Why are Catholics Studying Socrates and Plato?

It’s common in modern circles to find Catholics talking and writing a great deal about Plato’s dialogues and the “Socratic Method”. The people doing are usually also promoting the “Great Books”–which is always a red flag.

For some reason, modern Christian teachers and parents, try to promote “reading” as some kind of intrinsic good. The “love of reading” is seen as some kind of intellectual achievement, but this is like celebrating that a child “loves listening to others talk” or “loves watching videos”. The content of the media being consumed is, apparently, not as important as the fact of reading.

At the same time, however, parents do make a fuss about content. The Christian community identifies books and authors that they judge to be “immoral” and they zealously avoid them. However, they embrace many other sources that are equally false, books which were condemned and banned by the Catholic Church, for example. It seems that any error which the public can’t discern is safe, and anything that wise men in the Church have warned of is no big deal.

In modern “Great Books” courses, Catholic children are immersed in literature that is filled with false teaching that the teachers themselves hold or do not understand. This is why it’s not surprising to find Catholics praising the “Great Books” commonly wrapped up in schismatic movements in the Church, speaking critically of the Pope and bishops, following in the errors of false teachers of the past, etc.

The “Socratic Method”

It is common, for example, to see Catholic schools and colleges, as well as homeschool publishers and parents talking about the “Socratic Method”. It is said that teaching should not consist of formal lectures, but should be interactive. The teacher should not be telling the students what to know or believe, but should be asking them questions and leading them to discover the truth for themselves. This, they say, is how the famous Socrates taught his students in ancient Greece.

Well, the first problem with this idea is that Socrates never taught students in ancient Greece. He wasn’t a teacher and had no school. Socrates was a philosopher–and a bad one at that.

That is not my opinion about Socrates, that is Socrates’ own testimony. Socrates knew he wasn’t a good philosopher. Socrates knew he didn’t know the truth. In fact, Socrates made it clear that he didn’t know anything. This humble self-awareness was Socrates’ only merit and, again, he said this himself.

This self-deprecating message was not some insincere act he performed to entertain people. He was serious. He knew that men in his generation were ignorant of the truth and filled with false ideas. He had a sense of what kind of knowledge was possible through philosophy, but that he did not know how to conduct that philosophical investigation. No one did.

Socrates did not teach philosophy. Socrates simply proved to men that their assumption that they knew the truth was false. The only advantage he had over them was that he knew he didn’t know true philosophy, whereas others thought they did. He told men that he didn’t know the truth.

Yet, Catholics today walk around talking about Socrates and his “method”, as if it was some established system of education in the ancient world. There was never any such thing.

Worse, we have no knowledge of the actual teaching of Socrates. All that we know of Socrates is what Plato says of him in his dialogues. This “Socrates”, however, is not the real man, but a character in discussions that Plato invents himself. The Socrates of Plato is a fictional character, not the real Socrates. We know nothing of the actual discussions of the actual Socrates.

The Dialogues of Plato

In addition to speaking about the “Socratic Method” of teaching, the “Great Books” teachers and publishers also promote the reading of the dialogues of Plato. They like to quote popular sayings about Plato and hype him up as the wisest man in the ancient world. After all, Plato was “Aristotle’s teacher”. This praise, however, is misleading and false.

Plato was, in fact, a false teacher and is the source of many heresies in Christian Church history.

If you consider how commonly Catholic teachers and publishers speak of Socrates and Plato, you would expect that the Saints and Doctors of the Church did so as well. However, this is not the case. Socrates and Plato are not sources of Catholic ideas in philosophy, nor do the teachings of Plato harmonize with the content of divine revelation.

Here’s an experiment you can perform to see that what I say is true.

Open my online text of the Summa Theologica here. If you know how to search a web page, search for “Plato”. You will find around 150 results. If you take the time to read what is said where Plato is named in the Summa, you will find that his teaching is usually being proven false by St. Thomas. He is not quoted as an authority on philosophy, but as a source of error.

For example:

We do not assert that the Father and the Son differ in substance, which was the error of Origen and Arius, who in this followed the Platonists.

I, Q. 32, Art. 1

Again,

The belief that the firmament was made on the second day is incompatible with the opinion of Plato.

I, Q. 68, Art. 1

Again,

Plato’s opinion on God’s providence is to be rejected, because he held that God did not govern all things immediately.

