Reviews of Socrates in Love

Mostly printed in full; some redacted for reasons of space of preference (with links to online originals).

1. Australian Book Review (Julia Kindt)
2. The Telegraph (Nikhil Krishnan)
3. The Times (Patrick Kidd)
4. Wall Street Journal (Jamie James)
5. Financial Times (Peter Stothard)
6. Bookanista (Mika Provata-Carlone)
7. B.C. Catholic (C.S. Morrissey)
8. Matthrubhumi (Keerthik Sasidharan)
9. Arc Digital (Dominic Martyne)
10. Mail Online (James Black)
11. BBC History (Catherine Nixey)
12. TLS (Frisbee Sheffield)
13. The Guardian (Tim Whitmarsh)
14. The Literary Review (Paul Cartledge)
15. The Spectator (Emma Park)
16. Standpoint (Hannah Betts)
17. BMCR (David Sansone)
18. Classics for All (Colin Leach)
19. The Philological Crocodile (Cokedril Ubique)


1. Australian Book Review (Julia Kindt).

It may be tempting to think we already know Socrates, the Athenian philosopher whose most famous dictum remains that he was wise only insofar as he was aware of his own ignorance. Although Socrates never published anything of his own, his student Plato presents him in numerous dialogues as a smart and talented (if somewhat pedantic) interrogator who never tired of examining the opinions of his fellow citizens on a range of topics, including such weighty matters as the nature of justice, virtue, knowledge, and love. Plato and several other prominent ancient writers – most notably Xenophon and Aristophanes – depicted Socrates as ‘an extraordinary and original thinker who was always poor, always old, and always ugly’.

This image of Socrates has endured to the present. Armand D’Angour’s Socrates in Love reveals new sides to the historical figure: Socrates as young man, private citizen, soldier, and – as the title suggests – lover. D’Angour draws on a range of mostly minor ancient sources that have not received the attention they deserve in reconstructing the historical figure of Socrates. With great skill and mastery, D’Angour teases out the kind of information this evidence reveals about heretofore unmapped territory in the life of the ancient philosopher.

The result is an original account that, at its best, reads like a detective story looking for new yet unrecognised clues in the ancient evidence, piecing together a case that calls existing scholarship on Socrates into question. D’Angour revises our picture of the philosopher. Socrates was not, as is frequently assumed, a member of the lower classes. He grew up in a wealthy and reputable family. At least up to his forties, Socrates was vigorous, physically attractive, and fit; he participated in several important military campaigns of his day. He once even risked his life – and those of fellow fighters – by breaking ranks to rescue the wounded Alcibiades from certain death on the battlefield.

D’Angour’s account of Socrates’s life prior to his philosophical career is speckled with detail illuminating a side with which few will be familiar. We learn that Socrates stood up during the performance of Aristophanes’s Clouds at Athens to out himself as the comedy’s infamous protagonist – and remained standing for the rest of the play. He was married to a woman called Myrto before he wed the fierce Xanthippe. He had three children. He had a habit of stopping in his tracks and standing motionless for hours on end to think things through. Of course, one could be tempted to dismiss this sort of information as entertaining but ultimately inconsequential; yet it raises larger questions concerning the link between the philosopher’s earlier life and his contribution to the later philosophical tradition – questions that give Socratic philosophy a new grounding.

The case the book builds concerns the question of what may have instigated Socrates’s turn away from worldly matters to the path of a thinker and intellectual. D’Angour argues that it was a love affair with Aspasia of Miletus – a beautiful, intelligent, eloquent woman who ended up marrying the famous Athenian statesman Pericles – which eventually turned cold, inspiring Socrates to embrace the idea of ‘Platonic love’ and what came to be known as ‘the Socratic method’ of investigation.

This is a book about a specific historical person. Yet it also speaks to larger questions concerning the principles and practices of the historical imagination and the challenges we face when trying to reconstruct a life lived millennia ago. As D’Angour provocatively asks, ‘When can a source be trusted to be telling us the historical truth, and when can it not be?’ Even if the author’s historical reconstructions occasionally border on speculative, the general reader will take away much in terms of answers to these important questions.

Moreover, in addressing such issues up front, D’Angour has created a deeply personal account taking us both back to classical Athens and forward in time to the intimate setting of an Oxford University supervision during which students reimagine the Socrates of Aristophanes’s comedy Clouds. It is in these sections that D’Angour’s own voice rings through, adding a further dimension to the story: the historian who mediates between the past and the present.

Why does this book matter? Socrates is a key figure credited with having started a whole new way of philosophy that has had a lasting impact on the later philosophical tradition. He turned the focus away from questions about the cosmos and towards an enquiry into all things human. Socrates in Love offers a better understanding of the person behind the ideas, as well as of the kind of influences that may have directed Socrates along this path. It is a must-read for all who are philosophically inclined, for those with an interest in the principles and practices of the historical imagination, and also those who merely enjoy a good story.

Julia Kindt is Professor of Ancient History in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney.

2. The Telegraph (Nikhil Krishnan)

Why was Socrates’s mistress erased by history?   

The editor’s introduction to my favourite translation of Plato’s Symposium acknowledges that when Socrates starts discoursing on love, he credits the ideas in it to a certain “wise woman from Mantinea”. Diotima, the editor continues, “seems an invention,” whose purpose must be to distance the views Socrates expresses in the dialogue about the nature and true ends of love from views actually held by the historical man of that name.

Armand D’Angour, an Oxford classicist with unusual interests (reconstructing the sound of ancient Greek music) and a fondness for the outlandish thesis (the Greeks were nowhere as conservative as we think), tries to take him at his word. Maybe Diotima was a real person who really did do what Socrates says: teach him everything he knew about love.

What Socrates knew – or at any rate claimed – about love is one of the very few philosophical treatments of the subject to be at all worth reading. The love of beautiful (boys’) bodies is only the first and lowest of stages in the “ladder” of love. At the top of the ladder is the love of Beauty itself: permanent, immutable, abstract, austere, objective, impersonal, asexual and extremely strange.

The scholarly position has generally been that this is Plato talking, the Plato who played Boswell to Socrates’s Johnson, or just as plausibly St Paul to his Jesus, by turning the everyday stuff of Socrates’ conversations (courage, justice, friendship) into something vastly more ambitious, systematic, self-conscious and metaphysical.

“For better or worse”, says the book’s epigraph from the American classicist Diskin Clay, “our Socrates is Plato’s Socrates.” Heterodox as ever, D’Angour is unwilling to let this stand, not just because Plato only knew Socrates the old man – which makes him an unreliable guide to the rest of his long life – but also because he wrote with an agenda, viz to show the Athenians just how terrible their blunder had been in putting him to death on those trumped-up charges (impiety, corrupting youth). The trouble is that the two other sources for Socratic biographers have their own problems. If Plato’s Socrates spouts Plato’s philosophy, Xenophon’s Socrates is often a rambling bore, and the figure in Aristophanes’s comic play The Clouds is a clueless (and somewhat risible) caricature.

