“Such was the end of our friend, Socrates, a man who, we would say, was the best of all those we've experienced and, generally speaking, the wisest and the most just."
This book is a collection of four dialogues about the last days of the philosopher, Socrates. Through them readers get to know Socrates, his friends and the people who condemned him. The philosophical arguments presented are both straightforward and complex. They address issues of death, the immortality of the soul and the purpose of being a philosopher. This was one of my first major forays into Ancient Greek literature and I was very excited to delve into Plato.
The first dialogue is called “Euthyphro” and I found it a challenge. Socrates debates the nature of holiness with Euthyphro and some of the abstractions used in his argument were difficult to picture. I had to turn them into examples just to try and visualize what Socrates was talking about. For example, one question asked whether something was holy because it was loved or was it loved because it was holy? I pictured Zeus and the oak tree. Is it holy because Zeus loves it or does he love it because it’s holy? This boggled my mind and gave me a lot to think about. It's here we learn that Socrates is accused of impiety and corrupting the young. He continually praises Euthyphro's wisdom and flatters his knowledge of religion, seemingly to the detriment of his own argument. I re-read sections several times to grasp their meaning and of all four dialogues it took the longest to finish.
In “The Apology”, Socrates defends himself against his accusers. This is essentially the dialogue that takes place inside the ‘court room’. Here we witness Socrates' arrogance. Time and again he says he is a better man than everyone else yet, in the previous dialogue he spent so much time downplaying his intelligence and supposed superiority. This multi-dimensionality of character makes him real in my eyes. His memory only lives on in books and he isn't always likeable but that's what makes me like him so much. Real people are complex, layered individuals and Plato makes Socrates come alive on the page.
It "Crito", Socrates is in prison with his friend Crito trying to convince him to escape. There are many people willing to help Socrates who could then live out the rest of his life in another city. Socrates resists, saying that fighting the will of the Athenian people would be wrong. He would rather accept death than exile. His argument seems backwards and contrary until you read the next dialogue.
“Phaedo” is the longest and most convoluted of the dialogues. In it Plato summarily deconstructs his friends' arguments against his surrender to death and logically convinces them of the immortality of the soul and life after death despite the lack of hard proof. He asks mind-blowing questions such as "when does the soul attain truth?" This is also where we get the quote "the life which is unexamined is not worth living." It’s actually very impressive to read how Socrates sets up his argument and then manipulates the conversation for his own ends. He was clearly a master with words.
The difficulty in reading these works is that they are conveying dialogue from a second-hand source. We aren’t hearing these words from Socrates himself. Instead they’re filtered through Plato to us. As such, there’s no real way to tell how much of the writing is truth, how much is embellishment or if it’s a full out lie. This is compounded by the fact that Socrates left no written record of his work. This may speak to his innocence of 'corrupting the youth of Athens' as he didn't seem interested in getting his works out into the public. '
I had a great time reading this book and despite its shortness, was challenged by the arguments within. I found it interesting that while the book was by Plato, it concerned itself with Socrates and his words. We learn more about him than we ever do about Plato and Socrates didn't seem like the nicest guy. He was arrogant and lorded it over people when it suited his argument and hid feelings of superiority when it didn't. Part of me felt that Socrates just seemed to give up and succumb to his sentence. In fact, by the time he was put on trial he was an old man and had lived a full life with a family. He even argues that no one, least of all he, should be upset at his passing. He convincingly argued and believed in life after death. Free from its earthly body, his soul would dwell amongst other true philosophers. I disagreed with his belief that a philosopher's main goal was the study of death though. I've always felt that philosophy was a study of learning how to live and why things are they way they are.
The writer Xenophon also has an account of Socrates' trial. It would be interesting to see how the two contrast. It would serve to illustrate what I said about second-hand information. Truth gets obscured the further you are from the source. I would recommend this book but not for anyone looking for a quick read. This is not a work to skim. I would say it requires contemplation and introspection. If you're in for a challenge and want to understand the roots of philosophy, pick this up.