BOOK REVIEW: Socrates: A Very Short Introduction by C.C.W. Taylor

Socrates: A Very Short IntroductionSocrates: A Very Short Introduction by C.C.W. Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 Stars Page

In Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Socrates is forever challenging sophists and others who propose to know what virtues are while they are demonstrably unable to define or delineate them. I wonder how he would have felt about being one of the foremost examples of a person that people firmly believe they know, when there is good reason to believe that much of what we know is false. Socrates is described in comedic plays like Clouds by Aristophanes, but those descriptions are written for comedic effect. There is a large body of works by Plato describing Socrates’ philosophical jousts, but it seems clear that some of these writings reflect Plato’s views which may or may not have been shared by Socrates. There are a few matters of official records, and numerous isolated mentions from people who either loved or loathed Socrates (loving and loathing not being states conducive to accurate reporting.)

This book attempts to concisely review what is known about Socrates and his philosophy, what is myth, and what can, at best, be regarded as the features of a fictional Socrates. The book starts with a chapter on Socrates’ life and what is widely believed true about his biography. Then the book outlines the body of writings that discuss and describe Socrates, particularly those of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle. Next there is a chapter that explores the philosophy Plato’s Socrates, a fictional construct partially based on the man and partly shaped by his student’s views. The last two chapters discuss the legacy of Socrates (real and mythical) in philosophy and culture.

There is a Further Reading section at the end to give the reader some sources to continue their investigations. I found this to be a fine overview, well-organized, and readable. It will be more useful to those who read Plato, and relevant works of Xenophon.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Memorable Thoughts of Socrates by Xenophon

The Memorable Thoughts of SocratesThe Memorable Thoughts of Socrates by Xenophon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Xenophon gives us an alternative to Plato’s accounts of the lessons of Socrates. As you probably know if you are reading this, Socrates left nothing behind by way of written teachings. All we know of the great philosopher’s teachings come from the accounts of his students. Xenophon’s version (Memorabilia of Socrates) is stylistically different from Plato’s dialogues(e.g. Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo), though Socrates’ wisdom and method (questioning) remain consistent.

I enjoyed Plato’s dialogues on the last days of Socrates more than Xenophon’s Memorabilia. This owes to Plato’s narrative approach, which tells us the story of Socrates’ trial, conviction, and execution. Philosophy is more palatable embedded in a story. However, all of these works (Xenophon’s and Plato’s) are short, readable translations, and so it is worth reading all of them to get a broader access to the thoughts of Socrates.

As with Apology, Xenophon conveys Socrates thoughts on piety and corruption of the youth (these were the charges raised against Socrates that resulted in his hemlock sentence.) Socrates maintained that he was pious, but he did think it a weakness to trouble the gods with questions that men should be able to solve for themselves. His emphasis on self-reliance and fortitude is part of why we so respect Socrates. One sees the imprint of Socrates on the school of Stoicism that would come later. In Memorabilia, Socrates openly mocks those men who cannot bear adversity as well as their slaves. (Yes, Socrates wasn’t so infallibly wise as to see the folly of slavery. I no more advocate paleomania [irrational exuberance for old thinkers / ideas] than I do neomania [irrational exuberance for new ideas.] Still, people live in the context of their times, and if one expects a person to be ahead of their time in all aspects, one will be disappointed.)

Socrates discusses governance and politics frequently in this volume. To a large extent, this is by way of trying to convince men that he believed would be good for governance to participate, and convincing those who he believed wouldn’t be effective leaders (e.g. Euthydemus) not to participate. Toward the end of book (part IV) he talks about the various forms of government (e.g. Monarchy, Aristocracy, Plutocracy, Tyranny, and Democracy.) These ideas no doubt informed Plato’s illumination of eight forms of government in The Republic.

What I appreciate most about Socrates was his groundedness and appreciation of the importance of the body. One can read a lot of philosophy without hearing mention of the body (beyond the thought that it might be an illusion created by the program that runs our brain-in-a-vat system.) One gets the idea that proponents of this discipline largely think of the body as a cart that drags around their great, big, lovely brains. Not so with Socrates. In fact, he rebukes philosophers for not taking care of themselves. He mentions the importance of nutrition, exercise, and sleep [this is where he’s ahead of his time.] Also, Socrates recognizes the damage done by having too great an attachment to comfort. (Here one sees an interest point of overlap with Eastern philosophies that derive from yoga–with its niyama of tapas [austerity and self-discipline.] By the way, that isn’t the only correlation between the Eastern and Western mindset we see in Socrates. e.g. At one point, a wealthy man complains about the poor behavior of his servant, to which Socrates asks upon whom this condition should reflect poorly—the master not the servant. Confucius made a similar statement to this one.)

I think this classic is well worth reading. It’s short, readable, and offers a great deal of food for thought. If you don’t have time for multiple accounts of Socrates’ teachings, you might be kept more enthralled by the Platonic dialogues, but surely you can make time for Socrates.

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