Michael Buckley, the American Jesuit, once did a fascinating study of Jesus and Socrates, comparing them in terms of human excellence. The result? In many aspects, Jesus appears to be the weaker of the two men.
This, of course, must be properly understood. Weakness here does not refer to moral weakness, but to something else. What?
Here are Buckley’s words:
There is a classic comparison running through contemporary philosophy between Socrates and Jesus, a judgement between them in human excellence. Socrates went to his death with calmness and poise. He accepted the judgement of the court, discoursed on the alternatives suggested by death and the dialectical indications of immortality, found no cause for fear, drank the poison and died. Jesus – how much to the contrary. Jesus was almost hysterical with terror and fear, “with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death.” He looked repeatedly to his friends for comfort and prayed for an escape from death, and he found neither. Finally he established control over himself and moved into his death in silence and lonely isolation, even into the terrible interior suffering of the hidden divinity, the absence of God.
I once thought that this was because Socrates and Jesus suffered different deaths, the one so much more terrible than the other; the pain and agony of the cross so overshadowing the release of the hemlock. But now I think that this explanation, though correct as far as it runs, is superficial and secondary. Now I believe that Jesus was a more profoundly weak man than Socrates, more liable to physical pain and weariness, more sensitive to human rejection and contempt, more affected by love and hate. Socrates never wept over Athens. Socrates never expressed sorrow and pain over the betrayal of friends. He was possessed and integral, never overextended, convinced that the just person could never suffer genuine hurt. And for this reason, Socrates – one of the greatest and most heroic people who has ever existed, a paradigm of what humanity can achieve within the individual – was a philosopher. And for the same reason, Jesus of Nazareth was a priest – ambiguous, suffering, mysterious, and salvific.
In what way precisely was Jesus a weaker man than Socrates?
In his incapacity to protect himself against pain, in his vulnerability, and in the interior anguish and exterior humiliation that this congenital, moral trait inevitably produces. In contemporary language, Socrates was simply set together better as a human being than Jesus was, at least in terms of how we normally judge this.
In Socrates there was, certainly in the face of opposition and death, a poise, an ease, an interior peace, and an attractive calm that was absent in Jesus. Socrates was “cool” in a way that Jesus wasn’t. Socrates always looked attractive. Jesus didn’t. Jesus sweated blood (no glamour there), shed tears that he was unable to hide, and was stripped naked and humiliated in front of his loved ones. You don’t look attractive when that happens and you can’t hide the pain of that from others.
And yet, that’s exactly what we most want to do. In our world there’s a powerful, omnipresent pressure (put forth even in the name of religion, humanity, and maturity) to protect ourselves against pain and humiliation, to never, never be vulnerable enough so as to risk falling flat on our faces. At all cost, no matter what other kinds of pain we must endure, we don’t want to be caught needy, being the one who has to ask, the one who has to beg, the one who’s embarrassed, the one who doesn’t look good.
And so we try to arrange ourselves, our lives, and our relationships in such a way so as not to be too affected by things, so as avoid the tension of interior anguish, and so as to never risk not looking good. The attractive persona (“cool”) of Socrates more than the humble, all-too human, tears of Jesus is our ideal.
But, and this is the point, by protecting ourselves in this way we don’t ever become vulnerable enough to enter into an intimacy with others and the world that is salvific and priestly. We never save anyone, even though we look good. What’s meant by that?
To love is to care. But as soon as we begin to do that, we open yourself to weakness, sensitivity, and humiliation. Why?
Because to be sensitive is to know that it’s better to be sad than bitter, better to be hurting than hard, better to shed tears than be indifferent, better to taste death than never risk living, better to feel rejection than never to have loved, better to groan in interior anguish than to prematurely resolve tension, and better, for the sake of love, family, faith, and commitment, to sometimes look the fool, the needy one, the simpleton, than to always successfully hide what’s most true inside us so as to be the one who never has a hair, a feeling, or an opinion that’s out of place.