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October 03, 2022

Socrates: Book Review

By Bernie Pilarski

Socrates, by Paul Johnson.

There is always a spirit of the times. Even in deep antiquity, strong and almost identical impulses drove forward the elites in societies separated by unbridged chasms of space. We cannot perhaps explain these coordinations. But we can profitably study them. Two and a half millennia ago, in the fifth century B.C., in three advanced areas, three outstanding individuals echoed one another in insisting that the distinction between their civilizations and the surrounding barbarism must be reinforced by systematic moral education. - From Socrates, page 5 -

Thus Paul Johnson begins his task of introducing to the reader the Greek philosopher Socrates. The three individuals were the Chinese philosopher Confucius, the Hebrew priest and scribe Ezra, and of course Socrates himself. In highlighting the connections in the works of these three men, Johnson opens his work with the literary equivalent of the cinematic long shot of the planet earth as seen from space followed by a descent through the clouds, a pass over Europe, a closer and closer view of the Mediterranean coastline, then Greece, briefly Sparta, a rapid pass of the gleaming new Acropolis and the teeming markets of the Athens and finally through the window of the city jail into a cell where a 70 year old man drinks a cup of poison, lies down and dies. This is not a stuffy academic text, but rather an entertaining portrait of a man and his times.

Johnson is a prolific British writer whose works cover history, biography, arts, architecture, religion, and travel with a couple of novels thrown in for good measure. The book jacket says he has written for The Spectator, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He falls into that category of really smart people who can hobnob with the intellectuals and understand what they are saying, and then turn around and explain it to the rest of us in a way that makes sense. Carl Sagan and David Attenborough did that kind of thing in the sciences, and James Burke combined science and history in fabulously entertaining television series Connections.

In Socrates, Johnson does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the place and times that Socrates lived. There is political intrigue, there is war, there is plague, fortunes won and lost, romance, seduction and marital acrimony.

Athens was the most successful of the Greek city states in terms of creating wealth, art, and ideas. For much of the fifth century B.C., it was the cultural capital of the civilized world. But because of its success, it was a hazardous place, both for politicians and those who lived by their intellects. Intense competition generated artistic and cerebral innovation on a scale never before seen in history, but also envy, spite, personal jealousies, and vendettas. These were most notable among the elite but the citizens as a whole were notoriously volatile, critical of their leaders and all prominent persons, easily swayed, and vengeful toward those who failed in public enterprises or angered them by what they conceived as arrogance or pretension. It was a celebrity society in which celebrities could be torn to pieces as well as exalted. In some ways it was like New York..." - From Socrates, page 139 -

The Socrates you meet here is not a rarified personality in a textbook, a stoical marble bust in the museum. He is painted as almost a Will Rogers kind of personality, a witty, affable cowboy, comedian, social commentator. Like Rogers, Socrates never met a man he didn't like. He was a public institution in Athens, spending his time wandering through the city talking with anybody and everybody, asking them questions and trying to ascertain what they were thinking. He loved people, and he loved Athens, so much so that in the end, when Athens betrays him, he chooses to stay and die rather then face the prospect of exile from the city. Yet Socrates was no buffoon. He passionately believed in truth and insisted against the reigning philosophy of the day that morality was absolute, not relative. "Socrates' great gift to society," Johnson writes, "was that he brought morals from a shifty atmosphere of quasidivine bargains, frauds, and compromises into the blazing daylight of ordinary honorable transactions between men and women striving to be honest." It should come as no surprise that there are some who are critical of the portrait Johnson draws of Socrates. I am not qualified to argue the case one way or the other. I can say that there is a lightness to Johnson's work that makes it feel less like the Macneil/Lehrer News Hour and more like one of those interviews with a Hollywood celebrity where we get to go inside their home and see how they decorated the bedroom, but for me that's not a criticism. I do not think this was supposed to be a scholarly tome; this was book that was supposed to make Socrates accessible to a broader audience. One can almost image Johnson standing at the door of the Socrates' home in ancient Athens, microphone in hand, and saying, as he does in the book, "Socrates himself is known to us as man and thinker, as a hugely real, living, and enjoyable human being. Let us meet him."

It's a good book and a fun read.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-12-12
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