Some notes on the concealment of the classical philosopher


Paul Johnson, Socrates: A man for our times
Viking Penguin, NYC, New York, 2011

1. Narrative histories have made the fame of Paul Johnson, discourses on nineteenth & twentieth century politics, on America, & on Christianity & on the Jewish people. What is unusual about his work helps to explain his narration of modern political history: he has attempted to restore political history to its former central importance; he has attempted to write history for the educated public, not for specialists; & he is a straightforward defender of liberal democracy, especially the English & American regimes. These are all decent pursuits.

Liberal democracy, Paul Johnson shows, despite its successes & long history, has few theoretical defenders & many opponents; it has lost credibility among its most educated citizens & this affects public opinion. His works seek to answer this crisis of legitimacy.

Intellectuals argued against writers whose minds were distorted & who put ideas above people. Intellectuals typically embrace radical or revolutionary ideas, but act most immorally toward their associates, their friends, their nearest & dearest. He criticizes not the philosophers’ arguments, but rather their historical role. Placing deeds above speeches, he indicts modern philosophers & poets for callousness or even cruelty, promiscuity, & debasing public mores.

The most important accusation religion makes against philosophy thus arises: philosophers are immoral. Their claim to wisdom is immoderate. They publish utopian ideas, ignorant of their disastrous political consequences. Specifically, they subvert regimes by rendering their claims to justice questionable.

Heroes & Creators argued the case of the great men, ancient & modern too, who have attained to immorality of a kind by making their lives into paradigms that defy death with their power to persuade people of what is truly important, not merely urgent or expedient. These men & women are a kind of natural aristocracy: politicians or poets, their lives’ works address the fundamental questions: what is good? What is beauty?

The primary purpose of history, Johnson suggests, is to show the greatest & worst human beings. Thus, history teaches reasonably, by argument & example, what deserves our praise & what our blame. His most recent biographies sketch an ascent to the fundamental question facing us: revelation & reason. His recent biography of Jesus Christ is not obviously a matter of political science, but his biography of Socrates is, for Socrates is traditionally famous for discovering political philosophy, so we will turn to his examination of the most famous philosopher.

2. The Catholic Paul Johnson starts his biography of Socrates by noting his near-contemporaneity with Confucius & Ezra. This he calls an example of the zeitgeist, which we cannot explain, but from which we can learn. This might merely mean providence, emphasizing the similarities between revelation & reason, discounting the differences. Johnson notices the latter two were somebodies in their societies, whereas the former was startlingly a nobody. – Ezra spoke with divine authority, whereas Socrates was executed legally for impiety.

Machiavelli would call these men prophets. The Socratics were prophets without arms; Ezra & his own were prophets with arms. Confucius & his pupils are ambiguous. – Johnson calls them educators, of the few & the many without distinction. This blurs the distinction between the active & contemplative lives.

Johnson therefore takes the speeches about the d eeds of Socrates for Socrates himself. He readily acknowledges the difficulty, contradictions, & dark designs of these speeches. The student of the classics will therefore wonder, to see Johnson’s opinions & his manner of rescuing Socrates from historical vicissitudes.

Startlingly, his supposition leads him to disjoin the famous twin Socratics. Johnson does not tell us that both Xenophon & Plato wrote an Apology of Socrates; nor that Xenophon’s Anabasis is comparable to Plato’s Republic; nor that both wrote a Symposium. He tells us Xenophon was a country gentleman & Plato was an intellectual.

Xenophon never comprehended & so could not reproduce the sheer power of Socrates’ mind. This power is really only the audacious & brilliant writing of Plato’s dialogues, once again blinding the learned to Xenophon. Johnson ignores the fact that only Xenophon’s fame can stand next to the fame of Socrates, Plato, & Aristotle. – We call Cicero & Machiavelli philosophers unhesitatingly. They considered Xenophon a philosopher of the first rank. – Johnson concedes the greatness of Xenophon’s writing & generalship, but fails to connect them to make up a philosopher. Amusingly, he confuses Xenophon’s Memorabilia with his Symposium1.

