I. F. Stone
Doubleday (Anchor), New York; paperback.

I remember visiting the Metropolitan Museum with my father when I was very young, and as we were about to make our way out to Fifth Avenue, over-stimulated and tired, I asked him to stop for one last painting. I was intrigued and impressed by the mysterious scene portrayed in Jacque Louis David's “The Death of Socrates.” The drama of the story unfolded as my father relayed in admirable detail the particulars of Socrates' trial and death. He could not, however, give a satisfactory answer to the most fundamental question: Why had Socrates been put to death?

I. F. Stone, the octogenarian champion of, civil liberties, who died this past year, put the question somewhat differently: “How could the trial of Socrates have happened in so free a society? How could Athens have been so untrue to itself?” His attempt to answer these questions has resulted in a much praised bestseller, The Trial of Socrates, now available in a paperback edition.

Socrates' accusers brought two charges against him: that he was guilty of “corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in deities of his own invention instead of the gods recognized by the state.” It was Socrates'(and Stone's) contention that these specific charges were actually secondary to the true nature of the prosecution. Socrates was convinced that the people had been set against him –“out of envy and love of slander”-because he had spent his lifetime challenging anyone who claimed to possess wisdom; by exposing their ignorance, Socrates won the hatred and jealousy of many Athenians. Stone, on the other hand, would have us believe that the charges were really political, and that Socrates was convicted and sentenced because of his antidemocratic attitude and teachings.

It is not surprising, then, that Stone has taken great pains to remind the reader of the historical and political events that shaped the times during which Socrates lived and died. The trial occurred in 399 B.C. During the fifth century B.C. the Athenian empire grew so strong that many Greek states, and particularly Sparta, became alarmed and fearful of the ambitions of the “tyrant city.” The Peloponnesian War broke out in 431 B.C. and ran its devastating course (including the unprovoked Athenian massacre of the neutral Melians in 416) until 404 when the Thirty Tyrants gained a brief hold on Athens. Democracy was restored in 403 with the victors exhibiting remarkable restraint when a resolution was passed granting amnesty to everyone except the Thirty. Yet four years later this admirable democracy proceeded with the prosecution and execution of Socrates. Why?

The presentation of the historical context is both justifiable and desirable, and it is here that Stone is at his best. There are few scholars who would deny that political considerations (including the memory of two key players in the events, Alcibiades and Critias, and their connection to Socrates) played a part in the case against Socrates. But The Trial of Socrates goes beyond the idea that Socrates was prosecuted and convicted for political reasons; Stone would have us believe that the verdict was right. In an attempt to lift the burden of guilt from the Athenian democracy, Stone argues that Socrates could easily have won acquittal had he wanted it, but that he was more concerned with fulfilling his mission as a crusader against democracy. In fact, Stone says, “Socrates needed the hemlock, as Jesus needed the Crucifixion, to fulfill a mission. The mission left a stain forever on democracy” (page 230).

Was Socrates, as Stone maintains, a passionate, provocative, and arrogant enemy of democracy who intentionally antagonized the jury to insure his own conviction? I doubt it.

If Plato is a trustworthy source (and Stone's reliance on the dialogues would seem to affirm it), then we must allow that Socrates regarded himself as a philosopher, not apolitical philosopher; as a lover of wisdom and not a lover of political wisdom. The distinction is essential. There are several occasions in Plato's dialogues where Socrates maintains an explicitly anti-political or non-political stance (which is not to say anti-democratic): he insists that all of the existing forms of government (not just democracy) are unacceptable because they are not suitable for philosophy (Republic, 497bc). Furthermore, there is no place for the. “just man” or authentic philosopher in democratic, oligarchal, or tyrannical states, and he must therefore disassociate himself from political life entirely or run the risk of endangering his own life (Apology, 331 sq.; Republic, 496cd).

Stone is to be commended for placing the trial within its proper historical context. It should, however, be pointed out that with regard to Socrates' ideas he has done precisely the opposite: by selectively taking ideas out of their original context he has made nonsense of Socrates, and having done so, Stone has no trouble demonstrating that Socrates is talking nonsense.

Stone never mentions the premise upon which the “political” discussion of the Republic proceeds: in the beginning of the Republic, Socrates is arduously challenged by his companions to defend his position that the just man, despite his unpopularity and the many hardships he suffers during his life, is happier than the unjust. Socrates accepts the challenge, but because the subject is so difficult, he suggests that they begin by way of analogy, examining justice in city-states and only afterwards looking for its likeness in individuals (368c-369a). Socrates progressively describes a harmoniously ordered city (polis) which results in a just city with each class (philosopher-guardians, military, and money-makers) Working according to its own functions, unmixed (434). When we finally return to the original concern, the just individual, the analogy is continued: like the community, the soul has three centers with three separate functions. The just individual is one who has ordered and harmonized the reasoning, high-spirited, and appetitive parts of the soul, who has “linked and bound all three together and made of himself a unit, one man instead of many” (443de).

Socrates' politics are the inner politics of the soul. In the Republic the polis is a macranthropos while the individual is truly a micropolis; the laws that govern them are the same, but will never be found in a constitution because they are laws of the natural, or cosmic, order. The conclusion of Book IX anticipates the literal interpretation and criticism of Socrates' politics. There, one of his companions suggests that the perfect city which has just been described can be found nowhere on earth; its home is in the ideal. Socrates answers that perhaps the pattern of it is in heaven “for him who wishes to contemplate it and so beholding to constitute himself its citizen. But it makes no difference whether it exists now or ever will come into being. The politics of this city will be his and of none other” (592ab).

Stone's misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Socratic thought seems to have occurred because he and Socrates address the issue of freedom on different levels. In his preface Stone states that The Trial of Socrates is an investigation of freedom of thought and speech, political freedoms- “not freedom in general, which has too many ambiguities…” Socrates, on the other hand, was interested in true freedom, inner freedom which could not be taken away by any change in the ruling class or in the form of government. He mocked political freedom as an illusion and could see that even the tyrant, who possessed absolute freedom in the general sense, was actually enslaved by desires and appetites. The illusion of freedom is illustrated in the famous cave allegory (Republic 514a et seq.) by the perpetual prisoners who are convinced of their deluded personal reality. Freedom is a rare achievement. Even the prisoner who becomes partially free must be dragged forcefully into the light of the sun, lest the pain of the unaccustomed light drive him back into the darkness. But as Socrates' own life illustrated, for those destined to be free, there is more to be feared in slavery than in death.

Stone hopes to acquit his romantically envisioned Athenian democracy by proving his contention that Socrates engineered his own conviction and execution as a final blow against the democracy he despised. The solution is doubtful and unconvincing, at best. The death of Socrates remains an unsolvable puzzle of metaphysics, psychology, morality, and human history. Socrates insists that the one who has become free and wise is intolerable to the multitude, even to the point of being executed. The idea is presented; is a horrible fact, but a fact nonetheless. When I apply the idea to myself, I must ask whether that part of my soul or constitution which is free and wise (if there is such a one) is not equally abhorrent and vulnerable to the multitudinous desires of my appetitive self/selves. If that is really the case, then I must proceed as intelligently as possible and with the greatest, sensitivity to the identification and ordering of the mental, emotional, and physical/appetitive functions of the soul. This kind of thinking is admittedly foreign to The Trial of Socratesbut it emerges when one is allowed to ponder the death of Socrates without feeling an incumbent necessity to solve anything-for its application by analogy to the individual soul, right or wrong, is no more a solution than that provided by Mr. Stone. The death of Socrates remains, I suppose, a mystery.


Spring 1990