Like so many things in my life, this was a big project I started probably 10 years ago, in college (my Google Drive is now filled with a bunch of stuff from 10 years ago). In this essay or book, I wanted to treat Jesus as a philosopher. What is his philosophy? How does he relate to other philosophers? Obviously I barely scratch the surface, and only discuss Socrates, Aristotle, and Kant, but feel free to laugh at my obtuse philosophical language:
Philosophy of Jesus
Commands of Jesus
When thinking about Jesus’ moral philosophy, we tend not to think of it as containing rules or commands; but, in fact, it does have them. The commands, or laws, or imperatives, of Jesus’ philosophy seem not to be “rules” at all. This is simply because rules seem to have negative, or restricting, overtones. Commands, in the word’s typical sense, tell us what not to do. Many times Jesus is not worried about telling us what not to do, but what to do. In any case, they can still be formulated as commands, as I will show. Instead of taking the form do not do X, they take the form do X. The two forms have a curious relationship, where the latter form, do X, usually implies and contains the former form, do not do X. So in most cases, the second type of command is simply an expansion of the first. For example, when we say give unto others, the command do not steal is implied, or contained, in it.
We can break Jesus’ moral philosophy into three, general commands, all of which need grounding and explanation.
Command #1: Seek with every single human faculty, and up to the potential of every faculty.
Command #2: Love God absolutely and above all things.
Command #3: Love humanity in proportion to how much one loves oneself.
The first law presupposes a theory of human nature. By the phrase “every single human faculty,” we can already see that it suggests a division of the self. How does Jesus divide human nature? We will turn to several passages for clues:
Jesus and Other Philosophers
In many ways Jesus expands on, and responds to, the ancient Greek philosophers. Whether Jesus was aware of this is irrelevant. He may or may not have studied Plato and Aristotle, but either way his philosophy does have intimate connections.
Jesus and Socrates
Divine destinies. Jesus the Savior. Socrates to find the meaning of wisdom, and the three days after prophesy (or dream before his death).
Rejection of society’s expectations. The idea of the Messiah is an ancient one, going back long before the time of Jesus. We find the expectation of a Messiah in Old Testament writing. Most Jews were expecting a political savior, one that would rightfully restore the Jewish people in their place of political power, and usher in a time of peace. Christians, in recognizing Jesus as the messiah, would revolutionize the conception of the purpose of the Savior.
The trial of Jesus and Socrates. They were both convicted of the same charges. Jesus: stirring up a revolt against the state; heresy, or claiming to be the Messiah, a form of worshipping novel gods. Socrates charges: corrupting the youth of Athens, worshipping false gods, and not worshipping the gods of the state. They were both religious in nature.
Calling out hypocrites. Jesus calling out the religious elect, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes. And Socrates showing the ignorance of people who claimed to be knowledgeable (using the Elenchus).
Focus on morality. All of Jesus’ knowledge was related to moral action. In this respect, it was not only true, but practical—a way to live. Socrates admits that he is only interest in moral issues. What is justice? holiness? piety? love? These are the subjects of Plato’s dialogues.
The relations between Jesus and Socrates are numerous. Many aspects of their life story match up. They both had, or, were supposed to have, political aspirations. Although friends, disciples, and society wanted them to be politically active, they both rejected the political life; Socrates because it was corrupt, Jesus because it was superficial, and wasn’t his destiny (and probably because it was corrupt too). So instead, they both lived a life of moral perfection; a life on the road, a life of wandering throughout the city and countryside.
Socrates claimed to know nothing. He claimed that wisdom was only for “the god.” A very modest claim, but many scholars think he was being too modest. He does, after all, claim to know some things (i.e. that one should respect their superiors). But as a general rule for Socrates, wisdom is not a human quality. Finding the truth of this statement was his destiny, which started with the prophesy from the Oracle of Delphi. The prophesy—that Socrates is the wisest man—puzzled him, because he was aware that he had no wisdom. Thus, part of wisdom is realizing our own ignorance. Socrates revealed ignorance in every single interlocutor he spoke with. Many scholars shun Socrates because they think ridiculing was all he did, and that he did nothing good for society. But I would disagree. Socrates taught people to self-reflect, self-examine, to look inside oneself for answers. Socrates thought that if one could not explain why they were doing a certain thing, then they had no justification for doing it. And these were not trivial matters—they were moral matters.
