Liar, Lunatic… Philosopher?

C.S. Lewis’ “Trilemma” (or “Liar, Lunatic, Lord” argument) is a familiar argument in Christian apologetics. Lewis didn’t actually originate it, but here’s how he puts it:

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.” (Mere Christianity)

The argument is basically this:

1. Jesus claimed to be God.
2. Someone who claimed to be God is either a liar, insane, or actually God.
3. If Jesus is a liar or insane, he can’t be a great moral teacher.
4. If Jesus is God, he is not merely a great moral teacher.
5. Therefore, either Jesus is God, or he is not a great moral teacher.

Sometimes this gets expanded into an outright argument for Christ’s divinity (I think G.K. Chesterton made this argument in The Everlasting Man):

6. Jesus displays profound moral integrity, so he’s not a liar.
7. Jesus seems to be mentally stable, so he’s not insane.
8. Therefore, Jesus is God.

It’s not a decisive argument, but it’s a pretty good one. But what interests me today is that a similar argument could be applied to Scorates’ claim to have a daimonion (not a demon, but a benevolent spirit) that spoke to him whenever he was about to do something he shouldn’t do:

1. Socrates claimed that a spirit regularly spoke to him.
2. Someone who claims that a spirit regularly speaks to him is either a liar, insane, or telling the truth.
3. Socrates displays profound moral integrity, so he’s not a liar.
4. Socrates seems to be mentally stable, so he’s not insane.
5. Therefore, Socrates was telling the truth about a spirit speaking to him.

Like Jesus, Socrates was certainly a very odd person- but he doesn’t seem mentally ill. And like Jesus, he wasn’t above using figurative language when he felt people were intellectually beneath him or not willing to follow his argument. But also like Jesus, it’s usually very clear when he’s using metaphors and when he’s being gravely serious, and what he says about the daimonion appears to fall into the latter category (especially since, unlike Jesus’ claim to divinity, his claim to have a guardian spirit probably wasn’t too unbelievable in his time). On the other hand, an isolated delusion of a spirit speaking to you in an otherwise stable personality is a little more believable than an isolated delusion that you’re, you know, the Lord God, in an otherwise stable personality. So I think our best conclusion is either that Socrates had a very specific, recurring delusion but was otherwise fine (seems unlikely to me, but possible), or that he actually had some kind of contact with a spirit.

You could make a further argument for the latter conclusion based on the fact that the daimonion seems to have actually guided him pretty well (until the very end… and there’s your counterargument).

How to process this as a Christian, I don’t know. The daimon could have been a demon, sweet-talking Socrates until it found a way to lead him to his death. Or it could have been an angel (who knows what an angel was doing in ancient Greece, but it’s not impossible). Or maybe there are other kinds of spirits. I don’t know! I’m just following the argument where it leads.


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