The trial and death of Socrates is one of the most compelling places to begin one’s philosophical education. — Greg Johnson, The Trial of Socrates
Everyone strives to obtain the law. — Franz Kafka, The Trial
Philosophy in the West has been withering on the vine for decades. A combination of Jacques Derrida’s “death of the civilization of the book” and the replacement of that civilization with Guy Debord’s “society of the spectacle” has rendered philosophy outmoded, antique, and frankly too much like hard work for an intellectually undemanding generation.
The only way to experience Western philosophy now is to be an autodidact, although that still benefits from the type of guidance currently being decommissioned in Western universities. Philosophy — I am referring to Western philosophy throughout — was one of the first targets for the curricular decolonizers because it is — the Berber Saint Augustine possibly excepted — comprehensively white. Philosophy is a coalmine canary, and other disciplines are following its descent into irrelevance, at least for the student body, to make way for meaningless pursuits deliberately decoupled from tradition.
For the newcomer, the problem is where to begin. There are various histories of philosophy available, but they are not for beginners. The tide is too strong, and ideas are flung at the philosophical freshman too frantically. The only way to begin the philosophical path is to go to the source texts. But which ones?
Plato’s Apology, the account of the trial of Socrates in 399 BC for corrupting youth and importing novel divinities, has a strong claim to being the ideal introduction to Western philosophy, and Greg Johnson’s The Trial of Socrates (TS) is thus an ideal introduction to Plato, who remains emblematic of the philosophy to come. Alfred North Whitehead, who co-authored the Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell, called all philosophy “footnotes to Plato.” And Emerson wrote, “Plato is philosophy.”
The Apology is not so much philosophy as meta-philosophy, philosophy about philosophy, and particularly its place in society. The question posed by the Apology is: How can philosophy justify itself to the state? Johnson’s answer is unequivocal:
It can’t. At least, it can’t justify itself as philosophy. The clearest indication of this fact is just how systematically deceptive and sneaky Socrates is in his defense speech. Socrates is lying. But Socrates is forced to lie, given the nature of his audience and the nature of the life he’s trying to defend.
And, as Johnson pieces together the rhetorical approach Socrates takes to defending his life, he indeed finds the art of the sophist. Johnson also looks closely at Socratic irony, and finds there a form of dissembling, an “aristocratic, condescending, magnanimous refusal to display oneself fully.” This is compared with Socratic ignorance, or the awareness of knowing nothing rather than the pretense of knowing anything. For Socrates, the whole production is directed by his daimonion, or the spirit or internal voice which advises Socrates when not to act.
But the key to the Apology is that, rather than take easily available options to save his own life, Socrates uses his day in court to defend that which has given that life meaning, despite the apparently inbuilt impossibility of doing so. Socrates, Johnson writes, is defending philosophy, but “in a way that shows the difficulties of defending philosophy in a public context.”
Readers who are familiar with Plato will appreciate the expanded frame of reference Johnson provides, one which situates the Apology as the centerpiece of a series of Platonic dialogues. The “death trilogy” of Socrates traditionally comprises Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. Johnson, in TS, includes other readings of dialogues less usually connected with the Apology, including Theages and Euthyphro, as well as the central proposition of TS, that a satirical play by Aristophanes, The Clouds, was so centrally important to understanding Socrates (and therefore Plato) that Johnson even writes of “Aristophanian philosophy.” Xenophon also accompanies TS, having written an alternative account of Socrates’ trial.
The scant details that remain to us of Socrates’ life before he antagonized the Athenian state by philosophizing in the public square are rounded out in TS, and Socrates’ only journey outside his home was to fight in the Peloponnesian War, thus preceding Descartes and Nietzsche in having actual experience of the battlefield. He transferred his theater of operations to the Athenian market square, indulging in impromptu seminars which would lead to the trial and execution which made him “a martyr for philosophy.”
Plato and his dramatic mouthpiece Socrates by no means represent the birth of Western philosophy, and TS provides the context of the so-called Pre-Socratic philosophers. Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Diogenes, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and others were thinkers who, as Luke Muehlhauser writes in Pre-Socratics, “were wrong about everything but . . . asked the right questions.” These were the first natural philosophers, asking of the world what it is rather than inquiring as to what human nature is or what are the greatest values for such humans to hold. That would come later, with Socrates.
TS also emphasizes the central supporting pillar provided to Greek knowledge and society by myth — Homer had a Koranic role for the Greeks — which makes its replacement by a different mode of thought historically pivotal: “[I]t’s the replacement of myth with another type of explanation that is one of the most monumental and revolutionary changes that marks the beginning of philosophy in Greece.”
Johnson does not initially present this nascent philosophy from the perspective of the philosopher, however, but that of the satirist.
I was not familiar with The Clouds, and took Socrates’ mention of it in the Apology to be a throwaway line. This is not so, and Johnson gives the play that finished last in a Dionysiac drama festival a central place on the podium of Socratic thought. It is, he argues, “the first fully extant philosophical work that we have in the Western tradition.”
The play is centered around Socrates’ “Thinkery,” a ramshackle academy in which Socrates is shown foreshadowing the scientist from Swift’s academy in Gulliver’s Travels, engaged as he has been for eight years “upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers.” Strepsiades, the father in the play who unsuccessfully attends the Thinkery before his son replaces him, finds Socrates and his people measuring fleas’ feet and ascertaining whether gnats hum from mouth or anus.
