Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.09.31

Emily Wilson, The Death of Socrates. Profiles in History.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2007.  Pp. 247; ills. 18.  ISBN 100674026837.  $19.95.  ISBN 139780674026834.  

Reviewed by Marc Mastrangelo, Dickinson College (
Word count: 3146 words

Different generations see the figure of Socrates differently. In Emily Wilson's book on the reception of the death of Socrates, the reader clearly sees the historical ebb and flow of views regarding Socrates. Wilson has provided an invaluable resource for understanding the role of Socrates in western intellectual and artistic traditions. Moreover, she shows that Socrates' presence in cultural history is not limited to texts and art of the highly educated but extends to various manifestations of the popular imagination. Although she focuses for the most part on the reception of the death of Socrates, Wilson discusses significant events in Socrates' life, as well as his inscrutable qualities in order to show how relevant the great man has been to past ages. However, concerning the present, she expresses anxiety. Wilson argues for Socrates' continuing relevance even as she acknowledges the decline of classical education and its cultural caché. Moreover, while Wilson's discussions of the major paintings and authors in the reception history are often in themselves tours de force, at other moments the book reads like an annotated list of minor works on the figure of Socrates. In these sections, Wilson's synthesizing, authoritative voice recedes, perhaps under the pressure of illustrating relevance. Happily though, Wilson is generally effective at synthesizing many works to highlight the preoccupations of various moments in history.

In her introduction, Wilson strikes a personal and scholarly note. Socrates is one of those rare figures about whom, both personal and scholarly examinations flow into each other. Wilson has contemplated deeply the life and death of Socrates, but finds herself "torn between enormous admiration and an equally overwhelming sense of rage." (p. 5) This and other statements of personal wonder, admiration, doubt, and resentment towards Socrates and his legacy serve to lure the reader into her own exploration of the meaning of Socrates' death. Wilson exhorts the reader to contemplate Socrates' death and to become more knowledgeable about the history of its reception. It is effective and leads to her argument against scholars who hold that "the death of Socrates took on cultural importance only in the eighteenth century" as "an image of the enlightened person's struggle against intolerance." (p. 8) She claims that Socrates is seen as "a hero for our times," especially if we leave out the inconvenient story of his death. (p. 18, cf. p. 2) Our contemporary incapacity to acknowledge and integrate death into our own lives, according to Wilson, may propagate this exceedingly rosy image of Socrates. On the other hand, Wilson senses that our exhaustion with Socrates might lie in the various intellectual and political ideologies that have been associated with him. Fair enough. There are many Socrates to recover.

Wilson continues to lay bare the two-sided nature of Socrates in chapter one. The charges brought against him of impiety and corrupting the young spin off into an illuminating examination of Socratic philosophy. Aristophanes' Clouds of 423 BCE reflects the fame of Socrates the intellectual, examining how the new learning of the sophists and Socrates, whom Aristophanes conflates, threaten society. Although Plato says that the Clouds was a factor in the Athenian condemnation of Socrates, Aristophanes appears to suggest that "those who challenge received wisdom deserved to be lynched." (p. 23, cf. p. 24) On the other hand, Wilson argues that Socrates was brought to trial because of his radical views on theology and psychology. The Athenian "failed to respect 'the city's gods,'" (p. 31) had a "belief in a personal deity," (p. 33) and questioned "the value of ritual and the power of prayer." (p. 34) For Wilson, Socrates' view of religion motivates humans to "independent moral thinking," but is not a "substitute for it." (p. 35) Wilson enumerates Socrates' radical views on "knowledge, ethics, psychology, and happiness." (p. 35) She focuses on the problem of Socratic irony ("fawning false modesty") as related to Socrates' penchant for disavowing knowledge while simultaneously making moral claims. Is Socrates being rhetorical when he claims he has no knowledge or is he merely positing guesses when he asserts a moral proposition? The views of Nozick, Vlastos, Strauss, and Nehemas are invoked as possible answers but Wilson demurs to accept any one view on the matter. In the final section of the chapter, Wilson deftly treats Socrates ideas on morality and happiness, especially the counterintuitive views that "being good and being happy are the same thing" (p. 49) or "sin is more harmful than physical suffering." (p. 50) Wilson succeeds in portraying Socrates as someone with shocking yet inspiring views.

