The Catholic Thing
Paul Johnson’s Socrates Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Tuesday, 17 April 2012

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In the Preface to Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche wondered whether the “wicked” Socrates did not, “deserve the hemlock,” did not “corrupt the loveliest product of antiquity, Plato.”

Paul Johnson’s insightful new book, Socrates, is devoted to the opposite proposition. Insofar as Plato recognized and recorded the wisdom of Socrates, he (Plato) did well. But when he called his own philosophy “Socratic,” he betrayed his master.

Yet both Nietzsche and Johnson agree that Plato’s “dogmatism” was ill placed. “Dogmatism” is Plato’s affirmation that truth does exist. This truth proposition Nietzsche simply called an “error.” Socrates only knew that he knew nothing, though this ignorance enabled him to point out that others did not know what they thought they knew.

In this short, readable book, Paul Johnson illuminates that about which he writes so well:  the meaning of Socrates. Johnson, in dealing with Socrates, knows that he touches the foundations of our civilization. That is the basic proposition:  It is never right to do wrong.

Johnson’s Socrates is a man of the people, a man who loved his city Athens, his wife Xantippe, and his many friends. He thought that people were basically good and, if they did not act that way, it was because they lacked education.

Almost the only fault that Johnson finds with Socrates was failure to deal with slavery. Even here he wonders whether some lost dialogue about it exists. Socrates also could not see much difference between men and women, except their relative physical strength. He was not a homosexual and made it clear that homosexual practice was not something good men indulged in.

Socrates lived a poor, disciplined life, but a life filled with conversation, good will, and, because of it, danger. Our first task, he believed, was to live virtuously. He was involved in many of the main events of his time, including his service in the Peloponnesian War. He met and discoursed with most of the leading orators, politicians, craftsmen, and thinkers in his day, as well as their anxious sons.

Besides Xantippe, only two women appear in the life of Socrates:  Diotima and Aspasia. But Johnson finds that their influence on Socrates was of a high order. Diotima taught Socrates what love was; Aspasia taught him about politics. Both were cultured, presumably lovely women, but Socrates’ relations with them seemed not to be erotic. Some say that Socrates had a first wife before Xantippe. The latter he married late in life. She bore him three sons.

Socrates held that the soul was immortal. He died after being convicted by a duly constituted Athenian court. The charge was double: not believing in the city’s gods and corrupting its youth. Johnson explains well both how these unfair accusations might seem plausible in the political situation of the city at the time and what Socrates had in mind in his understanding of the gods and the teaching of youth.

I liked this book, but I would be more enthusiastic about it had Johnson not gone out of his way to separate Socrates and Plato. What belongs to Socrates and what to Plato has been long controverted in academic readings of the Dialogues ever since they were written.

     Paul Johnson and his subject

Johnson holds that Socrates prepared the way for Paul’s teaching of Christ. No similarity between the deaths of Socrates and Christ is noted. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, with proper distinctions, point to this uncanny relationship. Johnson does not mention Glaucon’s description in Book II of the Republic of what would happen if the good man appeared in any existing city.

Johnson observed that Plato wanted to be a poet. Indeed, he was a poet. The Republic brought forth the charm needed to counteract the doings of the gods of Homer. It is best to look on Plato, not as subverting the philosophy of Socrates, but rather as providing the intellectual framework to complete its coherence. Johnson remarks that Socrates’ interest was people, while Plato, a don, was interested in ideas, as if both lived in different worlds.

The four eschatological myths in Plato complete the meaning of the actual people Socrates talked to in Athens. Moreover, without a final judgment no human life is complete. Plato was rightly worried about whether the world was created in injustice. It would be if, in the end, the unjust were praised and the just punished, as they often are in this world.

    The “wicked Socrates” did not corrupt this “loveliest product of antiquity.” Rather Plato, through his forms, made it possible to explain both the immortality of the soul and its continuation until it is restored in the resurrection, which concerns the real persons to whom Socrates spoke.

In no place in the ancient world are faith and reason closer together than in Plato’s completion of the conversations of Socrates. Plato was the faithful student of Socrates. Both pointed beyond themselves.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Scotty Ellis, April 17, 2012
I would argue that what makes Socrates great was precisely his fluidity - that is, his lack of commitment to some particular systematic set of doctrines allowed him to interact dextrously with a wide variety of opponents. I think that Plato was committed to his master's quest but not so much to his master's methods. I think the article is right that Plato meant his forms and related theories "to explain both the immortality of the soul and its continuation until it is restored in the resurrection," as well as produce a structure within which to contextualize Socrates' search. However, I would also argue that the construction of such a dogmatic system, while useful and enlightening in some respects, is also dangerous and actually stands against Socrates' methodology; a system always has weakness, flaws which Socrates spent his life exploiting in debates in order to reveal the ignorance of his interlocutors and the imperfection of their beliefs. Insofar as someone is aware of this, a system of thought can still be a good tool because its imperfections are always kept in mind. One can use it while not being restricted by it in a way that obscures the incomplete status of Socrates' quest. Insofar as it is believed dogmatically - that is, insofar as the system is believed to be perfect and identical representation of reality or is even mistaken for reality itself - it actually represents a narrowing of the soul and a true impediment to Socrates' quest.

