Thursday, May 28, 2009

Socrates Once Again

Next Monday is the first day of my summer session Introduction to Philosophy course.  One of the texts I used for years for that course is Robin Waterfield’s translation of Plato’s The Republic.  I’m not sure that Waterfield’s translation is the best in every way—its “chapter” divisions that differ from the traditional “book” divisions has been a confusing issues for many of my students, for example—but I’ve generally found it a translation that’s easier for my students to use than others that are available.  (I do give students the options of using a different translation if they prefer, though I tell them the positives of using Waterfield.)  Because of this ongoing use of Waterfield’s translation, when a friend gave us a gift certificate for books, I decided to use my share to get Waterfield’s new book Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths so that I could read it before starting the course.

While I can’t say that there’s anything radically new in Why Socrates Died, Waterfield does gather together much of the material found elsewhere in an organized and interesting way.  A lot of the book spends time putting Socrates’ trial in context of what’s been going on in the last third of the 5th century. (In fact there are whole large sections of this book that don’t focus upon or even mention Socrates.) Waterfield discusses relationships between Athens and Sparta, the Peloponnesian War, the ongoing conflicts between oligarchic and democratic rule, the effects—such as plague, war, and poverty—that brought about social crisis, and the major players who were involved in each of these.   After spelling these issues out in detail, Waterfield explains how they were the driving force behind Socrates’ trial years after Socrates and his teachings were in their heyday.  His answer is in many ways fairly similar to that given by I.F. Stone back in the late 1980s but the context makes Waterfield’s theory of why this is the case clearer for those who don’t know Greek history than Stone’s The Trial of Socrates. It’ll be a good secondary source to which to direct students as they prepare arguments and witnesses for their modern trials of Socrates.



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