It may have been these views and their effects on his young followers that got Socrates convicted. Chapter two discusses the possible reasons for Socrates' death. The last section of the chapter argues that Socrates' associations, whether friendly, or hostile, got him into trouble--see especially Wilson's discussions of Alcibiades and Critias. The earlier parts of the chapter explore Socrates' ambiguous relationship to Athenian democracy and society. On the one hand, some of his "students" appeared to have mutilated herms on the eve of the Sicilian expedition and he was a controversial gadfly, but on the other hand he displayed courage and independence by speaking up for the generals at Arginousae and against the Thirty Tyrants, and he was a faithful soldier (Delium). Wilson sees this ambiguity in the Apology/Crito problem, in which Socrates of the Apology "valued his duty to obey 'god' over his ties to fellow citizens" while Socrates of the Crito "insists on conformity with the will of the city." (p. 63) Wilson concludes that the Apology/Crito problem cannot be solved (in fact, the Crito itself harbors incompatible points of view), but that these texts "provoke hard questions" about one's choices. (p. 66) Perhaps most intriguing is Wilson's discussion of Socrates' identity as an oddball: "His strangeness seemed to present itself as a criticism of the values of ordinary people" and "Socrates was an Athenian who behaved like a foreigner." (pp. 73, 75) Socrates was considered physically ugly according to Athenian norms; he seemed to have a haughty attitude towards others; and by appropriating the language of foreigners to question Athenian values, he was seen by many as a traitor to the polis. As an insider and outsider in his own city, Socrates may have threatened Athenian civic identity. At any rate, he certainly established a complicated model of the public intellectual.

The reception history of Socrates' death shows that a sense of intellectual history has been vital to how, throughout the centuries, individuals and communities have constructed their politics, identities, and definitions of the good life. In chapter three, Wilson distills the questions which Socrates' death has raised over time: "What counts as a truly good, truly wise man? Can such a person teach goodness and wisdom to others? Should we decide what to do by deferring to tradition or thinking for ourselves? Can we know anything about death before we die? How can we weigh up our conflicting responsibilities to family, friends, religion, work, conscience and ourselves?" and can "bad things happen to good people?" (p. 102) Rather than giving definitive answers to these questions, the creators and inheritors of the Socratic tradition furnish possible responses that originate in their reading of the character of Socrates. Wilson does not get bogged down in the problem of the historical Socrates. Nevertheless she does make significant and provocative claims: that Plato's Socrates is "the first novelistic character in literature," and that Plato himself is "the originator, through Socrates, of modern western literature." (p. 99) The psychological complexity and paradoxical nature of Plato's Socrates is set against Xenophon's simply virtuous and ascetic Socrates. For Xenophon, the death of Socrates illustrates Athenian decadence. But Wilson does not tarry on Xenophon, who, she says, presents a banal Socrates, a figure with whom the 21st century appears to be more comfortable because this Socrates allows us to avoid "the terrifying challenges of Plato." (p. 99) The rest of the chapter treats the "tragic tetralogy" of Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, for the last of which she reserves most of her commentary. Regarding the famous death scene of the Phaedo, Wilson advances a compelling interpretation. Socrates has appropriated for himself, and as a result subverted, two of the most important and traditional roles of women in Greek society: the care of the dead and childbirth. "Socrates gives thanks to Asclepius. . .because he has succeeded. . .in giving birth to his own death" (p. 117) Wilson describes the scene of a pot-bellied Socrates walking around a room full of his closest friends, the numbness of the poison traveling to his lower belly, and finally his death. Socrates' death, far from being exclusively a masculine death of rationality and calmness, is portrayed by Plato as ambiguously gendered. Socrates takes on the powers of women as he maintains the qualities of men. Wilson is at her best here, interpreting the last scene of the Phaedo with insight and daring.

