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Socrates Is Still A Mystery

February 28, 1988|DANIEL M. WEINTRAUB | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — I read with interest your review of the I. F. Stone book on Socrates in Sunday's paper (The Book Review, Feb. 14) and want to send you some reactions. I respect Stone and admire his political courage and defiance of the at times less-than-truthful stories put out by the government.

First, the main thesis, that the charges or, better, the resentment against Socrates was based on political reasons, is right but has been known for a long time. It appears very clearly in A. E. Taylor's book "Socrates" (1932). Stone appears to think he has broken the mystery or something but this claim could hardly be allowed.

Second, he states (according to the summary in your review) that Socrates hated democracy; he wanted to censor the poets, and so on. All this comes out of writings of Plato (for Socrates wrote nothing--that we know), especially the "Republic," where these anti-liberal ideas are put into the mouth of Socrates.

But it is important to ask whether these are truly the ideas of Socrates or rather those of Plato, assigned to Socrates for dramatic reasons. Neither alternative can be proved, but Plato had reasons to dislike democracy since a democratic jury had been misled into condemning his master, and I think it highly probable that it is Plato who was the anti-democrat. Whether this is so or not, no one can flatly assert that Socrates "treated democracy with condescension and contempt." He served in the Athenian infantry during or just before the Peloponnesian War.

It is true that Alcibiades was a young follower of Socrates, but the oligarchic coup of 411 was planned by Alcibiades and others partly as a way to get Alcibiades back in Athens (for he was a fugitive from 415 onward, for complex reasons) so he could get himself home again and contribute to winning the war in progress.

There is no solid evidence that Alcibiades was at heart anything but an opportunist. He didn't give a hoot what kind of government there was, at least from the ideological point of view. The same objections can be brought to the rest of Stone's reconstruction of Socrate's politics. And where does he get the duration 1,200 years for the Athenian "association of free men"? (The Athenian state's quasi-democratic form of government was close to 300 years old when Socrates died in 399 B.C.).



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