D’Angour trusts none of these, but is open to the thought that there might be something to get from each: not just three ways of looking at the same man in his final years, but at ways into the earlier and much less well-attested parts of his life. He works with the little he can find: a line in this ancient biography, a passing reference in another. His general approach is to err on the side of credulity. Where previous scholars tried to be sceptical of these sources, he says, they were simply deferring to the influential idea of Socrates’s sage-like seriousness and refusing to credit information that didn’t fit into that picture.

The result is, as it is clearly intended to be, both sympathetic and irreverent. D’Angour is repeatedly disdainful of the many attempts, from antiquity onwards, to conscript Socrates to one’s favourite cause. Socrates won’t do for a patron saint of pacifists or passive resistance: for much of his life he was a soldier, and a darned good one. His talk of a daimon that told him what he should and shouldn’t do may be not so much the voice of a precocious conscience as an aspect of the mental illness that made him feel so strange (atopos, literally, “out of place”) to his friends. Those legendary hours spent in stationary meditation may have been symptoms of catalepsy rather than profundity.

A demythologised Socrates is revealed, not so much debunked as rendered newly human. The etiolated sexuality Socrates exudes in Plato’s dialogues, the erotic sublimated into the intellectual, could well have been the reality of his old age, but D’Angour isn’t convinced that he had been that way in his youth.His Socrates is a practising, and practised, bisexual. The repeated insistence in Plato that he’s more interested in the souls of young men than in their bodies ends up seeming like special pleading on behalf of someone who took, and whom no one blamed for taking, a healthy interest in both.

So much for the Socrates of the philosopher’s founding myth. D’Angour is similarly trenchant about philosophers who have found in him the perfect enemy. Nietzsche’s superbly caustic treatment of Socrates as the central figure in his demonology is shown to be based on another convenient fiction. To Nietzsche, Socrates – somehow both arch-prig and trickster – was where that awful thing, morality, began, as a clever revenge of the weak, the ugly and low-born against their betters. To the extent that Nietzsche is writing history, D’Angour makes short work of it. He points out how little evidence there is that Socrates was all that ugly even in his old age and very little that he was an ugly young man. Socrates, a much-admired soldier who had very possibly been a wrestler in his adolescence, didn’t turn to dialectics because it was the only way to beat the playground bully. By many accounts, he was far from low-born, showing signs of an upbringing among the Athenian jeunesse dorée.

All this is done in a prose of easy elegance and authority. The sources are of course far from decisive, and D’Angour admits this. But nothing he argues here strikes one as insane or irresponsible. D’Angour sometimes writes as if venturing the outline of a potential television screenplay (and why not?) but his own scholarly daimon – or a well-developed academic superego – seems to stop him going for the really flamboyant gesture. The parts that come closest to fictional reconstruction are rendered in cautious, distancing italics.

The one unqualified thesis D’Angour does stake his honour on concerns the identity of “Diotima”. Working backwards from a number of clues, in particular a pointed allusion in Plato and a large set of revealing circumstantial facts, he narrows the field down to a single candidate: Aspasia of Miletus. He dismisses as scurrilous and mistaken the common characterisation of her as Pericles’s hetaera (courtesan), and paints instead a picture of an enormously intelligent woman, educated, sophisticated and articulate, a real partner to the ancient statesman after she spurned the young Socrates, teaching him a thing or two about love in the process.

The case is well made, and it will be interesting to see how it is received. But in a book so anxious to rescue the facts of Socrates’s life from the many useful fictions in which he has been cast, it is striking just how much D’Angour’s Socrates is a creature of our moment. When Alcibiades – the celebrity playboy of the age – threw himself at him, he is said to have resisted successfully: the relationship, he is supposed to have insisted, was spiritual and educational, and sex would only get in the way.

By all accounts, he looked, but he didn’t touch. But the Socrates who discovered the pleasures of enthusiastic consent turns out also to have been an early feminist ally as well, willing to listen and learn from a woman in a rather better position to know, and to cite her too. If no one believed him and posterity had decided Diotima must be a fiction, that was hardly his fault.

3. The Times (Patrick Kidd):

The death of Socrates is well known; the jailer bringing him the cup of crushed hemlock and telling him to walk around after drinking it until his legs began to feel numb. Plato describes his mentor taking the poison cheerfully, chiding his companions for creating a scene — “One should die in silence, so please get a grip of yourselves” — then waiting patiently for the chill of death to creep up his body.

His last words, before the poison reached his heart, were to remind a friend to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius, the god of medicine. It would make, Armand D’Angour ventures in this accessible biography, a stirring finale to a film. What, though, of the preceding reels?

Almost nothing of Socrates’s writings survive and the contemporary representations are by writers (Plato and Xenophon) who knew him only near the end of his life and are heavy on hero worship, or by Aristophanes, who mocked him as a pathetic caricature in his comic play The Clouds.

The Socrates we feel we know is an old, ugly man, with bulbous eyes, messy hair and more of a snout than a nose, who wanders barefoot around Athens, stopping passers-by to engage them in long discussions about morality, the purpose of which seems only to show how clever Socrates is. If he were around today, he would be an utter bore on Twitter, always popping up to contradict, ever anxious to have the final word. There are times while reading Plato when it is hard not to root for the hemlock.

Yet as Alcibiades, another Athenian mentored by Socrates, murmurs in Plato’s Symposium: “None of us really knows Socrates.” Or, as the gadfly himself might have pointed out when trying to bring one of the Athens elite down a few pegs, the one thing we can be certain of knowing is how little we know. D’Angour attempts to rectify this by constructing a more rounded biography from mentions and whispers found in other sources and by extrapolating from how his contemporaries lived.

What we have here is a young, vigorous Socrates, a soldier and a dancer, a musician and a lover. Of women, mainly, although D’Angour finds glancing reference in a 3rd-century BC text to him being the “paidika” (boy-lover) of a philosopher called Archelaus. Such was the game when making your way in ancient Athens. He married twice, producing three sons, and was said to be an enthusiastic frequenter of the city’s brothels.

Socrates was born in 469BC in Alopeke, a settlement of a few thousand Athenians a couple of miles outside the city walls. His father, Sophroniscus, was a stoneworker who was friendly with people in the circle of Pericles, the coming man of Athenian politics; his mother, Phaenarete (“shining virtue”), was a midwife. Young Socrates was taught music and dance, and he remained an enthusiast for the arts. Xenophon mentions Socrates once giving the sort of critique of a boy’s dancing skills at dinner that you might

“Those who honour the gods best in dancing are also the best at fighting,” Socrates remarked elsewhere. So it was for him. Before his days of strolling around the agora looking for someone to bully with words, Socrates was part of Athens’s elite fighting force. An active soldier well into his forties, Socrates was noted for being able to undergo wearying campaigns, marching in bare feet through snow.

In one battle he risked his life to rescue the young Alcibiades, a ward of Pericles. Such bravery brought Socrates the gratitude of Athens’s leader, although he didn’t exploit it, as others would, for political advancement. Ignoring Pericles’s belief that “the man who takes no part in civic duties is not unambitious but useless”, Socrates played no recorded role in government until a brief stint as a magistrate near the end of his life.

