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A very short introduction - but a lot to think about
on 24 May 2012
This is another in the excellent Very Short Introduction series published by Oxford University Press. I have recently reviewed books from this series on Plato, and on Presocratic Philosophy. I have also read the one on Ancient Philosophy.
Socrates is a very difficult person to write about; all that we know of him is the impressions left by the writings of other authors, both contemporary and very much later. Ridiculed by Aristophanes in the Clouds, written of by Xenophon and Plato, and later by Aristotle, Socrates, who wrote nothing down himself, is a man who we can only see through the eyes of others. As such, recreating his life presents the first difficulties when writing about him in an objective manner now. A good attempt is made to recreate Socrates' life in a chapter in this book.
Then, the author spends some time on Socratic literature and the "Socratic Problem" - who wrote about Socrates, or Socrates' views; and how much of it really was Socrates, and how much of it is imposed on a "Socrates" imagined by the ancient author? This brings a very good sense of perspective to Socrates and his likely views.
The next chapter concentrates solely on the depiction of Socrates and his views in the Platonic dialogues, a vast amount of nearly contemporaneous literature from the time of Socrates - Plato was one of his pupils, so knew him and wrote for many years after Socrates' death. We have a lot of Plato's works still extant, most of which incorporate Socrates into the dialogue format, so there is a lot to analyse to decide how much may or may not reflect Socrates' own philosophical, ethical and other views.
The next chapter, I found the most illuminating. The author takes twelve of Plato's Socratic dialogues and explores themes which could encompass Socrates and his doctrines therein - a characterisation of Socrates, his search for definitions, Socratic ethics and his argument with the Sophists - these topics are covered very throoughly and empathetically by the author using Plato's works to discover a deeper level of portrayal of the Socrates that Plato knew.
In the final chapter, Socrates' impact on later periods of philosophy and study is covered.
This is a great book - necessarily only a brief introduction to the topic of Socrates (as evidenced largely by other authors), but well worth a read.