In their screenplay for the entertaining film Shakespeare in Love, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard create a fictional character, Viola de Lesseps, to serve as the love-interest who puts an end to the writer’s block that had been hindering the Bard’s progress on the composition of Romeo and Juliet. The love-interest in Armand D’Angour’s similarly entertaining Socrates in Love is the historical Aspasia of Miletus, who is imagined as changing the course of Western philosophy by transforming the young Socrates from “a man of action” into “a thinker” (35). The reader, however, must wait until p. 191 (“Enter Aspasia”) for the appearance of D’Angour’s leading lady. That appearance, which has been repeatedly foreshadowed, is brief and lasts only a dozen pages. Before that, we are given a detailed account of Socrates’ life. The account is designed to correct certain misperceptions—straw men include Aristophanes, Nietzsche and Gore Vidal (151-2, 170-1)—namely that Socrates was poor, congenitally ugly and devoted exclusively to intellectual pursuits. Rather, the “highly-sexed” (56) Socrates came from a reasonably well-off family of hoplite status (168), was an energetic dancer (163-5) and intrepid warrior (Chapter 2) and, at least in his youth, exhibited an unremarkable, if not downright handsome, appearance, such that the philosopher Archelaus chose the “physically impressive teenager” (124) as his paidika. Apart from D’Angour’s determination to downplay Socrates’ singular appearance (to which we will return), none of this is controversial. What is novel is the dramatic development in Socrates’ character and Aspasia’s role in bringing it about.
Fundamental to D’Angour’s argument is Aspasia’s star turn in Plato’s Symposium disguised as Diotima (38-44; cf. 185, 194). The “clue to Diotima’s true identity” (42) is her ten-year postponement of the Athenian plague ( Symp. 201d), which, it is alleged, inevitably brings to mind Pericles’ brutal treatment of the Samians in 440, divine punishment for which was temporarily averted by sacrifices arranged by Aspasia. No evidence, however, is cited for Aspasia’s expiatory rites, nor is any source quoted suggesting that the ancients regarded the plague, which originated in Ethiopia before it afflicted Attica (Thuc. 2.48), as retribution for Pericles’, or Athens’, actions a decade earlier on Samos. (For the conventional length of time, see Laws 1.642d-e, where Clinias relates that Epimenides performed sacrifices for the Athenians and said that the Persians would not invade for another ten years, seeming to imply that the ritual was responsible for a postponement of the invasion.) D’Angour notes (39) that Plato speaks of only two women as Socrates’ teachers, namely Diotima and, in Menexenus, Aspasia. But it is not clear why we are therefore expected to identify the two. On the contrary, Plato portrays them as teachers very different from each other with regard both to their methods and to the subjects that they profess. Aspasia teaches Socrates rhetoric, requiring him to learn verbatim a speech of her own composition, using threats of corporal punishment should his memory fail him ( Mx. 236b-c); Diotima instructs her pupil in τὰ ἐρωτικά using a recognizably Socratic aporia -inducing technique of question and answer. More importantly, the goal of Diotima’s speech is to explain to Socrates what has come to be known as the Theory of Forms. D’Angour never mentions this, for good reason, inasmuch as the Forms are a Platonic, not a Socratic, doctrine. But if he wishes to argue that Diotima = Aspasia and that the contents of her speech represent what was imparted to Socrates in his youth, he must also attribute the Theory of Forms to the woman from Miletus and account for why the world had to wait fifty years before being introduced to the theory, when Plato finally unveiled it in Symposium. D’Angour shows awareness of this issue, speaking cautiously in terms of “qualities” and (lower-case) “ideas,” but the metaphysical focus of Diotima’s speech is passed over in order to concentrate on the question, “What has the real Socrates got to do with love?” (48-9).