Instead, D’Angour argues, it was Pericles’s lover, the dazzling Aspasia, who had a greater influence, acting as an “intellectual midwife” to his philosophy. Whether Socrates and Aspasia had a physical relationship, D’Angour cannot say, but he argues that she stimulated his mind. There is more than an aural similarity between eros, “love”, and erotao, the Greek for “I question”. Spurned in the former, Socrates seeks satisfaction by devoting his life to the latter, looking to cultivate the soul through self-knowledge. The unexamined life, he says, is not worth living.

In making his own examination of the life of Socrates, D’Angour admits that he has to engage in a lot of speculation. How can we know, for instance, that Socrates had an overactive thyroid, beyond the description of his physical appearance, or that his tendency to stand still for hours on end was caused by cataleptic seizures? However, the Oxford professor of Classics is rather good at making a convincing case from slender evidence. And he has form at this. A previous work involved attempting to recreate how ancient Greek music sounded.

D’Angour sets about his task with admirable imagination, even a touch of literary flair when writing about the military venture in which Socrates saved Alcibiades as if it were historical fiction. While we cannot be certain to know the true Socrates by the end — any more than we do when reading the hagiography of Plato — D’Angour’s efforts are highly readable.

4. Wall Street Journal (Jamie James)

If there is one philosophical nugget most people know by heart, it is “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates, who coined the phrase, is often called the founder of Western philosophy, his name the byword for wisdom, in a dead heat with Confucius. Yet the life of Socrates himself has remained largely unexamined.

There’s a good reason for that: Socrates never wrote a book. Everything we know about him survives in the reports of other ancient authors, primarily Plato, who makes his teacher the protagonist of most of his dramatic dialogues. Quizzical, feigning confusion about matters that he understands perfectly well, Plato’s Socrates is a portrait as crisply drawn and subtly modulated as a portrait by Velázquez. Yet like the painted portrait, it is a work of the imagination, reflecting the vision of the artist as much as the personality of the sitter. Plato’s Socrates is a fictional creation, intended to captivate the reader’s interest and express the author’s own ideas.

It isn’t quite true that the life of Socrates has not been examined; at any rate his death, a court-ordered suicide by drinking poisonous hemlock, has been studied more thoroughly and often than any apart from that of Jesus Christ, to whom Socrates has frequently been likened (by Ben Franklin and Percy Bysshe Shelley, among others). Periodically, scholars undertake to solve what is known as the Socratic problem, shorthand for the attempt to disentangle an accurate, verifiable narrative of the life of the historical Socrates from the available sources. Plato is by far the most influential of those sources, but other contemporary reports have survived, an ill-assorted lot, frequently in conflict, that usually reveal more about the reporter than the subject. As a result, most attempts to establish a coherent narrative of Socrates’ life end in failure, a learned version of the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Armand D’Angour, a classics professor at Oxford, has undertaken a comprehensive study of the Socratic problem and distilled a biography of the life entire. Its provocative title, Socrates in Love, emphasizes that Mr. D’Angour intends to reconstruct the philosopher’s early life. It is a tour de force of scholarship, and he sifts through his vast reading with judicious care. Open-minded but not credulous, he accomplishes what was long thought to be impossible: a reliable, consistent account of the man who forged the matrix of Western philosophy.

Plato’s principal weakness as a biographical source is that he did not meet Socrates until his mentor was a middle-aged man with an established reputation as Athens’s most distinguished philosopher. Plato created the enduring image of him as a saintly bum, wandering the streets barefoot, wrapped in a tattered cloak, too absorbed in his ceaseless contemplation of virtue and justice to take any interest in worldly affairs.

D’Angour saves his most exciting discovery till last. As usual, Socrates is Plato’s mouthpiece in the Symposium. He says that the concept of ideal love was taught to him in his youth by a woman named Diotima, his instructor in the arts of love. Diotima has always been identified as a fictional character, a narrative device that Plato’s Socrates uses from time to time. D’Angour, however, proposes that Diotima was a real person, Aspasia of Miletus, the beloved of Pericles, who was a brilliant intellectual in her own right, reputed to have ghostwritten Pericles’ famous funeral oriation, recorded in Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War. A non-Athenian, and thus probably barred from entering into a legal marriate with Pericles, Aspasia was the butt of scurrilous abuse, particularly by the comic playwrights, who portrayed her as a scheming courtesan. These slanders were accepted by classical scholars and reinforced by the misogyny of their own times.

D’Angour rehabilitates Aspasia’s reputation and ingeniously argues that she originated the concept of Platonic love, one of the first principles of Western philosophy. Moreover, he moots the “attractive and compelling possibility that the advent of Aspasia into the young socrates’ life” may present “an appealing and credible image of Socrates in love”. In a satisfying conclusion, D’Angour pulls together his findings in a concise 15-page biography of Socrates, from his birth to the cup of hemlock, which sparkles with vivacity and does not overtax the scholarship that sets it up.

5. Financial Times (Peter Stothard)

Nietzsche had a clear idea of what Socrates would have looked like if he had met him in the Great Philosophers Club: “ugly”, “retarded by interbreeding”, “like a typical criminal”, one of “the rabble”, maybe not even Greek. Armand D’Angour begs to differ. Socrates in Love, his portrait of arguably the most influential philosopher of all time (there is plenty of argument in it), shows a very different man: lithe, athletic, skilled on the lyre, highly sexually driven, trained in love and life by the most celebrated beautiful woman of his day.

D’Angour is an innovative classicist, musician and businessman who has played a distinguished role in promoting ancient Greek to modern audiences. He deploys hidden evidence against the familiar unattractive picture of Socrates projected by satirical contemporaries and the bile of Nietzsche, showing how the pioneer who brought philosophy from the material to the ethical merits a more attractive image. He begins in Oxford where his students are considering Aristophanes’ comedy, The Clouds, in which a professional sophist, a fake professor, is craned on to the stage to survey emaciated pupils, their bottoms pointing to the sky. He moves on to Plato’s picture, painted through vivid dialogues, of an irritant investigative genius whose head is filled with voices.

Surviving portrait busts also show wide-spaced eyes, squat nose, bald head and pot belly. According to the leading physiognomist of his day, Zopyros of Thrace, there were no hollows in the neck above his collar bone, a sure sign of slow wit and sex mania. D’Angour is seeking Socrates in love. Very carefully in line with modern sensibilities, he says that “rightly or wrongly” these are not images to which “romantic attraction or desire are readily imputed”. His mission is first to explain that too much of what we imagine as Socrates comes from his old age and for literary and theatrical purpose.

His second and more novel intent is to reveal hidden hints of what Socrates was like in his youth, as the muscled son of a family stone-carving business, as a fearless soldier impervious to cold, and as the intimate friend of Aspasia — adviser, mistress, speech writer, dog-eyed concubine (depending on who is writing) of Pericles, Athens’ leader for its Golden Age in the fifth century BC.

