Socrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In the constellation of philosophers in the intellectual firmament, there is none other than Socrates whose influence on humanity, ranging from academic disciplines to everyday cultural memes, strikes the chords with the contemporary minds at its simplest form. It is this essence of Socrates’s simple but profound moral philosophy that has been enshrined in the pantheon of Immortal Knowledge of our collective human civilization for thousands of years. In Socrates by Paul Johnson, this immortal philosopher is hard to resist and difficult to find fault with through the author’s cicerone guide to the streets of the ancient Athens, where Socrates is in his usual convivial mood to speak in public and welcomes the reader with his genuine warm smile to join his conversation.
The stratagem of moral education in the form of philosophy is to tame the appetites (the senses or the id) and to guide spirits (emotions or the ego) in man to reach the highest level of humanness, which is the reason (the judgment or the superego). The process of this moral education is civilization, a standard by which barbarism is judged and separated from the educated mind, and Socrates thought it essential to implement it in all aspects of Athenian life because it was the surest avenue to happiness, meaning of human life. In fact, Socrates was the first philosopher to democratize the concept of philosophy from lofty abstraction of an academic plane to practical realism of a living guide. Johnson describes Socrates as something of a Prometheus, who translated the heavenly into the terrestrial in the sense that Socrates wanted to unlock the goodness of life for the benefit of mankind. For Socrates was the one who brought philosophy down from the wondering skies, domesticated it the huts and villas of people, and familiarized it with the ordinary life in examination of good and evil.
Socrates seems even more likable thanks to Johnson’s historical accounts of Socrates’s personal traits and physiognomy: the corroboration comes from his young, handsome, controversial, but nonetheless valiant aristocratic friend Alciblades that (1) Socrates was a selfless comrade in battle, fearless in fighting, and artless in helping his battle buddies: (2) commendable hardiness enabled him to wear thin clothing despite the cold and the snow; (3) he disliked letting his emotions show on his face; (4) he regarded poverty as a shortcut to self-control; and that (5) he kept fit in the stadium and gymnasium and even danced because he believed that a healthy body was the greatest of blessings. It is also well known that Socrates was an ugly man with a flat, broad nose and beer belly, especially by the standards of Greece in the 5th century that highly valued regularity of features we would call Byronic today. And yet, Socrates, ever imperturbable and optimistic, was not depressed by his ugliness because to Socrates beauty was not inherent in itself but was by the virtue of its use. It was more of utilitarian nature for practical purpose. Socrates’s way of accepting himself as he is relates to logotheraphy, neuroplasticity, and habit of positive thinking, now bestriding the domain of self-help literature.
I have always been a fan of Paul Johnson’s writing style in harmony with his wealth of erudition and fountain of humor, a fascinating combination that makes his reads so likable and interesting. And here again, he did it again: with his customary witty narrative packed full of lots of unknown anecdotes and personal tidbits on subjects he writes about, Johnson tells the reader about Socrates as precisely and candidly as possible based upon historical evidence to resurrect him in the textual theater of literature. His interpretations draw on his exceptional knowledge of the philosopher and the history of his time, but he wears his learning lightly and always writes with a general reader in mind. Hence, the figure of Socrates in his book is no longer seen as the ancient adumbral thinker but a jovial, avuncular teacher who really cares about the lives of his students of all walks of life in this highly entertaining book. This book presents a pleasant banquet of the mind and spirit hosted by the consummate storytelling narrative of Johnson in the honor of Socrates, the people’s philosopher.