Socrates: A Man for Our Times


Bertrand Russell was of opinion that Jesus was not as clever as Socrates or as compassionate as the Buddha. Although this view has its merits, by focusing on the differences among the three it misses an important similarity: that they all gained large followings because (and emphatically not in spite) of the fact that they wrote nothing. All their teachings are attributed by others, their lives are the stuff of followers’ legends, their place in history secure because, inadvertently or otherwise, they anticipated the significance of the proverbial remark “Oh that my enemy had written a book!”

What little we know about Socrates comes to us, with a few exceptions, from his friends and their followers. The resulting portrait is on the whole an affectionate one, and testifies to his charisma as an individual. The same is true of the other large civilizational figures whom we know only through report; to those already mentioned we can add Confucius, Islam’s Muhammad, and Sikhism’s Guru Nanak as examples.

The trouble with such figures is that they lend themselves to endless interpretation and reinterpretation, to reading-in and reinvention, to different and often competing depictions. As far as I know, however, in the case of Socrates there has never been such a jaw-dropping hagiography as the one here provided by Paul Johnson, whose admiring — perhaps the better word is besotted — account of the ancient thinker has joined Iman Wilkens’s Where Troy Once Stood (the book that places the Trojan War in England’s East Anglia and, with perfect seriousness, claims that Achilles was a Dutchman) among my all-time favorite Amazing Books.

Johnson claims to be able to extract the “real, actual historic Socrates” from Plato’s “irritating” habit of interpolating his, Plato’s, own take on things into accounts of Socrates’ character and teachings. Johnson’s “real actual” Socrates is not just “the noblest, the gentlest, the bravest man” but veritably a kind of religious prophet, a divinely inspired preacher of surprisingly Christian-like views, or perhaps (the portrait blurs in and out as the pages turn) a proto-quasi-John the Baptist making straight the way of St. Paul — this by preparing the Greek world to be more receptive to the Christian message that Paul brought it.

Johnson gets progressively more carried away by this theme as the book proceeds, these encroachments on the avant la lettre Christianity likeness of the Socratic “ministry,” as Johnson calls it, becoming dithyrambic. “It was the combination of Jesus’s inspired Hebrew message of charity, selflessness, acceptance of suffering, and willing sacrifice with the clear Socratic vision of the soul’s triumph and the eternal life awaiting it,” Johnson claims, “that gave the Christianity which sprang from Paul’s teaching of the Gospels its astonishing power and ubiquity and enabled it to flourish in persecution and martyrdom.” (A few lines later, with a sudden but all-too-brief awareness that nonsense hovers, Johnson contradictorily recants: “Socrates was not a Christian precursor…”). The fact that Christianity adopted the neo-Platonists’ version of the immortal immaterial soul several centuries into the Christian era, having until then been good Jews on the question of death by expecting actual bodily resurrection at the Second Coming, does not trouble Johnson because, obviously, he does not know it.

Ignorance is remediable; logic-blindness takes longer to correct. Johnson pounces on the fact that Socrates talked about his “inner voice,” the apotreptic (“warning-off”) prompting that alerted him against making mistakes. He described it as the voice of a god, which was in keeping with the Greek way of speaking about everything from artistic inspiration to conscience. But Johnson inflates Socrates’ inner voice to a full-blown Judeo-Christian-like deity and its message to a full-blown ministry. From giving an occasional warning it becomes the determinant of the whole of Socrates’ career: philosophy was, Johnson avers, “the mission God had given him in life,” and “his inner voice from God…ordained him to conduct philosophy as he understood it.” Note the language: “mission,” “ordination,” “ministry.”
This magnification of the inner voice is merely over-excitement on Johnson’s part; the failure of logic enters when he says that Socrates’ philosophical “mission” was to encourage people to think for themselves. So according to Johnson, Socrates is commanded by God to tell people to think for themselves, and he obeys.

