Book Review: The Last Days Of Socrates

The Last Days Of Socrates, by Plato

This classic translation of some of Plato’s works is united around the theme of Plato’s writings about the trial and death of Socrates.  At a reasonable size (around 200 pages including the endnotes), this is a book that gives the reader the sense of why Socrates attracted such loyal friends and followers (like Plato) and also why it is that the Athenians decided to put him to death.  As someone whose familiarity with Plato has not been profound yet [1], these are the first complete works of the author I have read, and judging from this translation it looks like I will be returning to Plato again, perhaps even some of his more obscure works, if they are dialogues as intriguing and thought-provoking as these ones were.  Even more than before, this book led me to wonder what Socrates was like in conversation, language barrier aside, as his challenging sort of conversation style is precisely the sort of approach that would be likely to win him both friends and enemies, and in sensitive places like the postwar Athens of the early fourth century, it was dangerous to make the sort of enemies that Socrates did.

This volume begins with an introduction that sets the context for the work as a whole, pointing out questions of the legitimacy of Plato’s dialogues and how much they resemble Socrates himself in reality.  The editor is modest in claiming credit for the excellence of his translation and also about Socrates’ originality, and about various textual questions.  After this introduction we have a chronological view of Socrates’ last days given from four Platonic dialogues, each of which is often read as a separate work.  First comes a look at Socrates in action preparing for his trial in the dialogue Euthyphro. In this dialogue we see Socrates pondering the question of piety and wrestling with relevant questions like the civil rights of criminals and the duties we owe to parents.  After this comes The Apology, where we read Socrates’ side of the trial where he was convicted of speaking against Athenian heathen religion and corrupting the youth of the polis and given the death sentence.  Socrates’ behavior here is somewhat flippant, indicating his lack of concern for his life and his unwillingness to beg and grovel as democratic tribunes most appreciate.  After this comes the dialogue Crito, which shows Socrates’ stubborn honor as he refuses to run and manfully faces his impending death with a considerable degree of dignity.  Finally comes Phaedo, a frame of a conversation within a conversation that is portrayed as Socrates’ last conversation as he reflects on death and the afterlife as he slowly dies from hemlock.  After this are notes and a select bibliography.

Again, in reading this book, I get a feel for Socrates as a figure that was easy to appreciate but also easy to be annoyed and frustrated with.  Socrates continually asked questions and probed for the weaknesses and unrecognized assumptions behind what other people were doing.  Not everyone appreciates having their rational skills weighed in the balance and found wanting, even if it is by a friendly interlocutor.  On the other hand, those who sought wisdom and were humble about their own achievements, or who liked seeing self-important people brought down to size, would relish his company and conversation.  Unfortunately, powerful and self-important people do not appreciate being brought down to size, and insecure democracies do not like people who question the status quo and everything else too severely, and Socrates was definitely guilty of these social sins.  When I look at the fragility of the republic of which I am a part, I wonder if there will be others like Socrates who have reason to be concerned for their life simply because they question the conventional wisdom too severely and too consistently and too ably.  It is an unpleasant thought, to be sure.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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