From old bore to sex god

“While priding himself on declaring that he knew nothing, the one topic Socrates was prepared to concede expertise in was love”

Books
Cherchez la femme: "Socrates chiding Alcibiades in the home of a courtesan",1857, by German Hernandez Amores

Socrates, as every schoolboy knows, is not just a philosopher but the philosopher, Western thought’s great founding father, and the original Greek supergeek. As the early 20th-century academic Alfred North Whitehead declared: “The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of footnotes to Plato.” Plato, meanwhile, styled himself as the supplier of footnotes to Socrates. Indeed, the latter left no writings of his own, transmission of his ideas relying upon the work of both Plato and Xenophon, who became his acolytes when their mentor was in late middle age.

Socrates, then, is both a philosopher and symbol of all philosophy, just as Shakespeare is a writer who comes to represent the sum of Eng Lit. Like the Bard, Socrates is also someone whom we are traditionally led to believe we know little about. Moreover, Plato’s accounts often appear merely a means for the author to talk about himself, as they did for Nietzsche some 2,300 years later.

What we are left with can seem little more than a boot-faced old curmudgeon, with a weird habit of staring into the middle distance for hours on end, when not irritating fellow citizens with his tedious bantz. Poor, old, ugly, sexless — Socrates is a bit of a bandy-legged bore, redeemed only by his noble knocking back of hemlock after having been found guilty of “corrupting young men and introducing new gods” in 399 BC.

But, wait! Here is Oxford classics prof Armand D’Angour to introduce us to a Socrates who is young, flush, butch, a red-hot lover and all-round sex god. Seek out the youthful Socrates, he argues, and an entirely different type of chap emerges. D’Angour has form as what he refers to as a “detective investigator”, having made a previous attempt to re-create ancient Greek music. Here he sets himself the question, “What, in short, made Socrates?”, analysing the “transformational experiences” that turned our hero into “a philosopher whose original insights . . . have cast a spell on thinkers and inquirers for nearly 2,500 years”.

Those of us who grew up post-Barthes, revelling in the death of the author, may feel uncomfortable with such conjecture, dismissing it as speculation to no great end. D’Angour’s riposte is that “Despite the fact that he [Socrates] left nothing in writing, his ideas survived largely thanks to the fact that he lived and died for his philosophical principles, motivating his faithful followers . . . to tell the story to posterity. This makes not just the content of his ideas important, but the manner of his life and death.” The comparison with a later Judaean cult leader is obvious, and D’Angour makes it.

While priding himself on declaring that he knew nothing, the one topic Socrates was prepared to concede expertise in was love. In Plato’s Symposium he attributes this knowledge to a woman, one Diotima, whom D’Angour reveals to be a not-so veiled reference to Aspasia of Miletus, consort to Pericles, the period’s great political powerhouse. Other loves feature, notably the playboy politician Alcibiades, and Archelaus, Socrates’s older male lover. However, despite the man-boy love action, it’s a case of cherchez la femme.

As a title, Socrates in Love oversells. Aspasia, the love object we are promised at this short study’s outset, only really makes an appearance 30 pages before its end. Certainly, she’s a fascinating figure: an educated, intelligent, articulate, glamorous, politically energetic outsider with whom Pericles falls passionately in love, despite being twice her age and having publically opposed unions with non-Athenians. However, her role as Socrates’s love and teacher can only ever be supposition, as D’Angour makes clear in the “imaginary recreation” with which his book concludes.

This piece of fiction, at least, makes for a cracking yarn. It reads like a Hollywood blockbuster for which the log line would be: “She couldn’t return his love so she gave him his life’s cause.” Perhaps some movie mogul will take D’Angour up on it. Perhaps this will prove a more satisfying path.

It’s always a bit heartbreaking to long to love a book more than one is able. Too much of what we have here is arduously repetitive, forever stating and restating the question it sets itself, signposting and re-signposting. That said, it charts one of history’s most fascinating moments: Athens during its Golden Age, reaching coruscating heights across every cultural field. Under Pericles, we see democratic institutions, a maritime empire, and the very Parthenon itself spring up; quite a period for which to be a fly on the wall. And then there is Socrates himself — whoever he was — whose ghost continues to linger long after D’Angour’s account is finished, suggesting that this book, like its hero, may prove greater than the sum of its parts.