This is not the only contradiction. On page 92 Johnson’s Socrates is a postmodernist and relativist: Socrates is “hostile not just to the ‘right answer’ but to the very of idea of there being a right answer.” By page 114 he is the direct opposite; he “opts firmly for moral absolutism.” By page 119 Socrates is even more emphatically anti-relativist; he there espouses “moral absolutism at its most stringent.”
Johnson asserts that Socrates’ interests were strictly practical, in that he was not interested in “justice in the abstract” but in actual practical workaday justice. This claim breathtakingly ignores Socrates’ relentless quest for the essence — the abstract defining quiddity — of justice, continence, truth, courage, virtue, knowledge, the good, and so on, which in the early dialogues typically terminates for the participants in aporia, the state of no longer knowing what one does or should think about the matter. Since Socrates’ claim was that he only knew that he knew nothing (which is why the Delphic oracle pronounced him the wisest of men), he was officially excluded from himself offering a definition; his role in the elenchus — the method of enquiry by question and answer, conjecture and refutation — was to get people to see that they were as ignorant as himself. We are a far cry here, in knowing no answers, from knowing any absolutely right answers.

In the middle and later dialogues of Plato, where Socrates is even more obviously a mouthpiece than he is in the early dialogues, answers most certainly appear — Plato’s answers, of course — in the doctrines of the Forms and anamnesis (this latter literally means “unforgetting,” that is, recalling the total knowledge one’s immortal soul enjoyed in its pre-embodied direct contact with the Forms, which are the eternal, immutable, and perfect exemplars of things).
Johnson’s misunderstanding of Socrates’ aims as they appear in Plato’s early dialogues, as well as in the tangential reports of others — admiringly in Xenophon, satirically in Aristophanes — and his insistent eagerness to make Socrates look like a Christ-like figure of perfect virtue and self-sacrifice, result in massive distortion. Oddly, his desire in the latter respect chimes with Plato’s own effort to portray Socrates as saint and martyr, though Johnson dismisses Plato’s portrait with lofty (and, as we see, hubristic) contempt.

Johnson’s beatification of Socrates leads him to claim, “In terms of his influence, he was the most important of all philosophers.” Were Johnson acquainted with philosophy beyond the Teach Yourself level he would know that Plato and Aristotle between them have an influence that is as Everest to Socrates’ molehill. A. N. Whitehead’s description of philosophy as “footnotes to Plato” does not exaggerate by much.

But what is the influence that Johnson thinks Socrates exerts? “What he did,” Johnson claims, “was to concentrate on making more substantial the presence of an overriding divine force, a God who permeated all things and ordained the universe. This dramatic simplification made it possible for him to construct a system of ethics that was direct, plausible, workable and satisfying.” Not one word of this even remotely applies to anything known of Socrates. Socrates was a religious prophet? Socrates was a pantheist? Socrates constructed an ethical system?

If you wish to know how Johnson gets to miss the point of Socrates so comprehensively, you only have to note two things. First, he ignores the possibility that Aristophanes’ depiction of Socrates in The Clouds probably contained enough truth to make a knowledgeable Athenian audience laugh.

And second, and at his greater peril, he disdains Plato, asserting that  “[the Republic] is not a text where, in general, the real Socrates speaks, though I think he does in this particular passage” — meaning that he, Johnson, knows better than Plato (or any Plato scholar of the last 2,500 years) when the “real Socrates” speaks. When Plato’s depiction fails to chime with Johnson’s made-up version, it is dismissed as “illustrating his [Plato's] irritating habit of foisting his personal views on others.” Pot and kettle here! So he cherry-picks words and passages that suit his purposes, and discards the rest.

Yet only consider the views that Johnson foists on Socrates. He has the sage teach that “[t]he most important occupation of a human being was to subdue his bodily instincts and train himself to respond to the teachings of the soul.” On another page, remember, his ordained mission was “to teach people to think for themselves,” as God told him to say: which is a bit closer to the Socrates we see through the dark Platonic glass.

One of the biggest twists Johnson gives to the tale concerns the politics of Socrates’ trial and death. Socrates and Plato had been associated with the aristocratic party that led Athens into ruin and subjected it to tyranny, and he was put to death by the democracy that supplanted it, a few years after the democracy had granted amnesties to various members of the tyrant party in the hope of soothing the troubled character of state affairs. That Socrates was brought to trial about four years after the amnesty suggests that he, alone or with others, was regarded as still a problem.

Subsequent history has blamed the democrats for executing Socrates, but Johnson tries to distance the sage from the tyrant party and thus have him wrongly maligned and condemned. Here, at least and at last, he is with Plato and Xenophon in painting Socrates in victim’s colors. But there is enough reason to think (the aristocratic fascism of Plato might alone make you think) that the smoke curling about Socrates’ head had a bit of fire under it. In the end, Socrates offers a portrait not of a real philosopher but of a fictional character, a portrait that says more about the author’s own beliefs than any Greek who lived within 500 years of Socrates.