Socratic questions for today's society; The Independent Archive

15 September 1988 Peter Jenkins devotes his column to the American journalist I. F. Stone's new book `The Trial of Socrates'
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The Independent Culture
AN EVENT in the year 399 BC shook I. F. Stone to his Jeffersonian core, horrified him. "How could the trial of Socrates have happened in so free a society? How could Athens have been so untrue to itself?" These were the questions which occurred to him when, retiring from journalism, he embarked on what was to have been a study of freedom of thought throughout human history. The result, 16 years later, is this book which has aroused great interest and controversy in America and is today published here.

It is a work of what might be called "investigative scholarship". It applies to fifth-century Athens the technique which Stone practised in 20th-century Washington with his famous Newsletter. He was not the kind of reporter who made assignations with Deep Throats, rather who pored over the small print of official publications looking for sinister contradictions or traces of conspiracy.

The success of his Newsletter had largely to do with the sense it gave its readers of having a private line to the inside dope. Now Stone offers us the dope on Periclean Athens although, as Professor M.F. Burnyeat has pointed out, discrepancies between Plato and Xenophon cannot be properly be treated in the same way as discrepancies between the Pentagon and State Department. That is the trouble with Stone: he is incurably addicted to conspiracy theory. It made him often wrong about modern Washington and, probably, wrong about ancient Athens. This last point must be left to the experts, although I am sure we shall see a descent of scholarly snot descend upon the journalist daring to venture into academic fields.

Stone's thesis is a splendid one, even if not true. It is the stuff of a good play. Socrates was convicted not of treason, of which he was never accused, although he had "stayed in the city" in 404 when Sparta had imposed the dictatorship of the Thirty on the defeated Athenians. Socrates was a Spartan sympathiser, in effect a collaborator. But he was tried and convicted for what he said and thought. It was a political trial. He was an enemy of democracy. Had he entered a defence of the right of free speech he would probably have been acquitted.

But he did not believe in free speech, nor in self-government. "Socrates needed the hemlock, as Jesus needed the Crucifixion, to fulfil a mission. The mission left a strain forever on democracy. That remains Athens' tragic crime."

On another interpretation of the man and his trial, the condemnation of Socrates can be justified. Socrates was a religious heretic, not a political subversive. He claimed, in effect, that the philosopher (Socrates) knew better than the gods. These were views thoroughly subversive of the state religion. In the year 399 BC Athenians could, in good conscience, have found Socrates guilty as charged of impiety and of corrupting youth.

This seems to me a much more convincing account than Stone's but, never mind, Stone's thesis serves his purpose. He doesn't like Socrates one bit and with good reason, for the Socrates he depicts is a real pain. Only he knew best, which was that even he didn't know. He claimed that the Oracle had named him wisest man in the city (the world) and he went around telling everybody, rubbishing his own city, rubbishing democracy, rubbishing the people, rubbishing everything.

By making Socrates into such a hard case, Stone makes his point: Athens of all places ought not to have denied the right of free speech even to such a man, the self-proclaimed enemy of free speech. Stone concedes, moreover, that Athenians had good reason to regard Socrates as a political menace. Democracy remained under threat having twice been overthrown, once by Sparta and once by oligarchic gangs of what Stone calls "bully boys", tending to invoke the death squads of Argentina, El Salvador and Chile. But it is in such hard times, and against such hard cases, that liberty must stand its test. That is the uncompromisingly libertarian message of Stone's book. It is of sadly obvious relevance to Britain today.

From `The Independent', Thursday 15 September 1988