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Rawls 2: A Late Modernist Look at Fundamental Principles of Justice

Anyone who hasn’t read the first blog in this series (Rawls 1: The Original Position and Veil of Ignorance), probably should do so before reading this week’s blog. For those that don’t want to go to the trouble, last week we looked at Rawls’ version of contract theory, which depends upon a completely ahistorical and hypothetical “original state” and a “veil of ignorance” that prevents any member of society from understanding their relative advantages or disadvantages. I analyzed his views from a number of angles, but basically critiqued his disregard for human history and cultural development as it has actually unfolded in history. Rawls is a typical Enlightenment thinker—overly confident of the power of human reason to abstractly structure human society. It is telling that he begins his analysis with the fantasy of an original state where one can make decisions, ultimate decisions without experience.

The modern Enlightenment world was created under the inspiration of the worldview that began with Isaac Newton. The world was fundamentally a machine made up of material parts held together by forces. In this view, governments were fundamentally instruments of social power that were to be led by those with the ability and willingness to embrace the science of politics. Under the influence of this idea of reality, the modern bureaucratic state emerged. Sitting at the bottom of all this was the assumption that people are rational, that a rational political arrangement satisfactory to all participants in society and be formed, and that the operation of liberal democratic politics will eventually be shown to be the final form of human government. Rawls sits squarely at the center of this movement.

With the coming of relativity theory and quantum physics, the picture of the world that dominated Western civilization over three centuries was shown to be limited. Both indicate the deep interrelationship of all reality.  Instead of the world being something like a machine, it is more like an organism with delicately interconnected parts. The world is also like a process, with each state of the world, including the political world, impacted by prior decisions made down to the fundamental level of reality and society.  Importantly, the notion that human reason can “stand outside” of reality (in an original state) and comprehend it without experience (the veil of ignorance), personal involvement, and change is a false picture of reality. There is no disinterested observer, not even Harvard professors, who can view any form of reality in this way. This insight is important in understanding the problems with the ideas of thinkers like Rawls.

Institutions and Justice

Rawls begins his analysis with a premise that the principles of social justice require an assignment of rights and duties among various institutions of society and the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social life. [1]By the term “institutions of society,” he means a system of rules that define the structure of society and the relative duties, powers, offices, and positions of the persons and structures that make up a society. [2]

The reason I outlined the fundamental principles of post-Newtonian physics in the introduction should be apparent: Human society, for Rawls, is like a gigantic machine, not an organism. The machine is programmed and operates by rules established by its members (or elites in control of the society), and such rational structures establish all the rights enjoyed by the members of such a society. According to this vision, human beings, in the original position assisted by the veil of ignorance, can rationally (i.e. without prejudice or self-seeking) understand and establish a just society.

Compare Rawls’s view with the organic view that underlies this series of blogs. There was and is no “original position, “state of nature,” or “state of ignorance.” Human government almost certainly gradually evolved from the human family. The original polity was a family, nuclear and extended, that joined together to survive the inevitable threats and challenges of human life. The men hunted, and the women cared for the home and children. In such a society, political power devolved upon those with the strength and wisdom to sustain the family. As time went by, the groupings would have gotten larger and larger until genetic connections within tribes became relatively unimportant. Eventually, what we call “nation-states” evolved.

Over time (millennia), the structures that characterize Western society slowly evolved. The evolution involved the decisions of multitudes of people seeking their interests, the interests of their family, social groups, and society. Some of those people were only motivated by their own self-interest. Others were motivated by faith, morals, or political vision. No participant had an “eagle eye” view of reality from above. The entire evolution of human society and political economy is a long process, only a portion of which involves human reason.

What Rawls calls “rules and institutions” evolved over this period of time, with human reason being only one factor in the gradual and precarious evolution of Western Democracy and all the various structures of human political relations we see today. In making the choices that made our society possible, people drew upon a long history and tradition, what is sometimes called the Judea-Christian and Greco-Roman foundations of Western society. In particular, the evolution of contract theory was heavily influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition and the notion of “Covenants” that play a role in each of those traditions. [3] There was never a “choice,” a state of nature,” an “original position,” or a “state of ignorance.” In my view, it is not helpful to attempt to ground concrete institutions on a kind of fantasy but upon the concrete realities of human existence.

Two Principles of Justice

Having introduced the subject of rules and institutions, Rawls labels his theory, “Justice as Fairness.” According to Rawls, justice as fairness is characterized as follows:

  1. Each person should have the same and indefeasible claim to an adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all.
  2. Social and economic inequalities, to be justified, must meet two conditions: (a) any inequalities must be expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and; (b) such inequalities must be attached to offices and positions open to all members of society. [4]

These two principles flow from a fundamental principle that all “social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and. The social bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all these values is to everyone’s advantage. [5] In Rawls’s view, any rational person in an original position and unaware of their own advantages and disadvantages would choose these two rules and subrules as the fundamental rules of a fair society.

The first principle requires that everyone has the same basic liberties, which for Americans include the liberties in the Bill of Rights. This second principle focuses on social quality. While Rawls realizes that society cannot avoid some inequalities such as result from such as inherited ability and talent, personal motivation, and the like, Rawls believes that a just society finds ways to reduce inequalities. Importantly, while Rawls makes allowance for private property, he does not make allowance for the private control of the means of production. The founders might have been astounded at this, as would their intellectual guides, all of whom felt that private property, economic freedom, and the like were essential for a well-founded society.

Limited Liberty

Rawls desires to provide a foundation for freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and religion and the like. Once again, without proof, Rawls assume, in the “original position” and in a state of ignorance, human beings would choose a form of government that maximizes individual freedom of conscience. [6] Once again, this stands in contrast with the facts of human history, which shows that the kind of freedoms that have been in place in Western Europe and the United States are rare in human history and in some danger in the United States and Western Europe generally. Such liberties cannot be justified by an intellectual choice made in a state of ignorance, but by hard-won liberties, liberties established and defended at great cost by people who had lived under some form of tyranny.

 Although Rawls believes that human beings should have “indefeasible liberties,” this does not mean that such liberties cannot be curtailed. Rawls holds that even basic liberties can be ” for the sake of liberty.” Thus, curbing the liberties of a group that society views as “intolerant” and in danger of harming the liberties of others may be justified:

The conclusion, then, is that, while an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and the institutions of liberty are in danger. [7]

This kind of language is also behind some of the attempts of radical secularists to silence religious views in the public square and label the expressions of religious convictions “hate speech.” The claims of those who would restrict freedom of speech by pastors and others in the areas of morality are largely founded upon a claim of “intolerance” and “danger to liberty.”


Next week, I will continue to look at Rawls, beginning with his analysis of the permissible limitations of freedom of conscience and moving to his hostility to religious views being given credence in public debate. Rawls’s theory of justice and public reason attempts to create a naked public square in which religious views and arguments are excluded from public debate precisely on the grounds stated above: Religious views are inherently contrary to a secular society and the secular state. Naturally, defenders of religion critique Rawls for ignoring and diminishing the religious views of the many members of society for which these views are important. [8] In fact, as Rawls may have realized, his defense of liberal democracy is undergirded and founded on the Christian faith he forsook under the pressure of a terrible war and the human evil that war creates. [9]

[1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971-1999), 47.

[2] Id.

[3] Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State U Press, 1988), 43 and Lynn D. Wardle, “The Constitution as Covenant” (BYU Studies copyright 1987), downloaded February 7, 2021,

[4] Id, at 53

[5] Id, at 54.

[6] Id, at 181.

[7] Id, at 193.

[8] For an illuminating and fair look at Rawls’s views, see Tom Baily and Valentin Gentile, eds, Rawls and Religion (New York Columbia University Press, 2014).

[9] John Rawls, A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith Thomas Nagel, Ed. (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009). See, Peter Berkowitz, “A Review of A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith” Hoover Institution, Friday, May 29, 2009 (downloaded May 24, 2023).

Rawls 1: the Original Position and Veil of Ignorance

John Rawls (1021-2002) was born in Baltimore, Maryland. [1] His father was a lawyer, and his mother was active in politics. He served in World War II, leaving the Christian faith in the face of unfair and needless slaughter on the battlefield. He studied at Princeton, Cornell, and Oxford Universities. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Norman Malcom, and H. L. A. Hart profoundly influenced his philosophical education. He taught at Harvard for thirty years. During the Viet Nam war, he spoke out against the war and the apparent defects of a political system that could conduct it. Many people feel that Rawls was the most influential American political philosopher of the 20th century. His book, A Theory of Justice, forms the primary basis for this blog. [2]

Political Philosophy According to Rawls

Rawls believes political philosophy plays four main roles in a society’s public culture:

  1. Philosophy proposes grounds for reasoned agreement when sharp political divisions threaten to lead to violent conflict.
  2. Political philosophy allows citizens to orient themselves within their social world. Philosophy can meditate on what it is to be a member of a particular society—in a democracy, an equal citizen—and offer a unifying framework for answering divisive questions about how people with that political status should relate to each other.
  3. Political philosophy assists society in establishing workable political arrangements while encouraging social progress.
  4. Political philosophy assists public life by providing alternatives to the cruelty, lust for domination, prejudice, folly, and corruption that often characterize public life in every society.

In the end, and importantly for this series of blogs, Political Philosophy can encourage the hope that human life is not simply domination and cruelty, prejudice, folly, and corruption, and if it is, to suggest wise and fair paths to a better future. [3] Rawls sees Political Philosophy as attempting to form a theoretical and practical wisdom that can assist society in achieving and maintaining a wise, fair, and just social order.

Contract Theory

According to Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and their intellectual followers, governments were formed by essentially free (or unformed) individuals in a “State of Nature,” out of which they were free to covenant to unite and form a common government.  This consent can be either tacit, by submitting to and receiving the government’s benefits, or actual, by formal agreement to the government so formed. Locke, for example, does not think that this consent needs to be of all the members of the society but only by the majority of those forming the society. [4] Once formed, such a government is binding until properly altered.

Rawls continues the tradition of the Contract Theory and desires to outline a foundation for our political system and liberal democracy acceptable to modern people. He is to be honored for the attempt, despite my feeling that his attempt fails in fundamental ways. The best defense of Contract theory is not an abstract or theoretical foundation but a deep understanding of the historical and concrete ways it emerged. Contract theory did not spring forth from the Enlightenment without cause. It was the culmination of a long enculturation of Western Europe in which individuals in both private and public life adopted a principle of free association, which was the organic root of Contract Theory and its importance in England and America. [5]

In the beginning, covenant theology naturally found application in the notion of a “social contract,” which it did. Pilgrims, Puritans, theologians, and others found a connection between the kinds of covenants that God created with the human race in the Bible and the social covenants that human beings enter into with a lawful governing authority. If God ruled by means of covenants, then perhaps human beings should as well. It was natural, therefore, for the founders to view a “social contract” among human beings as the proper way to guide the new democracy they were founding. This foundation for their thinking was developed over a long period of Western history and only relatively recently put in the abstract formulation of political philosophers. Rawls, as a lapsed Christian but deeply impacted by Christian values, attempted in A Theory of Justice to provide a foundation for liberal democracy acceptable to modern and postmodern people.

The Original Position: Contract Theory Revisited

Whether the great philosophers who advanced the theory believed in its historicity is a matter of discussion; however, it is clear that Rawls’ formulation of the theory, which he calls “the Original Position.” is entirely hypothetical. [6] The “original position” is an imaginary situation wherein participants in a society to be formed are without information that enables them to tailor principles of justice favorable to their circumstances.  In other words, he places the human race in a fictional position in which no one knows their place in society, social status, or class, such essential times as race or gender, natural assets and abilities, level of intelligence, strength, education, and the like. [7] This is called the “Veil of Ignorance.”

The Veil of Ignorance

Rawls’ justification for this fictional situation is that it ensures that the fundamental agreements reached are “fair.” In other words, if someone knows what every human being knows, their race, family, parentage, sex, intelligence, physical attributes, social position, educational capacity, religion, etc. “fairness” could not be reached due to human prejudice. Not surprisingly, what comes of this definition is a notion of fairness that is eminently accepted among liberal elites at places like Harvard but less common elsewhere in human civilization. Unfortunately, this notion also makes a mockery of justice since it implies fairness is something that those of us who know our race, intelligence level, physical capacities, families, friendships, neighborhoods, and religious traditions cannot achieve.

I can only point out that the “original position” discounts what wise people have always known: the capacity for justice is learned over a long time through self-discipline and experience in life, by facing our prejudices and selfishness, by thinking clearly about the limitations of our family, neighborhoods, churches, synagogues, mosques and the like and trying to reach fair social arrangements despite our prejudices. Perhaps more importantly, what makes anyone think that we can ever put into practice a fairness ideal that begins by cutting itself off from everything human? The moment we leave the fantasy of the original position, we are, most unfortunately, in the real world of pride and prejudice, foolishness, knavery, greed, selfishness, and the like—the world where human societies are formed and must find their stability.

The concept of the original position has been criticized by better minds than mine, including Jurgen Habermas. [8]In Habermas’ view, Rawls’s theory is, as I have mentioned, overly abstract, placing the burden of supporting liberal democracy on the shaky foundation of a convenient fiction. First, the so-called Veil of Ignorance that the original position supposes has only a polemical value. In practice, the assumptions made are ungrounded in the human condition and society as they exist in the present and have evolved in the past. Secondly, its premise (that only in a state of ignorance would a just society be chosen) undermines democracy by assuming that the structure selected could not be put into practice any other way than by a convenient fiction. This creates a gulf between the social ideal Rawls is trying to advance and the flesh and blood moral agents required to sustain liberal democracy. As literary fiction, it works, but it does not provide a sufficient foundation for liberal democracy to function, as the condition of our democracy illustrates. Governments exist in the real world, and their legitimacy must be defended based on the nature of reality and human beings.

This leads to the most serious failure of Rawls’ Original Position and Veil of Ignorance, a feature distinguishing Rawls from the original contract theorists. Hume, Locke, and the other proponents of contract theory spoke of “a state of nature,” while Rawls can only talk of an admittedly illusory original position. The originators of contract theory felt that they had discerned a feature of nature and human nature in propounding their theory. They did not necessarily agree on the proper description of that nature, but they were committed to a form of natural law. In other words, they thought their approach was ontologically grounded in the world and human nature. Human beings, they thought, had been created in such a way that they ought to be free, and democracy was. Therefore, a part of the direction nature was taking the human race.

Rawls’ theory is “ideological” in the sense of that term that realists, like Napoleon, felt objectionable—it is a mere idea cut off from reality, a figment of human imagination, not a feature of reality, not even a theoretical explanation of reality identified through investigation and study. Karl Popper’s critique against Hegel equally applies to Rawls: His theory is a kind of idealized historical prophecy. He uses a non-existent convenient fiction, rather than hard facts and historical study, to ground his theory. Had Rawls done so, he might have found that there is another, more realistic ground for liberal democracy—the commitment of fallen, fallible, finite creatures to seek the character and capacity to sustain a free society in the face of the prejudice of others and even their self-centeredness and brokenness.

Failure of Contract Theories and a More Realistic Approach

Suffice it to say that, in my view, Rawls’ front-end loads his conclusions in his statement of the original position and his subsequent outline of what “reasonable people” would do in such a situation. In so doing, he violates one of the primary principles of this series of blogs: any social theory should be pragmatically based upon human society as it evolved, not based on hypothetical “original positions” or social contracts. The human community never developed in the way the various Contract Theories postulate.

The freedoms of liberal democracy were won over an incredible length of time, at least from the Greek democracies through the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution. They were defeated by frail, prejudiced, self-interested human beings as they sought to construct a society where they could experience political freedom and self-determination.  The liberal democracy Rawls defends does not rely upon an Original Position or a pre-historical Social Contract. It depends upon a society of people willing to solve their problems, personal and social, and self-critical enough to make reasoned decisions to overcome prejudice and self-centeredness.  The notion of an “original position” prevents serious reflection on how liberal democracy evolved and its fragility. Freedom cannot be assumed. It must be won.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This initial section is taken from “John Rawls” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy found at (downloaded May 11, 2023).

[2] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971-1999).

[3] Id.

[4] For example, John Locke, Two Treatises of Government Revised Critical Ed. (New York, NY: Mentor Press/Cambridge Press, 1960, 1963), at 376.

[5] Andrew C. McLaughlin, Foundations of American Constitutionalism (Greenwich CN: Fawcett Press, 1961), 28,

[6] Rawls, at 11 & 104.

[7] See, “Original Position” in’s%20original%20position%20is%20an,favorable%20to%20their%20personal%20circumstances. Downloaded May 11, 2023).

[8] Jurgen Habermas, “Reconciliation Through the Public Use of Reason: Remarks on John Rawls Poltical Liberalism” Vol 92 Journal of PhilosophyNo. 3 (March 1995).

Preparation of Pastors and the Post Apostolic Church

This blog briefly examines how the church formed pastors after the death of the apostles but before the emergence of the European university system. It is a wonderful story we need to internalize. The formation of universities in Europe was the beginning of the modern educational system and one of the major engines of the emergence of the modern world. Today, we are entering a new era. Technology is changing how education is done and the church is not exempt from the impact of technological and other changes. But, perhaps more important is the simple fact that the current system has failed in fundamental ways to form pastoral character. This is true across denominational and theological boundaries.

We live in Changing times, as did those who lived in the first few centuries after the last of the Apostles died. The church had to envision leadership and train leaders in a new context—a context that included persecution, the decay of the Roman Empire, and the shattering of the established social order. We also live in times of change, and we can learn from the lessons of those who lived in other times of change.

Training Leaders in the New Testament and Beyond

As we have seen in prior blogs, in the early church, leaders were developed through personal relationships with those who were already acknowledged leaders. This practice continued beyond the apostolic era. The lineage from Jesus to the apostles, Barnabas, Paul, Timothy, and others, to the first post-apostolic generation of leaders shows this to be true. Those mentioned above had close connection with the apostolic witness, and the first of the leaders of the post-apostolic church, Ignatius, Clement, and the like, traced their leadership to the apostles, thus establishing transmission of the catholic tradition, the importance of apostolic succession and the maintenance of the apostolic witness to Christ.

