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After giving up I. F. Stone's Weekly in 1971 (for health reasons), Stone set out to research a comprehensive study of freedom of thought and speech--and found the trial of Socrates (in 399 B.C.) to be a troubling landmark indeed. How could Athens, that progressive center of freedom and democracy, ""have been so untrue to itself?"" His answer--in this scholarly, somewhat revisionist essay-argument--is ""the Athenian side of the story"": a stern review of Socrates' anti-democratic record, and a portrait of a cold, willful, suicidal martyr. Working from lesser-known sources as well as Plato and Xenophon (Socrates himself wrote nothing), Stone finds ""the germ of totalitarianism"" in Socrates' advocacy of absolute rule by ""those who know how."" Socrates' concepts of virtue and knowledge ""demeaned"" the common man. His divine Delphic mission was in fact ""an exercise in self-glorification"" that undermined Athens' polis. He remained indifferent (at best) to three violent attempts (two of them successful) to set up a dictatorship. ""Socrates is revered as a non-conformist but few realize that he was a rebel against an open society and the admirer of a closed."" As for the trial itself, Stone emphasizes Socrates' ""determination to die"": he went out of his way to antagonize the jurors with the boastful arrogance called megalegoria (often mistranslated, says Stone, as ""lofty utterance""); he refused to compromise; he never used his best defense--one based on freedom-of-speech. Nonetheless, though all this helps ""to mitigate the city's crime,"" Athens was untrue to itself, Stone concludes, making Socrates--a genuinely dangerous thinker and bad influence--""the first martyr of free speech and free thought."" (By way of epilogue, however, Stone dismisses charges--primarily in E.R. Dodds' The Greeks and the Irrational--that Socrates was just one of many Athenian ""witch-hunt"" victims.) Stone's negative view of Socrates, though unusually relentless and supported by a few fresh interpretations, is hardly new. The book's many digressions--into Greek drama (tracking the free-speech theme) and etymology, for example--may exasperate some readers while charming others. Still: a strong, plainspoken, probing study, nicely balanced between common sense and very close textual analysis. (Stone's views on a range of other subjects are covered in Andrew Patner's I.F. Stone, reviewed above.)

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1987
ISBN: 0385260326
Publisher: Little, Brown