crazy ugly heroic socrates


Once every schoolchild knew the tale of the death of Socrates. The grieving friends, the sage’s matter-of-fact reports of how far his paralysis had progressed, the unstinting discussion of philosophy, and the final reminder of his debt to the gods before he fell silent: though a staple of moral education forty years ago, these are things now less well-known, perhaps less relevant. Emily Wilson’s book The Death of Socrates is the latest in Profile’s series reassessing historical moments, following reappraisals of King Alfred, of the assassination of Julius Caesar, and of Guernica; the summer of 1967 and the 1916 siege at the Dublin GPO will be treated in forthcoming volumes. A professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania, Wilson has written a sprightly and illuminating account of the events surrounding Socrates’ execution by means of a self-administered drink of hemlock; the probable historical reasons for his trial and judgment; and the ways in which later ages – from Socrates’ immediate successors among the Greeks, through the Romans, Christian apologists, Renaissance thinkers, Enlightenment sages and anxious moderns – have understood the death of Socrates. Her style is engagingly straightforward and inclusive. In short punchy sentences, she suggests that her readers will learn “how this event has been recycled, reinterpreted and re-evaluated . . . . You too must find your own vision of Socrates”. At times, her tone has the deliberate simplification of a freshman lecture course; yet, while the book wisely takes no prior knowledge for granted, it is scrupulous in drawing attention to differences of academic opinion.

more from the TLS here.