According to John Calvin, from the earliest times in church history, leaders took under care youths to be prepared for the pastoral office. Given sacred instruction, those to lead the church were trained to live an exemplary life of gravity and holiness and, separated from worldly concerns, became accustomed to spiritual care and studies. [1] Before such persons were admitted into the office of pastor, they were weighed as to their merits and morals in common council with the lay people of the church (4.4.10). In addition, the examination was made as to the doctrine and morals of the person ordained (4.4.14). There were both characterological and theological requirements for church leadership. The training was both practical and theoretical, moral and pragmatic. The result was a trained and competent clergy of proven capacity to lead congregations.

Training in the Post-Apostolic Era

By the end of the apostolic era, three offices of the clergy began to appear:

  1. Bishops (episcopoi or overseers) oversaw multiple congregations in a geographic area and appointed, ordained, and disciplined priests and deacons. They sometimes appear to be called “evangelists” in the New Testament (1 Tim. 5:19–22; 2 Tim. 4:5; Titus 1:5).
  2. Elders (presbuteroi) were known as “presbyters” or “elders.” These people oversaw a local congregation. Over time, this office became known as priests. The English term “priest” is derived from the Greek word presbuteros. Elders were responsible for teaching, governing, and providing the sacraments in a given congregation (1 Tim. 5:17; Jas. 5:14–15).
  3. Deacons (diakonoi) were the assistants of the bishops and responsible for teaching and administering as well as specific other tasks, such as the distribution of food (Acts 6:1–6)

The exact division of duties was fluid in the apostolic era but soon became more fixed, with bishops having the primary responsibility to train, ordain, and discipline priests and deacons. This is important because it shows that those who trained and installed new leaders were not academics removed from ministry but active bishops with many pastoral responsibilities. The lack of this kind of responsibility in modern Protestant groups is an important limitation on their ability to train and oversee local pastors, who often need assistance and counsel in performing their arduous duties. [2]

The Pre-Nicene Era

Ignatius of Antioch, who was himself trained by the apostle John, was concerned that those in leadership protected the apostolic witness and embodied the apostles’ character. Thus, he states in his letters:

Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest” [3]


Take care, therefore, to be confirmed in the decrees of the Lord and of the apostles, in order that in everything you do, you may prosper in body and in soul, in faith and in love, in Son and in Father and in Spirit, in beginning and in end, together with your most reverend bishop; and with that fittingly woven spiritual crown, the presbytery; and with the deacons, men of God[4]

These letters are consistent with the view that the bishops of the early church were concerned with training younger leaders with the ability to continue the faith and morals of the apostles. In addition, we can see that the model used was one of apprenticeship.

The Post-Nicene Era

This is not to say that there were no formal schools that educated clergy. [1] In particular, the Catechetical School of Alexandria and the School of Antioch were formed. In the Alexandria school, students met in the home of the master (appointed by the bishop), and the master provided a significant portion of the teaching. This school was not only a teaching center but also a focus on Christian character and day-to-day contact with the master/teacher. In other words, the emphasis was on the mind, the heart, and the soul of participants. Once again, through the office of the Bishop and the persons commissioned to train pastors, the transmission of the apostolic witness and the formation of character were ensured.

The vast majority of theologians in the age of the Church Fathers were also bishops, including such theologians as Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory, the Theologian were trained in this way. Their training was both academic and in practical ministry, Greek classics, and Holy Scriptures. As a result, they were familiar both with ideas originating in the Old and New Testaments, as well as from the wisdom of the ancient Greek literature, and with the practical duties of priests, bishops, and other church leaders. For example, St. Ambrose was highly concerned with the proper training of potential clergy and concerned should live worthy of the calling to pastoral ministry. He wanted them to be excellent and profitable examples to the people. Consequently, he undertook the following treatise, setting forth the duties of pastors, taking as a model a treatise authored by Cicero. [5]

Ambrose aimed to impress upon those he had ordained the lessons he had previously taught them. In other words, to reinforce in writing what he had already taught them.  In this book, he encourages pastors to internalize and demonstrate good character in forming their minds, reason, and appetites. In the process, Ambrose encourages the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love and the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. In other words, he is teaching them of Christian character.

With the coming of Constantine and the formation of monastic orders, church leaders were additionally taught in monastic communities. In this context, church leaders emerged in the context of prayer, study of scripture, work, and service to Christ. The monastic orders of Benedict and Augustine and the work of Basil the Great profoundly impacted the education of church leaders, an impact that continues today.

The most outstanding leader of the period was Gregory the Great, whose Pastoral Rule continues to be influential among those concerned with pastoral training. Gregory was highly educated, a gifted administrator, and a shrewd leader. Gregory begins his Pastoral Care by encouraging the formation of good character at every stage of formation. He understood the damage that would be done by an improperly formed clergy, including a clergy with moral defects. He encouraged a prayerful and contemplative form of servanthood in the leaders he trained. [6] For our purposes, one particular quote from Gregory is important:

Further, there are some who investigate spiritual precepts with shrewd diligence, but in life they trample on what they have penetrated by their understanding. They hasten to teach what they have learned not by practice but by study, and belie in their conduct what they teach by words. [7]

The many pastoral failures of recent years indicate that a return to the primacy of spiritual and moral character in training pastors is needed.

Implications for Pastoral Training

As concluded in a prior blog, the Scriptures of the Early Church, the witness of the Gospels, and the traditions of the early church support and encourage changes in how pastors and other church leaders are trained. It is not primarily the duty of Christian Colleges and Seminaries to train church leaders. It is the responsibility of the church to train leaders from among those who have shown promise to existing church leaders. A second conclusion is that training for church leadership must be personal, intimate, and authentically mentoring. Jesus mentored the Apostles in a close, personal relationship. The Apostles and their immediate followers mentored the next generation of church leaders in just the same way Jesus mentored them. By the time the New Testament closes, we are at least in the third generation of mentoring leaders in life-transforming life and community. [8] Finally, during the period of the Church Fathers, the model instituted by the apostles continued to be observed, albeit in an evolving way.

As the church of the 21st Century comes to grips with the need for a new generation of apostolic leadership, our churches will need to renew the role of mentoring and personal relationships in preparation for ministry. Traditional seminaries, online training, and other “cognitive-alone” strategies will not solve the problem of training a new generation of church leaders.

An urgent need in contemporary pastoral education concerns clear standards for preparing pastors and restoring the church’s teaching office so pastors can fulfill their complex tasks in modern society. Pastors today face many challenges not encountered in prior generations, or if they were, the social pressures involved were much milder. Today, pastors must build their congregations and disciple people in an increasingly hostile environment. Modern scholarship is hostile to the idea that a recognizable system of doctrine and morals exists in the text of Scripture. Some believe it is impossible to discern such a system in Scripture. As a result, pluralism of doctrine and morals reigns. There are so many different Christian sects and denominations that it is difficult for Christians to maintain their unique identity in our culture. The lack of doctrinal and moral consensus makes training and examining pastors who embody a standard set of theological and ethical skills impossible.

In this situation, it is the responsibility of the church to ponder how to train the next generation of leaders for the church.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion Volumes 1 & 2, ed. John McNeill. trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 19600, at 4.4.9 to 4.4.14.

[2] This is still true in the Orthodox Church and a few other groups where persons are normally deacons, assisting priests before their ordination, assuring that they have been properly mentored during their formation as priests.

[3] Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Magnesians 2 at 6:1.

[4] Id, at 13:1–2.

[5] Ambrose, “On the Duty of the Clergy” found at (Downloaded May 11, 2023).

[6] Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care in The Ancient Christian Writers Series Volume 11 tr. and ed. by Henry Davis, S.J. (New York, NY: Newman Press, 1950, 1978).

[7] Id, at 23.

[8] Jesus mentored the Apostles, who mentored Paul and Barnabas, who mentored John Mark, Silas, Timothy, Luke, and Onesimus.

Popper 3: Reason, Cooperation and Achieving Social Progress

The work of Karl Popper I have been reviewing is illuminating and important in combatting the misplaced single-mended idealisms of our time. This week, I have not had time to analyze an entire section of his work, but I do want to describe his fundamentally rational way of looking at social problems, a strategy that puts him at odds with those who from single-minded and unwise conviction in the correctness of their own opinions harm others. I am then presenting a rewritten version of prior thoughts on the Christian theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr that may illuminate the potential for a reasonable approach to the search for justice. Niebuhr is important as a figure who combines philosophical and theological analysis in his work.

Popper’s View of Political Reasonableness

At one point in critiquing those who felt they had discovered an inevitable future for human society either by reason or understanding socio-economic forces, Popper says:

We could then say that rationalism is an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience. It is fundamentally an attitude of admitting that ‘I may be wrong, and you may be right, and by and effort, we may get nearer to the truth.’ It is an attitude which does not lightly give up hope that by such means as argument and careful observation, people may reach some kind of agreement on many problems of importance; and that, even where their demands and their interest clash, it is often possible to argue about the various demands and proposals, and to reach – perhaps by arbitration – a compromise which, because of its equity is acceptable to most, if not to all. In short, the rationalist attitude, or, as I may perhaps, label it, the attitude of reasonableness, is very similar to the scientific attitude, to the belief that in the search for truth we need co-operation, and that, with the help of argument we can in time attain something like objectivity. [1]

This aspect of Popper’s thought embodies his fallibilism (the view that personal views on matters of social policy may be wrong), and the function of a reasonable and scientific approach to political problems offers the best hope for human flourishing in a sound and peaceful society. Popper opposes power politics, totalitarian ideals, and underhanded policy formulations. Instead, he believes that human reason, aided by dialogue, debate, discussion, and compromise, can bring a society to an objective and reasonable solution to social problems.

It is amazing to me that certain persons who claim an understanding of Popper and an allegiance to his ideas also support clearly violent and underhanded methods of seeking social change. Popper’s work is one extended argument against such an approach to human social problems. In Popper’s view, modern political thought influenced by Freud and Marx is actually a revolt against reason. It involves a kind of unreasonable prophetic view of social change that inevitably ends in suffering and social failure.

Reasonableness, Justice, and Love

The Christian theologian and philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr makes a distinction that is important for a reasonable,sophia-agapic, approach to the principle of justice. For Niebuhr, the term “nature” refers to the currently existing historical possibilities of justice in society, while “grace refers to an ideal possibility of perfect love potentially present in any society. [2] In every society, the search for justice is a process whereby a set of institutions are formed and a degree of justice is attained, but in which there remains an unfulfilled quality to the justice achieved, which is always further illumined by the inevitable operation of love.

The process might be described as follows:

State A: A society achieves a degree of justice in a particular historical situation (Phase 1).

State B: The agapistic principle at work in a society illumines the limitations of State A and new possibilities of justice (Phase 2).

State C: New ideas of justice and institutions of justice are created (New Historical State).

This communal process of seeking a more just society is never-ending within human history because historically bound and limited human institutions never achieve perfect justice and social harmony (shalom) at any given moment in human history. In this analysis, the sopia-agapistic principle (reason and love) is at work to achieve a continually expanding ideal within history through reason, the sophistic principle.

Human Nature and Justice

Unfortunately, human nature limits the realization of justice in any specific social context due to human finitude, self-centeredness, brokenness, and limitations of reason, theoretical and practical, within the boundaries of any human society. Human limitations restrict the human capacity to realize justice in society. [3] Nevertheless, the human capacity for self-transcendence in the search for ideals does create the potential for achieving relatively just social structures over time.

Because of what Niebuhr calls “the indeterminate character of human possibilities” (i.e. the human capacity to transcend nature and natural instincts, human societies are intrinsically dynamic and characterized by change, Laisse-faire Capitalism, Marxism, liberal democracy, and the various “isms” of the post-Enlightenment era view the trajectory of change as inevitably progressive, a view that this study challenges. To be on the “right side of history” is to act in accordance with these forces, be they visualized as economic or ideal. There is, however, no inevitable “right side of history” to which selfish and self-centered human beings will agree. There is only a slow process of seeking a greater unfolding of justice within human history’s constraints at a given point in time.

Law and the Principles of Justice

In discussing law and justice, Niebuhr helpfully distinguishes principles of justice from institutions of justice. Principles of justice are abstract ideals reflected in our theoretical notions of justice and law. Institutions of justice are concrete structures embodied in an existing human community. [4] In any given society, these institutions and the rules they administer are only approximations of a society’s ideals regarding justice.

Systems and principles of justice are the servants and instruments of the spirit of brotherhood in so far as they extend the sense of obligation towards the other, (a) from an immediately felt obligation, prompted by obvious need, to a continued obligation expressed in fixed principles of mutual support; (b) from a simple relation between a self and one “other” to the complex relations of the self and the “others”; and finally, from the obligations discerned by the individual self to the broader obligations which the community defines from its more impartial perspective. These communal obligations evolve slowly in custom and law. [5]

Niebuhr’s idea may be a bit difficult to grasp without an example. Let us take the modern Social Security and Medicare system as an example. In the beginning, an individual or individuals saw the predicament of elderly parents in an industrial society when they could no longer work. Over time, a fixed principle of justice, the notion that society should provide some minimum financial security for the aged, evolved. Over time, this ideal sense of justice became a communal obligation seen as such by most people. In the end, concrete laws were enacted that embodied a wider collective sense of responsibility. As a result, the Social Security Administration and Medicare were formed—concrete institutions that embodied the social ideal. Over time, these institutions have further involved bringing drug prescriptions and other items within the ambit of the initial architype intuited by society. In all this, the ideal of justice was gradually unfolding in American society.

Hope for Consensus

Beginning with a sense of mutual obligation (a form of social love), intuitions of society are gradually translated into ideals of justice and then into laws and institutions embodying the initial intuition. This social process is communal and supports the continuing stability of society. In one particularly illuminating passage, Niebuhr states:

The definitions of justice arrived at in a given community or the product of a social mind. Various perspectives upon common problems, have been merged and have achieved a result, different from that at which any individual, class or group in the community would have arrived. The fact that various conceptions of a just solution of a common problem can be fully synthesized into a common solution, disproves the idea that the approach of each individual or group is consistently egoistic. If it were, society would be an anarchy of rival interests until power from above subdued the anarchy. [6]

Here Niebuhr sets out a democratic ideal amid the struggles for a justice society in which people are involved in the West. The “social mind” differs from the individual minds that make it up, and cannot be reduced to something more fundamental. A society’s social mind evolves as debate, disagreement, dialogue, and further study merge to improve a concrete set of social problems and solutions that become “common” over time. The fact that Western democracies have achieved the degree of justice they have achieved is a testimony to the human potential for change and social progress. Niebuhr includes a final warning: If a society degenerates into egoistic self-seeking of individuals and groups, social anarchy and tyranny can and will result. Western democracies at the time of Niebuhr had shown themselves capable of reasoned practical adjustments required in a functional democracy. One can only hope that the same remains true in our day and time.


The dynamic, evolving, but never complete activity of love seeking justice in human society is an important idea to ponder. It is part of overcoming the misplaced moral fervor of our time and replacing it with a rational sense of justice as a process of which we are a part but cannot complete. What I have called “misplaced moral fervor” is not misplaced because the moral sentiments of people who seek a more just society are wrong in their motives and desire. It is misplaced because it ignores certain aspects of ethical behavior (often peaceableness and honesty) in service of a single moral ideal.

Michael Polanyi called this phenomenon “Moral Inversion,” a term I like but think is inadequate to the phenomenon and its danger to our society. The phenomenon Polanyi describes might better be called a misplaced and unwise “Single-minded Idealism.” In Russia, this misplaced idealism allowed for the killing of millions of people to serve the cause of an illusory perfect dictatorship of the proletariat—a dictatorship that turned out to be a dictatorship of thugs led by Stalin to the impoverishment of society as a whole and every individual within that society, the leadership included.  We see examples of the same phenomenon in our world today.

The works of Karl Popper and Niebuhr are important in combatting the misplaced single-mended idealisms of our time. Both these thinkers are realists who believe in the need for social change but also understand the dangers to human progress inherent in any view that claims an absolutely true understanding of human history and its unfolding in society. Both were early attracted to Marx but ultimately embraced a different approach to social change. We have reached a point where the certainties of political actors, left and right, prevent wise and loving social evolution guided by reason and concern for our neighbors, loved ones, and society. Only a slow, reasonable process of rebuilding community, making difficult decisions to achieve social harmony, and avoiding pride and Single-minded Idealism can allow America and Western society to move forward in freedom and relative prosperity.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 431.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986),, at 246.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 248.

[6] Id, at 249.

Popper 2: Critique of Marxism and Incrementalism

In a previous blog, I reviewed Karl Popper’s critique of Plato and Hegel, which we might call his “critique of idealistic historicism.” In this blog, I deal with his critique of Marx, which we might call his “critique of dialectical materialistic historicism.” As Popper analyzes Plato, Hegel, and Marx, he engages in a sustained critique of their respective “historicisms,” which means their shared tendency to suppose that there are “laws of history” or “forces of history” that determine national and personal destiny, as opposed to human history being determined by the concrete choices made by human beings. Popper regards their work as essentially authoritarian, leading to brutal and degrading regimes. Against the alleged historicism of these figures, Popper defends the importance of human decision-making and human action in creating history. In his view, history is “open.” This openness argues for an open society structured in such a way as to allow the maximum degree of freedom for individuals to choose their future rationally.

Critique of Historical Determinism

In Popper’s view, historical determinism refers to any theoretical understanding that human history can be predetermined by any set of ideas, material, idealistic, religious, or otherwise. Plato and Hegel represented an idealistic understanding. Marx represents a materialistic understanding. For Marx, the clue to human political history consists of socio-economic forces operating in human history. [1] According to Popper, Marx’s view is based on a kind of institutionalist view:

Against the doctrine of psychologism, the defenders of an autonomous sociology can advance institutionalist views. They can point out, first of all, that no action can ever be explained, by motive alone; if motives (or any other psychological or behavioral concepts) are to be used in the explanation, then they must be supplemented by reference to the general situation, and especially to the environment. In the case of human actions, this environment is very largely of a social nature; those are actions cannot be explained that reference to our social environment, to social institutions, and their manner of functioning. [2]

This view can be contrasted with a psychological view of human history, a view Popper believes was held by John Stewart Mill, the greatest of the Utilitarian thinkers. In the psychological view of history, all human actions and human society flow from human nature itself and are, in the end, reducible to human nature and its characteristics. [3] This view, has a long history in Western thought; for example, it is evident in Plato’s view that the right order of society is found when society’s order conforms to the right ordering of the human soul, mind, body, and spirit. It is unsurprising that Popper, who rejects Plato, also rejects the notion that human society in some way is to reflect human personality.

