The scholar of ancient Greek thought, F. Cornford, summarized Socrates’ claim to greatness as twofold. First, because of his discovery of the soul, and second, because Socrates fashioned a morality of spiritual aspiration to take the place of the morality of social restraint. Before him, the Sophists and others explained how to limit oneself and live in harmony with what existed. Socrates, according to Cornford, reached far beyond that.
As we read the Torah, we see that the biblical characters indeed embody both ideals — that of social restraint and spiritual aspiration. The laws of the Bible are intended to guide one to live well with other human beings and with the world. Yet it is animated by a belief in something greater than the world. The Torah depicts souls that yearn for something greater, for a connection to God.
The Bible does not fashion philosophic justifications for its directives. The characters seem far less self-conscious than the ancient Greeks. But in figures like Abraham, 1,000 years before Socrates, we see a noble soul aspiring for something higher than human beings had ever known.
Rabbi David Wolpe’s musings are shared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter, Recharge, a weekly collection of readings to refresh your soul. Sign up to receive the newsletter.