Conversations of Socrates
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by: Xenophon (Author), Robin H. Waterfield (Editor, Translator), Hugh Tredennick (Translator)
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Virtually all students who studied Greek in high school were probably given a much-distorted image of the Athenian (and certainly of the pedophilic Spartan) society. Who told us that the wealth of Athens was based on silver mines (the university city of Ioanina is still one of the world's biggest centers of the silver industry)? And who told us why Socrates was forced to commit suicide?
One can find the answers on many questions about Greek society in Xenophon's works, the witty/clever writer of 'Hellenika' ('All Persians are educated to become a slave, except one').
In his works about Socrates, Xenophon brushes a lively picture of the "real" Socrates and explains clearly his political views: "Where offices were filled by men who satisfied the legal requirements, he considered the constitution to be an aristocracy; where they were filled in accordance with a property qualification, a plutocracy [well, maybe...the George W. Bush admin in the U.S. is very similar to a plutocracy]; where they were filled by anybody, a democracy."
Socrates was an anti-democrat and defended oligarchy is his teachings.
What oligarchy really meant for the majority of the Athenians, one can also read in "Hellenika". Describing the reign of the Thirty (comprising two uncles of Plato), Xenophon states: "The oligarchs went on a killing spree murdering all democratic opponents, more Athenians than all the Peloponnesians did in ten years of war ... when people could vote, it was in full view."
Xenophon explains one of the main reasons for oligarchic rule in his rhetoric question: "if people uses its superior power to enact measures against the propertied classes, will that be violence rather than law?"
Socrates was a moderate anti-democrat, not as his pupil Plato who fulminated relentlessly against the democratic beast (Gerard Koolschijn). He respected the law: "He disobeyed the illegal orders of the Thirty on the ground that what he was ordered to do was illegal."
He also was a moderate in his personal life ('to need nothing is divine').
Xenophon's works are key texts for understanding the ancient Greek society (daily life, morals, social issues, drink-parties, sex, politics). They should be required reading for all those interested in human history and for all lovers of classical texts.
In this volume, there's more on Socrates, especially for those who wish to know more after having exhausted Plato (which itself is no simple task). This volume is not perfect because it comes across as being slightly less powerful than Plato, although, contrary to the translators opinion, appears to portray the historical Socrates more accurately (except for the final dialogue). Socrates' Defense presents the only other complete account of his trial, Memoirs of Socrates is a collection, The Dinner Party is about the notion of love, and Estate Manager is a dialogue about managing an estate. We.ve found the presentation of dialogue preferable to essay (as in Plutarch).
Very few extant works remain on the life of Socrates: mainly the works of Xenophon and Plato. Socrates was notorious for not writing anything down, prefering conversation, monologue and dialog. In this book. Xenophon writes extensively on the philosophical thought of the master in a forthright and simple manner. Xenophon has not always been praised for his writing style but he covers the Socratic principles thoroughly. The subjects aren't organized particularly well with examples of Socrates' views on certain virtues scattered throughout the text. Nevertheless, since Socrates didn't write his own thoughts we are very fortunate that we have these works.
Xenophon divided his works into four books: Socrates' Defense; Memoirs of Socrates; the Dinner-Party; and the Estate-Manager. Xenophon writes in the second and third person so that we "hear" the Socratic Method throughout the text. We see how Socrates used questions of his followers to teach them to think. His method thoroughly flushed out the truth and often revealed the flaws in the arguments his opponents and followers made.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Xenophon. One could almost imagine being right there with the master as he shredded the weaknesses in faulty arguments and uncovered hidden truths. His opinions on virtues may be dated to Twentieth Century people but one must remember that it was largely his teachings that had such a great influence on Western thought and ideas.