Socrates’ views. According to Plato’s own admission, he was not one of the witnesses present to hear Socrates’ comments, at the time being himself confined at home by an illness. In any event, Plato gives Socrates an account of a reason to hope at the hour of death. But this hope is only for the elite of philosophers who, having “philosophized in the right manner,” have earned the right to live with the gods; all others, Priestley infers from Socrates’s remarks, “the great mass of mankind, have no more interest in a future state than brute animals.” Contrast this with the promise of Jesus to the good thief on the cross next to him, who was hardly one of the elite philosophers favored by Socrates: “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

The Problem of Evil

At the end of Section VI of his book, Priestley introduces a topic seemingly unconnected with his theme; namely, the problem of evil, which Socrates seems never to have addressed:

If we be asked why the wise and benevolent author of nature permitted the rise and long continuance of the most abominable systems of polytheism and idolatry to prevail so long in the world, or why he should suffer so much vice and misery to exist in it at present; why mankind should be afflicted with war, pestilence, and famine, and be subjected to such distressful accidents as lightning, hurricanes, and earthquakes, we can only say with Abraham of old that the maker and judge of the earth will do what is right; and therefore that all these evils, repugnant as they may seem to our ideas of benevolence, may hereafter appear to have been the best methods of promoting general and lasting happiness…. If the present state be considered as nothing more than the infancy of our being, we may naturally expect to be no more able to account for our treatment in it than a child is able to account for that of its parent, who, though ever so affectionate, must, if he be wise, continually do what the child cannot see any reason for, and what he must think to be very often exceedingly harsh and unreasonable.”

Making Friends and Enemies

In Section Seven Priestley begins his analysis of the character and teachings of Socrates compared with those of Jesus. Establishing first that both Jesus and Socrates were fond of their friends, family and disciples (Socrates had his favorite follower in Plato and Jesus his favorite in John) Priestley goes on to show that Jesus was judgmental toward those convicted of pride, hypocrisy, and injustice, against whom he “pronounced the most vehement and provoking invective, whereas Socrates adopted the gentler method of irony and ridicule.” The reason for that difference Priestley does not discuss, though it is evident that the authority Jesus exerts is far more existentially fundamental and important than any authority Socrates could ever exert. Jesus certainly, by his method of judging wrongdoers, made as many enemies as Socrates made, but the enemies he made, Priestley asserts, “was done in a manner that showed more courage.”

Teaching Methods

As to their methods of persuasion, Priestley is right to point out the excellent discursive dialogues of Socrates, whereby he posed questions and drew from his listeners a logical train of thoughts that made them think they had discovered the truth on their own and therefore would have no objection to the conclusions Socrates was drawing out of them. Jesus, however, used an entirely different method, one far more practical and memorable through the use of striking parables that the listener could easily understand and remember; for examples, the story of the Prodigal Son or the rich man and Lazarus. Then there were the more obscure passages of scripture where he says things that would be remembered, even if not understood at once by his disciples; such as “If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto me,” a reference later to be interpreted as his “crucifixion, his resurrection, and the universal spread of his gospel.”

For Priestley it was remarkable that Jesus did not enjoy the advantage of living in the cultural capital of the world, such as Socrates did in Athens, and yet it was the genius of Jesus that his words have had far greater and more lasting power of persuasion than any that had been said before him. No matter how much we admire the authority of Socrates as a logician, that is exactly where his authority ends. He can offer us no more than logic-chopping exercises that might gratify, but never really fulfill our deepest needs and wants. Compare the promised satisfaction of an air-tight syllogism with the promises of Jesus and the power that he claims to have for fulfilling them. “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. This is the will of him that sent me, that everyone who sees the son, and believes on him, shall have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 11:25)

As Priestley puts it, “… the great inferiority of all heathens with respect to knowledge, especially concerning God, providence, and a future state, made it absolutely impossible that the moral discourses of Socrates should have the clearness, the weight, and the importance of those of Jesus.”

Next Priestley quotes the unbeliever Jean Jacques Rousseau for the truest way to describe by contrast the deaths of Socrates and Jesus. “The death of Socrates, who breathed his last in philosophical conversation with his friends, is the mildest death that nature could desire; while the death of Jesus, expiring in torment, injured, inhumanely treated, mocked and cursed by an assembly of people, is the most horrible one that a mortal could apprehend. Socrates while he takes the poisoned cup gives his blessing to the person who presents it to him with the tenderest remarks of sorrow; Jesus in the midst of his agonies prays – for whom? For his executioners.”

To Whom They Spoke

Priestley then considers the audiences of Socrates and Jesus. Socrates was acquainted mainly with the well-born of Athens who came to him to learn the art of discoursing on many subjects. He ran a sort of occasional debating club in which it was considered rather fashionable to be a member by the younger men of Athens in its Golden Age. No one would have entered Socrates’ circle who did not have the proper intellectual credentials, or would have remained in it very long without them. On the other hand, Jesus did not discriminate. He attracted everyone; the rich and the poor alike gathered around him and were awed by teachings that did not require a deep thinker to understand. As Priestley notes, “The object of instruction of Socrates was the few, but that of Jesus of the many, and especially those of the middle and lower classes, as standing most in need of instruction, and most likely to receive it with gratitude and without prejudice.”

\Near the end of his treatise on Socrates and Jesus, Priestley discourses on a point rarely noticed when comparing the two. Neither Socrates nor Jesus wrote down their teachings. Yet their thoughts have survived thousands of years because there were faithful recorders of what they said and to whom they said it. It is in the works of Xenophon and Plato that we find Socrates constantly praised by his students for the smartness of his logic, so often in fact that any dedicated reader of the dialogues might get tired of the chronic flattery. With Jesus it is just the opposite. There are none who seek to flatter Jesus. There is no need to flatter the one who tells the truth and tells it with such powerful conviction. The evangelists simply report what Jesus said, and they let the listeners feel praise for the speaker overflowing their minds and hearts. Yet, as Priestley reminds us, “… a reader of moderate discernment cannot help forming a much higher idea of Jesus than he does of Socrates from the facts recorded of him, and the discourses ascribed to him.” Whereas we might need a teacher to comment on or clarify or explain at length a point Socrates is trying to make, we never hear, or feel that we need to hear, the voice of any theologian intervening to explain or clarify what Jesus has said.


Clearly, the comparison of Jesus and Socrates is not a fair one to make if one were comparing the relative merits of two men with equal footing in the world. Socrates was purely and simply a man, an extraordinary man, but a man with no claim to divinity or a majestic mission to save the world from itself. That alone, the connection of Jesus the Son with God the Father, and the assertion of his authority not merely over his followers but eventually over the whole world, puts Jesus infinitely far out of reach in comparison with Socrates. But we also admire Jesus more than Socrates, as Jacques Maritain said, because we must always admire he who emphasizes love more than he who emphasizes logic. It is perhaps the great tragedy of the modern world that it is constantly nagging us as to how we should think well rather than telling us how well we should love. And even those things the modern world tells us to think we come too often to regard as more and more unthinkable, confused, improbable, and contrary to common sense. Rationalism by itself is a precious vessel for truth; but it is an empty vessel, or even a poisoned vessel, if it is not dipped in and filled up at the Mystic River of Love.