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The Unexamined Socrates

“SAINT SOCRATES, PRAY for us,” Erasmus remarked in one of his Colloquia. For thousands of years, since his trial and death in 399 BCE, we have seen Socrates as a martyr to truth: doing what the gods command, sacrificing his life for the high cause of wisdom. Yet Socrates was not a saint, or not only a saint. He was also a reckless firebrand willing to make seemingly absurd claims. In his method as Plato conveys it, everything has to be filtered through argument, and the argument, always dazzling, can stymie us at any moment. Having gained our confidence, Socrates will lead us to a ridiculous or shocking hypothesis, a trivial or grand-sounding fable, or a metaphysics that claims seamless purity but looks somewhat jerry-built.

Socrates’s impulse to uncover contradictions, to see the self at cross-purposes, goes against our desire for a unified theory. Our current penchant for an evolutionary explanation of moral and emotional life disposes us to believe that every remarkable action is in fact perfectly tailored to serve the good of the species—that what looks like the noble is really the useful. But Socrates began with the thought that the noble is not the useful; knowledge is not goodness; bravery is not wisdom. The world of the virtues is fractured, and our efforts to reduce it to harmony can only falsify its many-sided reality.

We are confused about why we do things, and once we start talking about our confusion—once Socrates makes us start talking—it is very hard to stop. The Socratic elenchus, his distinctive form of prodding and poking, cross-examining and calling to account, differs from the challenges posed by religious figures, because Socrates pounces on our method of finding reasons for what we do rather than on the consequences or the motives of our actions. A comparison may be made, though, between Socrates’s ethics and the stringent, even outlandish demands of Jesus: Socrates admits in the Crito that very few will agree with him that it is always wrong, when you have been harmed, to do harm in return. Yet he insists on the worth of his minority opinion, as though he were in possession of a higher, more distinguished form than the one we have. Why you would want to be like Socrates, even if you could be, is an open question. Alexander Nehamas has observed that Socrates’s “art of living is intended to apply to all, but he has no argument by which to prove that it does.” Socrates is a mystery to Plato and to us, an opaque character.

Paul Johnson’s Socrates aims to remove the mystery. Johnson writes in a robust, bluff tone. As he summarizes Socrates’s life and thought, he doesn’t make either of them sound at all puzzling. The book, which prides itself on its old-fashioned squareness, argues that Socrates is much simpler than we thought he was. (Johnson has always been a simplifier.) Johnson gives us a pious Socrates rather than a Socrates who interrogates piety. He lauds Socrates for his “combination of steel, subtlety, and frivolity,” but his own portrait is long on steel and short on the other two qualities. He does not show us why Socrates wanted to be either frivolous or subtle. Instead he portrays Socrates as a plain-spoken moralist.

There is not a sentence in Johnson’s book that is not resolutely obvious (and, for that reason, suspect). “Socrates was in no doubt,” he writes, “that education, by making one virtuous, was the surest road to happiness.” Yet Socrates presents the drive to examine one’s life, his unprecedented vision of education, as worthy in itself: not as a road to anything, including virtue and happiness (unless self-examination is itself virtue and happiness, in which case those terms lose their conventional meaning completely). Instead, he insists in the Republic that it is better to be a just man tortured to death than an unjust man surrounded by all the creature comforts—a statement that roused Aristotle’s deepest scorn. Only the most radical and most baffling thinker of all time would say such a thing. Since Johnson has no way of explaining this, he ignores it, as he does most of the dizzying problems of the Socratic texts. Johnson gets the Socrates he deserves: a wan motivational speaker, a believer in moral slogans, an apostle of convention.

Johnson’s Socrates contains a series of odd cameos: potshots at Bertrand Russell for refusing military service, a surmise that the book of Job was influenced by Greek tragedy, an encomium of Churchill, a far-fetched comparison between Socrates’s death scene and Gladstone’s resignation, an attempt to rescue Socrates from imputations of homosexuality (since he looked lovingly at boys but did not touch them). “Socrates has no objections to orgasm, but will allow it only between male and female,” Johnson tells us with the straight face of a headmaster addressing his pubescent charges.