I, Q. 103, Art. 6

Again,

Plato thought that to offer sacrifices not only to God but also to others, is due and good in itself, since they held that divine honor should be paid to every superior nature, as being nearer to God. But this is unreasonable.

II-II, Q. 94, Art. 2

We could go on, but this shows the point I am making, namely, that St. Thomas Aquinas does not see Plato as a source of true philosophy, but as a dangerous source of errors in Christian thinking. He is especially dangerous because many of his teachings have an appearance of truth, but are, in fact, false. St. Thomas explained that St. Augustine was raised on the teaching of Plato and had to work hard to untangle Christian truth from Platonic error. The great heretics were not able to do this. St. Thomas says,

Whenever Augustine, who was imbued with the doctrines of the Platonists, found in their teaching anything consistent with faith, he adopted it: and those thing which he found contrary to faith he amended.

I, Q. 84, Art. 5

So, when we consider the errors of Plato and the difficulty Christians have in separating what is true in Plato from what is false, why would we imbue our children with the same doctrines? This is unnecessary in the 21st century of Church history, but also irresponsible.

Aristotle: “The Philosopher”

We saw above that St. Thomas Aquinas referred to Plato, by name, approximately 150 times in the Summa, and that most of these references were made to correct something that was falsely taught by Plato.

On the other hand, St. Thomas Aquinas, writing in the 13th century of Church history, refers to Aristotle as “the Philosopher”. St. Thomas refers to “the Philosopher” in the Summa almost 1,800 times! More importantly, when he does so, he seeks to support Catholic teaching with the authority of Aristotle’s true philosophical teaching. Even more importantly, when responding to false objections to Catholic teaching, St. Thomas often begins with the words “On the contrary, the Philosopher says…”. He does this almost 150 times in the Summa!

On the contrary, The Philosopher says that “that is to be considered as the end and the good of other things, for the sake of which something is.” Therefore goodness has the aspect of a final cause.

I, Q. 5, Art. 4

Again,

On the contrary, The Philosopher says that the principle of knowledge is in the senses.

I, Q. 84, Art. 6

Clearly, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor of the Catholic Church, is an Aristotelean when it comes to Philosophy, and not a student of Socrates or Plato. It is Aristotle that Catholic students should be reading, and we will rarely, if ever, find Aristotle being promoted by the publishers of the “Great Books” courses or “classical education” programs that are misguided.

Conclusion

Many who lack any real experience in classical studies promote books whose errors they do not understand. Moreover, these same people often make up their own ideas about the past and publish them among other ignorant teachers, parents and students. This is all done for reckless money-making, and their teachings never come with any support from authoritative sources, nor do their hearers seek such (as prudent people should). Those who follow them consider them “good enough” to serve their worldly, materialistic interests in appearances of learning rather than real Wisdom.

The “Socratic Method” is not a method by which students are taught anything, and the suggestion that Socrates, who claimed to know nothing, was a teacher, could not be more ridiculous. The “method” of investigation actually used by the Catholic Church in matters of philosophy and theology is the “Scholastic Method”, which follows the method Aristotle both discovered and perfected a generation after Socrates and Plato. This true method is studied in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy’s Classical Reasoning courses.

As for Plato, ignorant men coming into philosophy from modern schools may find the teachings of Plato to be impressive. The fact that an author acknowledges that God exists is good enough for Christians accustomed to modern schools, where atheism and agnosticism have ruined everything. Nevertheless, just because we may be accustomed to the most disgusting food does not justify calling anything not disgusting “delicious”. Platonic philosophy is not true philosophy, but was developing until being corrected by Aristotle. We study all of Aristotle’s philosophical works in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy’s Classical Philosophy courses.

As we work to restore real classical Catholic education, it’s good to admit, as Socrates did, that we don’t know anything. We do not need to pretend that we are the wise men, but acknowledge that we are working to restore the educational system they developed and recent generations lost. The modern “scholars” don’t have the answers they pretend to, and much of what they promote in the name of philosophy and education is false. As Catholics, we need to return to the study of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catechisms, the Doctors of the Church, the Sacred Scriptures and not the falsely called “Great Books”. Through these true Catholic studies, we will learn to appreciate the works of Aristotle, who taught true philosophy and was confirmed in his teaching by divine revelation and Church authority.

The good news, is that we make this all available for you in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy.

God bless your studies,
Mr. William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy

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