Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Portrait of Socrates

I picked up this book, written by R.W. Livingstone in 1938, a few years ago from a small used bookstore in Newcastle. Socrates has always interested me, and the idea of learning more about him interested me. But how is there any more to learn about him than what we see in Plato’s writings? There isn’t, really – and so, this portrait consists of Plato’s “death of Socrates” trilogy, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, with annotations and commentary from the editor. His most helpful annotations were the ones regarding the challenges of translating Ancient Greek into English. The word that comes across as “beauty” has a deeper, richer meaning than our word, for example. There was an irritating aspect to many of these annotations, however. Instead of putting them after a section, they generally were listed before a given section, and usually contained a summary of the forthcoming passage, which both broke Plato’s natural flow, and somewhat spoiled what was to come next. Before long I stopped reading them, so I could enjoy the natural flow of Plato’s writing, which tries very hard to feel like natural conversation. Going back after I finished to read the annotations gave some extra depth. This book was published in 1938 and had at least one previous owner. Interestingly, there were pen marks in the margins, where someone seemed to be noting the places where Socrates was prefiguring Christian beliefs and attitudes. It is remarkable how much he does present a Christian message, especially given that he too was unjustly executed by the state. The Athenians invented democracy, and then used it to execute Socrates. Nobody’s perfect, I guess!

One more curious aspect about this book. The editor uses two different typeface sizes: a large one to denote passages that he feels most fully represent Socrates, and a smaller one to indicate ones that are less important for understanding Socrates the man. I had a hard time making the distinction, but I liked the idea of using different sized typefaces to indicate potentially skippable text. In the introduction, the author suggests that if this book received a warm enough reception, that he might create a whole serious of “Portrait of” books. My web search turns up no new ones, which is understandable. It’s always pleasing to visit with Socrates, even on his deathbed, but this book would have been much more enjoyable had the editor simply given us some background, and gotten out of the way. 

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