Hegel held that ideas are the motivating force behind history. Marx believes that economic forces are the fundamental driving forces behind human history, and these forces determine the kinds of ideas that are held at any given moment. Ideas are, therefore, a secondary “epiphenomena” created by material forces. Popper agrees with this analysis in a limited way. He agrees that material forces are primary. He agrees that economic forces are important and fundamental in some way but disagrees with the kind of “economic fundamentalism” that Marx embraced. [4]

However, unlike Marx, whose theories required a socialist revolution in the material world, Popper believes in the ability of sound ideas to influence and cause dramatic and positive change in society and social institutions. [5] Popper accepts, with qualification, Marx’s emphasis on class struggle but denies that it is the sole force in human history. In particular, Popper rejects the notion that human history is faced with a choice between capitalism and socialism. The development of modern Western social democracy refutes Marx’s prediction of a dramatic choice between only two alternative forms of social organization. [6]

Limits on Revolutionary Violence

Popper rejects the modern fascination with power as the source of political life and evolution. Hegel, for example, saw war as the fundamental force in history. This notion resulted in two destructive world wars. Marx substitutes class conflict and economic struggle as the fundamental sources of power that propel history. [7] The result was the devastatingly harmful revolutions seen in Russia, China, and other places during the 20th Century.

Popper rejects not just the inevitability of violent revolution but also the general desirability of revolutionary violence. He views this aspect of Marxism as its most harmful contribution to political theory, a conclusion that the sufferings of the 20th Century bear out in practice. [8] In Popper’s view, revolutionary violence, which parts of ancient and Christian thought permit, must be directed towards the overthrowing of a totalitarian state and its replacement with democratic institutions. Beyond this, only the defense of democratic institutions can justify violence. [9]

In condemning Marxism and its violent ideology, Popper speaks words of continuing importance today:

I do not believe that we should ever attempt to achieve more than that (ie, democratic institutions) by violent means. For I believe that such an attempt would involve the risk of destroying all prospects of reasonable reform. The prolonged use of violence may lead in the end to the loss of freedom, since it is liable to bring about, not a dispassionate rule of reason, but the rule of the strongman. A violent revolution which tries to attempt more than the destruction of tyranny, is at least as likely to bring about another tyranny, as it is likely to achieve its real aims. [10]

In recent years, we have seen the danger of violence as a chosen instrument of political change and the dysfunctional consequences it breeds. The antics of “revolutionary groups” right and left have played a significant part in weakening our social fabric and institutions. interestingly, some of these groups have been financed by those who claim to follow Popper’s ideas.

Critique of Marx as a False Prophet

In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper classifies Marx as a false prophet:

…Marx was, I believe, a false, prophet. He was a prophet of the course of history, and his prophecies did not come true; but this is not my main accusation. It is much more important that he misled scores of intelligent people into believing that historical prophecy is the scientific way of approaching social problems. Marx is responsible for the devastating influence of the historicist method of thought within the ranks of those who wish to advance the cause of the open society. [11]

This observation of Popper is crucial in understanding the development of critical theory and Marxist-inspired political thought since World War II. While others, such as the members of the Frankfort School and adherents of critical theory, took a different view, Popper’s notion was that the events of the 20th Century had proven Marx wrong in his predictions and cast doubt upon the viability of his theories.

Before the Russian Revolution, European intellectuals were massively influenced by Marx and dialectical materialism. Many expected the cataclysmic end to capitalism and the establishment of communist states in Europe. Initially, what transpired in Russia after the revolution of 1917 was the construction of a totalitarian terror state, the furthest thing from what intellectuals expected. Secondly, after the First World War, the expected Communist revolution did not occur. Germany, in particular, rejected a communist-style revolution and attempted a liberal democracy. This attempt failed and ended in the terror of the Nazi regime and the destruction of Germany in the Second World War. After the war, Germany went back to a social democratic polity. Both these failures cast doubt upon Marx’s analysis of history.

Marx’s critique of capitalism was based upon his belief that it results in (i) an increase in productivity that (ii) concentrates wealth in fewer and fewer hands, with (iii) the final result the workers revolt against their slavery and replace the capitalist system with a communist society in which there is only one class. Popper does not believe that this analysis can be correct, for the issue of class is not an economic issue. [12] Every society has classes, including communist societies. Furthermore, Marx assumes that there can only be one class in the future evolution of society. In reality, we cannot know that this is true, nor can we know the truth or falsity of any number of potential ends to capitalism. There are many possibilities. [13]

In fact, from the standpoint of the early 21st Century, we can know that Marx was wrong in his analysis. The kind of Laisse-faire capitalism experienced in the 19th century has been replaced everywhere by some form of social democracy in which various social welfare programs ameliorate and soften the impact of competition and the accumulation of wealth by some. [14] In fact, the working classes instead of living in endless misery were able in places like the United States, Germany, South Korea, and Japan to attain the highest standard of living ever achieved in their own society or any other societies in human history.

Marx’s Faulty Critique of the Legal and Social System

Given Marxist materialism and its emphasis on class conflict, Marx was bound to resist the idea that persuasion, logical argumentation, legal change, and similar alterations of a particular society were likely to create social peace. Instead, Marx advocated a revolutionary ideology that undermines the rule of law. [15] As mentioned in an earlier blog when discussing Marx, his analysis of society was profoundly affected by his own social location, particularly the state of the industrial revolution during his time. There’s no question but that, immediately following the Industrial Revolution, the condition of the working class was desperate and society was being governed by a set of laws and principles at odds with ameliorating the suffering of human beings trapped in inhuman working conditions. Political institutions were slow to adapt to the changes required in law and social policy. Popper gives many important and sobering examples in his analysis of Marx and his thought. [16]

Popper believes that this feature of Marxism constitutes its fatal flaw. Marx’s disparagement of the potential of political power to overcome economic forces was proven false by the immense achievements of social democracy as it slowly but surely overcame the flaws of laisse-faire capitalism with a series of actions related to working hours, conditions, various forms of social insurance, old age protection and a host of achievements. [17]

Popper’s Pragmatic Incrementalism

Popper’s opposition to historicism is fundamental to his antipathy towards utopian social engineering (Marxian or otherwise). He opposes vast and unverifiable attempts to fundamentally restructure society based on the theoretical ideas of experts and the resultant social planning. In his view, such programs are fundamentally irrational and impossible since scientifically testing such plans is pragmatically impossible. “When the planners’ actions fail—as Popper thinks is inevitably the case with human interventions in society—to achieve their predicted results, they have no method for determining what went wrong with their plan. This lack of testability, in turn, means there is no way for the utopian engineers to improve their plans.” [18] This insight explains the continued failure under Socialist and Communist regimes of all kinds of “five-year” and other plans. Popper’s own policy preference is that of piecemeal reform, as he clearly states:

And it is a fact that my social theory (which favors gradual and piecemeal reform, reform controlled by a critical comparison between expected and achieved results) contrasts strongly with my theory of method, which happens to be a theory of scientific and intellectual revolutions. [19]

Interestingly, given the radical actions of some of his more famous followers, Popper is an incrementalist, believing that social change should be undertaken slowly, incrementally, and with sound reasoning behind modifications. Moreover, his scientific outlook and a strong sense of fallibility lend themselves to the view that social ideas, such as Marxism or Hegelianism, when proven false, should be abandoned and modified if proven limited.

Conclusion: Popper’s Critique of the Frankfort School

In 1960 and thereafter, Popper engaged in discussion with members of the Frankfort School (Adorno and Habermas). Popper was asked to begin the program with a set of theses, which he did in the form of twenty-seven propositions. The views were then discussed, but only a few in analytical detail. Later, the entire discussion was published giving Popper the first and last words:

I was and I still am very sorry about this. But having been invited to speak about ‘The Logic of the Social Sciences’ 1 did not go out of my way to attack Adorno and the ‘dialectical’ school of Frankfurt (Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, et al.) which I never regarded as important, unless perhaps from a political point of view, and in 1960 I was not even aware of the political influence of this school. Although today I should not hesitate to describe this influence by such terms as ‘irrationalist’ and ‘intelligence-destroying’, I could never take their methodology (whatever that may mean) seriously from either an intellectual or
a scholarly point of view. [20]

Popper views the so-called Frankfort School as irrational and philosophically undefendable. Yet, in his response to his critics, Popper speaks of the kind of revolution that he believes to be sustainable and valuable:

If the method of rational critical discussion should establish itself, then this should make the use of violence obsolete: critical reason is the only alternative to violence so far discovered. It seems to me clear that it is the obvious duty of all intellectuals to work for this revolution-for the replacement of the eliminative function of violence by the eliminative function of rational criticism. But in order to work for this end, one has to train ones-self constantly to write and to speak in clear and simple language. Every thought should be formulated as clearly and simply as possible. This can only be achieved by hard work. [21]

I cannot say if I will do another week on Popper. The Open Society and its Enemies is a huge undertaking, with many important insights. Some of these insights are in areas not germane to the fundamental purpose of this series of blogs. On the other hand, it is impossible to summarize so vast an intellectual undertaking as Popper undertakes in The Open Society and its Enemies in only two installments.

In the end, I have been much enriched by reading Popper. He is not an easy writer to digest, nor is he necessarily consistent in a simplistic way. His analysis is penetrating, though sometimes polemic to a degree that distracts from his main points. Nevertheless, the attempt to follow his reasoning is productive.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 301.

[2] Id, at 302.

[3] Id, at 298-299.

[4] Id, at 317. In the last blog, I mentioned that Popper appears to be a materialist who views material forces as fundamental. However, he does not believe that ideas are unimportant, as will be seen. Popper’s work is relatively unimpacted by the developments in semiotics, information theory, and quantum physics that drive my analysis in other blogs.

[5] Id, at 319.

[6] Id, at 349, 357.

[7] Id, at 321.

[8] Id, at 359.

[9] Id, at 360.

[10] Id.

[11] Id, at 294

[12] Id, at 348.

[13] Id.

[14] Id, at 350-351.

[15] Id, at 327.

[16] Id, at 327-330.

[17] Id, at 334-335.

[18] “Karl Popper: Philosophy of Science: Methodology in the Social Sciences” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at (downloaded April 21, 2023).

[19] Karl Popper “Reason or Revolution” in The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology: Adorno, Albert, Dhrendorf, Habermas, Pilot and Popper tr. Glyn Adey I David Frisby (London, ENG: Heiemann 1969, 1977), 291,

[20] Id, at 289.

[21] Id, at 292.

David Bohm: Wholeness and Fragmentation

Because of another project in which I am engaged in this week, I needed to jump ahead and deal with David Bohm this week. Next week, we return to The Open Society and Its Enemies.

Contemporary physicist and philosopher David Bohm (1917-1992) was deeply concerned with the condition of modern society and the absence of authentic dialogue among people. Bohm was born into a Jewish family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Educated in the United States, Bohm achieved a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Berkeley, worked on the Manhattan Project under theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” and taught briefly at Princeton. In 1951, having been investigated by the McCarthy Committee for alleged Communist activities, Bohm left the United States, living in South America, Israel, and Great Britain. While a graduate student, Bohm had an experience that later began the development of his unique view of the wholeness of the universe. He noticed that once electrons are placed in a plasma, they see us behaving like individual particles and start behaving as if they were part of a larger and interconnected whole. [1]

In 1951, he published a fundamental work on quantum physics, defending the traditional Copenhagen interpretation. While working on the book, however, he developed doubts and began developing his interpretation of quantum mechanics that would preserve causality. Then, as a result of his conversations with Einstein, he began to work on his own causal interpretation of quantum mechanics, today known as the Bohmian” or “Non-Variable Approach” to quantum physics. [2] Bohm’s approach to quantum physics assumes the existence of underlying, subtler levels of reality. [3] These underlying levels of reality are “implicate” in the perceived universe and “unfolded” in space and time through the evolutionary process in which the world is engaged.

Our Participatory, Relational, and Undivided Universe

Three aspects of quantum physics are important as they call into question the mechanistic interpretation of reality upon which the modern world largely relies:

  1. The quantum world is discontinuous. That is to say, energy travels in indivisible units, known as “quanta,” from which we take the term “quantum physics.” This quantization of light means that the world does not unfold smoothly or linearly.
  2. Fundamental entities, such as electrons, have incompatible characteristics. Sometimes they appear wave-like, and sometimes particle-like, a phenomenon known as “wave-particle duality.” In particular, the presence of an observer and the character of the observations impact whether fundamental entities take on wave-like or particle-like characteristics. In other words, the notion of an observer outside the observation is undermined.
  3. When fundamental entities come into a relationship with one another show, they become entangled in a non-local relationship, which appears to be a non-causal form of connection. Such entangled particles act in concert in violation of the principle that no signal can travel faster than the speed of light, which phenomenon is known as “quantum entanglement.” The phenomenon of “entanglement” signals an interconnected world not made up of separate entities or phenomena.

None of these principles are compatible with the modern, post-Enlightenment world’s notion of a universe that can be explained in a materialistic, mechanical way. [4]

Einstein’s theory of relativity began the process of questioning the validity of a mechanical interpretation of the universe. Relativity theory implies that no coherent concept of an independently existent particle is possible, neither one in which such a particle would be an extended body nor one in which it would be a dimensionless point. Basic assumptions underlying Newtonian physics were shown to be limited in their possible application to reality as a whole. [5] In other words, the world is deeply relational, not solely explainable as as the interaction of material particles.

Rather than the universe looking like a machine, a picture of the universe developed under relativity theory and quantum physics more conducive to the view that the universe is a process or organism. The universe appears to be one unbroken whole, composed of interrelated quantum fields. Particles are best described as localized ripples or pulses in these fields, ultimately forming an undivided universe’s material basis. [6]

The unfolding process of the universe is made up of matter, energy, and information. [7] Ultimately, the universe, as seen by Bohm, is filled with differing information levels that are gradually unfolding in space-time and is, therefore, meaningful on different levels of analysis. These differing levels of reality unfold as the universe develops. The explicit order we observe is an unfolding of an implicate order characterized by information and meaning which unfolds.

In Bohm’s view, all the apparently fragmented separate objects, entities, structures, and events we perceive in the visible or explicate world are projections originating from a deeper, implicate order of unbroken wholeness. [8] Bohm uses the analogy of a flowing stream:

On this stream, one may see an ever-changing pattern of vortices, ripples, waves, splashes, etc., which evidently have no independent existence as such. Rather, they are abstracted from the flowing movement, arising and vanishing in the total process of the flow. Such transitory subsistence as may be possessed by these abstracted forms implies only a relative independence or autonomy of behaviour, rather than absolutely independent existence as ultimate substances. [9]

Thus reality is a process or “flow-movement” of deeply interconnected events. [10]

A Meaningful Universe

Bohm’s work sees the universe as inherently meaningful, filled with information at all levels of reality of which we human beings have any form of conscious understanding. In other words, the physical universe is inherently meaningful. Mind and matter exist in one undivided whole. To communicate this insight, Bohm coined the term “soma-significant” to describe the universe’s information, bearing, and meaningful characteristic.

The term “soma-significant” also implies that the mental and physical aspects of reality are not fundamental:

The notion of soma-significance implies that soma parenthesis or the physical) and its significance parenthesis, which is mental) or not in any sense separately existent but rather they are two aspects to one overall reality. [11]

The fundamental information-bearing character of the universe is based upon a somatic order, an arrangement, connection, or organization of distinguished elements in a physical structure. [12] For Bohm, this does not imply any form of a mind-matter duality because there is fundamentally only one flow in the universe. The changes of meaning or changes in that flow and changes in meaning, but there is no distinction between mind and matter. The universe is one meaningful whole in which we human beings can analytically separate mind and matter. [13] The flow of the universe, its organic processes, is a flow of energy in which meaning is carried inward and outward between aspects of soma and significance, but they are not separate. [14]

The reciprocal flow of meaning in the universe means that soma-significance is complimented by its inverse, a sign-somatic relation, which Bohm denotes as “signa-significance.” That is to say that the information and signs that make up the universe at a fundamental level affect the physical universe since the two are not fundamentally separated. [15]Soma-significance implies that matter impacts mind. Signa-significance suggests the reverse, that any change of significance or meaning has physical consequences in the universe.

On a physical level, this relationship is apparent. For example, if I don’t get enough sleep, I find it difficult to reason or write anything complex the next day. This happened to me yesterday. At the same time, if I change my mind, it has consequences in the physical universe. Adopting a religious belief, a moral view, a political conviction, a fundamental understanding of the universe, or any other mental event impacts how a person exists, thinks about problems, acts, and responds to environmental stimuli. This, in turn, influences the entire physical universe since all things are interrelated.

Our Fragmented Social Reality

Bohm was deeply interested in and concerned about the condition of our society. A feature of modern, post-Enlightenment science that negatively impacts our society is the reductionism that characterizes modernity and modern science. Classical physics presupposed that all of reality could be explained by analysis of the world into its fundamental units, assumed to be material in nature. In Bohm’s view, this analytic side of human reason, taken to excess in our society, leads to a fragmented view of reality and ultimately a fragmented view of reality:

Thus art, science, technology, and human work in general, are divided up into specialties, each considered to be separate in essence from the others. Becoming dissatisfied with this state of affairs, men have set up further interdisciplinary subjects, which were intended to unite these specialties, but these new subjects have ultimately served mainly to add further separate fragments. Then, society as a whole has developed in such a way that it is broken up into separate nations and different religious, political, economic, racial groups, etc. Man’s natural environment has correspondingly been seen as an aggregate of separately existent parts to be exploited by different groups of people. Similarly each individual human being has been fragmented into a large number of separate and conflicting compartments, according to his different desires, aims, ambitions, loyalties, psychological characteristics, etc., to such an extent that it is generally accepted that some degree of neurosis is inevitable, while many individuals going beyond the ‘normal’ limits of fragmentation are classified as paranoid, schizoid, psychotic, etc. The notion that all these fragments or separately existence is evidently an illusion, and this solution cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion. [16]

The result of fragmentation is a society that is neither physically nor mentally healthy for most people. The various conflicts, economic and social crises, environmental damage, and social decay our society experiences all flow from the reality of a society that has become excessively fragmented. In particular, the fragmentation of our social institutions has reached the point where it is difficult to maintain a coherent and functional society. Obviously, a different way of looking at the world needs to be developed, and Bohm believes that the implications of quantum physics are leading us to just such a way of looking at the world holistically.