This is a bravura challenge to past and present thinking, so beautifully paced as to be almost Platonic in itself. But it would not matter much if D’Angour did not also use his characterisation of Socrates to explain philosophy’s development from questions on the nature of the world — air, fire, water, something and nothingness — to human ethics, how and why people behaved. In the spirit of our times D’Angour sees some sort of personal shock to explain so fundamental a shift. His young Socrates is a boy of restless intelligence, not of “the lowest rabble” but not an aristocrat either, a sufferer from seizures, his inner voices perhaps a trauma from a violent father. He attracts mockery and misunderstandings that never leave him. He meets Aspasia who gently rebuffs his sexual advances, offering instead a “ladder of love”, from mere physical pleasure at the lowest rungs to divine “Platonic love” at the top. It may sound like pop psychology but from D’Angour it needs to be considered as a serious contribution to a subject that has absorbed so many.

6. Bookanista (Mika Provata-Carlone):

One of the most striking characteristics of Socrates, as we know him from Plato, Plutarch, Xenophon, Cicero or Diogenes Laertius, and the numerous, yet exasperatingly fragmentary sources that survive, was his talent for convincing his interlocutors of his utter ignorance of any subject – his signature style was to present himself to the unwary as possessing a childlike curiosity and an equally virginal mind-slate as regards expert knowledge. A famous statement of his was that he knew only one thing, namely that he knew nothing. His method of analysis, of philosophical enquiry, was to start at the very beginning of the line of reasoning, no matter how simple or how evident it might seem, and to proceed with, once again, seemingly childlike steps to conceptual conclusions we are still struggling to decipher, fully grasp and understand.

The uninitiated would see this slow, humble approach as a mental weakness, as proof that he could be easily overmastered by powerful rhetoric, by grand sophist gestures of intellectual bravura. Their assumption that Socrates’ simplicity, his emphasis on the small things in order to attain those that were deemed great, was a sign of simple-mindedness, would lead to their downfall time and time again – dramatically, theatrically, utterly spectacularly. With quiet triumph, Socrates would unfailingly emerge as an astonished, wondrous sage, evincing a brilliance whose subtle, understated power would change the way that humankind has looked at itself and the world ever since.

Socrates believed that “the unexamined life was not worth living” and made structured questions his breath and heartbeat; central to his legacy was the maieutic or ‘Socratic’ method – what Aristotle identified as the first systematic methodology for ethics and metaphysics, for things beyond mere physical interest and analysis. It was a radical new way of perceiving not only the world, but also the capacity of the human mind to engage with it, to relate to existence itself from the perspective of a search for meaning, rather than of an epistemological explanation. With a flourish of poetic beauty, Cicero would describe Socrates’ unique intellectual achievement in his Tusculan Disputations in almost Promethean terms: “Socrates called philosophy down from heaven, and placed it in cities, and introduced it even in homes, and drove it to inquire about life and customs and things good and evil” – he brought down philosophy from the heavens of science to the earthly ethics of human life.

Going against the prevalent ratiocentric, epistemological cosmologies and theories of the time, such as Anaxagoras’ Nous or the teachings of Archelaus or Melissus, which were arguably the equivalent of our own STEM mania today, Socrates taught thinkers who came after him not only what to know, but especially how to know, and why. How and why to search for what endows life with meaning, rather than for what describes the mechanics of existence. And yet we have nothing by his hand. There is absolutely no text, not even an iota of a sentence, that could possibly bear the signature Σωκράτης γέγραψε – Socrates ipse scripsit: Socrates himself wrote this. What we do have are above all chronicled episodes of his life, engrossingly told stories of Socrates rambling about Athens, meeting the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant, and engaging with each and all towards a common goal: the understanding of the purpose of and the way towards the good life. Or, as he would have preferred to say, towards the eudaimon bios, life in accordance to the godliness in things, what he termed his demon. What Socrates sought, to the end of his days, was the life of both virtue and happiness that was therefore true to its real, inherent meaning, and the only thing we have is the tale of how he went about it.

Plato’s Socratic dialogues are extraordinary, absorbingly readable, fascinating stories in this sense, possessing, beyond their philosophical complexity, peerless brilliance and uniqueness, a vividness that has enthralled readers unfailingly, repeatedly, almost wistfully. We are but shadows slinking through the words, the scenes and the milestones along that extraordinary path through life, lamenting the fact that much of it will always remain elusive, mysterious, beyond our reach, for all our yearning and longing for its vital companionship. Reading the Symposium, the Phaedo or the Phaedrus, will change your life, fill you with a hopefulness that can carry you through most anything; the Republic and the Protagoras will make you feel mad and exalted in turn, bring you to the brink of thoughts and words you did not know you possessed; reading the Apology, or rather living through it, is as transporting and devastating an experience as anything a human life can claim to contain.

And yet all the stories of Socrates that we have start, unlike Socrates’ own arguments, in media re, not at the beginning of his life, but somewhere in the middle, when Socrates was already the Socrates we (think we) know. In Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher, Armand D’Angour sets out to provide us with the missing chapters, the missing links, the long-lost connections and crucial relationships. For D’Angour, Socrates’ earlier life, and not only his later philosophy, conceals both crucial mysteries and answers. “What can have inspired a young man of Socrates’ place and time to inaugurate a whole new style of thinking and to dedicate himself to a philosophical quest quite distinct from those thinkers who preceded him?” The question at the heart of this book is not simply what Socrates did, but why, “what, in short, made Socrates Socrates”. The answer lies in the story, reimagined, reconstructed, retrieved, retraced, of Socrates’ early life and the light it sheds on his maturity, the development of his thought and particular outlook towards life, and Socrates in Love is throughout an uncompromisingly and determinedly literary tale, as well as an historically unflinching account of this process of both being and becoming.

D’Angour does not shirk away from acknowledging the challenge of separating Socratic fact from the numerous rewritings that were intended to create and ensure a Socratic posterity. The clarity and persistence of his focus however creates a riveting correspondence and interplay between the two, which enables him to produce his own plausible version of events, one he hopes will reveal the unassailable reality underscoring this long history of fiction. Central to his argument is an intimately personal and unyieldingly scholarly evocation of Athens at the time, and of Greece as the broader, critical context of the so-called Golden Age. He does so with gusto, a muscular display of erudition, and a sense of urgent immediacy. As a result, Socrates in Love is fast-paced, robust and magisterial in tone, with an underlying adage theme, that of love as Socrates’ primum mobile, that gives it a mellow grace and fluidity.

D’Angour picks out scenes and episodes from textual accounts that survive to reconstruct without flamboyance, yet with a distinct feeling of momentousness, Socrates’ Stages on Life’s Way. He gives us the story of all the stories told by others, as well as the story of a very real life. We see Socrates as a man of remarkable endurance and bravery, distinguished for his unflinching sense of public duty, for his commitment to his fellow human beings; as a self-effacing bon viveur, whose exemplary education suggests a relatively prosperous and privileged family background. D’Angour conjectures against those who would have Socrates rise to prominence from poverty and obscurity: his father was connected to some of the most distinguished minds and public figures of the time, and he would have benefitted from the construction boom that followed the Persian Wars and from Pericles’ ambitious cultural plans for Athens. As a youth, Socrates could pay a princely sum for a papyrus by Anaxagoras, believing that he would find there the revelation he so much yearned for.

