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Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths Hardcover – June 8, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Socrates and Alcibiades were an unlikely couple: an ugly old philosopher and a charming, intelligent, ambitious and arrogant aristocrat. The fallout from this relationship and an unpopular war toppled the world's most significant philosophical figure. By placing the execution of Socrates against the context of the Peloponnesian War, classicist Waterfield (Xenophon's Retreat) argues that a guilty verdict against the philosopher, charged with impiety and corrupting Athens's youth, was a rational outcome. Athens of the last third of the fifth century B.C. was affected by a striking list of stress factors. Old certainties were being undermined by prolonged warfare, morally subversive ideas, population displacement and other forms of social upheaval. Sitting atop a solid foundation of scholarship, this valuable survey of an important period of ancient history is especially useful as a prelude to texts by Plato, Xenophon and Thucydides. Of the many introductory studies on the Athenian judicial system, the trial of Socrates, the conflict between Athens and Sparta and the reasons that democracy gave way to oligarchy in Athens, this is among the clearest, most well-organized and most concise. 4 pages of illus., maps. (May)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* In The Death of Socrates (2007), Emily Wilson illuminated the mythmaking process that converted the execution of a famous ancient philosopher into a symbolic tableau incorporated into a wide range of religious and political ideologies. In this much-needed complementary study, Waterfield deflates that mythmaking by probing the historical dynamics surrounding the trial itself. The analysis will surprise readers accustomed to viewing Socrates’ accusers as paranoid defenders of religious superstitions. For a careful parsing of the evidence reveals that when Athenian judges condemned Socrates, they were defending principles still cherished by most twenty-first-century readers: namely, the principles of democracy. Waterfield convincingly establishes that Socrates fell under hostile suspicion largely because of his close ties to young students of deeply anti-democratic sympathies. One of these arrogant young men joined other oligarchs in conspiring against Athens during its bitter war against Sparta; another scripted the atrocities committed by the Thirty Tyrants when they temporarily overthrew Athens’ democratic government. Waterfield shows that even Socrates’ own belief in an ideal government by experts legitimated, elitist, not democratic governance. Such a belief, readers soon realize, would have appeared particularly menacing to Athenian democrats traumatized by the twin shocks of external assault and internal discord. Impressive scholarship redefining an iconic event. --Bryce Christensen

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (June 8, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393065278
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393065275
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,022,140 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Jose Hanson on January 27, 2010
Format: Hardcover
...than the title indicates. The author is tremendously intelligent, knowledgeable and thoughtful. His tone is scholarly but never dry. He's simply a great writer. The big surprise, however, is how much is not directly about Socrates at all, but about Athens. And not the iconic Athens of stately, silent, yellowing marble.

The famous are there along with the less known sons of "billionaire" families who helped bring down Socrates. These young rowdies, with way too much time on their hands, dressed and acted outlandishly, formed drinking clubs, went on destructive rampages, gambled and cruised the gymnasia and baths looking for boys. They liked girls too, and the stories of Alcibiades alone could explain why Athenian women were kept hidden.

And fortunately Alcibiades rates as many pages as his teacher and antithesis Socrates. Considered the handsomest man in Greece, Alcibiades was apparently a rich, reckless, narcissistic satyr. Once Socrates' lover, and later a general, he learned rhetoric from the older man and used it to become the idol of the Greek world. Before he was murdered he seems to have double-crossed at least twice everyone who trusted him. Having a hearty sexual appetite, he seduced men and women alike and was even reputed to have had orgies with his mother and sisters; fleeing Athens, he sought safety in Sparta, but then had to light out again after he impregnated the king's wife. Obviously the book is not dull.

In this Athens Waterfield finds unexpected parallels with our world today: As wealth increases, so does the stress of empire. The population is bitterly divided by competing interests, and struggles erupt between elites and democrats, rich and poor, young and old, farmers and businessmen.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By George Poirier on January 7, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Those fascinated by ancient Athenian politics and culture should enjoy this rather wide-ranging book. Unfortunately for me, it was not at all what I expected. I was anticipating a book focussing on Socrates - his life and accomplishments - culminating is his trial and execution. Instead, the author discusses Socrates mainly in the first chapter and last two. The rest is devoted primarily to Athenian politics, its legal system, the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath as well as other important individuals - particularly Alcibiades for whom much more space has been devoted than that devoted to Socrates. Also, the Peloponnesian War is discussed from a political viewpoint and not one that focuses on military equipment, tactics and battle strategies. However, if one is careful not to lose sight of the book's title, then perhaps one can ultimately get a richer perspective on the reasons for Socrates' trial and execution; in my case, I'm afraid that I got lost along the way. The writing style is certainly clear and very authoritative. Despite my experience in reading this book, I am giving it four stars because I feel that it does contribute important political information on that period of Athenian history.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By David Milliern on January 30, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Waterfield's book pleases me from multiple vantage points. First, it establishes an historical context so that the reader can develop a feel for what was going on prior to Socrates' trial. Now, I have read a great deal about the times leading upto Socrates' trial, as well as reading all of Plato's dialogues (note: at the time of reading I had not read Xenophon), so I only had modest idea of how it all came together. What Waterfield does is establish an overall frame work from largely a socio-political vantage point, and he does so with sophistication and style. The second thing that I deeply appreciate is the original idea (or two) that Waterfield builds to, and it is this primary thesis which serves as the crescendo for the work. Don't be confused if you find yourself half way through the book, asking, "I still don't know why Waterfield thinks Socrates died." The entire book is building to it, and once you realize what he is doing, you will be pleased with the end result.

This book is next-level scholarship, in that it takes a broad base of knowledge and, through reason, presents a very likely conclusion, which, by the way, does not contradict current scholarly thought; it is simply a new idea, as far as I know, and it complements popular scholarly thought.

Another important aspect of this book is the relationship between history and philosophy. I am staunchly in the camp that believes that there is an innate importance to understanding history for the sake of understanding philosophy. While this is one of the smaller details regarding this book, I still think that Waterfield serves in advancing our understanding of the relationship between history and philosophy. Furthermore, Waterfields subtle insights are rather interesting when put into perspective.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Aidan J. McQuade on December 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover
An entertaining and convincing exploration of the military and political milieu of 5th century Athens and its implications for understanding the trial and execution of Socrates. It benefits from being refreshing clear sighted about Socrates, portraying him as a flawed person, tainted by association with oligarchic and tyrannical Athenian factions, rather than the unimpeachably innocent victim of Platonic myth.
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