Returning to soma-significance, this concept is essential because the process of information flow extends into the entire universe, including the human person:

You can see that ultimately, the soma-significant, and the signa-somatic process extends even into the environment. Meaning, thus can be conveyed from one person to another and back through sound waves, through gestures, carried by light, through books and newspapers, through telephone, radio, television, and so on, linking up the whole society, in one vast web of soma-significance and signa-somatic activity. You can say that society is this thing; this activity is what makes society. Without it, there would be no society. Therefore, communication is society. [17]

Our physical environment, the houses, cities, factories, farms, highways, and so on in which we live, are the physical result of the meanings these material objects have come to have for human beings, not just in the present but in the present and the past as well.[18] Our entire culture is impacted by the physical, mental, and moral results of the signa and soma-significant flows of meaning that make up human culture. These meanings also affect the physical universe, with implications for modern environmental theory and practice. Bohm goes on to say:

Going on from there, even relationships with nature, and with the cosmos flow out of what they mean to us. These meanings fundamentally affect our actions toward nature, and thus indirectly, the action of nature back on us is affected. Indeed, as far as we know it, and are aware of it, and can act on it, the whole of nature, including our civilization, which is evolved from nature, and is still a part of nature, is one movement that is both soma-significant and sigma-significant. [19]

From the lowest level of reality to the most sophisticated elements of human society, there is a continual flow of meaning and activity that profoundly impacts the character and quality of human life. Human beings are constantly making decisions, experiencing acts of will, and determining outcomes based on a web of significance, much of which can only be known tacitly at any given time. [20]

This version of reality as a flow of meaning profoundly impacts Bohm’s view of culture. Human culture, in all of its complexity and strata, at all the levels in which we humans create meanings, physical, social, spiritual, political, legal, economic, and otherwise, are essentially stratified flows of meaning. Where there are significant physical or mental impediments to the flow of meaning, for example, where conflict exists, there is a blockage of that flow and corresponding dysfunction:

One might, in fact, go so far as to say that, in the present state of society, and in the present mode of teaching science, which is a manifestation of this state of society, the kind of prejudice, in favor of a fragmentary self-world view is fostered and transmitted (to some extent, explicitly unconsciously, but mainly in an implicit and unconscious manner). As has been indicated, however, men who are guided by such a fragmentary self-world view, cannot in the long run, do other than to try in their actions to break themselves and the world into pieces, corresponding to the general mode of thinking. [21]

The process of dividing the universe conceptually beyond its realm of utility because of a reductive, pre-existing worldview that sees the world as physically divided results in the division and separation of human beings from themselves, nature, and one another. The results divide society into fragmented and hostile groups. [22] This kind of fragmentary thinking leads to social, political, economic, ecological, and other crises in both individuals and society as a whole. The result is a chaotic and meaningless conflict in which social and intellectual energy is wasted. [23]

Dialogue as Central to Overcoming Fragmentation

To overcome the dysfunction and fragmentation of modern society, a different approach needs to be adopted. To overcome the fragmentation of our society, its fundamental paradigm for understanding reality (atomistic materialism and individualism) and its fundamental view of how to change that reality (material power) need to be changed. The process of change involves communication in the form of dialogue. Creative transformation in which fragmentation is overcome can be achieved through dialogue.

In Bohm’s view, the Greek roots of this term illuminate its meaning. “Dia,” meaning “through,” and “logos,” meaning “reason.” Dialogue happens when two or more persons share meaning by exchanging views. As we learn from Peirce and Royce, a single person can have a dialogue internally. We experience this all the time.

Of course, there can be honest and dishonest attempts at dialogue. In honest dialogue, new understanding emerges as meaning is conveyed and differing points of view illuminate reality.[24]  For two people to enter into real dialogue, they commit to a mutual exchange of ideas and information to better understand reality. Authentic dialogue involves a flow of meaning. Those involved in the dialogue are caught up in a moving flow of information and thought that constitutes the dialogue. A dialogue implicitly seeks a truth that the parties are humble enough to know and requires sharing ideas, thoughts, and perspectives.

Dialogue is not mere discussion. “Discussion” has the same root as percussion or concussion. In a discussion, conflicting views are expressed with a view toward breaking up or breaking down the other’s argument. People try to win, debate points, and carry the day in a discussion. Discussion and debate can increase fragmentation. In genuine dialogue, by contrast, participants are trying to find new meanings and agreement with one another. [25] In the process, fragmentation, with all of its unfortunate results, can be overcome.

Participatory Thinking and Transcendental Ideals

Bohm approaches the search for knowledge as a scientist. As it is practiced, science involves a kind of continuing dialogue, or exchange of reasoning, as investigations are made, results and theories published, criticisms are leveled, and adjustments made. [26] This scientific way of reasoning continues (or should continue) to be used in practical activities, but in sensitive areas, such as religion and politics, it is difficult to achieve due to blockages, emotional, ideological, and otherwise. [27] These blockages inhibit communication and the flow of meaning, preventing new discovery and change. The result is the kind of pervasive fragmentation and conflict that characterizes modern society. This fragmentation can be overcome by a kind of participatory dialogue in which people share meanings with one another in an attempt to understand.[28]

The significance of transcendental ideals (or potentials) for political thought is that such potentials reveal themselves to a community under concrete circumstances in a provisional but appropriate way.  Each determination is provisionally valid in a specific context. There can be no permanent and unchanging specification of justice as an abstract concept but there can be contextually valid approximations. [29] Because of the inner relationships among people and institutional structures, every determination of justice in a specific context is relative to, and may be modified by, a new emerging context and future understandings. Thus, no determination of justice can be final or fixed but is part of the movement of society, toward a more comprehensive understanding of justice and social peace. [30]

These insights have profound consequences for our understanding not only of physical reality but also upon our understanding of the social reality in which we live. As Bohm says in more than one place, the fragmentation and conflict in society, which an outdated worldview promotes, is leading to a loss of social coherence and meaning and the decay of Western democratic institutions. In order to reverse these trends, a new way of seeing and responding to social reality is needed.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All RIghts Reserved

[1] David Pratt, “David Bohm and the Implicate Order” at (downloaded April 12, 2023).

[2] Id.

[3] (David Bohm and F. David Peat, Science, Order & Creativity, Bantam Books, New York, 1987, p. 88.)

[4] David Bohm, “the Enfolding Unfolding Universe and Consciousness” (1980) in Lee Nichol, ed, The Essential David Bohm (London, ENG: Routledge, 2003), 82-83.

[5] Id, at 81.

[6] Id, at 82.

[7] Id, at 172.

[8] See David Peat, “David Bohm and the Implicate Order” in footnote one above. This section is deeply dependent upon his analysis.

[9] Wholeness and the Implicate Order, at 48.

[10] Id, at 11.

[11] “Soma- Significance and the Activity of Meaning” (1980) in The Essential David Bohm, 158.

[12] Id, at 161.

[13] Id, at 163.

[14] Id, at 164.

[15] Id, 163.

[16] David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London ENG: Routledge, 1980), 1-2.

[17] “Soma- Significance and the Activity of Meaning” (1980) in The Essential David Bohm, 165.

[18] Id, 165.

[19] Id.

[20] Id, 166.

[21] Wholeness and the Implicate Order, at 15.

[22] Id, 16.

[23] Id.

[24] David Bohm, On Dialogue (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996), 7. This section of the paper is based on this work. On Dialogue was published posthumously and is based upon his writings and speeches.

[25] Id.

[26] David Bohm, On Dialogue (London ENG & New York, NY: Routledge, 1996, 2004), 4.

[27] Id, at 5.

[28] Id.

[29] Wholeness and Implicate Order, at 151.

[30] Id, at 157

Popper 1: The Open Society and Its Enemies

When beginning this series of blogs on political philosophy and theology, until recently, I deliberately skipped the most important single work in the Western Canon, Plato’s Republic. I did this because of the importance of the Republic for the thought of Karl R. Popper and his magisterial work, The Open Society and Its Enemies. [1] Even those who do not fully agree with Popper’s critique of Plato find his work meaningful. It has become one of the most critical books defending Enlightenment liberal democracy in the 20th Century. As a result, it has supporters on the political spectrum’s left and right.

Karl Popper

Karl Popper was born in 1902 in Vienna, Austria, to a family of Jewish origin. He was educated and taught in Austria until 1937, when like so many intellectuals, he was forced to flee Nazi Germany and its influence. In 1928, he received a Ph.D. in Philosophy. His doctoral dissertation, On the Problem of Method in the Psychology of Thinking, concerned the psychology of scientific thought and discovery. Popper was initially a philosopher of science. During and after the Second World War, his thinking turned to political philosophy, culminating in this 1945 book, The Open Society and Its Enemies.

Popper focuses much of his book on a refutation of Plato, but more importantly, on a refutation of the historicism and determinism evident in Hegel and Marx. Many scholars consider Popper’s work to be a complete refutation of the very foundations of both Nazism and Marxism. In the case of Marxism, he definitively refuted its claim to scientific status and its claim to reveal the course of political and economic history. In his mind, Plato, Hegel, and Marx represent a kind of historical determinism and ethnic tribalism that resulted in, among other things, the Nazi German state and Russian Communist Marxism, with all the human suffering that resulted.

What is an Open Society?

At the root of Popper’s work is the notion that liberal democracy presupposes an open society, whereas the thought of Plato, Hegel, Marx, and others presupposes a closed society. So, what is an “open society”? According to Popper open society is one in which people enjoy the maximum amount of political, economic, equality, and personal freedom (as in a democracy) as possible. [2] Furthermore, open societies function based on individual merit, not social status, race, religion, etc.

To speak of an “open society” is to assume the existence of another kind of society that might be called “closed.” What, then, is a “closed society?” If an open society is one in which the accomplishments of people allow them to achieve on their merits, a closed society is one in which there are significant barriers to human freedom. Those barriers might be race (as in some cultures where there is considerable discrimination), social status (as in societies where there exists a powerful social hierarchy), religion (as in communities with a religious or irreligious test for public office), and other restrictions on human flourishing.

In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper identifies one particular type of closed society, which he calls “tribal.” Greek society was essentially racist and tribal, with the various Greek city-states consisting of essentially one group of people sharing a common history and set of traditions. Jewish society was similarly tribal by this definition. Plato often seems to be defending the superiority of Greek ideas and social forms on essentially what we would call a tribal basis. In particular, Plato appears to be supporting an early form of Greek aristocracy, a form of government in which his family had flourished.

More recently, beginning with Hegel and culminating in the Third Reich, Germany developed a politics of “race and blood” that led, among other matters, to the holocaust and the enslavement of much of Europe. Hegel, in particular, is identified as the source of a kind of German tribalism that ended up in the glorification of the Master Race. Hegel thought that nations should be coextensive with a single people, which is the basis from which Hitler developed his notion that the Aryan Race should constitute a single nation in Europe, led by Germany. [3] For Popper, such ideas are the hallmark of a closed society.

What is Historicism?

The feature of Plato, Hegel, and Marx that Popper finds most horrible is their tendency to suppose that there are “laws of history” or “forces of history” that determine national and personal destiny, as opposed to human history being determined by the concrete choices made by people. For Popper, the work of Plato, Hegel, Marx, and their followers is essentially authoritarian, leading to brutal and degrading regimes. One need only look at Nazi Germany or the various Communist states to see an element of truth in his words.

Readers of this blog will note that I have critiqued various American political figures, left and right, for using the phrase “right side of history.” When we claim that our political beliefs are “on the right side of history” and our enemies are “on the wrong side of history,” we essentially claim that our enemies act contrary to historical forces that determine history. We are implying that our political foes are retrograde for not understanding this fact. Perhaps most distressing is that such phrases as “the wrong side of history” are prejudicial and enable the one who uses them to avoid the concrete defense of their political agenda.

To reject the notion of deterministic laws of history is not to deny the importance of history for a society. Nor does a rejection of historicism, by Popper’s definition, involve a denial of the obvious fact that history and historical situations limit and, to some degree, direct human action. Just to give one current example, the level of indebtedness of Western democracies does not determine their future, but it does restrict specific future outcomes.

What is rejected by Popper is the notion that human choices do not count, that somehow above and beyond human decisions, there is something else, laws of history or some kind of divine predestination, which laws or decrees render human choice unimportant or irrelevant. On the contrary, the availability and importance of human choice—and the moral responsibility that goes with such choice—are central to Popper’s defense of the open society.

Glorification of War and Struggle and the Closed Society

One of the most compelling features of The Open Society and its Enemies is how Popper shows Hegel and Marx to be modern exponents of the theories of Heraclitus and his glorification of war and struggle as the final arbiter of human history. Fundamentally, Marx and Hegel both have an amoral view of government and politics. Success matters in politics, and whatever policies a state adopts are just if successful. [4] The belief that politics is exempt from morality applies within and within states. Among states, despite the role of diplomacy and agreement, the final arbiter is success, and success equates to success in conflict, including war, in the accomplishments of the grand objects of the state. [5]

It does not take much imagination to see that this view translates into the excesses of the Nazi, Communist, and other regimes. Increasingly the Western democracies, as the Christian consensus that formed their societies disintegrates, this amoral (one is tempted to say immoral”) view of politics and diplomacy prevails. If one asks why certain political groups and politicians view it proper to use violence, state-sponsored and otherwise, to gain their domestic political objectives, one needs to look no further than the philosophies of Hegel and Marx.

The Search for the Great Man (or Woman)

Like Nietzsche, Hegel glorifies the Great Individual who creates a change, new, and successful political system or structure by sheer force of will. Lenin was the result of this kind of thinking transmitted via Marx. A great man (or woman) is one who expresses the spirit (or will) of their age and thus strides through history successfully in their endeavors. Such “world-historical figures” are the engine of the spirit of the age in achieving its ends. [6]

From ancient times to the modern age, the destiny of most “world-historical figures” has been to bring untold suffering upon the human race. A long line of such figures, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon the Modern Age, turn out to be little more than petty tyrants who, through skill and luck, for a time stride across the stage of history

The Importance of Piecemeal Social Engineering.

One implication of a desire for an Open Society is recognizing that grand projects are to be disfavored and piecemeal change is to be favored. This rejection of grand designs is a tough lesson to learn in the modern world, where we frequently glorify massive social programs, the Great Society, and the like while ignoring small changes to improve lives. Increasingly, it is disfavored by right and left groups impatient for massive social change. The results of this failure of such ambitions lie all around us.

 Practically, all societies are a mixture of open and closed, but some societies can be described as “open” and others as “closed.” In addition, all societies change over time, evolving new social institutions, cultural norms, and the like. Closed societies function so that an elite makes all such changes, be it members of an aristocracy, oligarchy, military junta, or members of a single authorized political party. In an open society, such changes are made by the free act of many individuals and groups piecemeal. In this sense, despite the alignment of adherents to the open society concept with radical leftist politics in America, the doctrine of Popper is essentially conservative in nature. He had seen the evils created by the Nazi and Russian regimes and the dangers of any form of totalitarianism.


Next week, the blog will focus almost entirely on Popper’s critique of Marx, who is both closer in time and more influential in current politics. This week has focused more on Hegel, whom Popper rejects in categorical terms. There are probably several reasons for this rejection. Most important is the connection Popper sees between the ideas of Hegel and the emergence of Naziism and the events of the Second World War, which was ongoing during the time his work was being written. Not so obvious is the likelihood that Popper is so violently opposed to Hegel because of his idealism, which is in fundamental opposition to Popper’s own materialistic view of human society, which makes him more open to Marx than to Hegel.

As a philosopher of science, Popper was familiar with Einstein’s theory of Relativity and one assumes somewhat familiar with Quantum theory. Interestingly, the implications of the latter do not seem to have penetrated his opposition to Hegel. One can expect too much of a philosopher, and it might well be too much to ask that Popper consider the implications of a non-material substratum to the visible universe on his ideas. I will take this up a bit at the end of next week. For now, it is enough to suggest that Popper defends a kind of Enlightenment program that is fundamentally impacted by a distinction between the human mind and inert matter—a distinction that may lead him astray in the end.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

[2] Id, at 262.

[3] Id, at 262.

[4] Id, at 277.

[5] Id, at 279.

[6] Id, at 283

Leadership and Good Friday

Where should we look for spiritual and moral principles to guide our actions? They are not to be found in the rules and practices of institutional decision-making. Leaders cannot find them by the simple calculus of “What is the rate of return on this investment?” or “How many votes will this bill cost?” Instead, moral and spiritual decision-making requires that leaders move our thought to a higher level—to the level of meaning and value. [1] When Isaiah describes the Suffering Servant, he sets a different standard for leaders. It is terrifying. Here is how he describes the Messiah to come:

He had no physical beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. Instead, he was despised and rejected by humankind, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Yet, he took up our pain and bore our suffering, while all along, we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted by his own failure. It was only later that we realized he was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; and the punishment that brought us peace was on him; by his wounds, we are healed (Isaiah 53:2-4, GCS)

The Leader as Servant

For Christians, leadership requires that we emulate the One who said that leadership within his kingdom was not about power, pride, or position but service (See Mark 10:35–45; Matthew 20:20–28; Luke 22:24–26). The Way of Jesus is the way of service in the spirit of self-giving love. The dilemma for Christ-Followers is how to discern and apply the wisdom of Christ and the Christian tradition in an ever-changing and often challenging environment. Something like a “Tao of Christ” helps leaders develop an attitude and approach that invokes the Spirit of Jesus and the spiritual resources needed to solve day-to-day problems.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the fool (unwise) and the wicked (those who habitually violate the moral law) act against the grain of the Cosmos, against the rational order of Creation, and against the moral order God embedded in human nature. The wise person faces this reality and lives according to reason and the moral law. This moral order is summarized in the Great Commandment to love God and others. The practical implication of the Law of Love is seen in the life of Jesus Christ.

Those who accept this ancient way of wisdom understand that scientific knowledge, faith, and moral insight are parts of a seamless web of created rationality binding the physical, moral, and intellectual universe together. Eugene Peterson captures this notion when he writes, “. . . God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within . . . that echoes God’s yes and no, right and wrong” (Romans 2:14, Message).