Chapters 4 and 5 take the story of the reception of Socrates' death from late republican Rome through the end of the 16th century and Montaigne. The two dominant ideas are the Romans' preoccupation with Socrates' death as a standard for living and dying well and European Christianity's oppositional and appropriating attitudes toward Socrates. In these chapters and the two that follow, Wilson constructs an intellectual historical tour, making interesting observations as she navigates through an ocean of reception history. Paintings, sculptures, poems, histories, and other cultural productions--though some of the artists and authors may be obscure to the target audience--argue for the centrality of Socrates to the western sense of the self, the intellectual, and the citizen.

Wilson observes that the Romans' emphasis on rhetoric and military training--as opposed to the Greek penchant for philosophy and athletics--is central to the Romans' near disregard for Socrates' philosophy. Instead the Romans focused more on whether Socrates lived and died well. The deaths of Cato, Cicero, Seneca, and Thrasea (a Stoic condemned under Nero) furnish variations on this theme. The stage-managed death of Seneca contrasts with Thrasea's final moments in which he is doing philosophy and, unlike Socrates, caring for the future of his family. Cicero was not allowed to take his own life, but nonetheless died with dignity. He fancied himself a man of action, which explains his admiration for the way Cato the Younger died. For Cicero, Cato's death was a glorious deed, distinguished from the death of Socrates who is remembered only for his teachings and for his prattling against the traditions of his home city.

For early Christians, Wilson argues that the death of Socrates provides a comparison with martyrs and others for the presence or absence of pain in death. Moreover, beginning with Paul, Christians recognized the parallel between Jesus and Socrates, that both appeared to lead a life of weakness and foolishness but in fact lived strongly and wisely. Theologians like Justin Martyr could admire both figures, though by the fourth century, with the precedent of Tertullian, it became difficult for a Christian to argue that Socrates possessed any knowledge of death or suffered real pain. The Christians of the Middles Ages saw Socrates in a less controversial light, since, as Wilson adeptly points out, his legacy was mediated through the Roman sources of Cicero and Seneca. Wilson cites Boethius whose imprisonment was compared to that of Socrates. In the high and later Middle Ages Socrates becomes a monotheist, a proto-Christian, and a representative sage whose secular rationality is something to be integrated into a Christian worldview. Wilson speeds along through the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counter-reformation, concluding the chapter with an excellent section on Montaigne. Ficino and Erasmus are great admirers of Socrates, so much so that the latter credits him for the doctrines of "turn the other cheek" and the immortality of the soul; Luther thought this too flattering, and Milton seems to have understood that Socrates' legacy is fungible, available to whomever for whatever purpose. Montaigne saw Socrates' death as "ordinary" and "easy" rather than "tragic" or "exalted." According to Wilson, Montaigne sees Socrates' life and death as a quest for self-knowledge, reflective of 16th and 17th century views of Socrates as a model for self-knowledge, doubt, and scientific inquiry.

Between the 1st and 17th centuries, reception of Socrates' death (and life) correlates with the development of Christianity and its declining presence in political and intellectual life. In chapters 6 and 7, which cover the 18th to the 20th centuries. Wilson is concerned with the relevance of Socrates to intellectual, artistic, and political culture. She argues that in the 18th century, the French Enlightenment and Revolution, as well as the reemergence of Xenophon and Diogenes Laertius, fueled a popular and ubiquitous Socrates. In fact it is hard to pin down only one or two themes that sum up the use of the death of Socrates. Wilson gives a series of views and interpretations of Socrates' life and death as: the triumph of rationalism; "an image of the social life of the intellectual;" (p. 173) a secular pietas; a classical forbear of a revolutionary; a more important philosopher than Plato or Aristotle (in the words of Voltaire, "the apotheosis of philosophy"); and even the death of antiquity and rise of modernism. The titans of the enlightenment, Diderot, Rousseau, and Voltaire exhibit one or several of these views, but Wilson mentions two other figures: Moses Mendelssohn, who tried to reconcile Socrates with Judaism and Christianity, and Nicolas Fréret, who argued that Socrates' death was purely political and far from an ideal martyrdom. Mendelssohn's view was discredited by a controversy whipped up by Johann Kaspar Lavater in1769, resulting in a supersessionist conclusion that "Socrates--and perhaps the whole legacy of the classical antiquity--belonged only to the Christians." (p. 189) Wilson posits as another turning point David's influential painting of 1787 in which Socrates' death becomes emblematic of a "solitary individual who stood up against the will of the masses and who was destroyed by them." (p. 190) And finally, Wilson concludes that the aftermath of the French Revolution (1790's) with its terror seemed to preclude a philosophical death, which Socrates' final moments had established. Of these three moments in history, the latter two, according to Wilson, determined the poles, between which the modern reception of Socrates' death moved.