Evidence for the biography of “the real Socrates” is notoriously problematic, coming as it does from comic poets, intensely partisan apologists and writers who lived after, and in some instances long after, Socrates’ lifetime. The same is true for the similarly controversial Aspasia. For this reason it is necessary to ensure that all the evidence be presented accurately and evaluated with care. It cannot be said that D’Angour has succeeded in doing this. As early as the second of his four epigraphs (p. ix) we are confronted with a mistranslation from Plato’s Symposium : “None of us really knows Socrates.” The impression is given that Plato has granted license to anyone to create one’s own portrait of Socrates, but in reality the quotation is Alcibiades’ assertion to his fellow symposiasts that “None of you (ὑμῶν, 216c) knows this man,” before he goes on to explain that he alone is privy to Socrates’ true character and will disclose it truthfully. The same mistranslation, as it happens, is found in Diskin Clay’s Platonic Questions (University Park, PA, 2000, 76), the book that supplies the first of D’Angour’s epigraphs. Later we are informed that “Socrates himself was present when the Delphic Oracle gave its pronouncement” to Chaerephon, and that Plato’s Apology is guilty of misrepresentation (183). But the evidence for this, cited in an endnote, is Diogenes Laertius, according to whom (2.23 = Arist. fr. 2 Rose) Aristotle merely claimed that Socrates went to Delphi, with no indication of when or under what circumstances he did so. D’Angour goes even further and confidently dates Socrates’ consultation of the oracle to a time when he was “a young man” (184). We are also told (161-2, 209) that Socrates in his youth studied music and dance with Lamprus; in fact, Plato’s Socrates contrasts his own excellent training in music at the hands of Connus with the inferior instruction provided to those taught by Lamprus ( Mx. 236a). Elsewhere (197), D’Angour refers to Plutarch for Socrates’ visits, with his friends and their wives, to Aspasia “to hear her speak about ‘matters of love’ ( erōtika).” What Plutarch says ( Per. 24.5) is that Socrates used to visit (ἐφοίτα) Aspasia with his friends and that the latter took their wives to hear her (ἀκροασομένας, feminine), even though she ran a disreputable business of training girls to be hetairai. That the discourse involved ἐρωτικά (a word that does not occur in the passage) can only be inferred, as it is by Klaus Döring (cited by D’Angour) who does use the word. The image projected by Plutarch, and supported by Xenophon ( Mem. 2.6.36 and Oec. 3.14, his only mentions of Aspasia) as well as by her famously affectionate marriage to Pericles, is of what would today be called a “relationship counselor” or a columnist in a popular magazine who advises readers on “how to please your partner,” rather than of a metaphysician or ethicist. As it is, D’Angour presents some of the sources that document the young Socrates’ familiarity with Archelaus, Melissus, Parmenides and the works of Anaxagoras (119-33), all seemingly before his supposed first meeting with Aspasia, which familiarity ought on its own to be adequate to account for the making of a philosopher.
No source is cited for the claim (103) that Socrates “had played truant in his youth” and was beaten by his father. We later (178) learn that the existence of this “traumatic” experience is an inference from an unidentified passage in Plato’s Crito “on the way truant boys are beaten by their fathers.” The significance for D’Angour of this alleged occurrence is that it can be used to explain the “divine voice” that both Plato and Xenophon attribute to Socrates, on the grounds that hearing voices has been known to result from childhood trauma (178-9, 208). It is less clear what can be explained as a result of D’Angour’s repeated efforts to show that the young Socrates was not the ugly, snub-nosed, bug-eyed man described by those who knew him in later life. Appeal is made (55, 137, 173) to the silence of Aristophanes, who in Clouds does not ascribe these—or, as it happens, any other—physical characteristics to Socrates. Likewise, much is made of the fact that no description of Socrates’ facial features survives from the fragmentary account, derived from a lost work by Phaedo of Elis, in which Zopyrus inferred from Socrates’ physiognomy that he was uncommonly libidinous (100-2, 152). But the facial features that are generally associated in our sources with Socrates are precisely those that characterize the most libidinous of creatures, the satyrs, with whom Socrates is famously compared (Plato, Symp. 215b). Thus, it would have been unnecessary to specify the features that attracted Zopyrus’ attention, since everyone in Socrates’ circle, which included Phaedo, was familiar with the philosopher’s satyr-like appearance. That is, the absence of specifics is as likely to confirm as it is to discredit the image of Socrates as having the features of a satyr. In any event, we do not know when Socrates’ encounter with Zopyrus is supposed to have taken place. D’Angour is inclined to attribute Socrates’ protruding eyes to hyperthyroidism (175-6), but the authority he cites (P. D. Papapetrou, “The Philosopher Socrates had Exophthalmos (A Term Coined by Plato) and Probably Graves’ Disease,” Hormones 14, 2015, 167-71) says that “it is not known at what age Socrates developed exophthalmos” (170), nor can this hypothetical diagnosis account for the other physical features. Still, D’Angour appears determined to argue at any cost for “a strong and attractive young man” (5) whose appearance deteriorated only later in life. This determination seems to derive from his conviction that, in his youth, Socrates was “a lover” (55, 147), and he repeatedly draws parallels between Socrates and the heart-throb Alcibiades (e.g. 105, “an alter ego of the younger Socrates”). Given that a lover need not be a perfect physical specimen—Byron had a club foot and Gabriele D’Annunzio was short, unattractive and prematurely bald—one can only assume that D’Angour is arguing in this way to justify the casting of a good-looking Hollywood leading man in the role of the young Socrates in the “biopic” (26; cf. 205) that he envisions based on his text.
The reader is assured early on (p. xi) that “This book is not fiction,” but not perhaps reassured, for how many works that claim to be “historically grounded” (4) feel the need to make such a disclaimer? As it is, two sections of the book (59-64 and 207-22) are printed in italics “to indicate that they are imaginative recreations” (p. xi), with the implication that the rest of the text, set in upright roman type, is straightforwardly founded on solid evidence. But elsewhere D’Angour seems to acknowledge that the whole of the book is an “imaginative construction” (32). Socrates in Love is engagingly written and enjoyable to read, and one feels like a spoilsport pointing out its deficiencies in documentation and reasoning. While it may not be a work of fiction, it presents us with an intriguing alternative to the usual view of the real Socrates. Given the scarcity of reliable evidence for Socrates’ biography, it may be that the only thing we can reasonably expect is an entertaining vision of an alternative reality.