Emma Park

An unlikely heart-throb

Even Plato didn’t see him as that. But Armand D’Angour does, presenting him in youth as a handsome hoplite, in thrall to Pericles’ seductive mistress

If western philosophy is no more than ‘footnotes to Plato’, so, arguably, is the myth of its founding hero, Socrates. While there is good evidence for certain aspects of Socrates’ life — his preoccupation with ethics, question-and-answer technique and his trial and death in 399 BC — most of it is shrouded in uncertainty. His only contemporary depictions are in a few satirical comedies by Aristophanes. It was Plato’s dialogues, composed in the half-century after Socrates’ death, which first presented their author’s beloved teacher as the ideal philosopher, tragic hero and sage; and although there were other writers of ‘Socratic dialogues’, it was Plato’s Socrates, above all, that bewitched philosophers, from Aristotle to Nietzsche. It is thanks to Plato that we have Socrates’ saying that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.

But how much can we ever know about the real Socrates? Armand D’Angour’s Socrates in Love is one of several recent attempts at an answer that are ‘not written for specialists’, but for a wider audience. The book is presented as a sort of tutorial, led by its author, a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. A photograph in the foreword of an unidentified college window behind some daffodils evokes a serenely contemplative setting.

According to D’Angour, the problem with the Socrates of modern accounts is that his character lacks development, because it is restricted to his later years, when he was ‘physically unprepossessing’ and fully formed as a philosopher. This book aims to correct that picture. Assuming the role of ‘detective investigator’, D’Angour examines afresh the circumstantial evidence and a few less well-known sources to see what can be gleaned about Socrates’ early life, and, in particular, his loves. The result, he claims, is ‘surprising, fascinating and even shocking’.

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