Book Preview: Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy

I've been thinking about what classes to take next semester, and one prospect is Ancient Greek Philosophy. So I've started Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle by S. Marc Cohen and Patricia Curd. So far I've read the Presocratics and the first part of Plato, concerning the trial and execution of Socrates.

The Presocratics survive only in fragments and testimonia - accounts of their writings by later writers. My uncharitable conclusion is that they were mostly tedious and pointless. Most of them could have clarified their thought if they had studied the words of the great Twentieth Century Sophist, W. J. Clinton, who noted that: "it depends on what the meaning of 'is' is."

The exceptions are Democritus and the Pythagoreans, who actually had some ideas of enduring worth (atomism and number in physics). I give the others an "E" for effort, in that they actually tried to analyze the world in terms of fundamental concepts.

So why did the Athenians decide to whack Socrates? Probably not for the reasons in Plato's account of the Apologia, though it does expose Socrates as arrogant and annoying. One count against him was almost certainly the fact that Socrates was the teacher of Critias, the chief of the Thirty Oligarchs who briefly ruled Athens, and the bloody Robespierre of the Oligarchy who slaughtered hundreds of democrats. Nor was Socrates any friend of the democracy.

A couple of the accusers may well have had personal grudges against Socrates, including Anytus, who perhaps resented Socrates for his friendship and possibly sexual relationship with his son.

Of course the main official charge against him was impiety, a crime doubtless at least as vague then as now.

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