Plato was a genius, which is both our boundless delight & our misfortune. We are once again treated to the psychological melodrama that supposes how Plato lived his life, what political & psychological experiences shaped his thinking as years went by, & how he wrote about Socrates as a consequence2. This is a perverse kind of reverse engineering: Commentators’ only Socratic speeches are Plato’s & Xenophon’s dialogues. But to first read the dialogues & then arrange them in arcane chronologies & anchor those on psychological assumptions & intellectual development hypotheses which are nothing but commentators’ interpretations of the dialogues – that is manifestly silly.

The question of the sources is our most important question. Socrates wrote nothing. Unfortunately, Plato & Xenophon were Socrates’ students, not historical witnesses. In order to confound Johnson further, Xenophon wrote his autobiography, his Anabasis, in the third person. Taking the joke further, he ascribed his account of his Anabasis in his Hellenica (iii.1.1-2) to a fictional writer. It is no surprise then that Johnson is inclined to make a leap of faith & take Xenophon’s Socratic works at face value & damn the writer to obscurity. The classical attitude, of course, was the opposite exactly: Xenophon’s Socratic works were not taken as a historical witness, but his wit & art were exalted unanimously.

Plato is never a character in his own dialogues, whereas Xenophon on the rare occasion does appear in his, & mentions Plato & his brother, too. Plato never distinguishes his own views, whatever they may have been, from the views of Socrates, the main speaker in most dialogues. To make things worse, there are dialogues where Socrates appears, but is not the main speaker. & then dialogues where Socrates does not even appear…

Biographical interest may justify limiting ourselves to the dialogues which Plato wrote & in which Socrates is the main speaker. But Socrates fame as an ironic man means we cannot take him at his word, as even some of his interlocutors know3. Then again, Socrates’ contradictions from one dialogue to another are quite funny & also very obvious. He tells Glaucon in the Republic that eros is the cause of tyranny, the worst degeneration of the soul4. But in Plato’s Symposium, he tells a story about a fortune-teller who taught him that Eros is a demigod5. Socrates further claimed only one kind of knowledge, unrivalled, of the erotic things6.

Socrates may simply be impossible to understand, therefore, without understanding first why Plato & Xenophon wrote in the strange way in which they chose to write. The literary questions they force readers to ask are not really different from the philosophical problem of Socrates. For now, let us merely say that had Johnson considered the distinction between gentleman & philosopher, on the one hand, & between philosopher & sophist, on the other, he would have saved himself much trouble7.

3. Socrates is to have been quite a citizen, Johnson argues. A soldier & husband8. It was an accident, a misfortune, & the trouble with the justice system in Athens what done it9. But without his famous dialogue with the city of Athens, philosophy may never have gained such fame… Johnson sums up this fame by quoting very approvingly Cicero: Socrates was the first to call Philosophy down from the skies, & establish her in the towns, & introduce her into people’s homes, & force her to investigate ordinary life, ethics, good & evil10. Of course, the cities preceded philosophy & were ruled without it. Therefore, a great conflict arose between the discovery of political philosophy & pre-philosophic politics.

Practically speaking, the end of Socrates’ political philosophy was his execution at the hands of the Athenian citizens. Inasmuch as Socrates never wrote things, his philosophy, which earned him death, meant talking with people. His conversations annoyed the regimes in Athens & particularly his influence on the noble youths11, which brought corruption charges against him. Reading the books of Socratic speeches without attention to what there would convince Athenians to kill him is silly.

In his defense, Socrates addresses his judges saying that even from youth they had been brought up with slanders against him12: Socrates, never popular, had long lived with the threat of the city doing harm to him. Socrates was always suspicious of the obvious, & he can nearly always show that the obvious is untrue, & the truth is very rarely obvious13. Johnson’s words could hardly be improved to argue the case of the city for the execution of Socrates. Nothing is more obvious than the laws & opinions about the gods which all people learn even from the youngest age. Socrates taught young men to question these things, i.e. to disbelieve, in a city given to periodic bouts of religious hysteria. Some of the young men proved how little they believed in the morals they had been taught by becoming tyrants & almost destroying the city, murdering many thousands of citizens.

