Sunday, August 16, 2009

Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths by Robin Waterfield

Another book that fits into my summer project of Reading Outside The Box, i.e. trying new authors and new genres via a cross-section of newly published work. In a very manageable 204 pages, Waterfield's Why Socrates Died opens with Socrates’ trial and death by hemlock, then takes us into the backstory of the Peloponnesian War and the social changes wrought by Athens’ eventual defeat, and finally presents his theory of why Socrates stayed in Athens and accepted death when he could so easily have escaped.

As I know very little of Socratic thought and ancient Greek history, this subject could easily have proved difficult to follow. So I was impressed by the clarity of Waterfield’s writing and the easily understandable structure of this book, which made it possible even for an amateur historian like me to gain a fair amount of understanding of a very far-off world.

I didn’t learn much about Socrates himself, though. The larger-than-life character in this book is Alcibiades, Socrates’ pupil and, possibly, toyboy. Socrates himself seems rather pushed to the margins; this is a book about his environment rather than the man himself. I don't think that this detracts from the book, though; in fact it has piqued my interest to learn more about Socrates.

Waterfield is scholarly, engaging with other historians and discussing their theories in contrast with his own. Yet I never really had the impression that I was reading a piece of historical scholarship; the narrative flows well, and he follows the delightful contemporary practice of making his notes almost entirely inconspicuous. I did get a bit bogged down in the description of the war, but then I always have trouble following political narratives when the players are not well known to me.

I thought that the book really came into its own once the account of the war was over and we returned to the time of the trial. Waterfield makes some truly interesting comparisons between Socrates’ day and American history of the 60s and 70s. From the jacket photo I would say that he’s slightly older than me, which makes him a true Boomer (whereas I am on the cusp) and explains why this comparison comes so naturally to him. He also made some remarks that got me thinking about our own “democracy” and recent history.

Waterfield’s final theory is only a theory, and he doesn’t try to sell it as the only solution to the mystery of Socrates’ death. Still, I found it plausible and neatly put. Altogether an excellent book: highbrow without being inaccessible, nicely structured and well edited. I got through the whole thing without once being annoyed by the writing, which is rare for me.

1 comment:

Chad Aaron Sayban said...

Socrates is a tough subject because nobody can seem to agree on how much of the writings that are attributed to him were actually written by him or just came from his time period. Still, it sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for the great review!