Mini-review: Socrates – A Man of Our Time

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Socrates is the quintessential philosopher in the etymological sense of “lover of wisdom,” as well as, of course, one of the first martyrs to the cause of wisdom. Socrates – A Man of Our Time, by Paul Johnson brings the Athenian sage vividly to life, and endeavors to explain why he is still so much relevant today.

Johnson does a good job, as much as it is possible to do, at distinguishing Socrates himself from what he calls “the ventriloquist’s doll,” meaning the Socrates-Plato that characterizes the later Platonic dialogues. We are then treated to the life and philosophy of Socrates, from his relentless acting as the self-appointment “gadfly” of Athens during the city’s optimistic times at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War through his perhaps inevitable trial once things had turned dark for his fellow Athenians and he had accumulated enough ill will among both the powerful and the everyday man.

Johnson has a somewhat annoying tendency to use parallels with British history, which at times makes the book feel a bit parochial, in stark opposition with the cosmopolitanism taught by Socrates. But don’t let those occasional diversions irritate you too much. The book is certainly worth reading if you are interested in philosophy as a way of life. And why wouldn’t you?

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Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

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