Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review: The Last Days of Socrates

The Last Days of Socrates
The Last Days of Socrates by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tredennick's translation is getting a little old-fashioned now (it was published in 1954 and last revised in 1969), but this remains one of the more accessible of Plato's works for the non-academic reader. It comprises four short works: Socrates' discussion with a friend before his trial; his speeches at the trial itself; a conversation after his conviction; and his last conversation and death.

What surprises the modern reader is the depth of humour and humanity on show. We expect classical texts to be dry, complicated and formal, but Socrates comes across as a real human being, mixing razor-sharp logic with gentle humour and even teasing. This is largely because his talent was not thinking but forcing others to think. He can also be frustratingly tactless, especially in the Apology (his speeches at the trial), almost goading the jury to condemn him.

After his death sentence, he spurns the chance to escape, arguing with infuriating logic that he is innocent because he has always been a loyal subject of Athens. If he ran away he would become guilty of subverting the laws of Athens and would thereby earn the death sentence he has already been given. His argument falls somewhere between Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative.

Phaedo: the final piece and longer than all the others combined; is the report of his final conversations with his followers and ends with him taking the prescribed poison and dying.

It's also the least satisfactory. Partly this is because Socrates' arguments seem too formally structured, giving the impression that this is really Plato's philosophy, and partly because the 'unassailable' logic about the soul and the afterlife is so obviously flawed. Several times he asks his audience whether they have any objections to his reasoning. "None, Socrates," they reply, while I'm jumping up and down saying, "Me, me! I've got one! Your theory is based on a huge assumption that you've said nothing to justify."

Still, if Socrates had all the answers then the next 2,500 years of philosophy would have been pointless. But the genesis of Western thought and critical reasoning is here.

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