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In the Apology and in Clouds, we are shown two very different depictions of Socrates’ beliefs on the gods of Athens. In the Apology, we see a version of Socrates that is fairly unconcerned with the discussion of the gods, and more interested in the discussion of the public good. In contrast, the Clouds shows us a picture of Socrates, ready to argue and debate the presence and nature of the gods. Demonstrating his outlook on life at vastly different life periods, we are able to compare Socrates’ beliefs in the two works to develop a better understanding of the philosopher. While his beliefs do seem to change and grow with time, it seems to me that Socrates is consistently portrayed Plato as an agnostic, having been convinced out of every possible belief system by his own logic and uncertainty.
To begin, it is helpful to note the difference in Socrates’ approach to argumentation in the two Platonic works. In many ways, Clouds seems to represent the journey of Socrates that ends in the Apology. The works together lay out the story of Socrates’ life. Throughout Clouds, we see Socrates actively investigating and exploring the natural and supernatural phenomenon occurring in the world around him. Then, in the Apology, we see Socrates brought to trial for that investigative nature, as he says himself, “Socrates does injustice and is meddlesome, by investigating things under the earth and the heavenly things” (Plato 66). Looking at the two works in context of each other, we are able to more accurately interpret the nature of Socrates’ view on the gods, and his changing approach to the topic.
On the one hand, a belief in the atheism of Socrates seems to make sense on a surface level. Particularly in Aristophanes’ the Clouds, most deity-style references to the clouds seem like they very well could be simple references to different elements in nature. While the clouds are analogically referred to as gods, the Clouds explains natural elements of the weather in terms of their scientific purposing. Strepsaides asks scientific questions, like “What is the the thunderbolt?” (Aristophanes 132), and Socrates answers with equally scientific answers. “Whenever a dry wind is raised aloft and gets shut up into these clouds, it puffs them up inside like a bladder; then by necessity it bursts them…” (Aristophanes 132-133). Or, in another case, Strepsaides asks, “Who makes rain?” and is rhetorically answered with, “Have you ever seen rain without clouds?” All throughout the text, Socrates uses a scientific approach to address questions. If we look at Socrates in light of this scientific approach, atheism seems a logical outcome. In a today’s world, scientific answers to previously deity-related questions often lead those individual to reconsider their belief in gods. With Socrates’ bold claims about the nonexistence of Zeus, and general skeptical view of the Greek gods, it seems easy to arrive at that conclusion. Thus, in the Clouds, atheism seems like a logical conclusion.
On the other hand, the Apology shows a Socrates is relatively indecisive when addressing the question of deities. Understandably, as any incorrect claims on the nature of gods could mean a significantly swifter death for him. When claims are brought against him, Socrates seems to slightly change the subject in order to avoid directly addressing his beliefs on the gods. In one instance, he wraps himself up in a tangent on knowledge and his own lack thereof (Plato 70). In another instance, he pushes Meletus into a question and answer time on the subject of what it means to “corrupt the youth” (Plato 74). Nowhere in the Apology does he directly address his own personal belief or lack of belief in a god, explaining which god or gods he may believe. Combining the ambiguity of the Apology with the argumentation of the Clouds, it seems feasible that Socrates could be an atheist.
However, I find a much stronger argument for Socrates being an agnostic, uncertain of his beliefs on the gods, but certainly not denying their existence. In the discussion of the gods in Apology and Clouds, Socrates consistently holds to a view that is not inclined towards the gods of Athens. In one of his arguments for the cloud-like gods of Clouds, Socrates notes that these god figures “become all things that they wish” (Aristophanes 130). While disguised in analogy, the Socrates is hinting at the idea that the gods, if they exist, cannot be easily pinned down to one position. In another context, we find Socrates directly stating “Zeus doesn’t not even exist” (Aristophanes 131). Instead of holding to a belief in the Athenian gods, he seems to have his own abstract position on the subject. While he frequently jabs at the gods of Athens, he does not provide a concrete alternative belief. We find him stating that “no greater good has arisen for you in the city than my service to the god” (Plato 81). In another context, Plato argues that “I teach them to believe that there are gods of some sort—and so I myself do believe that there are gods and am not completely atheistic and do not do injustice in this way” (Plato 76) Frequently, Socrates refers to these vague notions of unknown gods, leading us to conclude that his belief in the gods of Athens is highly unlikely.
In light of this perspective, it is understandable to believe that Socrates was not a firm believer in the gods of Athens. However, he is equally repulsed by the concept of atheism. This is particularly obvious in the Apology where Socrates discusses knowledge. He states “…probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but…I am likely to be a little bit wiser than he in this very thing: that whatever I do not know, I do not even suppose I know” (Plato 70). Socrates firmly believes his greatest wisdom is knowing that he knows nothing. If Socrates held such an assumption, he could not consider himself an atheist in any sense of the word. In order to embrace atheism, one must embrace, or pretend to embrace knowledge of all things, so as to rule out any possibility of gods existing outside of our knowledge. Socrates, believing he knew nothing, would certainly be reluctant to embrace a belief pattern along these lines. He would argue that he knew far too little to make an educated decision to be an atheist.
