Acclaimed historian and biographer Johnson (Humorists: From Hogarth to Noel Coward, 2010, etc.) offers a short celebration of the life and influence of the Athenian philosopher.
An unapologetic fan, the author faces, as do all who write of distant times, the insurmountable problem of uncertainty. Socrates wrote nothing we know of, so we must rely on the records and testimony of others—generally a risky business. Johnson argues that Plato’s dialogues are initially reliable, then less so as Plato became more fond of his own ideas. Johnson chides Plato repeatedly—even compares him with Victor Frankenstein—for putting into the mouth of Socrates words that more properly belonged in his own. At other times, the author resorts to phrases like “I suspect” and “I assume” to keep his argument flowing. Johnson highlights numerous Socratic principles, most notably the separation of the body and soul, Socrates’ devotion to the law (he would not attempt to escape it, even when it meant his own safety), the immorality of revenge, the need to educate women and the corrosive desire to possess things. He notes that Socrates dearly loved Athens and Athenians, enjoyed wandering the streets and engaging people of all sorts in discussions about the meaning of apparently ordinary things. Socrates knew that clarity was essential in human discourse. Johnson also notes that Socrates’ use of humor and irony were certain to be lost on many—and were techniques disastrous to his own defense at his trial. The author also points out similarities between ancient Athens and today—e.g., our love/hate relationships with celebrities.
A succinct, useful exploration of life in ancient Athens and of the great philosopher’s essential beliefs.