Socrates and Jesus are arguably the two most exemplary people in all of history. At the very least, they stand out as icons of the Western cultural experience – the one of uncompromising criticism, the other of comprehensive concern. To be compared to either, however flattering, has been often dangerous and almost always embarrassing. No one can ever quite match the standards set by Socrates and Jesus.
Today, what is most remarkable about their exalted status is not that they lived over two thousand years ago. Nor is it their studied avoidance of secular power and spiritual authority. Nor, for that matter, is it their untimely deaths in societies that, in many respects, could not see them disappear too quickly. Rather, Socrates and Jesus are remarkable in being very much creatures of our own times.
Both were ‘celebrities’ in the strict sense: they were known more for their style of being in the world than for any widely agreed achievements. Indeed, the only agreement that seems to have been reached about Socrates and Jesus is that they were bona fide historical figures, and even then there may be room for doubt. Our understanding of both men is purely the product of spin, and then counter-spin. Since neither Socrates nor Jesus committed their own stories to paper, we are forced to rely on the later writings of their intellectual handlers, most notably Plato and St Paul, who clearly had ideas of their own.
So who were Socrates and Jesus? Socrates lived eight hundred miles apart from, four centuries earlier than and twice as long as Jesus. At his death in a prison cell in Athens in 399 BC, Socrates was seventy years old. At his death on a cross on a hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem in 30 AD, Jesus was thirty-three years old. One hailed from a city-state that had just been humiliated in battle and the other from a tense but relatively calm colonial outpost, yet the two figures had much in common. Both came from modest but respectable backgrounds: Socrates’ father was a stonemason, Jesus’ a carpenter.
Both showed early promise that was socially recognised: Socrates was a courageous soldier and Jesus an adept student of the Hebrew Scriptures. Moreover, both attracted attention simply for the way they ordinarily moved around the world. Mundane activities, especially conversations, became luminous whenever they were involved. In the end, they both died for the sake of a principle, though even at the time, the exact nature of the principle appeared ambiguous and perhaps even idiosyncratic – and quite possibly self-indulgent.
Neither Socrates nor Jesus qualifies as a ‘hero’ in the strict sense: not only did they fail to escape death, but their deaths did not improve the fate of the people on whose behalf they might have plausibly offered themselves in sacrifice. On the contrary, Athens only continued to diminish in international significance, and Jerusalem was soon embroiled in a series of debilitating wars with its Roman rulers.
Regarded ten years after their deaths, ‘busted flush’ is the phrase that most accurately described the lives of Socrates and Jesus. It follows that they must have benefited from considerable feats of public relations in order to obtain the reputations they enjoy today. It is easy to take for granted the latest incarnations of their public relations machinery: endlessly probing philosophy classes and gestures to such classes, in the case of Socrates; and the ceaseless sense of soul-searching and spiritual renewal pursued by Christian churches and missions.
Here it is worth recalling the Latin root of ‘celebrity’ in celeber, ‘frequented’, a concept that says nothing about what is intrinsic to the person in question but simply how often and how many are exposed to the figure. It is telling that the very word ‘celebrity’ is grammatically constructed as an abstract quality – like hospitality, charity, etc. – rather than as an individual. The frequency with which images of Socrates and Jesus have been reproduced, in many different ways and settings, is an important key to the longevity of their reputations. Indeed, Christianity routinely bears witness to this sense of celebrity in its holiest sacrament, the Eucharist, in which the faithful gather in communion to ‘celebrate’ Jesus’ presence in their midst.
In this respect, both Socrates and Jesus have been greatly assisted by very diligent image capturers and promoters. The two who stand out, Plato and St Paul, have been most responsible for branding them as universally recognised icons. A big part of their success is traceable to each having enjoyed the requisite psychological distance from his chosen figure, at least insofar as neither had any memorable personal contact with him. Plato was one of the more junior members of Socrates’ coterie in its final days, while St Paul converted to Christianity only after Jesus had died. This relative detachment enabled them to present a strategically abstract image of their chosen figure, inviting the reader to participate in its completion and thereby confer meaning on his or her own life. Put another way, neither Plato nor St Paul was overburdened by messy memories of a less-than-magnanimous Socrates or Jesus that may have compromised their ability to portray him in the most sympathetic light.
To be sure, the branding took rather different forms. On the one hand, Plato’s Dialogues largely appear as dramatic scripts in which Socrates appears as the protagonist but with little sense of the context of delivery and reception, let alone Plato’s own attitude towards what he has written. On the other hand, St Paul’s Epistles tend to report his own improvisation of Jesus’ message using exhortation and argument tailored to the occasion but where the script underlying the performance is rarely made explicit.
My heavy emphasis on the public relations side of Socrates and Jesus is meant not to diminish their significance, but to highlight the role that celebrity and spin have always played in providing meaning to our lives. However, in highlighting that role, I do not intend to diminish us – the public – either. On the contrary, we need figures like Socrates and Jesus (and much lesser ones perhaps) to plot our own individual life trajectories.
Of course, we don’t need them to gather the data points, the particular events that, taken together, only a single person experiences. Figures like Socrates and Jesus are needed to give those events a depth and direction, insofar as we take them to have lived through experiences sufficiently similar to our own, especially ones that initially appear negative but subsequently turn out to have produced much good. Indeed, without exemplars for leading a meaningful life, it is not at all obvious how people might be expected to organize their own experiences in a way that would lead them to conclude that being born was more a blessing than a curse.