Jesus, in relation to his conceptions of truth and wisdom, is striking similar to Socrates. He too also claimed to know nothing. Everything Jesus claimed to know did not come from himself, but from “the Father who sent me.” When asked to justify himself, Jesus replied: “Wisdom is justified by her children,” or “the tree is known be its fruit.” So any knowledge that Jesus had came from God. This makes us wonder about Socrates: if he claimed that all wisdom resided in the god, did he not think that wisdom could be passed through humans, from god? Scholars would debate. I believe that Socrates knew many moral truths; it seems absurd that such a respectable and just man of history would know nothing.
Jesus and Aristotle
For Aristotle, the “good for man”, or summum bonem, or goal of life, or aim of all action, is happiness. Happiness is composed of two elements. The first element is rationality, which comes by using our rational capacity, our ability to think, deliberate, and philosophize, to the fullest. This amounts to an intellectual and moral life, a constant life of deliberation and contemplation in regards to morality and virtue. He describes it as an “activity of the soul;” and not merely an active soul, but one “exhibiting excellence…” It basically amounts to thinking (and then acting) well. The second element of attaining happiness is through sheer fate, chance, dumb luck, coincidence. This includes any thing that happens to us, the things we have no control over. This includes our genetic make up, our parents, our environment, schooling, race, gender, tragedies, etc. According to Aristotle, a child that happens to have bad parents is, for the most part, doomed to a life of unhappiness. Nature simply dealt him a horrible fate, and there is little he can do about it.
We see, then, that Aristotle’s idea of happiness includes an element that we are in control of, and involves our free choice, namely Rationality; and an element that we are in no control of, and have no choice in the matter, namely fate. At first glance this doesn’t threaten us as a problem, until we learn that both of these elements are necessary conditions for happiness. Happiness requires both elements, not only one. In other words, a rational person, exhibiting an excellent soul, can only be happy if he also has a decent and bearable fate. And alternately, a man with the best fate in the world isn’t necessarily happy. When we insert this ethical theory into Greek religion and society, it can read like this: A man’s happiness depends on the will of the gods. This leads to many disturbing conclusions: Am I to blame for my unhappiness? Are the gods to blame? What is the reason for my horrible fate? Do I have any choice in the matter? Why should I be rational, if it can all be taken away with a series of tragedies? These are sad and helpless conclusions, followed by an indifference towards life, a cold and selfish attitude, and a reason to stop trying, leaving men powerless to the forces of fate. Certainly this is an undesirable aspect of Aristotle’s ethics. They all lead us back to Aristotle’s problematic second element of the Good for man; I will call it the problem of fate.
Jesus solves the problem of fate theologically. This is best expressed in his Sermon on the Mount:
“…Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…”
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh…”
For Jesus, the people who have been given a bad fate are the most susceptible for the summum bonum. The child with bad parents need not fret, because God is his true Father. The man born blind is not at a loss, for “the work of God may be displayed in his life.” Tragedy takes away our earthy attachments, which in turn brings us the God, which is the good for man.
Jesus and Immanuel Kant
I would not be exaggerating to say that, in many respects, the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant is simply the moral philosophy of Jesus, only clothed in philosophical language.
The idea that morality consists of universally true principles, or laws, is shared by Jesus and Kant. These principles are a priori, not based on experience or circumstances. For Jesus, “you ought to love all people” was such a principle—it is true in all situations, and therefore we should follow it in all situations. We should not modify this principle with experience and situation because that would dilute it, even though many times we often do this. Many times we think it is morally right to love our friends, and hate our enemies. But this is a violation of the first principle, “you ought to love all people.” This is why “love your enemies” is simply another formulation of the first principle.
Free Will and Determinism
It is unclear whether Jesus believe in a completely free will, or determinism. In fact, it seems like he believed in both; there are sayings that support both views.
“But if you are oppressed by Satan and are persecuted and you do the Father’s will, I say that he will love you and will make you equal with me and will consider that you have become beloved through his providence according to your free choice.”
This saying is the most obvious proof that Jesus recognized the existence of human free will.