Sunday, December 09, 2012

I just finished Paul Johnson's Socrates

Full title: Socrates:A Man for Our Time. 

Great book.  Johnson is a conservative, but I don't think that afflicts his writing here much.  He accepts more of the standard understanding (conventional wisdom) of the early Christian era than I do, but I like summary at the end:
Happy among people, Socrates did not seek to turn them into pupils, let alone students.  He was not a teacher, a don, an academic.  There was nothing professorial about him.  He had no oeuvre.  As Cicero said, "He did not write so much as a single letter."  There was no body of Socratic doctrine.  He spurned a classroom.  The streets and marketplace of Athens were his habitat.  Unlike Plato and Aristotle, he founded no Academy or Lyceum.  The University, with its masters and students, its lectures and tutorials, its degrees and libraries and publishing houses, was nothing to do with him.  He was part of the life of the city--a thinking part, to be sure, a talking and debating part, but no more separated from its throbbing, bustling activity than the fishmonger or the money changer or the cobbler, its ranting politician, its indigent poet, or its wily lawyer.  He was at home in the city, a stranger on campus.  He knew that as soon as philosophy separated itself from the life of the people, it began to lose its vitality and was heading in the wrong direction.  An academic philosophy was not an activity to which he had anything of value to contribute or in which he wished to participate.  The notion of philosophy existing only in academic isolation from the rest of the world would have horrified him and probably would have produced ribald laughter, too.  "That," one can hear him saying, "is the death of any philosophy I can recognize."
I could quote some of the last paragraph of the book - it gets better - but I'll leave some pleasures for you to discover on your own.  Read it.  Paul Johnson's a great writer, it's not a long book and the story of the man who brought philosophy down from the stars, and how he did it, is too important to our future to let go.

No comments: