A.C. Grayling reviews Paul Johnson’s Socrates

February 1, 2016

A.C. Grayling reviews Paul Johnson’s Socrates


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Philosopher A C Grayling

by A C Grayling

Bertrand Russell was of opinion that Jesus was not as clever as Socrates or as compassionate as the Buddha. Although this view has its merits, by focusing on the differences among the three it misses an important similarity: that they all gained large followings because (and emphatically not in spite) of the fact that they wrote nothing. All their teachings are attributed by others, their lives are the stuff of followers’ legends, their place in history secure because, inadvertently or otherwise, they anticipated the significance of the proverbial remark “Oh that my enemy had written a book!”

What little we know about Socrates comes to us, with a few exceptions, from his friends and their followers. The resulting portrait is on the whole an affectionate one, and testifies to his charisma as an individual. The same is true of the other large civilizational figures whom we know only through report; to those already mentioned we can add Confucius, Islam’s Muhammad, and Sikhism’s Guru Nanak as examples.

The trouble with such figures is that they lend themselves to endless interpretation and reinterpretation, to reading-in and reinvention, to different and often competing depictions. As far as I know, however, in the case of Socrates there has never been such a jaw-dropping hagiography as the one here provided by Paul Johnson, whose admiring — perhaps the better word is besotted — account of the ancient thinker has joined Iman Wilkens’s Where Troy Once Stood (the book that places the Trojan War in England’s East Anglia and, with perfect seriousness, claims that Achilles was a Dutchman) among my all-time favorite Amazing Books.

Johnson claims to be able to extract the “real, actual historic Socrates” from Plato’s “irritating” habit of interpolating his, Plato’s, own take on things into accounts of Socrates’ character and teachings. Johnson’s “real actual” Socrates is not just “the noblest, the gentlest, the bravest man” but veritably a kind of religious prophet, a divinely inspired preacher of surprisingly Christian-like views, or perhaps (the portrait blurs in and out as the pages turn) a proto-quasi-John the Baptist making straight the way of St. Paul — this by preparing the Greek world to be more receptive to the Christian message that Paul brought it.

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The unexamined life is not worth living (Ancient Greek: ὁ … ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ)

Johnson gets progressively more carried away by this theme as the book proceeds, these encroachments on the avant la lettre Christianity likeness of the Socratic “ministry,” as Johnson calls it, becoming dithyrambic. “It was the combination of Jesus’s inspired Hebrew message of charity, selflessness, acceptance of suffering, and willing sacrifice with the clear Socratic vision of the soul’s triumph and the eternal life awaiting it,” Johnson claims, “that gave the Christianity which sprang from Paul’s teaching of the Gospels its astonishing power and ubiquity and enabled it to flourish in persecution and martyrdom.” (A few lines later, with a sudden but all-too-brief awareness that nonsense hovers, Johnson contradictorily recants: “Socrates was not a Christian precursor…”). The fact that Christianity adopted the neo-Platonists’ version of the immortal immaterial soul several centuries into the Christian era, having until then been good Jews on the question of death by expecting actual bodily resurrection at the Second Coming, does not trouble Johnson because, obviously, he does not know it.

Ignorance is remediable; logic-blindness takes longer to correct. Johnson pounces on the fact that Socrates talked about his “inner voice,” the apotreptic (“warning-off”) prompting that alerted him against making mistakes. He described it as the voice of a god, which was in keeping with the Greek way of speaking about everything from artistic inspiration to conscience. But Johnson inflates Socrates’ inner voice to a full-blown Judeo-Christian-like deity and its message to a full-blown ministry. From giving an occasional warning it becomes the determinant of the whole of Socrates’ career: philosophy was, Johnson avers, “the mission God had given him in life,” and “his inner voice from God…ordained him to conduct philosophy as he understood it.” Note the language: “mission,” “ordination,” “ministry.”

This magnification of the inner voice is merely over-excitement on Johnson’s part; the failure of logic enters when he says that Socrates’ philosophical “mission” was to encourage people to think for themselves. So according to Johnson, Socrates is commanded by God to tell people to think for themselves, and he obeys.

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This is not the only contradiction. On page 92 Johnson’s Socrates is a postmodernist and relativist: Socrates is “hostile not just to the ‘right answer’ but to the very of idea of there being a right answer.” By page 114 he is the direct opposite; he “opts firmly for moral absolutism.” By page 119 Socrates is even more emphatically anti-relativist; he there espouses “moral absolutism at its most stringent.”

Johnson asserts that Socrates’ interests were strictly practical, in that he was not interested in “justice in the abstract” but in actual practical workaday justice. This claim breathtakingly ignores Socrates’ relentless quest for the essence — the abstract defining quiddity — of justice, continence, truth, courage, virtue, knowledge, the good, and so on, which in the early dialogues typically terminates for the participants in aporia, the state of no longer knowing what one does or should think about the matter. Since Socrates’ claim was that he only knew that he knew nothing (which is why the Delphic oracle pronounced him the wisest of men), he was officially excluded from himself offering a definition; his role in the elenchus — the method of enquiry by question and answer, conjecture and refutation — was to get people to see that they were as ignorant as himself. We are a far cry here, in knowing no answers, from knowing any absolutely right answers.

