I already mentioned I.F. Stone’s “Trial of Socrates,” an astonishing work of classical scholarship that in a few well-crafted chapters obliterated my lifelong admiration for Socrates. What I didn’t mention was that Stone (born Isidor “Izzy” Feinstein) had never written anything in this field before.
People are always telling me things that completely reverse everything I thought I knew about the modern world; it’s a confusing place that I never purported to understand.
But when someone rattles my view of the ancient world, in this case literally turning it upside down, well, that’s a lot tougher on an old guy like me.
Socrates taught me that the greatest barrier to gaining knowledge is thinking that you already know. Ironically, that now applies to everything I thought I knew about Socrates.
When ill health and failing eyesight forced him to give up publication of his famous weekly, Stone began researching a book about freedom of speech. He studied the English revolutions and then had to go back to the Reformation, then to the Renaissance, then, via the few and far between free spirits of the Middle Ages, he came upon ancient Athens…
It was a pretty amazing place when you think about it, birthplace of tragedy, comedy, philosophy, geometry, medicine and history, and a place where sculpture, architecture and literature reached artistic heights unsurpassed in any age.
Izzy and I believe these amazing achievements were due to the level of intellectual freedom that was achieved in Athens, and not in other city states, for a number of complicated reasons.
Stone was always bothered by the verdict against Socrates. “It shook my Jeffersonian faith in the common man,” he writes. “It was a black mark for Athens and the freedom it symbolized. How could the trial of Socrates have happened in so free a society? How could Athens have been so untrue to itself?”
So Izzy learned Greek and started examining and analyzing all the available sources. He points out that Socrates’ followers were the leaders of “The Thirty,” a group that collaborated with the Spartans to overthrow the democracy in Athens and then executed more than 1,500 of their enemies.
Even Plato was sickened by the carnage, though he was too polite to say so at the time. He still wrote adoringly about Critias, the leader of The Thirty.
And if you read about the ideal states that Plato and Socrates envisoned in The Republic and other works, they were authoritarian regimes where foreign ideas (and visitors) were forbidden and free thinkers were brutally suppressed.
When the Athenians raised an army in the countryside and took their city back, they did not intiate a second blood bath. In the interests of moving on, they voted a general amnesty. But if they got a little sick of Socrates talking about Spartan virtues, well who can really blame them for telling the old windbag to shut up or get out of town?
They gave him plenty of chances to scoot, but he wouldn’t. And shutting up, for a guy like Socrates, was completely out of the question.