Socrates: A Man For Our Times

  • By Paul Johnson
  • Viking
  • 240 pp.

Who exactly was the founder of Western philosophy? Not the man Plato made of him, this author argues.

Without leaving a word of his own writing behind, Socrates became the founder of Western philosophy. He did so by engaging in a line of questioning focused not on comprehending the natural world, as his predecessors tried to do, but on investigating the moral and spiritual life of man: What are virtue, justice, courage and piety? How may men live in harmony with each other, and with the divine? The inquiries of Socrates were so illuminating that after his famous trial and execution, his student Plato felt compelled to record them. Because of Plato’s dialogues, the impact of Socrates’ life and ideas has continued unabated for 2,400 years.

Plato was not only a faithful devotee but a great philosophical thinker and a great dramatic writer. Hence, his dialogues are not mere facsimile recordings. They are works of profound art and philosophy in which Plato sought to extend and elaborate the implications of his teacher’s thoughts. And there’s the rub. Where does Socrates end and Plato begin?

Because the best philosophical and historical minds of over two millennia have been unable to resolve this question with certainty, every reader of the Platonic dialogues is left to answer it for himself. On this subject, Paul Johnson, in Socrates: A Man for Our Times, leaves no doubt about where he stands.

Johnson is an accomplished historian and writer with a fluid, unpretentious style and an honest voice. These gifts, which have made his 12 previous books enjoyable and popular, are no less evident in Socrates. It is troublesome, then, that his wealth of knowledge and inspiring insights are here overshadowed by a tendentious mission.

Acknowledging that “anyone who writes on the subject must make up his own mind [about where Socrates ends and Plato begins], as I have done in this account,” Johnson categorizes Plato as an “intellectual, by which I mean someone who thinks ideas matter more than people.” (In Intellectuals, Johnson compellingly warned against venerating morally perverse men just because they have had influential ideas.) Then he accuses Plato of killing Socrates a second time by making him “a mere wooden man, a ventriloquist’s doll” in “one of the most unscrupulous acts in intellectual history,” creating, “like Frankenstein, an artificial monster-philosopher.”

Having made a villain of Plato (likewise unscrupulously), Johnson takes a dualistic axe to Plato’s brilliant works of art, splitting them into the parts he believes to be Socrates’ own words and the parts he believes to be the words of Plato’s “mindless, speaking doll”: Johnson’s Socrates (good) vs. Plato’s (bad).

Who is Johnson’s Socrates? Partly the Socrates all readers of Plato know: original thinker, brilliant and methodical conversationalist, questioner of unexamined opinions, lover of Athens, supremely principled man. But also a conjectured composite of Johnson-approved qualities: man of the people, monotheist, rejecter of all received ideas, originator of the attractive ideas in Plato and responsible for none of the unattractive, rewriter of famous tragedies, cataleptic, equivocator about religion, devotee of three wise women, moral influence on the artists, politicians, generals, dramatists, and historians of fifth-century Athens.

His scholarship has earned Johnson the right to these conjectures. The problem is that he offers minimal evidence and no notes to anchor them in the sources. The only evidence is the sense they make to Johnson.

Here is one example: In the Phaedo, Socrates, with his last breath, requests that his friend Crito sacrifice a cock to Asclepius in gratitude to the god of healing for being “cured” of the pains of life by his death. “Make this offering to him and do not forget,” he says. Because this request does not fit Johnson’s claim that “Socrates believed in God [and] was a monotheist” and that he “was not in the least interested in the outward observance of religion, but in its inner content,” Johnson must interpret the last words of Socrates as a wry joke. It is, of course, possible that Johnson is right. But a good many profoundly difficult matters of interpretation are here dispatched with that undoubting self-assurance that Johnson praises Socrates for questioning in others.

Johnson follows his bias into unintended ironies. His commitment to his idea of Socrates makes ironic his attack on Plato for caring more about ideas than people. His equivocations — “my belief is,” “it must have been,” “I suspect,” “in my view he would undoubtedly,” “no doubt,” “perhaps,” “I surmise,” “I think it possible,” “it was probably because,” etc. — allow Johnson to preserve the pretense of objectivity, but they make ironic his claim, in one place, that “it is fruitless to speculate.” And though Johnson accuses ancient authors of “low regard … for truth” and “lack of impartiality, historicity, [and] common sense,” he permits himself the very partiality he has criticized. “Common sense” here means agreement with him.

There is also some cavalier abuse of historical comparison. Though rightly claiming that “One of the most difficult things we have to do, in the early 21st-first century, is to transport ourselves back 2,500 years” to ancient Athens, Johnson at various points makes that city misleadingly analogous to an American small town, to New York City, to a “cultural capital of the civilized world”; he seems to ignore what it took for Western civilization to get from the “profoundly flawed” legal system of ancient Athens to the functions of a modern attorney general; and he ascribes to Athens a “competitive spirit” without a word about the metaphysical implications of the Greek conviction that life itself is an agon, or contest. He even invents a hypothetical missing dialogue in which Socrates must have attacked for all time the institution of slavery.

The book’s most serious flaw is the implication that Socrates did not care about ideas: “For Socrates, ideas existed to serve and illuminate people, not the other way around.” This is to reduce Socrates’ lifelong passion for conversation into a mere excuse for talking to folks. If it were so, why would Plato have cared to dramatize those conversations or we to read them? “His object was to … teach people to think for themselves.” In other words, Socrates’ mission was not really to find the truth he knew he did not yet possess but merely to illustrate a method for calling received truths into question. But could Socrates possibly have thought irrelevant the conclusions to which people thinking for themselves might come? Johnson has bound his Socrates into an artificial dualism by driving too far the distinction between caring about ideas and caring about people. People, after all, are those creatures who have ideas, and the importance of caring more about people than about ideas is itself an idea.

Socrates is less a history than an extended essay with an anti-intellectual axe to grind: “The university, with its masters and students, its lectures and tutorials, its degrees and libraries and publishing houses, was nothing to do with him. … The notion of philosophy existing only in academic isolation from the rest of the world would have horrified him and probably would have produced ribald laughter, too.”

There is extremely good reason to share Johnson’s disapproval of the corrupt intellectualism and isolated academic philosophy of our time. But Johnson has conjured up a straw Socrates with which to attack them.

Gideon Rappaport has an M.A and Ph.D. in English and American literature from Brandeis University. He has taught English and humanities at high school, college and graduate levels, works as a professional theatrical dramaturge, has published essays on Shakespeare and edited Dusk and Dawn: Poems and Prose of Philip Thompson. He blogs at

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