Leaders and Practical Wisdom

It is important to reacquaint people, and especially leaders, with this older tradition, a tradition that sees moral inquiry and ethical decision-making as an attempt to bring human life to wholeness personally and socially. This wholeness is achieved as the rational moral nature of the universe is reflected in the lives of concrete human beings who are attempting to live wisely and well and human institutions. The wise life is not something we create by decision (as in existentialism and postmodernism). We discover the wise life by observation and meditation on reality in light of God’s revelation in Christ.

In a world where many people have lost confidence in the existence of truth, it is important for Christ-Followers to humbly make known the Gospel as communicating real truth about how the world is and its relation to its Creator. In a world where many people consider religion as something backward, it is important to remember that Christians have always believed in the search for truth in whatever form, for God is the author of all truth. In a world where many people think of Christians as captured by superstition, it is important for Christians to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified, not against the facts, but as a way to make sense of the human condition and God’s interaction with human beings. [2]

This has practical implications for Christians. Following Jesus is a discipline by which we consciously open our minds and hearts to the deep wisdom of God revealed in Christ. This is why Christians are called “Disciples.” If, as Christians believe, Jesus embodies the wisdom of God, then true wisdom, wherever found, deepens our understanding of Christ. TheTao Te Ching is full of this kind of wisdom. It contains an understanding of life that can deepen our Christian understanding of the riches and depth of God’s wisdom and help us live more authentically as Christians.

This is especially true for leaders, who must make wise and prudent decisions in managing affairs. In leading people and organizations, leaders must constantly search for the true, the beautiful, and the good. Furthermore, leaders must do this with the constant awareness of their failures, faults, limitations, and brokenness. This sense of limits and fallibility is often lacking in contemporary leadership, in business, in government, in private organizations, and unfortunately, in the church.

The Way of Deep Love

As the Apostles, New Testament writers, and early Christians meditated on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they came to understand Jesus as God in human form—embodied Divine Love. One of the earliest names for Christians was “those who belong to the ‘Way'” (Acts 9:2). Jesus showed his disciples both a way to fellowship with God and a way of life. The Beatitudes are a beautiful description of the Way of Christ. This Way involves serving and leading others with a gentle, other-centered, sacrificial love.

There is a technical word for God’s willingness to serve creation at its deepest point of need. The word is kenosis, which means “to empty.” It comes from the words of Paul:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8, NIV).

In the older translations, the phrase “made himself nothing” (ekenosen) is translated as “emptied himself.” This is the classic testimony to God’s self-giving nature.

Christ reveals the limitless, vulnerable, self-giving love of God. In Christ, God served the greatest need of human beings and creation by emptying himself of overt power to redeem a fallen world. The message of the Cross is that God is the One who gives himself without limit, without restriction, without any holding back for the sake of his broken creation and his sinful people.[3]  This is what Christians mean when we say, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The love of God patiently bears with us even as we presume upon the mercy of God. The love of God endures our sins, shortcomings, and brokenness as the Spirit works patiently and in love to redeem and restore.


Interestingly, Jesus is more than just the model for religious and non-profit leaders. The world needs leaders who model the humility, servanthood, wisdom, and love of Christ. While there are differences in personalities, capacities, etc., between leaders in the church and those in government, politics, business, and other areas, the fundamental requirements of practical wisdom and deep love for others remain the same. This Easter, we might remember that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords was a person of humility, servanthood, and hidden wisdom, willing to give himself for the world and us.

[1] This meditation is based upon sections of the Introduction to my book, Centered Leading, Centered Living: The Way of Light and Love for Christ-Followers rev. ed. (Booksurge, 2016).

[2] See, Lesslie Newbigin, Truth To Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, MI & Geneva Switzerland: William B. Eerdmans and the World Council of Churches, 1991).

[3] See, W. H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense: the Response of Being to the Love of God (London, UK: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1977). See also John Polkinghorne, ed, The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2001) for a deep analysis of how creation reflects the One who is love and became love incarnate to redeem and restores his handiwork.

Emotionally Healthy Discipleship: A Study Worth the Time

This week, I return to a theme that has been covered in the past. I am convinced that the most important gift pastors and leaders can give to their churches is developing disciples who exhibit authentic Christian spirituality. In the past, I have reviewed the work of Peter Scazzaro and this emotionally healthy series. For the record, Scazzaro and his wife, Geri, are the leaders of a ministry known as “Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, the title of his latest book. [1] The Emotionally Healthy website is The materials necessary to lead folks through emotionally healthy discipleship training are available on their website and most Christian and secular internet book sales sites.

Peter and Geri Scazzero

Years ago, Peter and Geri Scazzero reached a crisis in their marriage, ministry, and lives. The Emotionally Healthy series of books and studies emerged from their commitment to seeking healing and wholeness. In a series of books and programs, the couple has covered such areas as emotionally healthy spirituality, emotionally healthy relationships, emotionally healthy discipleship, emotionally healthy churches, and emotionally healthy leadership. For women, they have developed a course known as “The Emotionally Healthy Woman.” Once again, all these studies are readily available.

One great value of their books has to do with the transparency of Peter as he describes his journey. Peter came from an Italian immigrant family. His father worked hard, and his mother raised the children. He was not from the perfect family. However, his family life left him with an innate desire to please people and solve problems. Those character traits and intellectual gifts made him ideally suited for ministry. However, there was an element of brokenness as well.

Eventually, Peter became active in a campus ministry program. He went to seminary and became a missionary in Costa Rica with Geri, by now his wife. After a time in mission work, the couple moved to New York City and founded what is today New Life Fellowship Church. It grew and prospered. By 1986, Peter and Geri were experiencing problems that many pastors experience: chronic overwork, emotional exhaustion, family stress, staff and interpersonal issues, betrayals, etc. In the end, after a church split, Peter had to come to grips with the fact that he was angry, bitter, tired, and depressed. Geri had to come to grips with the fact that she felt like a single mother because of the programming of her husband’s life, and no longer felt a call to be a part of Peter’s ministry. You must read their books to hear the story in their own words, but it’s a wonderful and potentially life-changing read.

The Emotionally Healthy Series

Some years ago, during a difficult time in my ministry, one of our children gave me Scazzero’s book, The Emotionally Healthy Church. [2] I read the book with great interest. Subsequently, I purchased and went through his major work, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. [3] Kathy, my wife, and I have later taught Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and used Emotionally Healthy Relationships in our churches and marriage. In at least two churches, I have had the opportunity to put to work the principles of Emotionally Healthy Discipleship and The Emotionally Healthy Leader. [4] We have personally seen the results in our marriage and congregations. Today, the Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and Relationship Courses are available as the “Emotionally Healthy Disciples Course,” which includes books, study guides, teaching videos, devotional guides, and teaching helps.

The fundamental principle that lies at the base of all the studies is quite simple: Many Christians and their leaders cannot experience the joy of their salvation or attain the level of discipleship of which they are capable of because of unaddressed emotional problems, usually stemming from their childhood. Addressing those issues releases a Christian’s emotionally-stymied discipleship capacities, promotes emotional healing, and unlocks hidden potential for churches, leaders, and individual Christians. Since churches are made up of human beings, creating an emotionally healthy congregation increases effectiveness in making and maturing disciples.

Emotionally Healthy Discipleship

Emotionally Healthy Discipleship leads students through seven marks of healthy discipleship:

  1. Become Emotionally and Spiritually Formed as a Person
  2. Follow the Crucified Lord, not the Americanized
  3. Embrace God’s Gift of your Personal Limits
  4. Discover the Treasures Hidden in Grief and Loss
  5. Break Free of the Power of Your Past
  6. Lead out of Weakness and Vulnerability

Emotionally Healthy Discipleship can be contrasted with Emotionally Unhealthy Discipleship, which is characterized by the following:

  1. Using God to run from God
  2. Ignoring the emotions of anger, sadness, and fear
  3. Dying to the wrong things
  4. Denying the past’s impact on the present
  5. Dividing our lives into “secular” and “sacred” compartments
  6. Doing for God instead of being with God
  7. Spiritualizing away conflict
  8. Covering over brokenness, weakness, and failure
  9. Living without limits
  10. Judging other people’s spiritual journey. [5]

Many of us in professional ministry can identify with the list personally and from observing our own, staff, and congregant lives.

Biblical Background

In Matthew, Jesus gives the Great Commandment, which forms the basic characteristic of Emotionally Healthy Disciples:

An expert in the law tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (See Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12: 28-34, and Luke 10:27).

Over and over, the command to love God and other people is repeated in one way or another in the Old and New Testaments. Unfortunately, the problem for some people is that they need more emotional maturity and health in order to be able to obey the command. Addressing emotional blockages to spiritual maturity and discipleship is, therefore, essential. If we are going to love God, and especially if we are going to love other people, we must have the emotional capacity to do so.

Why This Blog This Week?

This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday. I spent much time deciding whether to post strictly on a Palm Sunday theme, continue with the blogs on political theology, or do this blog on emotional health and discipleship. Finally, I decided that this particular blog was important. As a deacon, elder, pastor, transitional pastor, and now as a retired pastor and spiritual friend, I have seen in the lives of people I care for the terrible scars that we human beings can inflict and carry from our past into the present. I have also seen the way less terrible scars most of us carry can warp lives, promote personal and professional failure, cause unnecessary suffering, and harm families, friends, small groups, and congregations.

Interestingly, as Scazzero points out, Jesus over and over again demonstrated his human emotional maturity as well as his spiritual presence as the Light of the World. Jesus accepted the gift of limits. He was willing to be born in human form, live an ordinary childhood, delay his ministry until the right time, resist temptation, pray, rest when needed, and disappoint followers who expected the mistaken things from him. Ultimately, he was willing to accept the grief and suffering of betrayal, desertion, injustice, violence, and death—a terrible death on a cross.

Imagine the temptation Jesus experienced on Palm Sunday. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey as had kings of Israel in the past. He was surrounded by crowds cheering him on and waving palm leaves, a symbol of the entry of the Messiah into the city. He knew everyone in the crowd expected him to raise an army, begin a Civil War, defeat the Romans, and re-institute the kingdom of David. All he had to do was the “human thing,” the “natural thing,” and give the crowd what they wanted. Instead, he gave them what they needed—a suffering and rising Messiah for the Nation of Israel and the Jews and Gentiles alike. Jesus was willing to live in relative poverty, minister in a relatively small group in an unimportant nation at the fringe of the Roman Empire, and die in relative obscurity for the love of the human race and to glorify God. Resisting the temptations he faced required human emotional strength as well as a divine character.


I cannot speak for all pastors, but I spent much of my ministry trying to be successful by the standards of the American Evangelical movement. Church growth, good Biblical programming, the exemplary leadership structure, and a thousand other semi-important things crowded my days and nights with ceaseless activity. In the end, when it was over, like many pastors, I had to ask the tough questions, “Did I do any good?” and “Was it worth it? “Were all the nights spent away from family and friends really necessary?” I had to face some critical personal and social failures.

The Emotionally Healthy series of books is not without weaknesses, but the failings are minor when compared with the strengths of the series. Though using secular psychological models and tools, Scazzarro is careful to remain grounded in Scripture and the Christian tradition. One of the series’ strengths is the wide range of thinkers quoted and used, especially in the devotional guides, names stretching from the Desert Fathers to contemporary writers like Henri Nouwen. The devotional guides, designed to introduce readers to the notion of the Daily Office, are significant and many people who take the courses read and use them.

The books and video guides are well crafted and helpful, as are the workbooks. I have found myself returning to the devotional guides and workbooks to think about certain questions again and again, they are so meaningful.

I recommend The Emotionally Healthy Discipleship courses for church leaders, my dear churches, and the many congregants I love for one simple, straightforward reason: I love you and regret that I did not do more to help members, visitors, leaders, and churches in the way Peter and Geri Scazzero recommend in their writings. Doing the work the studies require will change your life, improve your walk with Christ, and unlock your hidden potential for joy in Christ.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Discipleship: Moving from Shallow Christianity to Deep Transformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021).

[2] Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003, 2010).

[3] Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality updated ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017)

[4] Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming your Inner Life will Deeply Transform your Church, Team, and World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017)

[5] See, Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, at 22 and Chuck Olson, Lead with Your Life at (Downloaded March 28, 2023).

Plato No. 6: Critique of Democracy

I have already given space to Karl Popper and his critique of Plato, particularly his opposition to democracy. However, one cannot summarily dismiss the ideas of the founder of Western philosophy without a sympathetic look at his critique. In so doing, it allows one to look more critically at his critics, such as Popper.

Background to Republic

As previously indicated, Plato came from an aristocratic family, well connected in Athens, and was active in its political life over generations. His life experience enabled him to see some of the worst aspects of political life, including the degeneration of democracy into mob rule. The result was a pessimistic view of political life. His experience with the various regimes of Athens, some of which he initially supported, ended with disappointment and despair:

Consequently, although at first I was filled with an ardent desire to engage in public affairs, when I considered all this and saw how things were shifting about anyhow in all directions, I finally became dizzy; and although I continued to consider by what means some betterment could be brought about not only in these matters but also in the government as a whole, yet as regards political action I kept constantly waiting for an opportune moment; until, finally, looking at all the States which now exist, I perceived that one and all they are poorly governed; for the state of their laws is such as to be almost incurable without some marvelous overhauling and good-luck to boot. [1]

Plato’s conclusion, repeated in the Republic, was that political life was hopelessly evil and could not be cured unless philosophers acquired political power, presumably including Plato. [2] Without such a divine intervention into political life, political society was doomed to endless decline into tyrannies, oligarchies, and democracies, and those “who hold power in them cannot endure so much as the mention of the name of a just government with equal laws.”[3]

The Republic

An excellent place to begin this blog is with a story, like the story of the cave included in the Republic. Plato imagines a ship or even Aa number of ships under common ownership. Although the ship owner is bigger and stronger than everyone else, everyone on board, he deaf, a bit blind, not intelligent, and does not understand seafaring. The sailors constantly quarrel, each trying to become the captain. Unfortunately, they have no relevant experience, education, or talent in ship management. They continually crowd around the owner, trying to get the ship owner to give them the captaincy. If they can’t persuade the owner to give them control of the ship, they execute whoever is elected or will throw them overboard. As to the ship owner, if they cannot corrupt the ship owner or stupefy the ship owner with drugs, they take over the ship violently, wasting its cargo and sailing recklessly. [4]

To Plato, this story describes the Greek city-state of his day. Like seafaring, it takes a particular kind of education, experience, and ability to guide the ship of state. Unfortunately, even though citizens have some degree of education and involvement in public life, they do not have the requisite talent, education, or ability to guide the ship of state. Worse, many people involved in politics need more capacity for the task of government. Nevertheless, many of them, especially in a democracy, think they can guide the shape of state. The result is wasteful constant strife, violence, political upheaval, and poor decision-making regarding governance matters.

Various Kinds of Polity and their Decline

As mentioned in prior writings, Plato analyzed the various ways political life is organized. Shared by Aristotle and others. In his dialogue, The Statesman, Plato names three main types: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, with each type having a degenerate form: tyranny, oligarchy (plutocracy), and mob rule. Plato, like Aristotle, sees the best form of government as an aristocracy. This is consistent with his social location and, perhaps even more importantly, his experience of his day’s politics. He had seen the decline of Athenian democracy into a terrible and violent tyranny.

In the Republic, Plato analyzes how various forms of government decline into tyranny, which he regards as the worst possible form of government. He begins with a process view of how governments rise and fall. His entire program starts with the assumption that all governments, indeed all human creations, are subject to flux and change, so the only permanently stable government must be ideal, as close to the perfect form of government as human knowledge permits.[5] Furthermore, Plato’s Kallipolis depends upon the existence of ideal individuals, the philosopher-kings or guardians, who would be educated and bred to be immune to the changes, corruption, temptations, and difficulties of political life.

One indication of this is the story told in the Seventh Letter concerning Plato’s unsuccessful attempt to create a version of his ideal city in Sicily by educating its ruler and his son in the nature of ideal government. The experiment failed. At one point in his letter, Plato observes:

Of necessity, these States never cease changing into tyrannies, oligarchies, and democracies, and the men who hold power in them cannot endure so much as the mention of the name of a just government with equal laws. [6]

In the end, Plato’s political philosophy is pessimistic.

Even assuming a perfect state could be formed, such states are subject to decline, decay, and division. [7]Just as humans age, decay, and die, the ideal state cannot escape the law of change implanted in the physical universe. Therefore, once a perfect state is established, there will still be the desire for money, violence, and division. In particular, the warrior class will be tempted to take power, and it is from this fact that a timocracy arises. For all of its virtues, the warrior class is violent and attached to honor rather than truth. The result is that such a form of government decays.

This timocracy resembles the ideal state and will be devoted to many of the ideals of the perfect state. Still, because philosophy has been abandoned, the rulers will ultimately develop an extravagant desire for wealth. This, in turn, results in the emergence of oligarchy, the rule of the wealthy. Once the ancient virtues of the philosopher-king and the warrior class are extinguished, the love of money takes the place of the love of honor. In time, wealth is concentrated in political power devolved upon the rich.

The rule of the rich is inherently unstable, resulting in the development of two classes: the rich and the poor. The rich desire to maintain and defend their wealth and prosperity. The poor desire to become rich. In the end, the result is social chaos. It does not take much imagination to see the situation developing in American democracy today. Wealth has become increasingly concentrated in a wealthy few who have significant control over our government.

In the end, as Plato analyzes the situation, oligarchies are doomed to become democracies. The cause is the decline in morals, love of extravagance, and love of money endemic to such a society. [8] Eventually, democracy evolves out of an oligarchy as the poor revolt out of opposition to the rule of the rich, giving power to the poor and unqualified to rule wisely. [9] Initially, when the masses take over, there is great freedom of speech and action. [10] Paradoxically, in a democracy, the rich continue to rule, but the rulership depends upon placating the mass of people. [11]

In a democracy, the result of the love of money, extravagance, lack of restraint, and the necessity to redistribute wealth to the masses to retain power eventually results in tyranny. When democratic leaders redistribute wealth, they always retain as much as possible for themselves. [12]  The result is another corrupt oligarchy of the political class. Eventually, there arises a man who flatters the masses, claims to be their selfless champion, and makes all kinds of promises to gain power. [13] In response, the people choose a champion, a man with the character of a tyrant, and the result is tyranny.