Having ruled out deism and atheism, Socrates is left with the rational decision to remain agnostic. With his firm belief that he knew nothing, an agnostic view seems highly probable. Rather than actively defend the existence or non-existence of gods, Socrates instead appears to dodge around laying out a firm belief on the topic. Particularly in the Apology, as Socrates is accused of corrupting the youth with atheism or beliefs in other gods, he consistently dodges the question, almost uncertain of his stance (Plato 77-78). Certainly, much of that uncertainty of stance traces back to his realization that he knows nothing (Plato 70).
Having established Socrates’ relative agnosticism on the subject of religion, other elements of Socrates’ belief on religion come to light. In wrestling with the possibility of other deities, Socrates makes an interesting turn towards natural science to explain the existence of gods. In the Clouds, Socrates addresses this issue prominently. Directly after declaring the non-existence of Zeus, Socrates goes on to discuss the possibility of an ethereal vortex serving as the force behind the weather and other natural elements (Aristophanes 131). In contrast with a culture that emphasized the Athenian gods controlling the weather, Socrates has a new-fangled idea that weather changes could be inspired and driven by nature forces. He discusses this by pointing out the rain only comes when clouds are overhead (Aristophanes 131). Socrates punches his argument even further by observing that lightning is equally natural in its origin (Aristophanes 132).
Interestingly, this interest in natural science continues even towards the end of Socrates’ life in the Apology. We find him rhetorically asking Meletus “Do I not even believe, then, that the sun and moon are gods, as other humans do?” (Plato 76). Meletus contradicts this by pointing out that Socrates believes the sun to be stone and the moon to be earth (Plato 76). Even so, the argument seems to stand. Socrates does not appear to find contradiction between the sun being stone and the sun being a deity. Even so, the concept of nature being the gods does not seem to fully persuade Socrates.
On a similar vein, the Apology shows us a Socrates who is investigating a new form of deity in his belief system—diamonia (Plato 73). Purposefully left uninterpreted from its original language, the word’s definition is relatively ambiguous, possibly referring to “divinities” (Plato 73). Despite their vagueness, they are central to the argumentation and dialogue of the the Apology. Rather than believe in the gods of Athens, Socrates seems moderately convinced that there could be other divinities, which he shares with his students. This exploration in religion is one of the many reasons that Socrates is forced to come to trial (Plato 76). Even with such an accusation before him, Socrates still remains uncertain of his belief in these diamonia. Rather than directly make claims concerning the deities, he states “if I believe in diamonia…” and “you say that I believe and teach diamonia…”, but he refuses to give a firm stance on these mysterious deities (Plato 77).
At some level, Socrates’ uncertainty about deism and atheism seems tied to his skepticism of the justice of religion. In the Apology, this is most evidence as he questions whether religious discussion can lead to justice. “Socrates does injustice by not believing in gods, but believing in gods,” Socrates quotes from his accusers (Plato 77). “And yet this is the conduct of one who jokes,” Socrates adds in his own commentary on the subject (Plato 77). In Socrates’ mind, religion appears to have corrupted and confused his accusers’ definitions of justice. Because of the confusion that religion puts on justice, Socrates is largely uninterested in establishing his own religious view, displaying this view in the Apology, adamantly stating, “What gods indeed will you swear by! For first of all, we don’t credit gods” (Aristophanes 125).
Even so, as Socrates seems largely unconvinced by many arguments for the presence and activity of gods in the world, he still seems to slowly lose interest in arguing against those arguments. In the Clouds, we see a version of Socrates that is interested in picking a fight and deeply discussing the nature of the gods’ activities in the world around them (Plato 13). He is relatively quick to make blanket statements, like the non-existence of Zeus (Plato 131), and is generally willing to insert his opinion on any given subject. The Socrates of the Apology, however, almost seems like an entirely different person on that front. “In making my defense speech,” he says, “I would simply be accusing myself of not believing in gods” (Plato 89). The Socrates of the Clouds would have been quick to fire out additional responses in order to attack his accusers’ argumentation. Instead, the Socrates of the Apology gives up the argumentation as futile, perhaps a sign of his growing wisdom.
At a broader level, Socrates does not even seem interested in arguing based on some forceful thesis. While Socrates seems to frequently have made bold arguments in the Clouds, the Apology shows Socrates using a more questioning style of conversation. Clearly evidenced in his discussion with Meletus, Socrates artfully makes an entire argument out of questions during his time with his accusers (Plato 73-74). By the Apology, Socrates has mastered his understanding of his own Socratic method and uses it with incredible effectiveness.
To draw our religious discussion to a close, it is notable that regardless of Socrates’ growth and change in style, Socrates still seems to be largely undecided in his views on the existence of gods. While a reasonable argument could be made for the atheistic nature of Socrates life and teachings, a far more plausible argument can be made for an agnostic Socrates, who is entirely unsure of the existence of God. He has explored many different viewpoints and possibilities concerning the nature of gods and god-like forces in the world, but remains uncertain and presents no final conclusions in these particular works. Instead, we are left with a brilliant philosopher who is attempting to navigate the difficult topic of his city’s religious beliefs, eventually coming to the conclusion that he cannot be certain of anything with certainty.
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