I have been inspired by this article to perhaps reread a dialogue or two when the situation permits and may be making a purchase of Johnson's book.
written by Other Joe, April 17, 2012
The last line is key. Once an individual breaks through the thin eggshell of self-reference (so difficult for contemporary man) the fact of transcendence seems self-evident. With the new perspective, final judgment becomes a certainty rather than a suppressed anxiety. In that light, behavior becomes a serious matter and a lie is deadly. No wonder the worldly spinners feel threatened by the virtuous and when mockery fails, judicial murder is solution of choice.
written by will manley, April 17, 2012
A good and timely essay. Thank you for this. Speaking of analogies, does this work: Plato was to Socrates as Paul was to Christ?
written by Grump, April 17, 2012
Nietzsche succinctly summed up his feelings: "Plato was a bore." Inasmuch as Socrates admitted he "knew nothing," his sagacity is suspect to say the least. And since he wrote very little (Plato was his stenographer), we cannot know how much "spin" was supplied.

Aristotle, on the other hand, who is not mentioned in this otherwise fine essay, pointed downward rather than upward (in the famed painting, The School of Athens), suggesting that answers do not come from above but from below.

written by Tony Esolen, April 17, 2012
Socrates was accused of being a Sophist, but actually he had set his face like flint against the Sophists. He was not a Richard Rorty of the ancient world, because he did in fact believe in truth, moral and otherwise. The quest for truth makes no sense at all unless there is a truth to find. Thus the Rortyan relativist / sophist is like Lysias, in the Phaedrus: when he speaks of love, what he really means is that he wants someone for his own narrow use; it is not love he feels but the lust for power. Plato saw Socrates, correctly, as the truest lover, not because he possessed the fullness of truth already (he didn't, and Plato himself knew it), but because he longed for that fullness of truth, as he longed for the light.

Grump -- very nice reference to one of the great paintings of all time. Aristotle is pointing outwards and slightly downwards, towards the things of the world, and the book he's holding in his hand is the Nicomachean Ethics. That's a portrayal of active virtue, right there, and of the embodiment of truth in the human world. Plato (portrayed as the elderly Leonardo) is pointing upward, towards Heaven, and he's carrying under his hand the Timaeus, the dialogue on creation. Yet Raphael has placed the center of the arch behind them as a point above and between the two philosophers, as if to say that the two both complement one another and point -- this is a Catholic understanding of the relationship of grace to nature -- to a reality they do not quite grasp. That reality is made manifest in the painting directly opposite, on the Eucharist, which does occupy the center of the composition ... What these artists could do!
written by Louise, April 17, 2012
Dear Fr. Schall,

I have greatly appreciated your chapters on Socrates and Plato in your book The Mind that Is Catholic. I'm sure that if I had more intellectual heft to bring to it, I would get more out of it, but, alas . . . Mr. Grump and others should perhaps read that instead of Johnson, I think.

Your sentence about your students', after reading about the trial and death of Sacrates wanting to go out and change the world without considering the necessity of changing themselves, is certain fitting for and descriptive of those in the so-called occupy movement.
written by Manfred, April 17, 2012
"He thought the people were basically good and, if they did not act that way, it was because they lacked education."
Father, Paul Tagliabue, the former NFL Commissioner, currently serves as the chair of the Georgetown Univ. (your employer) board. He recently gave $1,000,000 to fund a LGBTQ center at Georgetown. Now, do you think Mr. Taliabue's problem is a lack of education? Or do you think he think he is just another vain self-aggrandizer seeking to push an abomination on what was once a Catholic university? Thank you in advance for your reply.
written by Grump, April 19, 2012
Tony, an interesting take on the painting. Thanks for sharing.
written by Larry L. McFall, October 31, 2012
I got much pleasure out of Johnson's book. I found it easy to read and of course, doesn't cover everybody's view on the issue of Socrates. I have already digested many of Plato's Dialogues concerning Socrates and I found it bringing a refreshing view.

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