by Armand D’Angour
book review by Christopher Klim
“But if the stimulus to Socrates’ adoption of his philosophical perspectives and procedures was the woman who first taught him ‘all about love, we should recognise that Aspasia was not just a dynamic and unusually clever woman in her own right…”
To the western world, Socrates is most often seen as an aging philosopher. Both history and art ratify this, most famously in Jacques Louis David’s masterpiece The Death of Socrates. Here the legendary philosopher holds court a final time, while facing a deadly mixture of hemlock, the result of a politically motivated death sentence. As in most of Socrates’ depictions, he is a finished product at the height of his mental prowess and approaching his untimely ruin. In contrast, Oxford professor D’Angour attempts an image of young Socrates, employing known texts to unearth the potential experience and motivation that formed the mature man. The result is Socrates in Love, a kind of reverse engineering through history to reveal the famous philosopher’s genesis.
Uncovering Socrates is a Rashomon study. While credited with inspiring the studies of ethics and epistemology, he committed nothing to paper, and therefore we know of his words and deeds through the secondhand recollections of those who loved him and sometimes disliked him via conflict and jealously. His character is legendary, but it’s clear Socrates was beloved by the people, exhibiting a charm that drew both the robust and the intelligent to his side. Evidence of this truth exists in his legacy. Almost 2,500 years have passed, and we haven’t stopped speaking or writing about him. While we employ the Socratic Method—an argumentative dialogue inspiring critical thinking—Socrates is this method, immortalized through its brilliance and simplicity.
Can Socrates be shown in his youth? No one but other scholars will refute D’Angour’s depiction. His narrative presentation is story craft, beginning with Plato’s recollection of Socrates’ dissertation on love and then trolling history and testimony to reveal the geopolitical environment and events that shaped and surrounded the philosopher’s life. Heavily annotated and cross-referenced, the author presents acceptable facsimiles of Socrates as a boy, warrior, dancer, lover, and ultimately a vagabond sage who shunned material wealth but purported a zeal for life. It’s a fun read, albeit academic in nature, as it somewhat humanizes the legend, although not as assuredly as Mark Lankford’s Becoming Leonardo.
The discussion comes full circle with “The Mystery of Aspasia”—for it is back to love, so central to Socrates passion. Aspasia, partner of statesmen Pericles, entertained what might be called in modern times an artist’s salon, hosting thinkers of the day whom likely included Socrates. Aspasia was no passive host, both influential and persuasive. Socrates perhaps sought her advice on matters of love, and this aspect indeed crosses paths with the known record, but not by her name. Her exact role cannot be determined, although that it may have been larger than can be attributed. Regardless, D’Angour supposes that it would have been impossible for these two broad thinkers to resist each other’s company, and here we perhaps find the burgeoning philosopher in love.