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Socrates: A Man for Our Times Hardcover – October 13, 2011

57 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

Praise for Socrates by Paul Johnson:

“An admirably concise view of a remarkable life whose influence remains central to the foundations of Western thought.”
Publishers Weekly

“[Johnson’s] genuine love of the demos makes him an all-too-rare figure in today’s chattering classes.”
First Things

“Johnson writes more concisely than most scholars and brings to his prose a wealth of anecdote and asides unknown to most academics. His Socrates comes alive not through arguments over Platonic dating or Pythagorean influence, but by wit and allusion to Jane Austen novels, Samuel Johnson, John Maynard Keynes, firsthand remembrances of Winston Churchill's speeches and Richard Dawkins. A valuable overview.”
Washington Times

“Robust.”
The New Republic

“With effortless erudition, Paul Johnson brings to life the world of the great philosopher.”
Women's Wear Daily

“A succinct, useful exploration of life in ancient Athens and of the great philosopher’s essential beliefs.”
Kirkus Reviews

“A wonderfully readable account of life in Athens, its political quarrels, and its failures. As good as a murder mystery, Johnson’s narrative is exciting.”
Library Journal

“Enlightening.... Johnson disentangles centuries of scarce and questionable sources to offer a riveting account of a homely but charismatic middle-class man whose ideas still shape the way we decide how to act, and how we fathom the notion of body and soul.”
History Book Club

“Johnson is an accomplished historian and writer with a fluid, unpretentious style and an honest voice. These gifts, which have made his 12 previous books enjoyable and popular, are no less evident in Socrates.”
The Washington Independent Review of Books

“This snappy biography goes down easy while offering a full portrait of Socrates—the man, the thinker, the celebrity—and the world he lived in.”
Zócalo Public Square

“Spectacular...a delight to read.”
The Wall Street Journal

About the Author

Paul Johnson’s many books, including A History of Christianity, A History of the Jews, Modern Times, Churchill, and Napoleon: A Penguin Life, have been hailed as masterpieces of historical analysis. He is a regular columnist for Forbes and The Spectator, and his work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many others publications. He lives in London.

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Best Books of the Month
Best Books of the Month
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1St Edition edition (October 13, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670023035
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670023035
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.7 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #176,303 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Beginning with Modern Times (1985), Paul Johnson's books are acknowledged masterpieces of historical analysis. He is a regular columnist for Forbes and The Spectator, and his work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By James Norwood on December 26, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
It is nearly impossible to write a book that will please everyone about an individual of the stature of Socrates with the minimal primary sources that we have about his life. Paul Johnson does a masterful job in this lively and insightful short biography.

The principal resource for learning about Socrates lies in Plato’s dialogues where Socrates appears as the main character. Unfortunately, there is no telling how much of Plato’s words represent the real Socrates. Johnson is successful in arguing that Plato was using his mentor as his own mouthpiece, particularly in those philosophical works written after the death of Socrates in 399 BCE.

The Delphic oracle pronounced that Socrates was the wisest of the Greeks, and the oracle’s statement was unambiguous. When Chaerephon asked the question about whether anyone was wiser than Socrates, the oracle simply said, “There is none.” Yet Socrates himself challenged the oracle's answer, just as he did with his students, and he finally untangled the riddle to his own satisfaction. He was considered wise by the oracle simply because he acknowledged that he knew nothing!

Throughout the biography, Johnson touches on those aspects of Socrates’ life—known or speculative—that help to shed light on the wisdom of this iconic figure. One of the most insightful sections deals with morality in general and the human tendency for revenge in particular. Johnson provides excellent background on several historical dilemmas in Athens that demonstrated both the best and the worst in ethical decision-making. When the Athenian assembly had decided “democratically” to carry out genocide on the city of Mytilene, a ship was dispatched to execute all of the adult males and sell all of the women and children into slavery.
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42 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Erez Davidi on October 20, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
At the outset it must be said that since I've only read Plato: Republic, I'm far from qualified to criticize Johnson's interpretations of Socrates' philosophy. Therefore, I'm only able to review Johnson's writing and narrative.

Johnson paints a clear and exciting general picture of Athens and Greece of Socrates' time. He was able to provide a rather good overview of who Socrates was and his personality, which helps shed some light on his philosophy. In addition, Johnson explores in a clear and engaging way, easily understood by the layman, the main ideas of Socrates thinking. All in all, I can recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn more about the father of Western philosophy.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Robert J. Vajko VINE VOICE on December 20, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I review this book not from the viewpoint of a professional philosopher but rather from the desire to begin to understand Socrates from a shorter less technical writer. The book is divided into seven chapters and the first deals with truly understanding Socrates who never put his thoughts into writing but must be understood through his disciple Plato. Johnson's appraisal is "In his earlier writings, Plato presented Socrates as a living, breathing, thinking person, a real man" (11) but that in his later writings "he became a mere wooden man, ...to voice not his own philosophy but Plato's" (11). Probably one needs more than Johnson's view on this to see how true this might be.

Johnson explains that Socrates "was the first Great Question Maker" (78). This insight into his life shows why philosophy finds so much of its roots in Socrates who states that "An unexamined life is a life not worth living" (98-99).

In my thinking, chapter four "Socrates the Philosophical Genius" is one of the most helpful chapters for those beginning to delve into his life. Returning to the thinking of the first chapter, Johnson, quoting Gregory Vlastos (Socrates specialist) gives ten ways in which "the real Socrates differed from the artificial creation labeled Socrates who increasingly figures in Plato's works.

I would recommend this book as an introduction to the life and thinking of Socrates and using it as an entrance into further study of this great philosopher.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By cxlxmx on December 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Johnson has produced a great succinct summary of Socrates life for those without any background in Classics or ancient history. Short and with large print and margins, it is a quick and non-demanding read. Johnson makes the best of extremely thin documentation about the man in the historical record. His choices about which sources to use and how to interpret them are somewhat arbitrary (he acknowledges this), but I think justified by the fact that Johnson presents a consistent and believable portrait. Reviewers who don't like Johnson or his politics will complain that he's simply creating a picture of Socrates that he likes. But of course, it is also possible that Johnson picked Socrates as a subject because a fair assessment of the sources suggests a man that Johnson likes. Hagiography rather than propaganda.

The subtitle "A Man for Our Times" refers to the fact that Johnson's biography stresses that Socrates stood against the authorities of his day while continuing to be a patriot and civic leader--a warrior who was skeptical of war, and an ironic dissenter who never tried to overthrow the traditions and institutions that made life work for the majority.

There are a few editing problems with the book, and Johnson's distinctive method of inserting anecdotes from modern life doesn't work in this book, breaking the spell of antiquity and pushing the reader out of the book back into the world of his chair. Nevertheless, an enjoyable read and a good choice as a holiday gift.
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