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The Death of Socrates (Profiles in History) [Hardcover]

Emily Wilson
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 4, 2007 0674026837 978-0674026834 First American Edition

There were heroic lives and deaths before and after, but none quite like Socrates'. He did not die by sword or spear, braving all to defend home and country, but as a condemned criminal, swallowing a painless dose of poison. And yet Socrates' death in 399 BCE has figured large in our world ever since, shaping how we think about heroism and celebrity, religion and family life, state control and individual freedom, the distance of intellectual life from daily activity--many of the key coordinates of Western culture. In this book Emily Wilson analyzes the enormous and enduring power the trial and death of Socrates has exerted over the Western imagination.

Beginning with the accounts of contemporaries like Aristophanes, Xenophon, and, above all, Plato, the book offers a comprehensive look at the death of Socrates as both a historical event and a controversial cultural ideal. Wilson shows how Socrates' death--more than his character, actions, or philosophical beliefs--has played an essential role in his story. She considers literary, philosophical, and artistic works--by Cicero, Erasmus, Milton, Voltaire, Hegel, and Brecht, among others--that used the death of Socrates to discuss power, politics, religion, the life of the mind, and the good life. As highly readable as it is deeply learned, her book combines vivid descriptions, critical insights, and breadth of research to explore how Socrates' death--especially his seeming ability to control it--has mattered so much, for so long, to so many different people.

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Editorial Reviews


As imagined by Wilson, The Death of Socrates is therefore very much a story about a life of becoming that compels us, centuries later, to follow the example of Socrates, a philosopher who managed to be mythic and reflective and irritating in almost equal measure. (Larry T. Shillock Bloomsbury Review 2008-01-01)

This book is both scholarly and written with commendable clarity and punch. Professional philosophers and amateurs alike will find in it considerable food for thought. (Mark Vernon Philosopher's Magazine 2008-01-01)

Emily Wilson's The Death of Socrates is an exceptionally lucid introduction to this famous trial and death...Not only does Ms. Wilson carefully reconstruct the circumstances of the philosopher's demise but she also asks, rather refreshingly, the implicitly obvious but mostly overlooked question of "why the death of Socrates has mattered so much, over such an enormously long period of time and to so many different people." The history of the interpretation of Socrates' death, it turns out, is in large part the history of philosophy itself...The man who has been condemned to death for corrupting the sons of the city ends by instructing his executioners about how to raise his own. He goes to his death without the comfort of a Christian afterlife or any promise of a posthumous reputation, but only with faith in his own reason. After 2,400 years, it's still a resounding epitaph. (Thomas Meaney Wall Street Journal 2007-11-24)

About the Author

Emily Wilson is Assistant Professor of Classical Studies, University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Mocked with Death: Tragic Overliving from Sophocles to Milton.

Product Details

  • Series: Profiles in History
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First American Edition edition (September 4, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674026837
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674026834
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 5.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,095,150 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly masterful treatment of an old subject November 27, 2007
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I suspect there are few others in history besides Christ who have had more books written about his death and its meaning than Socrates. From Plato, his student and other contemporaries such as Xenophon, through many centuries where he was adopted by other skeptics of the prevailing social order such as Erasmus, who called him a saint, the trial and circumstances of the death sentence imposed on him, and his willingness to carry it out have resulted in many adopters of his cause.
As a libertarian myself, I have always thought that much of what Socrates was ultimately about was to force people to ask questions about "established" wisdom; one of the most threatening things that can be done in any social order. Doing this at a time when there were many gods supposedly looking after ancient Athens was really no different than those who went to their deaths in Stalin's gulags; a timeless threat to those who rule by consensus or complete control.

Wilson has obviously spent many years researching her subject and has come up with her own theories about just why Socrates was given the death sentence, and they deserve just as much deference as many others which have been equally well "established" by others who studied the man and the era.
This is a really great book about a wonderful topic and one of the few I have read on the subject that i plan to keep in my library.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Book February 5, 2008
I have read several books on Socrates and found this one well written; a refreshing look at an historical figure often referred to but not well understood.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A refreshing new look at a legendary life February 12, 2008
This witty, erudite book forces us to look again at one of the founders of Western civilisation. Going beyond hagiography, this book is highly readable and scholarly, accessible to students but serious and original enough for specialists. I recommend it highly.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is a thorough study of the whys and wherefores of a significant historical event that has resonated over the centuries in western civilization. The author explains Socrates' philosophy and the society he lived in and describes the event. Then reviews how the event had influenced not only ancient Greece but also Rome and beyond. All the way to the Enlightment and modern times citing all kinds of philosophers, writers and artists. The book has pictures of paintings that depicted the event and has an extensive bibliography for future reading. The author even interjects with her own opinions about the subject, especially about Socrates' nagging wife. I enjoyed reading it for its insights and recommend it.
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1 of 8 people found the following review helpful
As other reviews herein have stated: MS Wilson did her homework in reviewing a multitude of documents, sources, books and others' opinions on the issues presented. Her conclusions that Socrates may have protrayed both the feminine and masculine sides of his life, that his death has been manipulated by many who followed and his impact on western civilization are masterfully done.

I deeply regret that MS Wilson used her work to proffer falsehoods about the United States and Jewish history.

It is my opinion that the following sentence was out of place and does not accurately protray reality:

"The right of prisoners to a proper hearing has been a key tenet of almost all democratric or semi-democratic governments in western history (only recently violated, in America, in the case of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners)."

Her statement is not supported by international law nor the Constitution of the United States. The prisoners in Guantanamo are not a member of the Constitutionally protected class of "We the People of the United States . . ." The Constitution applys to citizens of the United States and has not been extended to enemy combatants bent on destroying the United States and its citizens.

Next and probably unintentional misrepresentatkon is "Votaire, more unusually, dubbed Jesus 'the Socrates of Palestine'. This translation is improbable - there was no country or area of the world referred to as "Palestine" during the life of Jesus or Voltaire. The more accepted translation is "Philistines." By making this historical reference mistake the author continues to perpetuate the myth that there was a country named Palestine.
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