- The Good: The source of the Socratic Method
- The Bad: Let’s just say it’s clear Socrates loves to hear himself speak
- The Literary: An ancient philosophical text still relevant today!
Accused of crimes against the state, including impiety and corruption of the young, Socrates explores several philosophical concepts as he is tried, sentenced, and executed. This short collection is divided into four dialogues. In Euthyphro, Socrates explores the concept of piety and goodness in light of the new accusations; in Apology, he defends his public lectures at length; in Crito, he considers a citizen’s duty to the state and accepts his death sentence; and in Phaedo, he embraces death with hope, even eagerness, while assuaging his followers of the certainty that the soul is immortal, and death only a transition.
The Socratic method, in which a teacher asks targeted questions that slowly reveal to a student the most logical conclusion, is widely known. In today’s use, it’s often seen as a gently encouraging method that empowers students to think critically and independently. And though it is used to some extent in this manner by Socrates, it’s a pleasure to watch Socrates use his method to question those in power, slowly undermining their authority by revealing their lack of virtue and wisdom.
Not only does Socrates expose the Assembly members and his accusers for their bogus charges by dissecting each crime of which he is accused, but he does it with style. He begins by feigning a humble uninformed position, requesting definitions of pure forms of right and wrong, before grandstanding with a superiority that makes it clear he will not beg for mercy. When he won’t back down and kowtow to the state, he becomes a symbol for different ways of thinking and is promptly sentenced for corruption of the youth.
It’s difficult to know how much of this representation of history is fact versus fiction. Plato certainly cast his teacher as a brilliant, stately, and brave lecturer. Whatever the real historical events, Plato’s account clearly celebrates the philosophy and free thought that Socrates taught and remembers him as a martyr.
From a modern standpoint, I am pleasantly surprised at how easy the translation is to read. Socrates’ arguments are easy to follow despite being exceptionally wordy. Even though I personally—and I assume many of my fellow modern readers as well—don’t agree with Socrates in many of his conclusions, the dialogues are entertaining, while also shedding light on an ancient culture that is quite unlike our own.
The main downsides are: The constant verbal agreements in the dialogues are tedious. The portrayal of women as emotionally distraught baggage meant to be sent away is annoying, but at least true to the time. And in Phaedo especially, Socrates assumes his most overwrought and circular arguments that result in self-aggrandizing, or teacher-aggrandizing tone.
Highly recommended for philosophy fans!