Saturday, September 29, 2007

Spending Time With Socrates

One of the things that stands out most vividly from my high school education was talking about the death of Socrates in my 10th grade world history class. My history teacher loved Socrates, and he made the story come alive. I met Socrates again in college as I studied Plato in a philosophy class, but aside from being able to make general discussion of the Allegory of the Cave, the biggest impact the college class had was that it put The Dialogues of Plato and The Republic on my bookshelf.

All in all, like a lot of the education I received during that time in my life, these things have perhaps had the unfortunate effect of giving me the impression that I knew something about Plato without my having actually read much Plato -- kind of like seeing a movie and concluding that you don't need to read the book.

This week, as I was rummaging about my bookshelves for something to read, I came across the Dialogues and thought I'd give them a try. Seventy pages in, I'm really liking it.

It turns out my general knowledge was pretty reasonable. If I had discoursed on these dialogues with someone who had actually read them, I wouldn't have seemed like a total dolt. But, of course, the real enjoyment has come in the details. I've relished the simple pleasure of listening to Socrates debating. I've marveled at seeing ideas that are echoed in the New Testament (Socrates' discussion of the wisdom of God vs. the wisdom of men, for instance). I was intrigued by the dialogue with Euthyphro on the nature of the holy, though there were many questions I'd have liked to have put to Socrates.

And now, in reading "Phaedo", I've just come to the place where Socrates discusses philosophy as the practice of death and dying. Christianity could naturally make a similar claim, so it's very interesting to see how Socrates' development of the idea differs from (and yet has obviosuly influenced the development of) the Christian idea.


Steven Craig Miller said...

There are a number of excellent works on Socrates, one such work is: "Socrates on Trial" by Brickhouse and Smith (1989). What it brought to my mind as I read it is how much in common biblical scholarship has with scholarship of ancient history.

Andy said...

So, Amazon says that whole book is on the Apology. Is that right? Quite interesting.

One of the best parts of reading the dialogues has been the little things that barely get mentioned, if at all, in the usual summaries of the works. I got a kick out of the idea of Socrates suggesting that he be rewarded for corrupting the youth instead of punished.

But as I read it and thought about the immense influence that Socrates, and especially Plato, have had on Western society, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to see if you could re-write the Apology, maybe with a more prescient and thoughtful Meletus, in such a way as to show that Socrates really was guilty in some way.

Steven Craig Miller said...

The similarities between the scholarship of ancient history and biblical scholarship are hard to deny. The Oxford text of Plato's "Apology of Socrates" is only 35 pages. But Brikhouse & Smith's commentary on it runs over 300 pages. And as for Meletus, we no more have anything written by him than we have anything written by Paul's opponents in Galatia or Corinth.

On the other hand, if you would like something more general, you might try: "Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher" by Gregory Vlastos.

Of course, there is nothing like reading Plato himself. Do people who read biblical scholarship ever get around to just reading the Bible I wonder?

Andy said...

There's definitely a temptation to substitute reading biblical scholarship for reading the Bible. The Bible even more than Plato is susceptible to the illusion of familiarity. I've often caught myself skipping over the actual quotations in commentaries because I knew what the passage said. :-(

Paul said...

Hello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).