On Socrates and His Legacy, Part I.

Recently, I finished two books on the iconic ancient Athenian philosopher Socrates, both of which pointed me to a third. The books were of a very different character and quality, yet together raised an important dichotomy about a man who lived 2400 years ago, whose intellectual legacy contributed to the shaping of Western civilization. The Stoics and Cynics looked back to Socrates as their forerunner; Socrates’ greatest student Plato became the most influential philosopher of the written word of all time, rivaled only by his own protege, Aristotle. So definitive was the influence of Socrates and his inexhaustible store of questions that all the Greek philosophers who came before him are reckoned “the pre-Socratics“. Yet he was put to death by the Democracy that had proudly boasted of being the “the school of Hellas“.

Who then, was the historical Socrates?

Socrates shares, to a lesser degree, the enigmatic quality of Buddha, Jesus and his own near contemporary, Confucius; we know more about Socrates than we do the others, but as with the others, it is all secondhand. Having written nothing himself, we must rely on the apologia of his disciples, the barbs of his critics, some statuary relics and the commentary of philosophers and historians from later in antiquity who had access to sources now lost to tell us of Socrates.

Here are the books:


The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone

Socrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson  

Both authors were splendid prose writers, otherwise they are a study in contrasts. The late I.F. Stone was a famous radical, an antifascist, an investigative, “muckraking” journalist of the mid twentieth century and, for a time,  a Soviet agent during the “Red decade” of the Thirties. Stone, who was noted for his diligence with using government documents as a reporter, unearthing scoops everyone else had missed, became, in his retirement, a scholar of antiquity who read deeply in the classics in the original ancient Greek.

Paul Johnson began his career as a prolific writer and popular historian on the British Left with The New Statesman and over time shifted rightward to become a leading Anglo-Catholic conservative public intellectual, an adviser to Margaret Thatcher and an author of 40 books. Johnson is most known for his best-sellers that tackled panoramic and encompassing subjects – The Birth of the Modern, Intellectuals and The History of the Jews, often written from a highly idiosyncratic, as well as a conservative, perspective.

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