Socrates was “a strong and attractive young man… growing up in an elite Athenian milieu”, with aspirations “for heroic prowess on the battlefield and in political life”, very much like his peers. He had some of the finest tutors who taught him how to play the lyre and to dance (he was exceptionally disciplined in both his body and his mind), and who gave him a lifelong love and appreciation of literature and learning. He had the leisure to ponder; he was able to travel and meet some of the great figures of his time, who would mark him but also disappoint him – he was still to discover his own sense of direction. D’Angour aims to show how Socrates moved from public ambition and a fascination with the dominant doctrines of scientific materialism, to a radical new definition of philosophy that was both response and reaction, theory and practice, continuity and a daring break with what had come before or was presented then as a desirable model. Such a shift from pragmatism to ethics and eschatology was unqualifiedly revolutionary – and the cause of this shift of consciousness, of this deliberate choice of a non-linear, non-utilitarian path to a meaningful life lies at the crux of D’Angour’s own non-linear quest.

Socially, politically, intellectually, as it emerges from D’Angour’s highly immersive tableau, Socrates lived at a time strikingly and crucially akin to our own. Spin doctors and ideologists are the unmistakable, updated versions of Athens’ sophists and skilled demagogues; our denigration of intellectual acuity and of the educated mind, our rising espousal of populism and our unreflected endorsement of popular sentiment remain the same, with the tragic caveat that we have had more human history to learn from, and ought to know better. Historically, Socrates experienced first-hand and throughout his life the menace and the ravages of war, the toxicity of political power, alongside the inflated sense of ambition and expectation that follow periods of prolonged unrest and warfare. He was born towards the end of the Persian Wars and the start of Athens’ ascendancy as the leader of one part of the Greek world – with Sparta as the cultural, military, political other. The Peloponnesian War would mark his life in the starkest terms: he fought as a hoplite in numerous, bloody, often surreally incomprehensible battles and campaigns; he lived through the plague that would devastate the Athenian population and strew the city streets with corpses; he witnessed besieged enemies eating their own to survive; he was confronted with making sense of brutal politics and savage military decisions, senseless zealotry and the waste of human lives. At the heart of all this turmoil, were, above all, a man and a woman: Pericles and Aspasia. They are the figures in the carpet for what D’Angour presents as a daring thesis, one he is keen to bolster with vivid historical, cultural and textual evidence, especially the centrality of Eros (pointedly in the midst of Strife) as a civilising principle for the Greeks.

D’Angour is unafraid to hold strong views and to favour eclectic interpretations of facts or dates, to play with rubato with his sources, which makes the story he weaves together fresh and provocative, eminently haunting and engaging, full of tantalising tangentials. Indulgent and thorough, Socrates in Love is full of repeats and retakes, vast surveys of history and politics, and the stillness and slowness of very close readings. Socrates for D’Angour must have found himself at a crossroads like Hercules, where he made the most seminal, groundbreaking choice. A choice that embraced imperfection as well as the pursuit of excellence and perfection; a choice that placed inner freedom, reflection, service to one’s fellow human beings, the search for meaningfulness, for the Good, for integrity and authenticity, for being true to oneself, at the very heart of what makes existence possible and worthwhile. Instrumental to this choice was a woman, the Diotima of Plato’s Symposium, the glory of Zeus, as this presumed pseudonym suggests; Zeus was a common epithet for Pericles, and therefore Diotima, D’Angour argues, is no other than Aspasia. It is not a novel inference, yet D’Angour’s rich analysis, his comparative, contrastive, syncretic synthesis of facts, leads and the meaning that lies between the lines, makes it an exciting one. The socio-political and historical background that he gives it, his analysis of the personalities of Pericles, Aspasia, Alcibiades, the reconstruction of the human relationships, the living social circle that would have been formative for Socrates, is deeply engaging and will inspire equally animated private searches. Socrates in D’Angour’s hands is a man of his time as well as beyond his time – or even place.

The other dominant angle in Socrates in Love is the psychological one. D’Angour explores two particular idiosyncrasies of Socrates: his tendency to sometimes sit still for hours on end, in a state of what he terms “cataleptic seizure”, and his proverbial oddness and out-of-placeness – he was often called atopos by friends and foes alike. Conjoined to these is Socrates’ description of the inner voice he has been hearing since he was a child. Carefully, sensitively, D’Angour experiments with explanations, to conclude that the traumatic effect of the disciplinary methods of Socrates’ father most probably lie at the root of both. Yet as one reads Socrates in Love, especially from within the context of Athenian politics and the Peloponnesian War, which are a latent, almost muted spectre in Plato’s works, another interpretation also suggests itself.

Often compared in antiquity to the Trojan War, the Peloponnesian War would be clearer to us if approached in its causes, aftermath and dire conditions through the prism of WWI – and Socrates saw each and every aspect of that prolonged moment in time from a proximity that must have shaken a man of his sensibility, sense of human belonging and intelligence. It must have affected him dramatically, decisively, traumatically. We are told of how he developed a technique of “controlled retreat” at the first battle he fought in – the carnage-battle of Coronea, which he would later translate into a philosophical practice. His prolonged states of detached contemplation, his sense of exteriority to the world, may have been equally the result of post-traumatic shock – an ancient equivalent to shell shock. It may have caused him to create a separate space of reflection, removed from what threatened his pursuit and his understanding of meaning, and allowing a critical and very intimately empathic examination of life, a commitment to what one can only call humanity. It is an attitude perhaps very much similar in its general principles to Victor Frankl’s psychotherapeutic analysis of and response to the experience of Nazi concentration camps. To examine Socrates and his philosophy from that additional perspective would conceivably open valuable new readings, adding to the image we have of Socrates as an extraordinary thinker, or even as a funny old, Aristophanic man.

Socrates’ gentleness in his ceaseless effort to nudge and to prod us in order to awaken our humanity often goes unnoticed. His irony is his gadfly, always there “to help his fellow citizens to gain greater illumination about the purpose of their lives”, and about “how best to cultivate and train the… soul.” They are qualities that are celebrated throughout Socrates in Love, emphasised by the repeats and retakes, the many variations on a theme that D’Angour presents us with. Socrates’ definition of love, which is palpably real, an eschatological and an ethical ideal, as well as an intangible mystery; his choice of the life of the mind, which is a veritable shift of consciousness and of conscience for an Athenian of his time; his choice of the life of the simple man (Odysseus’ choice in Plato’s underworld), build up to a sustained motif: underwriting D’Angour’s fascination with Socrates the man, the thinker, the Athenian, is perhaps the injunction that Socrates’ choice is one that we should all crucially consider in our own times. Conversational and formidable, Socrates in Love is the story not only of a single man, but of the options available to humankind at that far removed moment in time, of critical assessments and positions that determined individual and collective fates – options and assessments that would be especially vital and urgent for us today.