Had the philosophic students of Socrates not agreed in principle that the case of the city against the philosopher was dead serious, they should not have written at such length to defend Socrates. Plato was no lover of Athens, who neither fought for her nor lived in Athens alone nor refused to live at the court of a tyrant. Xenophon abandoned Athens to fight as a mercenary, then fought for Sparta against Athens, & was eventually exiled. Surely, the example of his two most famous students, then as now, should lead any man studying Socratic philosophy to see a threat to the city that can never be disarmed. These two men were the greatest philosophers & they could not be counted upon to set a decent example…

Persecution of the learned was by no means confined to Athens [or] the fifth century B.C. Aristotle had a charge of impiety brought against him & went into voluntary exile, „not wishing that Athens should commit a second crime against philosophy.”14 It is, indeed, just as necessary for the philosopher to defend himself from the city. The dark designs of the beautiful works & the curious nature of Socrates serve to conceal him from the city, apparently perfectly.

Titus Techera
[The University of Bucharest]


1 Paul Johnson, Socrates, p.15.
2 Liken this to an epistolary novel, with dialogues instead of letters, & commentators filling in the blanks. Unsurprisingly, Johnson cites Vlastos & Popper to teach us about Socrates & Plato. That follows, given his apparent inability to see that intellectual is the same as sophist.
3 Republic 337a.
4 Republic 571a et seq, especially 573b-d, 574e-575a, 587a.
5 Symposium 201d et seq.
6 Theages 128b.
7 It should go without saying that this is a serious problem. Plato’s Theaetetus, Sophist, & Politicus, after all, are devoted to it. As are the two Apologies of Socrates. Xenophon shows the gentleman & philosopher conversing in the Oeconomicus. His Memorabilia is explicitly dedicated to showing that Socrates was a perfect gentleman.
8 Alcibiades is the source on Socrates’ military service (Plato’s Symposium 219e-221b); he only shows Socrates in defense. Socrates fought in the defeats at Potidaea & Delium; he was best of all Greeks, generals including, at orderly retreat, controlling his fear; (Socrates, in Plato’s Apology of Socrates 28e, mentions he also fought in the defeat at Amphipolis.) Alcibiades shows Socrates’ endurance & self-control, but not the active, offensive, aggressive part of courage: Socrates is not really manly (Xenophon’s Symposium 9.1). Alcibiades only manages to show Socrates’ legendary moderation. Johnson in his own name asserts the statements Plato put in Alcibiades’ mouth: He is to Socrates as Alcibiades was to Socrates.

Perhaps the Charmides (153a-d) suffices to describe Socrates in his own way & in his own words. Returning from Potidaea, Socrates goes to a gymnasium. His companions there ask him about the battle & the war; he answers questions, but does not volunteer information. His own questions are: Who the new beauties & What was the state of philosophy in his absence. If a man returning from war goes to mind his business & occupies himself with what is dearest to him, the absence of family should be telling.
9 Paul Johnson, Socrates, chp. 6.
10 Paul Johnson, Socrates, p.99. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, V.10, Brutus 31.
11 Xenophon presents Alcibiades (Memorabilia 1.2.40-46), before age twenty, humiliating his legal guardian Pericles with a Socratic question: What is Law? Socrates suggests that noble youths liked to see him refute various opinions & tried to do it themselves, which also angered people. They all hated Socrates (Plato’s Apology of Socrates 20c-23d) & it is not unlikely that the youths’ powerful fathers hated Socrates for alienating their filial affection (Memorabilia I.2.49-55). Also, the democrats hated Socrates because of his past association with Alcibiades, as well as Charmides & especially Critias, who ended up bloodthirsty tyrants (Memorabilia I.2.12-30). In turn, the tyrants suspected Socrates was undermining their tyranny (Memorabilia I.2.31- 38). He survived the tyranny, but not the democracy.
12 Plato’s Apology of Socrates 18a-e.
13 Paul Johnson, Socrates, p. 112.
14 Paul Johnson, Socrates, p.184.



TITUS TECHERA – Student, Facultatea de Științe Politice, Universitatea București.




Sfera Politicii