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My Favorite Quote from LKY–Din Merican

In the middle and later dialogues of Plato, where Socrates is even more obviously a mouthpiece than he is in the early dialogues, answers most certainly appear — Plato’s answers, of course — in the doctrines of the Forms and anamnesis (this latter literally means “unforgetting,” that is, recalling the total knowledge one’s immortal soul enjoyed in its pre-embodied direct contact with the Forms, which are the eternal, immutable, and perfect exemplars of things).

Johnson’s misunderstanding of Socrates’ aims as they appear in Plato’s early dialogues, as well as in the tangential reports of others — admiringly in Xenophon, satirically in Aristophanes — and his insistent eagerness to make Socrates look like a Christ-like figure of perfect virtue and self-sacrifice, result in massive distortion. Oddly, his desire in the latter respect chimes with Plato’s own effort to portray Socrates as saint and martyr, though Johnson dismisses Plato’s portrait with lofty (and, as we see, hubristic) contempt.

Johnson’s beatification of Socrates leads him to claim, “In terms of his influence, he was the most important of all philosophers.” Were Johnson acquainted with philosophy beyond the Teach Yourself level he would know that Plato and Aristotle between them have an influence that is as Everest to Socrates’ molehill. A. N. Whitehead’s description of philosophy as “footnotes to Plato” does not exaggerate by much.

But what is the influence that Johnson thinks Socrates exerts? “What he did,” Johnson claims, “was to concentrate on making more substantial the presence of an overriding divine force, a God who permeated all things and ordained the universe. This dramatic simplification made it possible for him to construct a system of ethics that was direct, plausible, workable and satisfying.” Not one word of this even remotely applies to anything known of Socrates. Socrates was a religious prophet? Socrates was a pantheist? Socrates constructed an ethical system?

If you wish to know how Johnson gets to miss the point of Socrates so comprehensively, you only have to note two things. First, he ignores the possibility that Aristophanes’ depiction of Socrates in The Clouds probably contained enough truth to make a knowledgeable Athenian audience laugh.

And second, and at his greater peril, he disdains Plato, asserting that  “[the Republic] is not a text where, in general, the real Socrates speaks, though I think he does in this particular passage” — meaning that he, Johnson, knows better than Plato (or any Plato scholar of the last 2,500 years) when the “real Socrates” speaks. When Plato’s depiction fails to chime with Johnson’s made-up version, it is dismissed as “illustrating his [Plato’s] irritating habit of foisting his personal views on others.” Pot and kettle here! So he cherry-picks words and passages that suit his purposes, and discards the rest.

Yet only consider the views that Johnson foists on Socrates. He has the sage teach that “[t]he most important occupation of a human being was to subdue his bodily instincts and train himself to respond to the teachings of the soul.” On another page, remember, his ordained mission was “to teach people to think for themselves,” as God told him to say: which is a bit closer to the Socrates we see through the dark Platonic glass.

One of the biggest twists Johnson gives to the tale concerns the politics of Socrates’ trial and death. Socrates and Plato had been associated with the aristocratic party that led Athens into ruin and subjected it to tyranny, and he was put to death by the democracy that supplanted it, a few years after the democracy had granted amnesties to various members of the tyrant party in the hope of soothing the troubled character of state affairs. That Socrates was brought to trial about four years after the amnesty suggests that he, alone or with others, was regarded as still a problem.

Subsequent history has blamed the democrats for executing Socrates, but Johnson tries to distance the sage from the tyrant party and thus have him wrongly maligned and condemned. Here, at least and at last, he is with Plato and Xenophon in painting Socrates in victim’s colors. But there is enough reason to think (the aristocratic fascism of Plato might alone make you think) that the smoke curling about Socrates’ head had a bit of fire under it. In the end, Socrates offers a portrait not of a real philosopher but of a fictional character, a portrait that says more about the author’s own beliefs than any Greek who lived within 500 years of Socrates.


6 thoughts on “A.C. Grayling reviews Paul Johnson’s Socrates

  1. LaMoy, CLF, Veritas and Conrad,

    Share your take on the Grayling statement:

    “Without people who are alert and engaged, who are eager to debate and who have some expertise to offer from their studies or experience, the public conversation would be a meagre thing. What such people offer is exactly what the public conversation needs: ideas, perspectives, criticism and commentary. What anyone who offers them should expect in return is robust examination of what they offer. Whether ideas come to be accepted or rejected, everyone gains by having them discussed.”

    Philosopher Grayling is talking about the public intellectual and an educated public.Banter! To me talk is hot air.