Tyranny is the worst form of government, and tyrants are the worst sort of person. As mentioned earlier, tyrants come to power by making promises to the people that cannot be sustained. Because of how they gain political power, tyrants always fear the rich, the powerful, the honorable, and the moral. They live in a constant state of fear and paranoia:

He must, therefore, keep a sharp lookout for anyone brave, large-minded, knowledgeable, or rich. And so happy is he that he must be the enemy of them all, whether he wants to be or not, and plot against them until he has purged them from the city. [14]

The natural result of this situation is the development of an unjust, unfair, and unwise government, far worse than any other form imaginable. As Plato puts it:

You mean that the tyrant is a parricide and a harsh nurse of old age, that his rule has become an acknowledged tyranny at last, and that –as the saying goes—by trying to avoid the firing pan of enslavement to free men, the people have fallen into the fire of enslaving people as their masters, and that in place of great but inappropriate freedom, they enjoyed under democracy, they have put upon themselves the harshest and most bitter slavery to slaves. [15]

Analysis and Conclusion

Fairness to Plato requires stepping away from the defense of democracy to which this blog is devoted, seeing the potential fairness of his critique, even seeing in our current state of political decline the operation of forces that wise people have seen operative in other societies. Plato sees several factors as contributing to the decay of a social order:

  1. The power of money corrupts those who possess it.
  2. The temptation to use public funds to purchase political influence.
  3. The potential for liberty to turn into license.
  4. The ability of people lacking knowledge or experience to gain power in democracies.
  5. The ability of certain personality types to manipulate people to gain control.

The founders of American democracy read Plato and others previously covered in this series. They were aware of the dangers inherent in a democratic constitution. One reason the checks and balances were placed in the Constitution was to create barriers against the potential excesses of democracy, which they knew to be prone to degeneration into mob rule and then tyranny. Over time, the public commitment to these checks and balances has declined, and the electorate has become unaware of the reasons behind the limitations on political power they felt necessary for a functional democracy.

Perhaps even more troubling is how the power of the media has enabled people with little or no experience in government to serve at high levels in the executive and legislative branches of government. As a result, our government’s fundamental structure may need to account for changes in our society and the dangers of a world in which nuclear weapons exist and can be used by rogue nation-states. Again, this is a matter for study, conversation, and dialogue.

As mentioned before, the Republic has as its theme justice and the best structure for a just society. In Plato’s mind, a society characterized by unceasing political strife could not be or remain a just one. He lived through times of upheaval and social change. Although he could not have known it, the days of Athenian democracy were over, and the rule of Macedonian warrior kings was just over the horizon. His attempt to maintain the virtues of the society where he grew up was perhaps noble. But it was also doomed.

Our nation’s founders tried as best they could to avoid the dangers of the forms of the political organization of which they were aware. They were children of the Enlightenment, and their times preceded the industrial, service, and information revolutions. The society of some 350 million we live in is far from the agricultural communities of 2,500,000 with which the founders were familiar. It is our duty to preserve and adapt our inheritance for the sake of our children and children’s children.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Plato, Seventh Letter Section 325e (downloaded March 16, 2023), hereinafter, “Seventh Letter”.

[2] Id, at 326a.

[3] Id, at 326c.

[4] Plato, Republic tr. G. M.A. Grube rev. C.D.C Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), at 162. This is found at section 489. Future cites will be to this number.

[5] I believe that Plato must have understood that no ideal, even his Kallipolis, could not be permanently established within human history, for all created, substantial things, unlike ideal Forms, are subject to inevitable change. This conclusion flows logically and obviously from his premises about the relationship between Forms and reality.

[6] Seventh Letter, at 326d

[7] Republic. at 546.

[8] Id, at 560.

[9] Id, at 557.

[10] Id, at 557.

[11] Id, at 564.

[12] Id, at 565.

[13] Id. at 566.

[14] Id, at 567.

[15] Id, at 569.

Plato 5: Justice, Leadership, and a (Misguided) Utopia

In the Republic, Plato spends a lot of time talking about the nature of a perfect Greek city-state (aKallipolis” in Greek) [1] and the education and character of such perfect rulers for such a perfect city. In so doing, he sheds additional light upon his view of justice and sets himself up as a defender of a fundamentally aristocratic form of government. Some scholars view his position as supportive of tyranny. Plato’s purpose in the Republic was, however, not to promote tyranny but to develop an ideal form of government.

Plato came from an aristocratic family, a life situation that probably impacted his political views. [2] On both his mother’s and father’s sides, he was descended from very prominent families with historical involvement in Athenian politics. The political instability young Plato observed, and the death of Socrates deeply impacted Plato during his youth and early adulthood. Plato experienced the end of one constitution, the emergence of a dictatorship (the dictatorship of the Thirty), and the subsequent democratic excesses that ended with the death of Socrates.

During his travels and sojourns outside of Athens, he observed the limitations of other states in Italy and Sicily. He experienced the uncertainty and unfairness of much political life. Although attracted to politics, Plato ultimately preferred the philosophical life to the life of action and practical politics. Nevertheless, his early interest in politics never deserted him. His greatest work, the Republic, is dominated by the search for a stable definition of justice and a means by which a completely just city-state might be created.

Karl Popper, in his great work, The Open Society and its Enemies, puts the issue this way:

Plato lived in a period of wars and political strife, which was, for all we know, even more unsettled than that which had troubled Heraclitus. While he grew up, the breakdown of the tribal life of the Greeks had led in Athens, his native city, to a period of tyranny and later to the establishment of a democracy which tried to jealously guard itself against any attempts to reintroduce either a tyranny or an oligarchy, i.e. a rule of the leading aristocratic families. [3]

Popper and other thinkers believe that Plato was haunted by these experiences and by the philosophy of Heraclitus, with its emphasis on change. He never entirely escaped the instability of his youth and the challenge of Heraclitus, both of which were motiving factors for his attempt to create a model for a perfect society in the Republic.

Plato’s Forms

In the Republic, Plato relates his famous “Allegory of the Cave.” [4] According to Socrates, the human race is pictured as living imprisoned in a dimly lit cave in which only shadows of reality can be seen. The light is far above them. Most people live and think in the shadows. To reach the light, one must undertake a journey towards the light. Those who seek freedom from the shadows must endure both the journey and the pain of enlightenment, but those who escape the cave realize that the shadow realities to which they are accustomed are shadows.

Socrates explains the meaning of the allegory to Glaucon as follows:

The visible realm should be like into the prison dwelling, and the light a fire inside it to the power of the sun. And if you interpret the upward journey and the study of things above as the inward journey of the soul, to the intelligible realm, you’ll grasp what I hope to convey, since that is what you wanted to hear about. Whether it’s true or not only the god knows. But this is how I see it: in the knowable realm, the form of the good is the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty. Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it is the cause of all that is correct, and beautiful in anything, that it produces both light, and its source in the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to ask sensibly in private or public, must see it. [5]

The ascent of the soul from the cave of the shadows of ignorance to the light of wisdom is a journey from the darkness of the visible, material world into the ideal world of forms.

For Plato, true knowledge and wisdom are found in an unchanging ideal world of ideas, which constitutes the form, pattern, essence, and ideal perfection of every actually existing thing. The form is a kind of plan or paradigm of the perfection of the material world of human experience. This includes the political world and our political experience. To comprehend this ideal, human beings must be educated and undergo the difficulties and challenges of leaving a state of ignorance and entering a state of true knowledge. This intelligible realm “controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to ask sensibly in private or public, must see it.” [6] In other words, understanding the intelligible realm is necessary in public life and private affairs.

The Kallipolis of Plato, his Ideal State, was an attempt to outline the form, the pattern, and the absolute ideal of what a Greek City-State might be like. It was what I call a “Transcendental Ideal.” [7] While it is certain that Plato would have liked to see Athens approach this ideal, I believe he understood that it could not be achieved. In the Republic, Plato sets out ideas that he believes, if implemented, would create a more stable Greek City-State. And avoid the conflict, revolution, violence, and injustice he had seen in his youth.

His ideas have been criticized much, and I happen to agree with many of the criticisms. A deceptive, unwise, destructive idealism fuels the revolutionary idealism of Marxists, Leninists, Nazis, and others. We see much evidence of this in contemporary society. As Karl Popper shows in his The Open Society and its Enemies, ideas have consequences, and ideas that are unrealistic and revolutionary are dangerous to human life, property, and the public good.

The ideas of Plato, however, cannot be dismissed as simply dangerous. One cannot deny that modern ideals of justice and notions of a “perfect society” have been influenced by Plato, especially his idea of a perfect society. The progress of society needs Transcendental Ideals, which drive human beings to improve the condition of the poor, the outcast, the rejected, and the lost. Our notion of the best kind of political state continues to be influenced by his work, and our ideas of justice are deeply influenced by Plato and those who have extended his work.

Most importantly, I think that the defect of the Republic flow from Plato’s notion of the forms, an ideal world that can be discerned only by pure reason. As we have reflected in these blogs, transcendental ideals are built on the foundation of human experience. We cannot reason or way to a perfect society; we can only work toward a more just and equitable society. The methodology of Plato was flawed from the beginning.

Power and the Ideal State

Plato sees that an ideal state requires ideal rulers who will administer its political and governmental affairs. If these rulers are to be able to rule effectively, then the various social classes that make up any society must be harmonized. Otherwise, there cannot be anything like justice. Any society is made up of different classes of people. Plato was familiar with Greek societies and those of the surrounding area. In these societies, there were six fundamental groups.”

  • Rulers (charches)
  • Soldiers (polymystes)
  • Farmers (perioikoi)
  • Craftsmen (tekton)
  • Laborers (helots)
  • Slaves (douloi)

The first two groups are related, for the rulers generally came from an aristocracy (aristoi) with military training and ability. In the Republic, Plato reduces the various groups to three: rulers, warriors, and everyone else.

 As indicated above, traditional Greek society was highly structured and aristocratic. Homer’s Iliad glorified war, and traditional Greek society was military at its roots. In Athens, the traditional rule of kings was replaced by tyranny and democracy, both of which Plato had seen decay into violence, injustice, and mob rule. [8]  In Plato’s analysis, there can never be peace until philosophers, not the traditional leaders of Greece, rule. Thus, he has Socrates observe in the Republic:

Until philosophers rule as kings in cities or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils. [9]

Warriors, who generally seek glory, make poor rules, for they are given to violence and overreaction. Craftsmen are given to greed and wealth accumulation and, therefore, cannot be good rulers. Slaves cannot be rulers, for they are not even citizens. Farmers and laborers lack the education and ability to be rulers. This leaves the need for an ideal philosopher king, which Plato calls “Guardians.” The guardians trained to be philosopher-kings are capable of guarding and maintaining the way of life in the city. [10] Unfortunately, this group of people does not exist, so it must be created.

The Role of Education

If an ideal city-state is to be achieved, leadership must be competent to create and maintain this ideal. A just and stable society cannot be achieved without leadership capable of ruling in a just and stable way. This requires special education. In Plato’s mind, the proper education for society is one in which each member of society is educated for the role they will play. In Plato’s day, Greek society was reasonably well fixed, with little chance for people to move between social classes. Plato’s much-criticized educational views tend to solidify society and limit the potential for positive and negative social change.  This is a much-commented-on weakness in his views.

In his book, The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper makes a sustained critique of the totalitarian tendencies of Plato’s description of the ideal society and his educational views, which were designed to make it nearly impossible for social evolution to occur. [11] One unfortunate adaptation of Plato’s views in modern education has been his use to justify a kind of education that educates children with the views of the ruling academic class, which have been almost uniformly secular. Plato’s educational theories were unabashedly political and designed to solidify the rule of the Philosopher Kings, which he envisioned world rule in the ideal state.

As to the curriculum Socrates recommends, he begins with stories, not all stories but those which teach virtue to the young. Such stories are to be of a type that encourages courage, moderation, holiness, and thoughtfulness in the young. [12]

Third, an ideal education does not ignore the physical health of those educated. Since the Guardians are taken from the warrior caste, they must be physically hardened for the life of a soldier: Thus, Plato writes:

Then our warrior athletes need a more sophisticated kind of training. They must be like sleepless hounds, able to see and hear as keenly as possible and to endure frequent changes of water and food, as well as summer and winter weather on their campaigns, without faltering in health. [13]

One supposes that Plato has in mind a kind of philosopher-king who spends his early years as a Special Forces officer. In my experience, such people are scarce and not necessarily possessed of the best judgment about matters outside of making war.

The next important for Platonic education is music and mathematics. This may seem odd, but it reflects Plato’s interest in Pythagoras and mathematics as an ideal form. Music is mathematical and rhythmic in harmony, grace, rhythm, meter, etc. For Plato, this harmonic character should be characteristic of the words and the music. Such music and poetry create a harmony of the soul compatible with Plato’s theory of forms, for music and harmony seek perfection in the forms themselves. [14]

Finally, a philosopher-king must be trained in philosophy and dialectic, for dialectic is the path of reason applied to political affairs. Plato’s dialectic is the ability to reason towards the ideal form in every part of life and argue rationally about practical governance matters to maintain the ideal state.

Lest I be unfair, underneath Plato’s educational system is an interest in justice as he perceives it. Since justice requires the achievement of harmony in society, those who can best create that justice will have achieved a certain harmony in their souls created by fine literature, harmonious music, and physical training that Plato believes will allow them to develop a love of order and beauty and perceive the best way forward for society. [15] We might disagree with his exact methods, but we can see that his ideal was well-meaning.


As I mentioned earlier, I think critiques of Plato, such as that mounted by Karl Popper in his works, are valid. In my view, Plato’s idealistic notion that one can create a perfect society or even envision one by using pure reason is a mistaken move. The betterment of society does not depend upon envisioning an ideal in the abstract but by studying the current state of affairs in any society and taking measured, practical steps to improve it. In gathering facts and analyzing the results of particular policy initiatives, one can discern the path of justice and improvement for an actual concrete society. Any other path is foolish and riven with the danger of excess and the unwise and destructive use of power.

[1] Kallipolis in Greek means “beautiful city,” and describes Plato’s vision of a perfectly organized, harmonious, ideal Greek City-State. This city would avoid the calamity of destructive conflict and violent change because it would be ordered in accordance with reason and embody an ideal form. Scholars differ as to whether Plato felt his Kallipolis was likely to be embodied in any existing state.

[2] In the aftermath of Athens’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War (431-405 B.C), a pro-Sparta party was installed in leadership and created a “reign of terror.” They became known as the “Thirty Tyrants” because of their cruelty. Once they were overthrown, because several of the Thirty and their supporters had been students of Socrates, he was arrested, tried, and executed, even though Socrates had served with honor in the Peloponnesian War and refused to support orders of the Thirty Tyrants. He was executed around the year 400 B.C.

[3] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 17.

[4] Plato, Republic tr. G. M.A. Grube rev. C.D.C Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), 514-

[5] Id, at 517b-c.

[6] Id.

[7] As I use the term “transcendental ideal,” it refers to an optimal future that cannot be achieved within history but towards which political and other actors can move within history. The Biblical notions of the “Kingdom of God” and the “Heavenly City” of Revelation embody two such ideals. I have dealt with these ideas in “Niebuhr 10: The End and Meaning of History” at, published January 17. 2023.

[8] See, Plato’s Seventh Letter, at (downloaded January 30, 2023).

[9] Republic, 473b.

[10] Id, at 384b.

[11] FS&E, at 126-132.

[12] Republic, 395-399.

[13] Id, at 404b.

[14] Id, at 400e.

[15] Id, at 403a.

Plato No. 4: The Republic and Justice

The nature of justice is the central question around which the Republic is structured. [1] In his greatest work, Plato discusses the nature of justice, defends its reality, and indicates the kind of society and polity he views most likely to produce a just social order. Plato was primarily an ethical and social philosopher. His metaphysical speculations were driven by an interest in achieving a good and righteous life amid the fluctuations of political fortunes and the temptations and pressures of practical life.

Plato was born around 348 B.C. into a prominent family. His father was descended from the last king of Athens, and his mother was descended from Solon, the great lawgiver of Athenian history. It was Solon who gave a form to the democratic constitution of the city-state. In a famous letter, Plato describes his various political activities and the disillusionments that resulted from his life experiences. [2] There is no question but that these experiences impacted Plato’s views on Justice.

Justice in the Time of Plato

Before dealing with specifics of the argument in the Republic, it is useful to look at the meaning of dikē, the ancient Greek word for “justice.” By Plato’s day, Dikē was largely replaced by its cognate, dikaiosynē, the word used for Plato’s cardinal virtue, justice. Important for understanding Plato is that Heraclitus used the term “justice” to refer to a proper balance among the forces of strife which he thought fundamental to the functioning of the universe. [3] This is a view held by other Greek philosophers.

In the New Testament, dikaiosynē refers to righteousness and often translates the Hebrew term “tsadique”. To the traditional Hebrew mind, a just or righteous person follows the law of God (the torah) and the teachings and wisdom of the past regarding proper behavior between people. This traditional usage is close to what might have been the traditional view of the Greeks as to the nature of justice. Perhaps more importantly for understanding Plato, the traditional world implies that justice must be achieved despite political life’s flux, change, and strife.

Three Views of Justice in the Republic

In the Republic, Plato outlines several competing theories of Justice:

Traditional Group Ethics. The dialogue of the Republic begins with the views of Cephalus, an elderly friend of Socrates who represents the traditional wisdom of the Greeks. For Cephalus, justice is speaking truthfully and giving each person their due. It is roughly equivalent to what Jewish wisdom literature considered just or righteous in a human being. A just person gives to each what is their due in society and their social and personal relations. After Cephalus leaves the conversation, his heir, Polemarchus, defends a more sophisticated version of the traditional view. “Justice” for Polemarchus is doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies. This may seem a harsh and limited sense of justice until one understands what Polemarchus is defending. We might call him a defender of a “group” or “tribal” loyalty. [4]For Polemarchus, a just person acts righteously towards family, social class, friends, fellow workers, church, neighborhood, city, and perhaps the nation. Justice is a social virtue practiced within a particular society, in the case of ancient Greece, the city-state.

Socrates argues that this is not necessarily true. For example, if my neighbor should give me some explosives to store in my barn and then later comes and asks for them so that he can blow up his place of employment, justice would not dictate that I give him his due despite our bond of friendship. The argument, which may seem obvious, points to a limitation on any tribal standard of justice: There are times when we are faced with a call to do justice greater than our loyalty to those closest to us.  Therefore, no traditional, tribal, or group ethics can be an infallible guide to action, not even our loyalties to those most important to us.

