Review: Jacob’s Ladder
I am one of the few people on Earth who is no fan of Socrates.
At best, I find the device of a conversation between Socrates and one of his hapless victims to be a rhetorical trick — when people give the “right” or “wrong” answers in a Socratic dialogue, they seem to me to be saying, not what people would actually say in such a conversation, but something just a little too convenient for the argument.
At worst, I find Socrates to be insufferable. I have, like every other educated person, chafed at the injustice of Plato’s Trial and Death of Socrates. But I’ve never made it through his Republic because, frankly, it makes me see exactly why the people of Athens had Socrates put to death. He wasn’t guilty of corrupting the young, he was guilty of being incredibly annoying.
You don’t agree? Why not? What does it mean to be in agreement? How do you know whether or not we are in agreement? Assuming they know they disagree, how do people determine who is right? What is right? What does it mean to determine? How do you know when you have made a determination?
Sorry. Got a little carried away channeling my inner Socrates. Back to the subject, which is Peter Kreeft’s new book, Jacob’s Ladder: 10 Steps to Truth.
Now it’s true that Socrates does not make an appearance. The Socrates in this dialogue book is not a crotchety old Greek man but a 300-lb., African-American, wise and kindly mother-to-the-world who takes in the misunderstood and unappreciated stray people of her town in her giant, colorful, rambling house — and who bakes a mean loaf of artisan bread.
It’s also true that her foil, a young social worker named Libby (short for Liberty) is a very good approximation of an average young person today: hard working, smart, in many ways an idealist, but with no religious belief and a lot of suspicion for anyone who professes any.
But it’s still the Socratic method and the ten questions that lead Libby on the “10 steps to truth” leave me thinking, as I do to questions by Socrates, that there’s a trick at work somewhere, even if I can’t figure out exactly where. The answers Libby gives aren’t the only answers, and I can’t help but suspecting that the questions “Mother” asks are trick questions. I think Libby would think so too. I have difficulty, then, getting over the whole rhetorical frame of the book.
That’s not to say that the questions aren’t great questions. They are. And the answers Libby eventually gives are great answers. And I agree with the premise of the book, which is that Jesus is the son of God, and that we can know it, and that the Catholic Church is the Church He set up and wants us in, and that we can know that too, and that being part of His church is the best, most loving, and most rational way to live — and we can know that, too.
I just prefer someone to come out and say so. I have the feeling that, if Kreeft wrote a separate book with the same 10 steps but without the ladies on the beach chatting about it (yes, they spend 10 days picnicking on the beach as they talk — Libby takes a very long vacation) I would have been happy as a clam.
The book is short, the arguments are easy to understand and well-presented, the style is easy enough for a high school student to read but isn’t in the least “dumbed down,” and it gives the reader many starting points for thinking and reading in more depth about many of the topics.
It’s a good introduction to many common ideas in Catholic apologetics, such as the argument by C.S. Lewis (who was not Catholic) that Jesus was either the Son of God, or a liar, or insane. If you haven’t read these arguments before, they’ll open your eyes; and if you have read them before, the book is a good refresher on what they are and how to make them.
Peter Kreeft, whose books I generally love, is a master apologist. He knows how to make the case for Christ and the Church, and this book does that in a compelling way.
But sadly, Kreeft has that unfortunate fondness for Socrates.
You may too. As I said, I seem to be one of the few people who don’t.
Kreeft, Peter. Jacob’s Ladder: 10 Steps to Truth is a published by Ignatius Press.
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