7. B.C. Catholic (C.S. Morrissey)

When we think of Socrates, what first comes to mind is his trial and execution. Athens condemned him to death by hemlock in 399 BCE. Its citizens were looking for a convenient scapegoat for the fall of the Athenian Empire. Athens had recently lost its decades-long war with Sparta, but for decades Socrates had been openly practising his “Socratic method” in the public marketplace of Athens. Socrates’ enemies were able to claim he had undermined the democracy from within, since most people found his public cross-examinations annoying and painful. Although Socrates was exhorting the people of Athens to pursue the fullness of truth and to live the best life possible, his method inevitably exposed their lack of knowledge and limited virtue.

For years our historical knowledge of Socrates has been informed by conventional interpretations of the evidence that survives from antiquity. But in an exciting new book, Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher, Armand D’Angour, an associate professor of classics at Oxford, gives us a fresh perspective and a new interpretation.D’Angour asks us to imagine Socrates as a young man, falling in love. Every superhero has an origin story, so perhaps the greatest of Greek philosophers began his quest with an unusual experience that motivated him to pursue virtue and knowledge.

We already possess enough historical information to reconstruct this early experience, says D’Angour. Plato himself gives us important evidence in the Socratic dialogues he wrote in tribute to his teacher. In the Symposium, one of Plato’s most famous dialogues, Socrates speaks of the woman from whom he himself learned the most about love. Plato has Socrates discreetly name her as “Diotima.” But D’Angour persuasively argues that, with this name, Socrates is referring to Aspasia of Miletus, the famous consort of Athens’ preeminent citizen, Pericles.

In Greek, “Diotima” means “honoured by Zeus.” But “Zeus” was the nickname given to Pericles by the comic poets of the time, who lampooned the sway that this single man held over the whole democracy. The “honour” that Pericles gave Aspasia was unmistakable in the public displays of affection that he showed her, which were unusual by the norms of the time. But the “honour” can also refer to Pericles living with her as his wife even though his own laws had prohibited Athenians from marrying foreigners. Plato also records in his dialogue Menexenus that Aspasia was a speechwriter for Pericles, indicating that she played an important role behind the scenes as a key political adviser. Pericles was famously mocked at the time for the influence that the brilliant and attractive Aspasia was said to have over him.In the Symposium, Socrates also makes a datable historical reference to a particular bit of wise counsel by “Diotima,” which seems to refer unmistakably to political advice that Aspasia gave to Pericles in 440 BCE in the aftermath of his invasion of Samos.

D’Angour’s book convincingly marshals the evidence for Socrates’ connections to the aristocratic circle around Pericles, which would have brought him into contact with Aspasia when they were both young. Pericles was twice her age, yet Aspasia obviously chose him over Socrates, even though the young Socrates would have been quite attractive and impressive, as D’Angour argues. The speech Aspasia gives to Socrates as “Diotima” in the Symposium suggests the reason why she chose Pericles over her peer Socrates. Beyond physical passion, she says, the power of love should be harnessed to bring forth virtue in one’s self, in others, and in future generations. From there, it’s easy to see how Aspasia’s ambitious choice of a man with greater power and influence could decisively affect Socrates as a young man. D’Angour has thus performed a real service with his book, showing us how Socrates made a deliberate lifestyle choice in response.

Socrates was well off enough to make his life into a public performance of refusing to compete in politics, where Pericles was dominant. Instead, he devoted himself to criticizing people for pursuing wealth and influence: these are false versions of what true virtue and happiness consists in. Although in the decades that followed, Socrates served his city bravely as a soldier, he was a public critic of democracy’s failings. But he didn’t offer his criticisms in the political arena, using speeches to serve his personal advancement. Instead, he invented Socratic philosophy’s virtue ethics in the streets of Athens. He would marry Myrto and then Xanthippe, and have three children, but it was Aspasia who had first spurred him on to demonstrate to others what it really means to care for one’s own soul: to pursue, beyond the political life, true virtue.

8. Matthrubhumi (Keerthik Sasidharan)

Socrates emerges ex nihilo into history. When we meet him first, he is busy philosophizing on the streets of Athens and soon after death, he is immortalized as the embodiment of reason, an advocate of justice in an oligarchic society, and as a martyr of truth for all posterity to remember. There is something deeply unsatisfying about this valorizing biography that usually begins half-way into Socrates’ life with greatness thrust upon him by Plato.

Armand D’Angour’s wonderfully engaging and learned book called ‘Socrates in Love’ seeks to remedy this. It is an effort to cut through the fog of glowing portraits (by Socrates’ admirers like Plato and Xenophon) and wash away the bile of mealy-mouthed satire (by his enemies, particularly the playwright Aristophanes) to ask the difficult question: “what, in short, made Socrates [into] Socrates?”. How did the son of a stone mason become the ‘wisest’ man in philosophy? In parts, what has preponderantly made this difficult to answer is the extraordinary shadow that Plato — Socrates’ most luminous student — casts over the history of philosophy. Trying to see past this portrait of Socrates as the supreme philosopher is one of D’Angour’s principal challenges in this book.

What makes this book interesting to the modern reader is how D’Angour goes about addressing the problem of lack of documentary evidence. To this end, he attacks the absence of primary sources about Socrates’ youth by relying on a troika of tactics. One, he expands the search for historical sources from one individual to many events in which Socrates most likely took part in as a young man. Two, he looks for secondary or tertiary sources who write, less as direct witnesses, but as chroniclers from the centuries that immediately followed Socrates. The answers may not be satisfactory but they nevertheless remain fascinating.

Once such questions of methodology and motivation for the book are dealt with, the central question appears: what does ‘love’ have to do with Socrates? Socrates, in Plato’s ‘Symposium’, says: “The one thing I actually know about is love”. But, as has often been the case with Socrates, statements like this force us to ask: was Socrates being ironic or was he literal? Much ink across generations have been spent on this question and D’Angour is wise to not delve into this question too extensively. Instead, what occupies him is what does ‘love’ mean for Socrates. Was it physical love for men and women or was it his love for wisdom itself. While talking about love is a way to chronicle Socrates’ erotic life as a virile young man, one senses it is also D’Angour’s implicit critique of a patriarchal society’s treatment of women (another Greek source writes: “we have sex-workers for pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our bodies, and wives for the production of legitimate children”).

D’Angour’s easy prose belies much learning that facilitates the text’s lucidity. And slowly, led as we are by the author’s gentle scholarly voice, through the promise and cruelties of Athenian society, we begin to see Socrates the young military man begin to metamorphose into Socrates the philosopher. One arrives at the end of this slender book with a renewed appreciation for the difficulties that face historians of antiquity and early medieval era who seek to write for the popular press without sacrificing rigor. As across the world, the public imagination of various societies are rife with individuals from our history who could benefit from a similar careful treatment that is loyal to textual and contextual evidence and yet is marked by lightness of prose and leaps of imagination.

9. Arc Digital (Dominic Martyne):

Armand D’Angour’s  (Bloomsbury, 2019) is a new biography meant for general readers, not specialists. In it, the author courts sources which are typically ignored, and uses historical imagination to infer relationships between Socrates himself, Pericles, Alcibiades, and the mysterious “Diotima” of Plato’s . Collating these sources reveals a vigorous Socrates who, contra Nietzsche’s caricature, was in his youth very much a glory-loving Athenian.

