Sunday, February 26, 2017

Socrates by Paul Johnson

Socrates: A Man for Our TimesSocrates: 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.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon.

Fascinating post.

I think that I have read all of Plato. Because of the issues that you mention above I just viewed the writing as Plato's work. Of course he was heavily influenced by the real Socrates but it is so difficult to tell where one philosopher begins and one ends. It seems that this book tries to seperate the two.

I hope that you enjoy Plato. I am curious to read your thoughts on those writings.

Have a great week!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian! I appreciate your reviews of Plato and also your opinion as to the best translation.

I've begun his Republic. The translator is Fransic Conford. You'll have to tell me if he is any good.

Mudpuddle said...

i wonder what Johnson's background is like: classical scholar of some sort? his ideas pretty much match the ones i've read re Socrates... i read the Republic many years ago; i should reread it i suppose; given world enough and time... (Shaks. ?) interesting photo: is that a volume of seven perry mason mysteries i see? if so, i have the same one...

Sharon Wilfong said...

Paul Johnson is a British journalist, historian and speech writer. He's written a ton of historical books. I read (and reviewed) a book her wrote on the life of Mozart which you would probably enjoy because he focuses on his musical development than chronology of events.

I am just starting to read the Republic. We read some of it in my college history class but I remember nothing.

The book underneath is Perry Mason. Detective novels are my equivalent of eating Hershey Kisses on the weekend. I love Mason! Take care :)

mnleona said...

Interesting review. I will have to check on this author. Thank you.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Leona, thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you enjoy the book. Johnson has written many historical books.

Anonymous said...

Heavy stuff and very interesting! :)

Ruth @ with freedom and books said...

You know I like Johnson, and this sounds like a great bio about Socrates. I appreciate Johnson's conservative/Christian worldview.

Reading about Socrates always makes me feel sad that he was on the right track (about God), but he may have never heard the truth. : (

R.T. said...

Perhaps of equal significance, Paul Johnson is a Christian. I've read several books by Johnson, and I look forward to reading the one you've so nicely reviewed. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction; more by Johnson is always a good direction for reading.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Ruth. I agree. The ancient Greek philosophers had a knowledge of the truth without embracing the Truth. I would like to study more about them. I got a book recommended by Johnson in his book that is supposed to be a main source he used. I'll be reading and reviewing that one day.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi R.T. I have a number of books by Johnson. He wrote a biography of Darwin that I'm looking forward to. Also one titled, "Intellectuals."

I do think that Johnson's personal belief's naturally color his approach to research. It's interesting to compare his work, such as on Mozart with other biographers with different beliefs.

R.T. said...

Johnson's book, _Creators_, is first-rate; his book on American history is massive and worthwhile as his is Washington biography. I'm looking forward to reading his Eisenhower and Churchill bios.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Marcia! I think Socrates may have been heavy but this book presents its information in a palatable style.

Sharon Wilfong said...

R.T. I don't have any of those. I'm going to have to look them up. Interesting that an Englishman has done so much history on Americans.