Power Ethics. Thrasymachus, a prominent sophist, then states his view, which should be familiar to modem people.  For Thrasymachus, justice is what those in power say it is:

This, then,  is what I say justice is, the same in all cities, the advantage of the established rule. Since the established rule is certainly stronger, anyone who reasons correctly will conclude that the just is the same everywhere, namely the advantage of the stronger. [5]

According to this argument, justice is simply that which those in power hold to be in their best interests.

Socrates attacks this argument by stating that the stronger and those in authority do not always know what is in their best interests and make mistakes of judgment, which we all call “injustice.” [6] It simply cannot be that justice is whatever those in power consider it to be at one moment, whether it is a king, a group, or the people.

Socrates also argues against the sophist position by analogizing political leaders to craftsmen. Insofar as they practice their profession, all craftsmen seek something other than their advantage. For example, doctors seek the health of their patients, and if they do not do so, they are poor doctors. Artists seek to create a piece of art desired by their benefactors. By analogy, political leaders are craftsmen in the art of government. Their art involves seeking the public good. If they seek their advantage and not the public good, they are not good craftsmen or use a word appropriate to political affairs, and they are acting unjustly. Thus, justice cannot be simply those in power seeking their advantage.

In response to this argument, Thrasymachus violently argues that Socrates is merely naive. He does not understand how the world operates. Justice is created as those who can dominate others and seek their own benefit. The only people interested in justice are the weak and naïve. They become just by following the dictates of the strong. We call justice simply a name given to the norms the powerful prefer.

For Thrasymachus, Socrates simply refuses to understand that justice and injustice relate to the advantage of the stronger and the ruler. What the ruler desires is automatically just, even though it is detrimental to the subject who obeys and serves. One who serves well is just. Injustice, then, consists in not doing what the rulers desire and serving the advantage of the stronger.[7] “Justice,” according to Thrasymachus, is attributable to only the weak who must serve the strong. They are just when they serve the strong and unjust when they do not.

Socrates replies with an argument applicable to our current society. If the views of Thrasymachus were to be put into practice, the moral fiber of the society would be destroyed, for no citizen would care about justice. Those who believe, like Nietzsche, that power is everything are ultimately unwise and foolish. They destroy the state. A sound political system requires wisdom and virtue, and wisdom and virtue can only exist where there is justice. [8]

A Utilitarian View of Justice. Glaucon presents a view of justice that is communitarian and utilitarian. Originally, societies were formed at the will of the strong. This is the root of Thrasymachus’ view of justice. Human nature is such that our natural competitiveness and desire for honor inevitably cause human beings to act without reference to justice toward others. [9] Justice, then, is not a natural virtue; it exists to place limits on human injustice. As to each person, what is important is to be seen as just for social reasons, but being a just person is not necessary for human happiness:

When fathers speak to their sons, they say that one must be just, as do all the others who have charge of anyone. But they don’t praise justice itself, only the high reputations it leads to, and the consequences of being thought to be just, such as public offices, marriages, and other things…. [10]

Justice is not natural, so to speak, but social in its nature and benefits. It results from our human need to place limits on power. It is unnatural and onerous for those who seek it. [11] Therefore, justice is doing things necessary to maintain the peace in order of a society, protecting the property and rights of those within it.

A Socratic View of Justice

In the end, Socrates defends the view that justice is found in a well-ordered society. In such a society, there is social peace because people of different groups receive what they are due. Only in such a society can the traditional view of justice and a social view of justice be combined so that all people receive their due. In so doing, Socrates tries to achieve the best of the prior theories without their flaws. He rejects the view that justice is merely traditional, the result of power, or utilitarian. Justice is an independent reality based on human nature and the nature of human society.

Socrates argues that justice can be discerned by analogy to what constitutes a just person. A just person keeps the three constituents of the human person, mind, body, and soul in a rational order. By analogy, a just society exists where the major groups of society are in order. Plato divides Greek society into three classes whose characteristics mirror the human psyche: philosophers (mind), honor seekers (soul), and money lovers (body). [12] A just society is, by analogy to the human person, a society in which the instincts of each class can exist in harmony.

Socrates’ view of justice as based on reason indicates that philosophers should rule because the love of wisdom is connected to the human capacity of reason which creates order in personal human affairs. According to Greek thought, the person guided by reason and controls his mind, emotions, and appetites accordingly is righteous. Society must also be ruled by reason to achieve justice. As Socrates put it:

Therefore, when the entire soul follows the philosophical part, and there is no Civil War in it, each part of it does its own work exclusively, and it’s just, and in particular, it enjoys its own pleasures, the best and truest pleasures possible for it. [13]

This conclusion leads Socrates to a consideration of that kind of society would most frequently achieve justice. The ideal city of the Republic is Plato’s answer to that question.


The sophist arguments in the Republic should be familiar to modern people, for it is implicit in all Marxist and Nietzschean views of justice. It sits behind the view of Oliver Wendell Holmes that justice is whatever the majority believes it to be. As Holmes observed in his essay on “Natural Law,” reprinted in Harvard Law Review:

I used to say when I was young, that truth was the majority vote of that nation that could lick all others. Certainly we may expect that the received opinion about the present war will depend a good deal upon which side wins (I hope with all my soul it will be mine), and I think that the statement was correct insofar as it implied that our test of truth is a reference to either a present or an imagined future majority in favor of our view. [14]

Modern people cannot ignore the views of Thrasymachus because they are the views held by many elites: “Justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.[15] The result of such thinking is evident everywhere around us. It is, as Socrates predicted, the result of a sophistic social order is “civil war, hatred, and infighting, while justice brings friendship and a sense of common purpose.” [16] For our society to heal, it will be necessary to recover belief among elites in the reality and importance of justice, not as a slogan to attain power, but as an invisible reality to seek.

Karl Popper, in his great work, The Open Society and its Enemies  makes what I think is a fair critique of the limits of Plato’s analysis and conclusions. Popper points out that the Republic does not deal with certain egalitarian ideals present in Greek society and which had been upheld by its democratic leaders. He begins his critique by pointing out that Plato omits to discuss what we would consider the most important fundamental ideals of justice:

… most of us, especially those whose general outlook is humanitarian, means something like this: (a) equal distribution of the burden of citizenship, i.e. of those limitations of freedom, which are necessary in social life; (b) equal treatment of the citizens before the law, provided, of course, that (c) the laws show neither favor nor disfavor towards individual citizens, or groups or classes; (d) impartiality of the courts of justice; and (e), an equal share in the in the advantages (and not only in the burden) which membership of the state may offer to its citizens. [17]

In Popper’s view, Plato’s omission is due to his fundamentally anti-democratic view of the state, which reduces justice to the convenience and maintenance of what Plato sees as the ideal state. [18] In this sense, Popper sees Plato as fundamentally totalitarian in his view of justice. In particular, this kind of view of justice views the needs of the ruling class of society as paramount and as superior to individual claims to freedom and justice in the sense set out above.

While I agree with Popper’s critique, I would argue that Socrates’ argument in the Republic is fundamentally sound. He considers justice as an independent reality. It cannot be reduced to power, utility, or any other lesser thing. Justice is related to the creation of social peace and harmony, a harmony that requires that society be governed by reason. In this way, Plato upholds basic ideals that may be under attack in the modern world. Plato was, however, limited by his view of the ideal state, which few contemporary thinkers would view as ideal in any meaningful way. His aristocratic leanings and the development of his philosophy from an unachievable and unwise totalitarian ideal reveal his social location.

Copyright 2923, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Plato, Republic tr. G. M.A. Grube rev. C.D.C Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992).

[2] The letter in question is the so-called “Seventh Letter of Plato.” Plato’s Seventh Letter, at (downloaded January 30, 2023). Some scholars question its authenticity.

[3] “Justice” at/ (downloaded January 30, 2023).

[4] It is a view called, “tribal” by some thinkers today. I think this appellation is unfair. The idea is that the society to which I belong has a set of standards that are natural to it, standards that its members uphold. The weakness of this notion is only seen as my standards come into conflict with the standards of others.

[5] Republic, 339.

[6] Id, at 339d. In making this argument, Thrasymachus illustrates a problem that is causing the decline of our own democracy. His view means that tyranny, oligarchy, and mob rule are all equally able to call their decrees “just” even though they harm others. This problem is endemic to modern American politics. Those in power feel justified in doing whatever they please.

[7] Id, at 343c-d.

[8] Id, at 351d.

[9] Id, at 359b-c-d.

[10] Id, at 363a

[11] Id, at 364

[12] Id, at 581c

[13] Id, at 586c

[14] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Natural Law” Harvard Law Review (1918).

[15] Republic, 338c.

[16] Id, at 351d.

[17] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 86

[18] Id.

Preparation for Leadership in the Apostolic Era.

Life within God’s family after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension is not identical to the life of discipleship when Jesus was physically present, nor can it be precisely how today’s church prepares leaders. When Jesus was physically present, his call was to come and physically follow and be with him (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:2-11). When Jesus ascended into heaven, the apostles’ call was to trust and believe in the Risen Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, continue to follow Jesus as leaders of a small, unpopular, and sometimes persecuted fellowship of Christ-followers. He would be invisibly present by the power of the Holy Spirit. After the resurrection, the call was (and is) to follow Jesus, who is present in his people by the power of the Spirit. The call at the time of the apostles is identical to the call for training leaders within the church today.

First Deacons. After Pentecost, we are told that the early church met in intimate fellowship:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the people’s favor. And the Lord added to their number daily those being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

As the number of disciples increased, there was a need for more leadership. The intimacy of the community was being tested by the difficulties associated with growth. The apostles, therefore, had to appoint additional leaders. Here is how it happened:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them (Acts 6:1-6).

How had these men been prepared? By spending time with the apostles, hearing their teachings, participating in the community, practicing hospitality, and sharing their lives and faith with others. They had no formal education. They had what might be called “relational education.”

Paul. Paul is another unique example. His conversion was unique, dramatic—and doubted by some leaders of the early church and with good reason (Acts 9:26). Barnabas, a great leader of the early church, had confidence that Paul’s conversion and talents were important and real. Therefore, we are told:

But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul, on his journey, had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord (Acts 9:27-28).

If we read between the lines, we can see that Paul was spending time in the fellowship of the Apostles, receiving the same intimate discipleship training and preparation, experiencing the communal life of the church, and using his gifts as he matured as a disciple and prepared for further leadership in the church.

As the church grew beyond the limits of the Holy Land, there was an additional need for leadership. The church eventually sent Barnabas to Antioch to see how things were going there and ensure that the rapidly growing congregation was healthy. At that point, Barnabas brought Paul into the leadership team of the church:

News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and many people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people (Acts 11: 22-25).

Paul’s preparation for leadership was not complete. He spent another year under the leadership and guidance of Barnabas, who kindly prepared him for ministry. Then, the Holy Spirit spoke to the church at Antioch, and Barnabas and Paul set out on their first missionary journey.

Now in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch), and Saul.  While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:1-3).

The order of names is important. Paul is still apprenticing with Barnabas. A close reading of the events of the First Missionary Journey shows that Paul was nearly ready to lead and was beginning his career as the greatest missionary of the early church. [1]

John Mark. After returning from the First Missionary Journey, there was a period of rest and reporting. When the two missionaries prepared to leave on their second trip, intending to communicate the decisions of the Council at Jerusalem to the churches, Barnabas and Paul had a disagreement that sheds more light upon the training of leaders in the early church.:

Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches (Acts 15:37-41).

John Mark had left the little missionary company during the first Missionary Journey, perhaps from homesickness or some other reason. Paul was unwilling to forgive and forget and continue to train John Mark for ministry, but Barnabas was. Therefore, they split up, and Barnabas, true to his character, continued to train John Mark while Paul undertook to disciple another missionary in the making, Silas.

History records that John Mark eventually became the traveling companion of Peter was with Peter near the end of his life, wrote the gospel we have as Mark, and was a leader of the post-Apostolic Church. He was not ready for leadership when Paul rejected him, and Barnabas continued his training, but he became a leader of the early church.

Church tradition holds that Mark was Peter’s interpreter in Rome. In addition, tradition has it that he wrote the gospel that bears his name. Finally, Mark is also said to have been an evangelist and responsible for establishing the church in Alexandria in Egypt. Paul, Barnabas, and Peter were all a part of his preparation for leadership.

Silas. Silas was a leader of the church in Jerusalem, sent by that church to Antioch, and a traveling companion of Paul until his death. Silas both traveled with Paul and ministered independently of Paul with others, including Timothy, on occasion (Acts 15:14Silas was with Paul at Thessalonica and is mentioned as a co-author of the letters of Paul to that congregation (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess1:1). He seems to have ministered with Peter at some point in his ministry (I1 Peter 5:12)). Legend makes Silas the first bishop of Corinth. Paul and Peter seem both to have been responsible for his development as a leader.

Timothy. During the second Missionary Journey, Paul attracted yet another disciple he trained for leadership. Timothy was the child of a Greek father and a Jewish/Christian mother (Acts 16:1-2). He was a good potential cross-cultural missionary because, like Paul, he could move comfortably in both the Greek-speaking society of Asia Minor and the Jewish culture of the diaspora of the day. He was well-liked in Lystra (v. 2). Timothy would remain a companion of Paul until Paul’s death. He was with Paul, probably in Rome, when the letter to Philemon was written (Philemon 23). Tradition has it that he later served in leadership in the church, eventually becoming a bishop and martyr to Christ.

Luke. The second missionary journey produced yet another future church leader, Doctor Luke, the writer of Luke and Acts and one of the most important figures in transmitting the apostolic witness to future generations. [2] He was with Paul on the Second and Third Missionary Journeys. Luke was with Paul in Rome when Paul wrote his letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:11) and with Paul when Philemon was written (Philemon 23). Church tradition holds that he survived Paul’s death and completed his books about the life of Christ and the actions of the Apostles before his death.

Onesimus. I want to deal with one more early church leader who was subject to intense personal discipleship training by Paul, Onesimus, whom we know of because Paul interceded for him in the book of Philemon. Onesimus was a slave. He escaped from Philemon, his master, and eventually joined Paul and acted as a surrogate son and helper for the now-imprisoned Apostle (Philemon 10-11). Onesimus has become a dear brother and friend to the apostle, who sends him back to his master with a plea for mercy (17-18). Tradition has it that Onesimus later became the bishop of Ephesus, where he may have been instrumental in collecting the letters of Paul. He was put to death, and the church recognized him as a martyr for Christ.

Implications for Pastoral Training

It should come as no surprise to any reader that the Scriptures of the Early Church and the witness of the Gospels support and encourage changes in the way pastors and other church leaders are trained. It is not primarily the duty of Christian Colleges and Seminaries to train church leaders. It is primarily the responsibility of the church to train leaders from among those who have shown promise to existing church leaders.

The second conclusion is that church leadership training must be personal, intimate, and authentically mentoring. Jesus mentored the Apostles in a close, personal relationship. The Apostles and their immediate followers mentored the next generation of church leaders in just the same way Jesus mentored them. By the time the New Testament closes, we are at least in the third generation of mentoring leaders in life-transforming life and community. [3]

As the church of the 21st Century comes to grips with the need for a new generation of apostolic leadership, it should revisit the role of mentoring and personal relationships in the preparation for ministry. Traditional seminaries, online training, and other “cognitive-alone” based strategies will not solve the problem of training a new generation of church leaders.

A possible complaint to my conclusions might be that they underestimate the need for cognitive training and seminary-level curriculum for church leaders. This would be a misinterpretation. I am both happy and grateful for my seminary education and the education that has borne fruit in the lives of many leaders I have known. Such training is important and necessary for many leaders to develop their potential for service to the church. However, cognitive learning is not enough, as the decline in many churches served by traditional seminaries illustrates.

I am arguing for the idea that existing pastors and leaders must make mentoring the next generation of church leaders a priority. Denominations and other groups should act to make this an expected task of church leaders at all levels. The future of the church is at stake.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] It is not the purpose of this essay to go into the details of Paul’s missionary techniques or success. I hope to cover this in a future essay on the leadership and training of missionaries.

[2] Both Timothy and Luke had daily intimate contact with the Apostle. Timothy was recorded as having been given special duties, for he was well-liked in the Jewish-Greek diaspora. I will give more time to Timothy later as we look at the two letters Paul wrote to him; however, the length of this blog means it will have to wait for another writing.

[3] Jesus mentored the Apostles, who mentored Paul and Barnabas, who mentored John Mark, Silas, Timothy, Luke, and Onesimus.

Jesus Prepares Leadership for the Apostolic Church

Training new church leaders is of the utmost importance for the future of Christianity in our society. There is a deep and growing lack of leaders equipped to grow the church under the conditions we face in America and Europe. In many denominations and fellowships, there have been dramatic examples of a decline in faith, morals, and fidelity to the Biblical witness and traditions of the church. Congregations are entitled to view their pastors and leaders as examples of Christian spirituality and character for themselves, their families, and community members.

It is foreign to a Christian understanding of Christian leadership that spiritual and moral standards either do not exist or are not modeled and transmitted by the leadership of local congregations. This means that, in addition to intellectual preparation, there must development of Christian spirituality and character among church leaders of all kinds. We see this exact kind of holistic preparation in the New Testament, beginning with the ministry of Jesus.

The Community Jesus Formed

The New Testament gives Christians insight into how Jesus prepared his disciples for future leadership. [1]The process was personal and communal. Scripture records that Jesus began his ministry by inviting the disciples into a personal relationship. Matthew describes it like this:

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and Simon’s brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once, they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and father, and followed him (Matthew 4:18-22).

Jesus found Peter, Andrew, James, John, and the other disciples as they went about their ordinary day-to-day lives. He did not say, “Stop what you are doing for a few moments and accept me as your Lord and Savior before going on with your life as before.” He did not ask for a merely intellectual commitment, “Recognize I am the Son of God, then you can go back to living the way you did before.” He did not ask them to read his latest book or enter a training program so that they could read and interpret the scriptures according to a confessional ideal. He said, “Come, follow me.” In other words, he invited them into an intimate, interpersonally intense relationship that would end with their becoming leaders of the Christian movement. [2]

This commitment involved more than their minds. It involved a break from the past and physically following him in a life-changing encounter. Jesus began his ministry by creating a family-like group of disciples, unique individuals he was forming into a community of faith. [3] This should encourage contemporary people to see that there are limits to what classroom-centered and online training can accomplish. It was true in the time of Jesus and it is true today.