Wilson's final chapter builds on chapter 6's conclusion by arguing that Socrates' death is an "iconic moment in the formation of modernity." (p. 192) In the 19th century, Socratic thought as crystallized in his death was understood as the beginning of modern political and ethical thought: For Hegel, the conflict of the rights between the state and individual; for Kierkegaard, the inseparability of spirituality and morality; for Nietzsche, the insufficiency of rationality to explain death and life. In the 20th century, Wilson highlights the views of Benjamin, Renault, Popper, Anderson, Rossellini, Stone, and Brecht, among others--all writers, artists, and scholars who take Socrates' death to represent either the tragic downfall of the talkative, rational person or the locus classicus of the conflict between the state and the individual. Derrida and Foucault depart from this well-worn scheme. Derrida views Socrates' death as a window into understanding the origins of Platonic metaphysics, i.e., as a result of Plato's guilt over his master's death; and Foucault interprets Socrates' death as an instance of the care of the self, a moment in which the self fully becomes itself. In the last nine pages, Wilson concludes her tour of the 20th and 21st centuries with a flurry of references to Satie, Cage, de Botton, Mosley, Disch, Levinson, and Verly. Like de Botton, Wilson sees reflection on Socrates' death as an opportunity to be morally serious. Yet it is frequently a missed opportunity for us in the 21st century, since we are bombarded with the relentless marketing of youth culture and vulgar pleasures.

In chapter one Wilson stated this dilemma in a different way. She calls attention to the Socratic assertion that wisdom cannot be taught and Socrates' refusal to take money from his pupils. (p. 45) Today, students (and many educators) seek value for the educational dollar by applying various measures to the acquisition of knowledge. The thinking is that "cultural or intellectual capital" guarantee success and, more importantly, material wealth. (p. 46) But Wilson reminds us of the uniqueness of an education. It can only be evaluated retrospectively, one cannot fully "examine the product before we buy" it. (p. 45) And further: "You may be able to buy social advancement, political connections, or better job prospects for your children by sending them to [elite schools], but you cannot buy them access to the truth. . .Wisdom is not a commodity." (p. 46)

Wilson is painfully aware that the recognition and understanding of Socratic ideals is in decline today. She gives reasons: Socrates is not popular in our age of gender equality (p. 215); we are suspicious of reason, especially as a vehicle for understanding death (p. 209); we see Socrates as a loner who had little concern for his friends and family (p. 205); most major contemporary writers, philosophers, and artists "have paid relatively little attention to Socrates"; (p. 214) and classical education has declined. But it is plausible to assert an even more cogent reason for Socrates' increasingly minor role in our culture. I would argue that the idea of the past as crucial to the understanding of the present has been in decline. The current crisis may be modifying this mentalité and furnishing an opening for humanistic studies. A grounding in the humanities, which has traditionally taken up the task of educating students on the uses (and abuses) of the past, is central to recognizing "in advance the things that will happen" which, "in retrospect, prove to have been obvious." (G. G. Harpham, Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, March 20, 2009)

With their treatment of minor artists and thinkers who refer to Socrates' death, Wilson's final pages reflect her (our) own anxiety over the future of humanities and the liberal arts. And this is not solely because of a wish for a world in which the liberally educated populate the realms of business, law, medicine, government, and education. Rather, it is an anxiety over the prerogatives of the humanities in providing the first principles and critique of these human institutions. The success of these institutions resides in the possibilities presented to each one of us by our historical and ethical development. In times of crisis it is the humanities which can explain why things went wrong and can expose our excesses and blindness; and it is the humanities, which is vital to the reconstruction of values and principles for how we should live. We can only hope that Socrates and other figures that awaken our memories and imaginations will play a role in this discussion so that the possibility of our progress is always on the horizon.

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