Johnson’s book is dogged in its efforts to turn Socrates into a twenty-first-century compassionate conservative, and to this end it frequently courts breezy anachronism. On women, we are told that Socrates “liked to think of them leading responsible and fulfilled lives, but he had no objection to their confining themselves to looking after their husbands and children, if that is what they wished.” On slavery, Johnson speculates that “perhaps there is a missing dialogue” in which Socrates condemns it. And on war? Socrates “fought heroically for Athens in his day, but he thought war was usually unwise and the struggle to the death with Sparta suicidal for Greece… ” Johnson then contradicts himself, claiming that Socrates “neither supported nor condemned the Peloponnesian war.” Johnson’s knowledge of his subject wobbles here. (Socrates is light on scholarship: Johnson cites only Gregory Vlastos and Karl Popper, though he recommends a few other books, such as Nickolas Pappas’s excellent introduction to the Republic.) In the Menexenus, Socrates blames Athens’s struggle with Sparta for the decline of Greece, but he never criticizes wars against barbarians. His feelings are probably due to his pro-Sparta sympathies, rather than a sense that war as such is a bad idea. (Socrates’s habit of going barefoot and lightly clad even in winter was an emulation of Spartan custom.)

Johnson badly wants to rescue the kindly sage Socrates from the evil ideologue Plato, and so he cites Vlastos, who divides Plato’s work between early dialogues in which Plato depicts the real Socrates and later ones in which Plato turns Socrates into an exponent of Platonism. The later dialogues, Vlastos notes, are full of theory; the early ones avoid metaphysics and tend toward a principled frustration: they often end facing a roadblock, an inability to define a central term such as friendship, courage, or justice.

According to the proponents of the Vlastos theory, Socrates would never have engaged in the metaphysical speculation Plato credits him with in the Republic, the Timaeus, the Phaedrus, and the Symposium. But it is not so easy to separate Socrates from Plato, despite Vlastos’s learned and agile attempt to do so. Johnson luridly condemns Plato for “transforming a living, historical thinker into a mindless, speaking doll—the murder and quasi-diabolical possession of a famous brain.” Yet finding the non-Platonic Socrates is as quixotic a task as finding the historical Jesus: Plato, his evangelist, is almost all we have to go on. The sober Xenophon, who wrote his own rather dull versions of the Apology and the Symposium, is not much help. (At times Johnson’s Socrates resembles the stolid Socrates of Xenophon: an ordinary, if heroic, man, one devoted to moderation rather than wisdom.)

Johnson mocks Plato’s theory of the three parts of the soul (reason, thumos or defiant courage, and appetite) as “absurd”; the theory comes from a dialogue, the Republic, in which Plato (according to Vlastos and, after him, Johnson) uses Socrates as a mere mouthpiece for his own ideas. Yet the early, supposedly non-Platonic Socrates already seems to be heading in the direction of a divided soul. In the Laches, the effort to define courage as a virtue fully informed by reason fails; courage becomes unrecognizable when it is deprived of its instinctive aspect, which Plato will later call thumos. Socrates will always be a symbol of integrity, standing bravely against the Athenian jury, but he never proposed that the self was integrated in the way Johnson suggests.

Plato’s image of the three parts of the soul is a brilliant formulation—the clear precursor of Freud’s superego, ego, and id, and comparable to the rabbinic division of the soul into yetzer tov and yetzer hara, a good nature and an evil nature, and to Paul’s combat between flesh and spirit. One can deride the notion of a divided soul, as Aristotle does in his Ethics, but there is much to be said for it: otherwise, how could we ever fail to obey reason—why would we ever do what feels wrong, and do it with gusto? As Kent says in Lear, anger hath a privilege: to suggest that reason always wins is to revoke that privilege. And sometimes the turbulent thumos takes the side of moral truth more than reason does: living according to reason is not the same as living according to conscience (though Johnson says that it is). As the Straussians have pointed out, the profoundly unappealing utopia of the Republic demonstrates where reason leads us: Plato perhaps intends his model city as a lesson about the risks of following the temptation to redesign human society, to turn it into a rational system.

For Johnson, who rejects the Straussian view of the Republic as a consciously dystopian vision, Socrates was a “conservative radical” whereas Plato was a “radical conservative,” intent on recasting society along elitist lines. (Here Johnson reproduces Popper’s familiar critique of Plato the proto-totalitarian, and then goes on to say, vaguely, that Popper’s “argument is open to serious objections.”) What is a “conservative radical”? Johnson explains: “He respected old customs concerning gods and heroes and others cherished by the public … He was a conservative radical precisely because he was a moderate, genial, sensitive, and generous human being.” Socrates’s vitality demonstrated itself, according to Johnson, in the fact that he was in touch with the life of his time and place. The snub-nosed philosopher was no aloof egghead, but a man of the people who appreciated the worth of the old folkways: “He had no wish to offend. He often used the vernacular of popular religion. His famous last words, ‘We owe a cock to Asclepius,’ are an example.”