    We need action borne out of conviction, conscience and moral courage, not continued intellectual masturbation. That is what Malaysia needs badly at this juncture if we want real change. Action matters more. We have been talking on this blog over many years (since 2007 when I started this blog), but the plutocrats are getting stronger day by day since. You are welcome to differ.–Din Merican

  2. Wow, what a test, Professor Merican. Is it fair, Dato Din, when you posted AC Grayling’s review on Paul Johnson’s book, Socrates: A Man For Our Time, and quoted AC Grayling from his essay on Public Intellectuals of his book The Challenge of Things? I’ve not read Paul Johnson’s book on Socrates, so I cannot make any comment on that. But I can make some silly comments on public intellectual.

    Oldest joke in the anthology. Two guys are walking in the Upper West Side of New York. One guy points to an apartment and says, “The Trillings live there.” The other guy says, “Do they have a view of the Hudson?” First guy say, “The Trillings have a view of everything.”

    So there you have it – public intellectuals should have a view of everything – anything less and they are just writers.

    The Trilling Joke gets to the heart of what a public intellectual was and is no more- a “generalist”. In all fields of scholarship and expertise, narrow specialization reigns at the expense of a broad holistic perspective that appeals to universalist ideals. But then it seems to me that this reflects the fracturing and segmenting of the “public” itself. Thanks to the transformations in mass communication and market deregulation we have “nano” publics, hyperspecialized interest groups, who each have their intellectuals. There are important synnergistic relationship between changing conceptions of “the intellectual” with changing means of mass communication, and transformed conceptions of “the public”.

  3. “We need action borne out of conviction, conscience and moral courage, not continued intellectual masturbation.”

    Yup, Pak Din – couldn’t agree with you more. The world has always been in a mess but right now, we seem to be in a Kafkaesque situation of existential angst, alienation, absurdity – including a bizarre, surrealistic predicament of socioeconomic, cultural, religious divisions and political meltdown.

    Holistic Action in such circumstances requires a reordering and reinvention of Modern Societies preoccupation of Maslowian Hierarchy, into a more fundamental human needs driven scenario. At least on the personal level. Some of us are withdrawing from public engagement in order that we can get a handle of what is happening ‘Out There’. Only then we can determine an Outcome or Result Orientated approach to the prevailing existential crisis, as we see it.

    It is no use taking Action when whatever we say or do, counts for nothing. Conscience, courage and altruism sometimes requires a modicum of discernment – while conviction is often the fruit of tunnel vision and self interest.

    I don’t understand what a Public intellectual is or does, but i’ll agree with La Moy’s assessment of a Generalist or a Polymath who can winnow the substantive from the measly pettiness that most ‘Pubic’ Intellectuals masturbate with. Go for the Big Picture – not for a faded Kodachrome of the past.

    For instance, i predicted some years ago that the US will have to disengage – if not totally isolate, rebuild Fortress America and continue being the Tech Wonder it is, if indeed it wants to lead humanity. If Trump, the demagogue, happens to be the instrument to start the process – despite his profound idiocy and malfeasance – so be it.

    The world will continue to fumble, wobble and stumble, long after we’re gone. We can only teach the fruit of our loins – not to be pests, parasites or freeloaders. That is what is meant by the Unselfish Gene.

  4. After what LaMoy and CLF have put forth my contribution would seem a bit meagre. I think the distinction between discourse and action – words and activism – is important because they operate on different levels.

    One should inform the other but these days, in capitalistic societies, the former has supplanted the latter, as an “agent of change” and it is proving to be woefully inadequate.

    Online communication while proven to be extremely effective into translating discourse into action also acts as a kind of rubber sex doll, to most folks ensconced in their own particular worldview and raging against the “out there”.

    And there’s a reason for this, until the “out there” becomes an existential threat, then there is no real reason to resort to action. “Action” is always about self preservation, on some level.

    Discourse meanwhile services the ego, nourishes that “civilized” part of us, that lulls us into believing that the pen is mightier than the sword because most of us will never test that theory on the battlefield.

    Oh hell, just reread what LaMoy and CLF wrote.

  5. Well said, Conrad. If i may add a little..

    The Greek Philosophers especially Aristotle, opined that “Tragedy” happens not due to Man’s weaknesses, defects or failings – but precisely because his virtues, righteousness and moral conscience. The paradox remains irreconcilable from within and without and that makes it Real.

    Suffering, Irony and Absurdity is the condition of our existence, and how we effectively engineer or achieve our catharsis in our life’s story and in general, History – determines our response to the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ and in part ‘the Anti-commons’.

    Wrongful Action often stems from hubris, impatience, misunderstanding and oversimplification. Blindness, in the metaphorical and intellectual sense, is the fount of all Good Intentions leading to Perdition. We may just end up as TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men, with heads Stuffed with Straw (a tribute to Conrad’s Strawman):

    I think i’ve said enough, ‘cuz it may end up sounding like gobbledygook and heat death.

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