Socrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A concise overview of Socrates based on what little information we have. While Johnson may employ some guesswork as to what part of Plato's Republic is Socrates or Plato coloring Socrates with his own ideals, he is no more guilty than most historians on this point.
I notice that some reviewers have been harsh almost to the point of vitriol on Johnson "infusing his Christian ideals" on poor Socrates. Every single historian has a slant or bias and to think otherwise is naive. It's the reader's responsibility to read with discernment as well as many other sources.
While this book is not the most in depth or exhaustive biography, Johnson does have a good suggested reading list that points the reader to good sources.
This book serves as a good introduction to the philosopher's life.
I have read several of Johnson's biographies and I find them to be short, highly readable, and always respectful of his subject, which is not always true with other biographers. His research is meticulous and his conclusions well-supported.
I had always had a hard time separating Plato and Socrates and now I know why. Plato recorded much of what we know about Socrates in his Dialogues. Johnson insists that at the beginning Plato faithfully records Socrates words and ideals but later starts to record them through the lens of his personal biases. Johnson delineates the two for us but also tells the reader that ultimately they have to decide for himself which is pure Socrates and which is a hybrid of Plato and Socrates.
Based on what little we know because Socrates wrote nothing down, Socrates grew up neither poor nor rich. He fought in the Peloponnisian War. He never sought riches and apparently refused to receive wages for his teaching, unlike other contemporary philosophers who profited well by becoming household teachers or teachers for hire.
He had a wife and children, but it is not explained how he took care of them since he never worked but taught for free.
His philosophy was founded on the belief that morals are absolute and he is primarily known for his teaching on ethics. His method of teaching was to deconstruct everything his pupils said. He taught them through debate.
He met every statement with a "Why do you think that?" "How can you substantiate your position?" and often gave the opposing view in order to cause the other person to come up with counterarguments.
Socrates believed in absolute good and consequently did not believe in the Greek gods because they were obviously not good, but rather tyrannical, childish, selfish and capricious. This did not make him popular with many Greek citizens.
But he did believe in the supernatural and even a "God" although perhaps not aware of or acknowledging the God of the Bible.This book gave me a better appreciation of St. Paul's experience when he tried to engage the Athenians in discussing the "Unknown God". It also increases my understanding when in Acts 17:16-21:
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. (ESV)
A famous situation is when an Oracle declares there is none wiser than Socrates. Socrates protests, claiming to know nothing but upon discovering that most people think they know a lot he concludes that he is the wisest because, unlike others, he is aware of how little he knows.
In fact a Socrates paradox is "I know that I know nothing."
He was an ardent Athenian and refused to live anywhere else, even when he was condemned to die by suicide. He refused to escape even though he apparently could. The reason for his trial and death was because of political infighting and Socrates' criticism of what he considered Athenians' immoral practice of city politics.
Now I have Plato's Dialogues on my list and I hope to read them soon.
I also have a biography of Darwin by Johnson that should prove interesting.
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