The book begins with the Socrates presented in his basket in Aristophanes’ , lording over a man named Strepsiades, who wants to learn how to argue his way out of debt. This basket is held aloft by a crane which, in the idiom of ancient theater, equates Socrates to a god. The hubris should be obvious. Now, what is important here is that the  we have and the  which was performed in Athens are different, and it is possible that the former was never staged. In the original, Strepsiades’ plan worked, but it shocked Athenian sensibilities so much that Aristophanes did not win the recognition he desired. It is worth noting that the play was originally performed in 423 B.C., and D’Angour argues that the picture given of Socrates is an amalgamation of sophist, philosopher, and other tropes, as opposed to an earnest portrayal of this gadfly buzzing around Athens.

Moving beyond caricature to a more accurate portrayal, we must consider Alcibiades’ praise of Socrates’ military prowess at the §hem all his military intelligence, slept with a Spartan king’s wife, got caught, ran to the Persians, returned to Athens after receiving amnesty, later went into exile in Thrace and tried to woo the Persians once again, but met his end outside of his house in a hail of arrows. For the time, his outrageous actions would have reflected upon his teacher, Socrates, but that relationship would not have been possible without the consent of Pericles himself.

Now, Pericles dominated Athenian politics for decades (he was sometimes called “Zeus”, genitive form “Dios”), for he not only delivered the famous Funeral Oration in 430 B.C., but also oversaw construction of the Parthenon itself upon the Athenian acropolis. The man’s stature in Greek history is second-to-none, but that is also partially due to the Spartans not writing anything down because they were busy drilling and slaughtering helots. At times he seems to rival the mythic Solon, giver of laws to Athens.

How might Socrates have met Pericles, then? The fact that he could afford hoplite armor implies that his family was well-to-do. Indeed, Socrates’ father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason, and the scale of the Parthenon itself suggests that he would have been involved in its construction. Being brought up as a mason would also explain some references to Socrates’ stamina and strength, particularly his ability to go without sandals. If Sophroniscus consulted with Pericles during construction, the son would have been there, learning his trade and making connections. Critical, then, is the date for when construction on the Parthenon began, 447 B.C., for living in Athens at the time was a woman from a Grecian metropolis to the east, in Anatolia: Aspasia of Miletus.

Recognized for her mind, much like Cleopatra, Aspasia came to Athens in 450 B.C., and was so unlike Athenian women she could not help but draw hateful comments for her outlandish ways. Her otherness attracted Pericles, and their relationship immediately ran into problems due to a law Pericles had previously supported which made illegitimate any children from a non-Athenian mother.

As the great-aunt of Alcibiades, Aspasia would have seen to his education as much as Pericles. According to D’Angour, it is more than reasonable to infer that Socrates would have met Aspasia, and, being a young hardy man, would have unsuccessfully tried to romance her. This brings us back to the .

In the dialogue, Socrates explains that love turned him to philosophy, which was taught to him by a woman named “Diotima.” As mentioned above, “Dio” refers to Zeus, while “timia” is Greek for “honor.” Taken together, the name would seem to be a pun or reference to a woman “honored by Zeus,” or perhaps the man who is often referred to as “Dio”—Pericles. Furthermore, which woman in Athens at the time would have had the kind of education, inquiring mind, and beauty to spark a man such as Socrates to change the entire course of his life (and ours, consequently) to practicing midwifery for ideas?

Aspasia would have certainly engaged in dialectic with Socrates to sharpen Alcibiades’ mind, who would have been listening. D’Angour further extols her prowess due to a particular riddle in Plato’s . In this dialogue, Socrates makes fun of funeral orators for their pre-packaged eulogies, but then claims that someone special taught the art to Pericles himself—Aspasia. When Socrates was speaking with her on the subject of eulogies, she relayed a sample speech, and ordered Socrates to repeat it verbatim. He admitted that he was almost slapped by her for making mistakes, escaping barely. That this Athenian man would admit these things shows, first, an intimate relationship between the two interlocutors, and that he played student to her teacher, an arrangement unheard of in Athens.

Armand D’Angour demonstrates his case thoroughly and plainly, and in the process solves mysteries over two millennia old. The image of Socrates we’re given is of a vigorous, philotimiac, questioning youth who exchanged the pursuit of honor for the pursuit of wisdom on account of a woman’s teachings. If the student is a reflection of the teacher, then when Socrates is given as the philosophic model to follow, honor must also be given to Aspasia. When we look to Pericles for a model or anti-model (as did the American Founders) we must acknowledge Aspasia’s training through his oratory.

 is concise, funny, and possesses the kind of clarity we associate with the subject himself. It’s the sort of work classicists such as myself should aspire to write. Near the end of the book, D’Angour delivers a literary recreation of his argument—with all the energy expected of a student of Homer.  is that rarest of unicorns: scholarship that is actually enjoyable.

Arc Digital

10. Mail Online (James Black)

The traditional image of Socrates is that of a revolutionary thinker who was ‘always poor, always old, and always ugly.’ By taking a fresh look at ‘crucial, if scattered, strands of evidence’, however, Armand D’Angour believes the typical view of the philosopher can be turned on its head.

D’Angour reexamines existing sources on Socrates’ military career and concludes that he was ‘an impressive, even heroic, man of action’, and not just a saintly man of ideas who shunned wealth and status.

In addition, given Socrates’ well established links to the handsome and aristocratic Alcibiades, as well as the great thinkers of his age, D’Angour connects the philosopher with the social circle of the great Athenian general Pericles. Both his military prowess and his social connections suggest that the real Socrates was ‘far from humble or impecunious.’

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates says that erotic love is a catalyst for knowledge of divine beauty. D’Angour argues that this view was in fact the teaching of the ‘beautiful, clever and mysterious’ Aspasia of Miletus. The ‘wife in effect, if not in name’ of Pericles, D’Angour claims that Aspasia was the ‘intellectual midwife’ to Socrates’ uniquely passionate approach to life and consequently his entire method of philosophical inquiry.

D’Angour concedes that this ‘attractive and compelling possibility’ is based on circumstantial details and therefore not conclusive. However, the author’s selective and imaginative version of history allows us to see Socrates as a flesh and blood person with very human ‘flaws, contradictions and idiosyncrasies.’

Whether we are convinced or not by D’Angour’s interpretation of Socrates’ life, perhaps his chief success is in reestablishing the importance of human love at the heart European western thought. This book offers a welcome corrective to the the dry, systematic tendencies in modern philosophy.

11. BBC History (Catherine Nixey)

The title of this book feels like a mistake. It’s not just that Socrates’ image was less lothario than snub-nosed satyr. The main problem is less his looks than his character: the idea of Socrates being “in” any sort of emotion whatsoever feels odd. In the ancient texts, we rarely see him in a passion, or a rage – or indulging in any kind of state at all except a detached interest. Socrates was the perfect philosopher. Even when sentenced to death, he was philosophising to the end. More mirror than man, his brilliance was to make us look at our own emotions; he didn’t ask us to look at his. And so, in the main, we don’t.