Jesus called ordinary people into whom he poured his life so that they could pour their lives into the lives of others. In the beginning, they were not ready for leadership. They were not even believers. Nevertheless, Jesus saw their potential. He trained them. He lived with them as if they were his family for three years. He put up with their failures, folly, and shortcomings. He loved them enough to sacrifice his life for them (and us), just as if they (and we) were his biological children. In the end, he called his disciples “Brothers.” Then, he set them loose to change the world and build the same community wherever they went. They did exactly that.

Jesus’ Method of Pastoral Preparation

How did Jesus manage to form and sustain his earthly family of disciples and get them ready for their future ministry? Here are a few concrete things he did:

  • He called his community of disciples into being (Luke 5:1-11).
  • He shared his life with them in a deep and meaningful way (all four Gospels).
  • He prayed for them (John 17:6ff).
  • He taught them (Mark 1:21).
  • He enabled them to see the power of God (Luke 7:11-17, as one example).
  • He loved them (John 13:39).
  • He allowed them to lead (Mark 6:6-7).
  • He rebuked them (Mark 9:36-39).
  • He gave his life for them (Mark 10:45).

These things were experienced and witnessed in the context of a personal, intimate relationship. From beginning to end, Jesus’ conducted his mission in and through relationships with people who were so close to him that they became his new family (Matthew 12:50). This is how Jesus fulfilled the most central part of his ministry: getting a small group of men and women ready for the day when they would lead others to faith in God the Father, whom Jesus called “Abba,” or “Daddy,” by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus trained those he met so that they too would become children of God (John 1:12). As part of this discipleship group, his disciples learned the character and skills they would need to share the faith throughout the Roman world.

Jesus Mighty Deeds and Empowering Mission

Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels are interspersed with mighty deeds of power and his preparation of the disciples to do likewise. For example, in Luke, Jesus chooses the Twelve and then demonstrates to them his power over sin and death:

One day soon afterward Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night. At daybreak, he called together all of his disciples and chose twelve of them to be apostles. Here are their names: Simon (whom he named Peter), Andrew (Peter’s brother), James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas,James (son of Alphaeus), Simon (who was called the zealot), Judas (son of James), Judas Iscariot (who later betrayed him). When they came down from the mountain, the disciples stood with Jesus on a large, level area, surrounded by many of his followers and by the crowds. There were people from all over Judea and from Jerusalem and from as far north as the seacoasts of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases, and those troubled by evil spirits were healed. Everyone tried to touch him because healing power went out from him, and he healed everyone (Luke 6:12-18).

Soon after this event, Jesus sent out the Twelve to engage in the ministry for themselves. (Luke 9:1-4). In Mark, we are told that Jesus sent the disciples out “two by two,” that is in a community with instructions as to how to carry out their mission (Mark 6:7). They went out and preached as they had seen Jesus preach and performed the same kinds of deeds they had witnessed (Mark 6:13). They were able to do these things not just because of what Jesus taught them, but because of what they had witnessed in community with him.

This same cycle of community formation, learning, watching, and then experiencing ministry and mission is the proper formula for training leaders today, just as it was for Jesus. To do this, however, the means and methods we use for leadership training must be modified in the direction of a communal, hands-on mentoring experience. This is not just true for seminaries and the professional training of pastors but also for training lay people.

In my case, I was a Sunday School Teacher, Youth Leader, Deacon, and Elder in a good church before I went to seminary for professional training. When I arrived, I had many basic skills to lead a congregation. I had watched competent leaders, professional and lay, manage a congregation in good times and bad. I had seen successes and experienced failures. I needed a better understanding of theology and ministry, but I was prepared to move into a new phase of leadership. This is exactly how the church should train leaders today. They should be identified and trained in local congregations, mentored significantly, given opportunities to prove themselves, and then sent for professional training. This does not let seminaries off the hook for character and spiritual training. They too must not just give “professional education” but also provide spiritual and moral training for leadership by those who have proven themselves.

Transmitting the Story and its Meaning

The gospel writers are univocal as to the wisdom, character, and spiritual depth of Jesus of Nazareth and the formative influence he had upon his followers. The Gospels are the “mediated memories” of the Apostles, either directly by someone who personally knew Jesus or as mediated by those who received the memories of Jesus from an apostolic source. They represent a recollection after time had passed and the disciples had time to ponder the meaning of what they had learned and heard from Jesus. What the disciples had learned was life-transforming.

All we know about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we know that the disciples told the story to others, who also retold the story. Eventually, some hearers wrote the story down for future generations. Matthew tells the story from the perspective of a Jew for a primarily Jewish community of faith. Mark tells the story from the perspective of the disciples (Peter), who are portrayed as clueless a good bit of the time about the meaning of Jesus’s life. [4] Luke tells the story from the perspective of a Gentile follower of Jesus trained by Paul. John tells the story from a distance in time through the eyes of someone who has thought about the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the gentile world.  In the end, however, they remembered his life, his love, his teachings, and his mighty acts, which they did not so much study as observe in action and life

Every Christian leader should have a similar life-transforming experience as a significant part of the preparation for ministry. Small groups of believers, which call people into a relationship with Christ and each other, allow people to share their Christian walk, deepen their prayer lives, and experience a life-transforming community, are primary vehicles for the Christian life. These groups are a source of Christian teaching, places of loving care, a source of guidance in difficult times, and provide leadership for a growing fellowship of Christians. From the ranks of growing disciples, the church can and should choose some for additional training and leadership in the church.

Jesus’ Interpretation of his Life and its Meaning

Near the end of Luke, on several occasions, Jesus reflects on the meaning of his life and its importance to the disciples. When he met the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, he said to them:

How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:25-27).

When Jesus met the disciples for the last time, according to Luke, he gave them final instructions as to the meaning they were to attach to his life, death, and resurrection:

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44-49).

It is interesting where in his gospel, Jesus places these teachings—in the end, after all the mighty deeds were done, all the sermons preached, and after they had witnessed in community what God was really like. Then, as his final teaching, Jesus gave them a lesson in Old Testament interpretation. To the Jews, the Old Testament had three parts: The Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, which included the Psalms. It is most likely that Jesus undertook to explain his messiahship by teaching from each of these sources, showing how he fulfilled the clues and prophesies of scripture concerning the nature and mission of the Messiah. He did not do this at the beginning of his ministry and then send them out. Instead, throughout his ministry, he showed them, taught them, and brought them to a deeper understanding of the scriptures, an understanding that would continue to grow as time went by.

I have placed the issue of Biblical and Theological training last in this essay, not just because of the ending of Luke, but because it seems to me that it does come last. First, we meet Jesus. Second, we decide to follow Jesus. Third, we experience Jesus in the community of faith. We worship Christ in community. We listen to sermons. We take communion. We pray. We learn how to be in a small group and lead it. We learn a good deal as we go along. We attend Bible studies and retreats and the like. Finally, we are ready for a deeper dive into theology and the meaning of Christ as we are fully and finally prepared for ministry.


This is only a brief review of some of the central events through which the original Twelve were prepared for their sending into the world to fulfill the Great Commission. Today, many scholars and church leaders believe that we are in a “New Apostolic Era.” Western Christians largely live in secular, post-Christian societies. Existing churches are faced with great obstacles not just in sharing the Gospel with new believers but even in maintaining the faith and life of their existing members.

The solution to the decline of the churches goes beyond teaching. It involves creating a new generation of leaders who can form small communities of believers, just as the First Century church created small communities of believers. This requires leaders who understand group dynamics, not just intellectually but practically. It requires that those who lead congregations have experience in leadership at the most basic level of discipleship and Christian formation and more technical education. This means that denominations and churches will have to revise how they train leaders and churches will have to take a more active role in leadership development. There is no other way.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The apostolic preparation of leaders, exemplified by the book of Acts, will be considered in a future essay, as will the Pastoral Epistles of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus.

[2] See G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Discipleship (College Station, TX: VirtualBookworm, 2022), 27-28. A good deal of the material within is based on research done while preparing Crisis of Discipleship.

[3] Id, at 110-111.

[4] Although the disciples seem to have hoped he was the expected Messiah, and Peter at some point declares him to be so, that declaration does not prevent them from denying Jesus and drifting away, even betraying him.

Philosophy Before Plato No. 2

This is our second week on the Pre-Socratic Philosophers. Their work is essential, and philosophers today struggle with many of the same questions that motivated the earliest thinkers. This week, we will see that struggles in our time between materialism and idealism, between a world that works from power and a world that honors love, and between a world in which justice is merely a name the winners of the struggle of life place on the fruits of their victory were present in the ancient world, just as they are present today. In particular, we will look at Empedocles because his work, in some ways, leads to the work of C. S. Peirce.

Years ago, while studying a thinker in the tradition of narrative ethics, I wrote a paper critiquing the narrative move because of its infinite malleability based on the prejudices and preferences of interpreters. I compared this modern narrative thinker with Augustine, whose ethics are based upon love and the insight that “God,” the ultimate principle of the universe, is “love” (I John 4:8). My thesis was that an ethic based upon an ontological view of the world, what the world “really is” is always superior to a view that floats on some interpretation of a narrative.

My catchline was, “Ethics should follow ontology”—a conclusion from which I have not wavered. In my subsequent thinking, that insight has been a guide and spur to deeper thought. These blogs are fundamentally a look at political philosophy and theology, but the attempt is also an attempt to think through a defendable ontology that supports and undergirds respect for human freedom of thought, speech, and action. Empedocles considered that Love, similar to what Peirce called “Agapism” was a fundamental aspect of reality. This insight matters, for if there is an attractive, cherishing principle at work in reality, there are consequences of ethics and politics.


Democritus (460-370 B.C.) is credited with initiating that movement of physics and philosophy which we might call “materialistic atomism.” The word “atom” comes from a Greek word, atomos, which means “uncuttable”. For the atomist, all material things are reducible to particles, out of which all other material objects are composed. Democritus was a materialist and skeptical of any explanation of human behavior, including moral behavior, not grounded in his materialistic ontology. Democritus believed that human life was originally like that of animals. As such, Democritus sees human beings and society as developing evolutionarily. He sees the gradual development of human communities as motivated by the need for mutual protection and cooperation in the quest for survival. Thus, human institutions, including governments, have evolved and continue to evolve to meet human needs. [1]

His work remains important today. There is an element of materialistic evolution at work in the development of society, and much of what occurs in our world can be studied and understood in materialistic terms. While post-modern physics casts doubt on the view that material forces can be the complete explanation, they continue to explain a great deal.


The name of Protagoras (490-520 B.C.) is connected in the history of philosophy with the school of “Sophism.” Plato condemned sophists as consisting of those who conducted philosophy for gain and the pleasure of debate without any real interest in truth. Protagoras is credited with the phrase, “Man is the measure of all things,” which is interpreted as meaning that there is no objective truth, only human opinion. In this way, Protagoras is a forerunner of post-modernism. Philosophy is not the search for truth but an endless discussion of topics of philosophical interest.

Protagoras investigated what he called “orthoepeia” (proper use of words) and was one of the first philosophers to write on grammar (syntax). In this endeavor, he is the first representative of a school of linguistic analysis so prominent in the 20th Century. He is important for this reason, if for no other.

Protagoras disbelieved in the Greek gods and was an atheist by the standards of his day. His views on the existence of the good, true, and beautiful, which he considered mere names, make him the first nominalist, or at least the fountain of the idea from which nominalism emerged in the Middle Ages. [2]


Empedocles (492-432 B.C.) was, like Pythagoras, a mixture of a philosopher, scientist, and poet. He was active in a democratic movement against tyranny and an orator of note. He developed the cosmogenic theory that the universe is composed of four classical elements: earth, air, fire, and water.  Empedocles also saw the world as a cosmic cycle of change, growth, and decay. His philosophy is similar to that of Heraclitus but with the difference that instead of strife being the fundamental principle of the universe, the cosmic cycle results from the interplay of Strife and Love or what we might see as a combination of blind material forces and attractive, relational and noetic forces.

For Empedocles, Love involves the attraction of different forms of matter into unity, while Strife involves their separation. Empedocles taught that there was a time when the fundamental elements and Love and Strife existed in a condition of rest and inertness, without mixture and separation, in the form of a sphere (representative of God). The uniting power of Love predominated in the sphere, and the separating power of Strife guarded the extreme edges of the sphere. Since that time, however, Strife has gained more sway, and the actual world is full of contrasts and oppositions due to the combined action of both principles. [3]

Thus, Empedocles writes:

Twofold is what I shall say: for at one time, they [i.e., the elements] grew to be only one. Out of many, at another time again, they separate to be many out of one. And double is the birth of mortal things, double their death. For the one [i.e., birth] is both born and destroyed by the coming together of all things, While the other, inversely, when they are separated, is nourished and flies apart.

These [elements] incessantly exchange their places continually,

Sometimes by Love all coming together into one,

Sometimes again, each one carried off by the hatred of Strife. [4]

Love and strife are dual agents in the formation of the universe from its elementary components. Empedocles’ views are somewhat similar to C. S. Peirce, whose triad of Chance, Order, and Love mirrors, in some ways, Empedocles’s ideas. Peirce’s “Chance” is similar to Empedocles’ “Strife” and Empedocles’ Love is similar to Peirce’s notion of agapistic cherishing. Peirce also adds the notion of order or regularities, what he sometimes called “habits of nature.”

Empedocles was similar to Pythagoras in that he believed that the mind was primary and then the importance of numbers. As a scientist, Empedocles believed that the world was spherical, as it is, and that it did not rest on water but floated freely in space. For Empedocles, the universe was made up of fundamental elements, fire, water, earth, and air— the elements that Empedocles observed in the physical universe.


By the time of Plato and Aristotle, Greek thinkers had deduced in a crude but real way some of the fundamental ideas with which modern metaphysics and physics struggle. The visible world we observe and in which we live (what might be called the “Newtonian World”) is made up of stable elements, particles that we might call material. This world is largely deterministic. However, underneath that Newtonian world is another stratum of reality that is not material and not deterministic (the Quantum World), from which the Newtonian World emerges. This Quantum World is not material but rather mathematically discerned and structured and is best described as waves existing in a quantum field. It is the most fundamental reality we can currently observe and understand.

Thus, our world has characteristics that early on were discerned by philosophers:

  1. The seen world is made from entities that cannot be seen but are subject to physical laws that the human mind can discern.
  2. This seen world is, in some sense, not material. Today, we think of this non-material aspect of reality as disturbances in a universal field. Aristotle called the potential of the universe “Potentia,” constantly changing and emerging into new patterns.
  3. Not only is the invisible world constantly changing and evolving, but so also is the visible world in which we conduct our daily lives, including our political lives. This gives rise to Heraclitus’ view that flux is the only constant.
  4. Finally, some of the Pre-Socratics believed that there is a principle active in the world that seeks “justice” or a right and sustainable ordering of reality. This notion of Justice bears some resemblance to the Hebrew notion of Shalom, or everything being in its proper place and related to others properly. Socrates denied the sophist view and defended the reality of abstract ideas like justice. Plato’s Republic is an attempt to give further understanding of the idea of Justice and what it might look like in an ideal society.

The Great Synthesis

By the time of Plato and Aristotle, Greek thinkers had deduced in a crude but real way fundamental ideas, which modern physics and philosophy have extended in fruitful ways. They also developed important ideas fundamental to politics and government. Plato struggled with the status of ideals, of general concepts such as “Good,” “True,” “Justice,” and others, including what we would call general concepts like “human.” To respond to the nominalist critique, he developed his theory of Forms. In his view, the ideal world, which Pythagoras had outlined and defended, was made up of eternal Forms in which individual objects participated as imperfect copies. Thus, the term “Human” became concrete in every human being as an imperfect copy. All human justice becomes concrete in every human political act in relative terms but can never be absolute.

Aristotle disagreed with Plato’s conclusions concerning Forms. In his view, universals cannot be separated from particulars. Aristotle is also interested in the relationship between the flux of experience, or change, and what he calls “potentia,” or the possible future, which is implicit in the notion of change. Actuality (energeia) is that power that brings things into being or be brought about by them, the realm of events and facts. Potentiality (dynamis), on the other hand, is the power to effect change, the capacity to make a transition into different states.[5]

Aristotle believed what Plato described as Forms are, in reality, common features shared by individual objects. Aristotle is not a nominalist (generals are merely words for particulars), but his thought can lead in that direction. In the realm of political philosophy, Aristotle, unlike Plato, was not so interested in the perfect state (the form of political entities) as in the workings and emergence of actual polities. The same is true of justice. Aristotle was not so interested in the ideal of justice as he is in the concrete form it takes in human affairs. In this way, Aristotle is a forerunner of modern political science and a great philosopher of continuing importance.


The pre-Socratic philosophers set the stage for the insights of Plato and Aristotle, the two greatest Greek philosophers, and in many ways, set the stage for all the philosophic work to come. They made the first step of insight that the perceived world was not ultimate but instead was based upon unseen principles that could be rationally discerned. They began a debate about the nature of that ultimate reality that continues today. They also discerned the foundations of the justice problem and began the insight that our human notion of justice is somehow “natural” but different from natural law in the sense of the laws of nature. Nevertheless, the idea that nature and human society seek a situation of peace or shalom, where everything and everyone is in a proper and equitable place, is present.

The pre-Socratics began the process of asking ontological questions upon which future theories of justice might be based. They were concerned with the reality and the nature of the reality, of concepts like the good, the true, the just, and the like.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] “Democritus” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (downloaded November 10, 2022).

[2] Nominalism refers to the view that universals or abstract ideas, such as “justice,” do not exist but are mere names. There are at least two main versions of nominalism. One version denies the existence of universals – things that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things. The other version specifically denies the existence of abstract objects – objects that do not exist in space and time. See “Nominalism” at (downloaded February 13, 2023). In this series, I have defended the position of C. S. Peirce that universals and abstract ideas are real though they lack physical existence being noetic realities.

[3] “Empedocles” in The Basics of Philosophy (Downloaded February 11, 2023)

[4] “Empedocles” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Downloaded February 11, 2023)

[5] Tim, “Actuality vs Potentiality in Aristotle, June 4, 2012, ” in Philosophy & Philosophers, June 4, 2012, (downloaded October 28, 2022).