There is also a playoff between allegorical figures the Just Speech and the Unjust Speech, via which Johnson maps out Aristophanes’ view of sophistry as well as the difference in thinking between a man of the soil and the higher intellectual pursuits Strepsiades finds worthy of mockery in the Thinkery.
The conservatism of the Just Speech against the progressivism of the Unjust Speech is won by the art of rhetoric. The Unjust Speech goes on to win the argument, despite being the weaker of the two. Along with this exemplifying part of the evidence brought against Socrates, we might also see a foreshadowing of today’s political disequilibrium, as a ruinous progressivism deposes a faltering conservatism.
The chapter on The Clouds is followed by a student discussion, reinforcing the informal feel of TS, which was originally a series of lectures, and this format retains the originals’ ease of delivery. As for The Clouds, Socrates has his right of reply.
Johnson sees Theages as a riposte to The Clouds. The familial dynamic of father and son is repeated in both, as is the question of who is suitable to study philosophy — which, as Plato emphasizes throughout his dialogues, is not for all. Indeed, TS makes it clear that, while his fictional self in The Clouds took on the hopeless Pheidippides as a student, he would not take Theages, as he “realizes that even a Sophist couldn’t corrupt Theages as much as philosophy could.” Given that Socrates was later charged with precisely the accusation that he had corrupted the youth of Athens, Johnson sees this as a rebuttal to Aristophanes’ satirical portrait. Aristophanes, says Johnson, even taught Plato the dramatic format of the dialogues which are his signature.
Once again, in the Euthyphro, Johnson notes the father/son dialectic in the text, with Euthyphro met by Socrates on his way to court to sue his father for the murder of a slave. Murder was no concern of the Athenian state, and was rather subject to civil law.
Socrates meets Euthyphro hurrying to court to sue his father shortly before his own trial, and the fact that the nature of piety and that of the law, and their interconnection, are Euthyphro’s main topics sets the drama and is the mummer’s play before the main production, the center of gravity of TS which is the Apology, but its relevance has been put into high relief by Johnson with the context of the surrounding texts.
As noted, Socrates’ trial and its tripartite structure — charge, defense, verdict — are not so much a work of philosophy as a work about philosophy, and particularly its relationship with the state. As a defendant, Socrates’ speech is at the same time a failure (he is sentenced to death) and a posthumous success in that it provides a pole star for the Platonic dialogues.
There will always be the question of translation from Ancient Greek, and Johnson handles this with the minimum of fuss. The language of Plato employed words that we would today call polyvalent, having more than one meaning, a fragmentation that has been parsed out over millennia into nuanced synonyms. Johnson shows the etymological link between key Platonic concepts when necessary, but without overwhelming the newcomer to philosophy.
Some Greek-rooted words, for example, have become misleading when we see them transliterated in Plato. In Theages, Socrates states that although he is ignorant, and furthermore knows he is, he still has one area of expertise: love. The Greek is ta erotika, which has a different sense for us. However:
Socrates is not boasting of sexual prowess. In Plato, eros is essential to understanding of the soul. Thus knowledge of erotic things means knowledge of the soul.
Although the Apology begins at the end in relation to Socrates’ life, it remains a beginning for the West which can be revisited once the reader has gone on to further philosophical territory. Revisiting this beginning in TS, we find ourselves with T. S. Eliot in “Little Gidding,” knowing the place for the first time. Nietzsche writes that it might be a good thing for the state to have nothing to do with philosophy, and the Athenian state certainly agreed. But if what we have instead of states today can ever be righted, philosophy must show its face.
Philosophy in the West today faces a paradox regarding its status. On one hand it is an early victim of curricular decolonization as anti-white ideologies swiftly engulf the traditional aims of a university, so students will get less and less philosophy and more and more quasi-intellectual gossip about slavery. On the other hand, the complete works of Plato can be obtained via e-publishing for around a dollar. The elites, as such there are, don’t need any virtual book-burning when it comes to philosophy because they have already created an environment in which philosophy has no short-term benefit, no guaranteed dopamine hit, is too much like hard work, and was written by whitey.
And so, while it is an improving text for the student of Classical philosophy, TS is essential for the newcomer. The end of the life of Socrates is the beginning of a philosophical tradition which funded almost two-and-a-half millennia of Western, white, intellectual achievement. Philosophy was at the heart of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and the idea and use of reason it clarified provided the dynamic behind the Industrial Revolution. Francis Bacon’s reappraisal of the scientific method was a direct riposte to Aristotle. What happened in Athens did not stay in Athens.
Philosophy may seem like an antiquarian pursuit, such as collecting silverware or old jazz records, but it is far more important than that. In an age, as we are, in which the fundamental rules governing thought have been dismissed as just one more oppressive tactic in a white man’s game, if those rules and their analysis can’t be re-tethered to reality, epistemological anarchy awaits.
So, with Plato and his part-creation, Socrates, to start with the Apology is to begin at an end which is also a beginning. Greg Johnson’s The Trial of Socrates is part guide, part history, and part philosophy in its own right. And it is part self-analysis. Philosophy should never be studied at a distance, without the engagement of our own investment in the tale it has to tell. “Understanding Socrates,” writes Johnson, “is a way to understand the deep tangled roots of our own civilization and our own selves.”
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 The increasing Islamization of Europe is hardly a healthy sign for the encouragement of philosophy. If you doubt that, ask French philosopher Robert Redeker, if you can find him. He has been in hiding since 2006, when he wrote a piece for Le Figaro deemed insulting to Islam and Muhammad. Islamist censorship is a little terser than its Western version, as Salman Rushdie can attest
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