Johnson goes on to contrast Socrates with Richard Dawkins, noting that the former, unlike the latter, had no wish to deprive the suffering masses of their best comfort, which is religion. But Johnson fails to notice that Socrates’s statement about offering a cock to Asclepius is provocative, even outrageous: Asclepius is the god of healing, and Socrates proposes to thank Asclepius for delivering him to death. To die, he implies, is to be cured; death is preferable to life. This is hardly an endorsement of traditional religion. Socrates distorts the usual role of Asclepius in order to make a point, and an aggressive one; and he makes us ask how he could do something so uncharacteristic. His last words argue against his own practice. This is the Socrates who lives to talk, who relishes every scrap of argument: and now, at the end, he looks on life as a long disease. Socrates’s career as Plato depicts it is full of such baffling about-faces; Johnson attends to none of them.

Johnson’s effort to turn Socrates into a genial conservative who defers to all the familiar pieties runs into trouble when one looks closely at the actual Platonic dialogues, which Johnson spends almost none of his time examining. He writes as if Socrates had never asked the pressing questions of the Euthyphro: are actions good because they are pious, or pious because they are good? What if some good actions defy conventional piety, and some pieties are harmful? For Socrates the virtues are a problem, not the easy solution Johnson sees in them. In the Charmides, Socrates can find no meaningful relationship between the knowledge of good and evil, the moral wisdom that he seeks, and practical kinds of knowledge (medicine, shoemaking, generalship). How wise does a doctor need to be in order to be a good doctor? Does her technical skill simply occupy a different arena from her ethics? Socrates poses the question, but never answers it. The Charmides and the Euthyphro are among the early dialogues that Johnson points to as offering clear moral guidance. Yet he fails to attend to the real benefit of these texts: the way they make us wrestle with headache-inducing conundrums, and deny us the satisfaction of a pre-packaged lesson. The Socratic struggle with a problem requires that we resist the effort to treat it as a ready source of moral advice; we must advise ourselves, and to do so we must think for ourselves.

At one moment in his book Johnson lays his cards on the table, proclaiming that Socrates’s ideas “fitted in perfectly with Christ’s teaching.” (Saint Socrates, pray for us!) But Jesus does not cherish his own reasoning as Socrates does, even with all of Socrates’s mixed feelings about the clinching value of reasoning. Nor does Jesus doubt his own way. Socrates, by contrast, is ironic toward himself: more than any other thinker, he proves the limits of his own technique. Unwillingly, he shows that demonstrating a philosophical point, no matter how significant it is, cannot conclude the biggest question: how should we live our lives? In the Gorgias, Socrates, momentarily astonished, says that he has produced ironclad arguments, but that he still doesn’t know how matters stand on the question of justice. In the Gorgias, as in the first book of the Republic, Socrates succeeds too well, and he knows it; and so he retracts his certainty. But his arguments matter more to him than the moral directive we have been seeking. In this crucial respect, Socrates is not like Jesus. Socrates will not answer the urgent question of how to live; Christianity insists it has the answer, a revealed truth that happily bypasses philosophy.

In 1803, Joseph Priestley wrote a book called Jesus and Socrates Compared, in which he found that, though Socrates was “a polytheist and idolater,” still “he had just and honorable sentiments concerning the divine power and providence, and of the obedience that men owe to the gods.” Socrates’s ideas, Priestley argued, were “much more rational and sublime than those of the heathens in general.” Johnson’s Socrates reads like nothing so much as an updated version of Priestley’s: respectable and straight-laced, a stranger to riotous, eros-intoxicated Greece, to the excitements of political chaos and philosophical witchcraft. But the effort to turn Socrates into a sober figure in a parson’s necktie will always fail. Legend has it that A.E. Housman, at the end of a lecture, looked down bemused at his notes and announced: “For St. Paul read Alcibiades.” I wish there were more Alcibiades and less St. Paul in Johnson’s book.

David Mikics is the author of Who Was Jacques Derrida?: An Intellectual Biography (Yale) and other books, and the editor of The Annotated Emerson (Harvard).