On The Use and Abuse of Socrates.


Once in a while there are these quiet events in publishing that go largely unnoticed. For example, there has been a spate of books written and published on or about Socrates in the last few years. Why? Is Socrates really the man for our times as the subtitle of Paul Johnson’s recent work on Socrates puts it?

Johnson’s book follows the publication of several works on Socrates aimed at audiences outside the academy.  This in itself is unique. Since the publication in 1989 of muckraker and sometime Vermonter, I.F. Stone’s well-received “The Trial of Socrates”,” we have witnessed a little revolution in publishing.    By my count here are most of the recent—within say, five or six years—books published on or about Socrates:

Ahbel-Rappe, Socrates: A Guide for the Perplexed;

Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life;

Johnson, Socrates: A Man for Our Times;

Rowland, Breakfast with Socrates;

Kreeft, Socrates Meets Hume: The Father of Philosophy Meets the Father of  Modern Skepticism;

Metaxas, Socrates in the City;

Miller, Examined Lives: from Socrates to Nietzsche;

Navia: Socrates: A life Examined;

Phillips, Socrates Café;

Rudebusch, Socrates;

Taylor, Socrates;

Waterfield, Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths;

Wilson, The Death of Socrates;

So a dozen books on Socrates life and thought and this list does not include the many scholarly and academic books published in that same period such as the Cambridge Companion to Socrates nor the many new translations of the works by Plato, Aristophanes and Xenophon that directly deal with and are the only written sources we have of Socrates.  A friend of mine in the film industry tells me that there is a movie in development about the life of Socrates, too. What are we to make of all this?  Just a curious by-product of the information super highway or is there something else happening here?

I will try to offer a brief answer by looking more closely at Johnson’s work, Socrates: A Man for Our Times. In Johnson’s slim work he ably presents the main lineaments to the life, times and ideas of the Greek philosopher. I read and enjoyed Johnson’s biography but found very little new or insightful in the work.  He presents Socrates as the iconoclast and seeker of wisdom that every introductory philosophy student learns about in a good survey class. Nevertheless, I did appreciate Johnson’s biography and welcomed his attempt to show Socrates as a non-academic philosopher and one who valued the women in his life. This last aspect, allowed Johnson to introduce Aspasia, Diotima and the better known Xanthippe (Socrates’ wife) and use these relationships as a foil against Socrates… In this sense, Johnson went to the extra mile to make certain that the reader knew that there are two Socrates: the historic Socrates and Plato’s Socrates.  The challenge to this position is that Plato’s work is still the only credible and reliable source of the life of Socrates. Parenthetically, in teaching Plato’s Apology this semester, I had the opportunity to read and contrast Xenophon’s account of Socrates’ trial and he does present a rather different portrait of the thinker. Xenophon’s Socrates is more of an ethically-minded thinker than the epistemologically-obsessed thinker we typically hear of from philosophy professors.

This led me to my main point, viz., that Johnson reinterprets Socrates as he needs to for his sense of our times.  Whether for Plato, Voltaire or Johnson, it seems that each historical epoch chooses a particular aspect of Socrates to adopt. Socrates becomes a kind of placeholder for what’s wrong with the present zeitgeist. Hegel wrote tellingly of Socrates as did Nietzsche, of course. In each case, writers cherry pick the ideas and motives that moved Socrates and which best fit their own times. Johnson is no different. His Socrates is a democratic moral idealist and iconoclast. A picture resembling Johnson as much as Socrates…  Let us recall that Johnson, a popular historian and prolific writer and graduate of Magdalene College, Oxford began life as a leftist and like so many of the baby boom generation moved rightward politically as he aged. By the 1970’s, Johnson had shed his youthful liberalism and was the editor of the neo-conservative “New Statesman;” and, ironically, a speech writer for the” Iron Lady” herself, Margaret Thatcher. This is ironic because under Thatcher’s administration in the 1980’s funding for state-sponsored philosophy programs in Britain were drastically cut.  In addition, he is a staunch Catholic and has condemned labor unions, liberals and is stridently anti-communist.  Or, in a nutshell, quite similar to Socrates who while provocatively posing as a philosophic revolutionary was quite conventional in religious and social practice, even archly conseravtive. In Johnson’s words, Socrates c resembles Johnson more than Socrates. I felt much the same when I read I.F. Stone’s work on Socrates except, of course, Stone’s Socrates was a   true revolutionary and radical: the first muckraker, if you will.  So here’s the nub, Socrates like Jesus and all great moral and philosophical exemplars, become handy placeholders for the values we wish to see in our times. They become a kind of lamp we hold up to our darkened days in the hopes to illumine our days and ways. They become an instrument of our criticism.  All this is possible with historic personages such as Socrates and Jesus because they did not leave a substantial body of writing behind. The absence of a body of work, allows subsequent writers to appropriate the meaning of the man. In short, Johnson does exactly what he criticized Plato for doing 2,400 years ago.


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