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Goering Took Poison Too : THE TRIAL OF SOCRATES by I. F. Stone (Little, Brown: $18.95; 288 pp.)

February 14, 1988|Fred S. Holley | Holley is the compiler of "The Los Angeles Times Stylebook." and

What? I. F. Stone, the liberal political writer of PM, the New York Post, the New York Compass and I. F. Stone's Weekly, writing about Socrates, the philosopher whose court-mandated cup of hemlock made him a martyr to the cause of free speech?

Yes, and the result throws new and interesting light on both the writer and the philosopher. "The Trial of Socrates" is a fascinating examination of ancient Athens and the society where so many of our ideas of democratic government and free speech were born. At the same time, we find a new appreciation of the gadfly Stone, who undertook the study of ancient Greek in retirement "to be able to grapple with conceptual terms for myself" and who undertook an extensive and recondite study of an ancient culture out of a consuming intellectual curiosity about the trial that made Socrates a name to conjure with and provided Plato with a hero.

"I wanted to find out what Plato does not tell us," Stone writes, "to give the Athenian side of the story, to mitigate the city's crime and thereby remove some of the stigma the trial left on democracy and on Athens." What Stone is doing is "reconstructing the case for the prosecution."

But this is no sweeping defense of the court that condemned Socrates to death. The sentence was indeed a violation of Athens' tradition of free speech. A death sentence for "corrupting the young" and not believing in the pantheon of Greek gods "was a black mark for Athens and the freedom it symbolized. . . . I could not defend the verdict when I started and I cannot defend it now."

What Stone does is take a hard look at how this came about, how the polis of Athens was able to turn, however briefly, its back on its principles and order the death of a man who rejected many of those very principles and called instead for a far more authoritarian system.

For Socrates was no democrat and no libertarian. He proposed to censor "offensive passages out of the Iliad, lest they create disrespect for authority." He and his followers "all rejected the polis . . . the association of free men" and "treated democracy with condescension and contempt." These followers, these students were often the spoiled offspring of the rich, and they made of his views an argument for dictatorship.

What Socrates sought was a philosopher-king: "The one who knows should rule and the others obey." He taught his disciples "to despise the established constitution," and many of these disciples acted on his theories. The oligarchic coup of the Four Hundred, who took over Athens in 411 BC, was initiated by one of his favorites, Alcibiades, and that of the Thirty in 404 BC was headed by Critias and Charmides, two others of his youthful associates. These "fascistic" takeovers of the body politic were maintained in power by private armies of pro-Spartan bully-boys similar to Hitler's storm troopers, and in spite of the inevitable atrocities, we find only one instance of the philosopher protesting the state of affairs. In 401 BC, only two years before Socrates' sentence, a similar coup was in the offing.

So perhaps we should not be surprised that a court eventually took action to silence Socrates for good. Was the verdict wrong? Yes, in the spirit of our tradition of free speech and that of Athens as well. But it was understandable, and it is worth remembering that the Athenian "association of free men" enjoyed freedom for 1,200 years, "about twice as long as the period of free thought from the Renaissance to our own day."

The Athenians had no fewer than four separate words for freedom of speech, and it is noteworthy that Paul the Apostle met with persecution when he preached Christianity elsewhere but found Athens "an open city, still fascinated by new ideas. Though the city was 'full of idols' and he dared argue with paganism. . . , he met with intellectual curiosity rather than charges of impiety."

All this material, together with an altogether fascinating look at the Greek civilization of the day, is presented with scholarship and judgment, with balance and understanding, yet with that same intense dedication to free speech and democratic government that has marked all of Stone's 10 books, his spirited and militant columns and the lamented Weekly. And it is vastly encouraging to note that Stone, a true wise man in a sometimes unwise era, has performed this labor of love in his late 70s.


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