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

4.2 out of 5 stars 65 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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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 (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #116,601 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Beautifully written, and this should, I hope, at last put to rest the fascination with I.F. Stone's old screed ["The Trial of Socrates"] against Socrates as some sort of fascist, based upon Plato's portrayal of Socrates (and, even at that, ignoring Plato's status as one of the supreme ironists of Western thought -- an all-too-common error through the years).

For those who have struggled with trying to read Plato's "Republic," by the way -- and for anyone who might like to attempt it -- let me recommend again the superb English-language translation by the late Allan Bloom, which [he explained] is the only literal translation [and he explained the importance of that]. In addition, he supplied a superb running "explanatory note" without which Plato's amazing subtlety would have left me gasping and stumbling along at best (as it did, in college, when struggling with the Benjamin Jowett translation).
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By bob r on November 25, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an excellent book. I have since read a few books on Socrates and have come to the conclusion that Johnson got it right in a short, readable version of a complicated subject. I liked it so much that I bought a handful of other Johnson titles.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Paul Johnson has a unique ability to summarize a topic in a brief but very informative manner. Having enjoyed his bios of Napoleon and Churchill, I jumped on this when I saw it, and I was not disappointed.

As usual, Johnson's text reads easily. The editing of my Kindle edition was a little sloppy in places, but not so bad as to hamper my enjoyment of the book.

Johnson covers Socrates' life well, and the reader comes away with a good feel for who he was--a physically unattractive man who believed in Athens and its people and who sought to bring out the best in them. Thanks to his student, Plato, we know what Socrates believed and how he taught.

According to Johnson, Socrates was a highly principled man who loved Athens, fought for Athens, taught Athenians of all levels of society and paved the way for monotheism. In the end, he was unjustly sentenced to death, but died a noble death continuing to exemplify the principles he treasured. In the process, Socrates became the most influential philosopher of all time.

The primary question that Johnson left unanswered for me was how Socrates supported himself. It is clear that Socrates lived a simple life, but it is unclear exactly how Socrates actually supported even his minimal needs.

This is an excellent introduction to Socrates. Highly recommended.
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