Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones, Literary Review February 2009

The 7thC BC farmer-poet Hesiod reports that the Muses said to him ‘We know how to speak many falsehoods which look like the truth, but we also know how to speak the truth when we want to’. The problem mere mortals face is deciding which is which, especially in situations where evidence is lacking, and plausibility is the best we can do unless new evidence emerges. For example, it used to be thought that death by hemlock was rather gruesome – spasms, choking, vomiting and so on. So Plato’s depiction of the untroubled death of Socrates was taken to be Plato’s effort to maintain his image of a Socrates who could rise above mere physical discomfort. But now we know that *Conium maculatum*, the species of hemlock found on the slopes of Mt. Hymettus, is not especially violent, but induces a gradual paralysis that leads to asphyxiation. So Plato’s depiction of Socrates’ peaceful passing – whether he cracked jokes about making an offering to the god of healing Asclepius or not - was in fact accurate. How much else is accurate, however, about Socrates is a matter of intense debate, especially the reasons for his trial and execution in 399 BC.

About the only thing we can report for certain about it is the precise wording of the charge, recorded by a later historian who took it from the Athenian archives: ‘Socrates is guilty of not acknowledging the gods the city acknowledges, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of subverting the young men of the city. The penalty demanded is death.’ Neither Plato in his famous defence-speech (Greek *Apologia*), nor Xenophon, a contemporary in exile at the time in his, got the wording exactly right, though both got the gist. Neither speech agrees with the other, nor with any of the dozens of later versions of the speech composed as exercises for both defence and prosecution, let alone with the claim that Socrates said nothing in his own defence at all but simply stood there mute and defiant (I secretly admit this was always my favoured option). Nor do we have any contemporary record of the prosecution speech. We cannot even be certain of the balance of voting against him. One tradition says it was a comfortable 360-140; in Plato’s *Apology*, Socrates says that had a mere thirty votes gone the other way, he would have been acquitted, i.e. the margin was 280-220. The only point on which Plato and Xenophon (and posterity) do see eye-to-eye is that Socrates was a great man, ‘the bravest of all those we knew at the time, and also the wisest and most just’ (Plato), put to death by a stupid mob. But they would.

Robin Waterfield, therefore, has a battle on his hands if he is finally to solve the problem of why Socrates was executed, and he approaches it in a most thorough and fair-minded way. First, he considers the legal angle. Admitting that the Athenian legal system was something of a free-for-all in which the actual charge could be irrelevant and the real question usually seems to have been ‘What is it in our interests to do with this man in front of us, whatever he is guilty of?’, he still finds it hard to believe that any man, even an unreasonable one, could successfully have accused Socrates of impiety. But he does see that charge as a useful adjunct to a *political* motive, and it is here that he concentrates.

Carefully surveying the history of Athens over the previous fifty or so years, culminating in Athens’ capitulation in 404 BC after a nearly thirty-year war against Sparta, Waterfield homes in on Socrates’ subversive teachings and his close links with politically tainted characters like Alcibiades, a great white hope who twice betrayed the city, and Critias who, after Athens’ defeat, led a rather nasty oligarchic coup against the democracy. He concludes that Socrates was perceived as an evil influence, a man who for the whole of his life had propagated views hostile to democracy and, indeed, the whole basis of traditional Athenian beliefs. In the confident, heady years of Athenian supremacy, he could get away with it. But with Athens humiliated by Sparta and only just emerging from bloody internal dissension, people were looking for a scapegoat – and Socrates was it.

Not that Waterfield believes Socrates deserved his reputation. Rather, he thinks that Socrates, no democrat, was attempting to train up a new political elite that would rule Athens justly and wisely. I feel this is to read back Plato’s views about philosopher kings into a man who, on all the evidence we have, did not seem to be especially politically engaged. Nor am I convinced that the charge of atheism played a merely supporting role in the case. As Waterfield well demonstrates, Athens was in turmoil in 399 BC. That generates exactly the sort of atmosphere of religious anxiety in which men start to wonder if the gods really have turned against them. Angry gods are no joke, and an ageing oddball with a history of controversy makes the perfect villain.

But, given so many imponderables, this all boils down to a balance of plausibilities. Those Muses knew a thing or two.

Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian, Saturday 28 February 2009

Early Greek history "sets a special challenge to the disciplined mind. It is a game with very few pieces, where the skill of the players lies in complicating the rules". So wrote Iris Murdoch in her novel The Nice and the Good. Strictly speaking, she was referring to the archaic period. But in practical terms, it could be extended to embrace the whole of ancient history, where sources are few; or, rather, appear in a sudden floods (usually associated with a very well-preserved writer such as Cicero) closely followed by frustrating periods of drought. Historians must wring every last drop of juice from this or that inscription, potsherd, or literary source, proceeding with painstaking care and engaging in minute acts of close-reading. But then the fun of it is that they may make the most extraordinary leaps of the imagination to bridge the gaps. This process, of almost pettifogging exactitude combined with what some might regard as little short of fantasy, can be frustrating. But it is this marriage of precision, abstract thinking and creativity that makes ancient history so absorbing and endlessly fresh. Someone is always coming along and knocking down the fragile house of cards constructed by the last thinker, and boldly building another elegant edifice.

Robin Waterfield, in Why Socrates Died, has his moments of unbridled creation. For instance, with an attractive flourish, he creates, from hints and later writings, a putative text of one of the prosecution speeches at Socrates's trial in 399BC. If we had the real document, many mysteries from more than two millennia ago would be solved. It is a mark of the clarity, confident arguing and good sense of Waterfield - known for his translations of Plato and Herodotus as well as a previous historical work of non-fiction, Xenophon's Retreat - that the version he invents reads so plausibly at the climax of his book.

It is almost impossible to overestimate the historical importance of the trial and execution of Socrates. Plato more or less invented philosophy as we know it in the wake of, and because of, his teacher's death. As Emily Wilson wrote in her excellent book The Death of Socrates, "the only death of comparable importance in our history is that of Jesus". Wilson's work is primarily concerned with Socrates's posthumous career as (variously) martyr, hero, villain and saint. By contrast, Waterfield's book (and the two make good companion pieces) is an investigation into the reasons he was killed.

These reasons, on the face of it, are opaque. What harm did Socrates ever do anybody? Famously, he was a philosopher who never wrote anything; he refused money for his teachings; and he took no active part in politics. All he did was wander around Athens talking to people. For admirers of Athens's radical democracy, his execution remains a traumatic subject. How could a society that championed free speech condemn an apparently innocent 70-year-old?

The charges against him were of not acknowledging the city's gods; of introducing new gods; and of corrupting the young men of Athens. But what precisely did that all mean? The charge of introducing new gods seems particularly peculiar - true, Socrates talked of his daimonion, the little voice in his head that guided his actions, but that hardly seems worthy of the death penalty. Equally, Socrates emerges from Plato and Xenophon's writings as perfectly observant of conventional religious ritual. (His dying wish, according to Plato, was that a cock be sacrificed to Asclepius - to which mysterious injunction we shall return.) Which leaves us with the corrupting of the young.

The cleverness of Waterfield's richly told and enjoyable book is that he uses the death of Socrates as a way of introducing a wonderfully full picture of Athens in the fifth century. His contention is that to understand Socrates's demise we need to understand the city - its legal system, its politics, its generation of rich, clever young-men-in-a-hurry, its aristocratic culture of late-night partying, and, in particular, its war. In as clear an exegesis of the Peloponnesian war as the general reader will find, Waterfield builds up a cogent picture of a power-hungry, restless democracy that came under unbearable stress through its exhausting war with Sparta, and put itself at the mercy of ambitious, often unscrupulous politicians - not least among them Alciabiades: fashion icon, sexually voracious bon vivant, national traitor, mercurial military commander.

The most important reason Socrates was condemned, argues Waterfield, was his association with this young generation of controversial men such as Alciabiades. He skilfully draws out Socrates's probable anti-democratic leanings in his vivid description of the brutal oligarchic revolutions that engulfed the city in 411 and 404. Critias, one of the most bloody figures of that second coup, was a pupil of Socrates. In 399, the philosopher was unfinished business; a sore on the face of the restored democracy. That is why, argues Waterfield, he had to die. And the cock sacrificed to Asclepius? Waterfield's intriguing theory is that the gesture relates to Socrates's offering himself as a scapegoat, a sort of self-sacrifice to heal the wounds of the bruised city-state. But no doubt someone will be along soon to overturn that particular house of cards.

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