We are missing out, as the Oxford acacemic Armand D’Angour shows in this wonderful little book. Almost everything we know about Socrates is wrong. Like children looking at their parents and imagining they were always old, we look at the father of western philosophy – who, Cicero said, “brought philosophy down from heaven to Earth” – and find it impossible to image he was ever young.

But, as D’Angour points out, he was. And not just young but also charismatic, attractive, passionate – and possibly under the spell of a woman named Aspasia. History remembers her as the partner of Pericles, the politician who buitl the Parthenon. D’Angour argues that this brilliant, beautiful woman may also have been Socrates’ great passion – the woman who was his “instructress in matters of love” and who, by rebuffing him, forced him to pursue the life not of the body but the soul. If so, she was the “intellectual midwife” of European philosophy.

Note those “ifs” and “mays”. This is a book rich in the subjunctive. D’Angour’s theory is, as he would admit, theory. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t well worth considering. “Know thyself” was the motto engraved on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi – a motto that Socrates took seriously. We owe this great man enough to know him a little, too.

12. TLS (Frisbee Sheffield)

Socrates is famour for saying that he did not know anything. But he did stake a claim to knowledge of one thing: to matters concerned with eros, passionate love, or desire. Socrates in Love: The making of a philosopher takes this claim in a new and surprising direction. Armand D’Angour’s question is “what transformed a young Athenian man, allegedly from a humble background and of modest means, into the originator of a way of thinking and a philosophical method that were wholly original for his time and hugely influential thereafter”. The answer is found, above all, “in the love of one of the most exciting and brilliant women of his time, Aspasia of Miletus”.

The story starts in Socrates’ youth, offsets the picture of Socrates from a humble background of stonemasonry, with few educational opportunities or traditional skills, with that of an attractive young man, a heroic warrior, an ardent lover, an accomplished lyre player, and a mover and shaker in the glamorous social and intellectual circles of his day. Socrates met Aspasia, fell in love, only to be rejected because of social aspirations that drew her to the statesman Pericles. Perhaps to “assuage Socrates’ disappointment” she teaches Socrates one of the most famous accounts of love in the Western tradition, the so-called “ascent of love” in Plato’s Symposium.

Socrates claims to have heard this account from a woman called Diotima. But her name (“honoured by Zeus”) recalls the nickname “Zeus” given to Pericles by comic playwrights, suggesting to those in the know that Diotima is the woman honoured by Pericles, in other words, Aspasia. It is supposed that her teachings on love were a swansong to her earthly association with Socrates and inspiration for the distinctive way he loved and philosophized. Physical desire is the mere starting point for true love: “the particular should be subordinated to the general, the transient to the permanent, and the worldly to the ideal”.

On this basis, D’Angour contends that Aspasia was an “intellectual midwife … whose ideas helped to give birth to European philosophy”. Even Socrates’ dying breath, as depicted in Plato’s Phaedo, is reinterpreted within this love story. The cock he asks to be offered to Asclepius is a healing gift to Aspasia for her sickness.

The book is styled in the manner of detective fiction, unearthing marginal sources, set against the backdrop of the Oxbridge tutorial, which begins and ends the work. “The sun is slanting through the mullioned windows” of an Oxford college, students ponder the sources, and the story of a great love story between a philosophical hero and a marginalized courtesan is told against the backdrop of war, empire, plague and the intellectual buzz of Ancient Athens. Whether it delivers on the promise to “offer a new historically grounded perspective on Socrates’ personality, early life and the origins of his style of thinking”, is questionable.

There are certainly some connections between Socrates and Aspasia. Many writers in the tradition of Socrates wrote dialogues entitled “Aspasia” (Aeschines of Sphettus, for example, and Antisthenes); and in works of Xenophon and Plato, Socrates is depicted in conversation with her. The issue is whether the evidence warrants the thesis that such conversations actually took place, what relationship these remarks bear to the historical persons involved, and whether “Diotima” is a coded reference to Aspasia, when Socrates claims to have been instructed by a woman in matters of love. Even if Diotima is Aspasia, is she inspiring anything associated with the historical Socrates?

For this to hold true, we need to assume that the ancient accounts we possess intended to reconstruct faithfully Socrates’ ideas. As has often been noted, to read them as faithful portraits of the historical figure seems to misunderstand the nature of these “Socratic” works – that is the tricky “Socratic problem” to which modern critics are always returning. An anecdote told by Diogenes Laertius, centuries later, is often brought to bear here. “They say that on hearing Plato read the Lysis, Socrates exclaimed, ‘By Heracles, what a number of lies this man tells about me! For he has included in the dialogue much that Socrates never said’”. This appears to acknowledge the fictional nature of the writings in which Socrates appears.

Scepticism about the “Socratic problem” might occasionally, however, work in D’Angour’s favour. Before we dismiss the idea out of hand, there is no way of knowing whether Socrates was, in fact, attractive in his youth (his claim in Socrates in Love is that his bulging eyes were due to hyperthyroidism, which emerges when the sufferer is older); and no way of knowing whether he heard voices (his “divine sign”) because, on D’Angour’s argument, he suffered from a mental illness due to the trauma of beatings from his father for failing to practise stonemasonry diligently.

As he returns to the tutorial scene to ask his students whether “a genuinely historical reconstruction of Socrates’ life is impossible”, D’Angour’s answer is telling: “perhaps what evidence there is could be extracted and a film made about the unknown Socrates”. It would make a wonderful story, the students reply. D’Angour even writes the pitch for potential screenwriters in the afterword. Someone please follow this up. Whether it is true or not, I will be first in line for Socrates in Love: The movie.

Letter to TLS:

Frisbee Sheffield is enthusiastic about my Socrates in Love becoming a film, but underplays the book’s historical claims. Sheffield cites my original argument that Plato uses the fictional name Diotima, “honoured by Zeus”, to refer to Socrates’ mentor Aspasia, honoured partner of Pericles (who was called “Zeus”). But Plato also gives a date for Diotima’s activities, “ten years before the Great Plague” (ie 440 BC), which should remind readers of Aspasia’s alleged role in Pericles’ assault on Samos in that year. From this and other generally obscured evidence Socrates emerges in a new light: as a onetime member of Pericles’ circle, an educated youngster from a well-off background, the teenage lover of a well-known Athenian philosopher, a hoplite warrior for thirty years, the husband of the highborn Myrto long before he met Xanthippe, and the man with whom, in the words of the ancient author Clearchus, Aspasia had a relationship before she was with Pericles. Plato depicts Socrates only twice as being taught (unusually) by a woman – “Diotima” in Symposium, and Aspasia in Menexenus. Occam’s razor is not required for us to understand that they are one and the same person. The significance of this for Socrates’ philosophy may be minimal, but the consequences for his – and Aspasia’s – biography are surely incontestable.

13. The Guardian (Tim Whitmarsh)

14. The Literary Review (Paul Cartledge)

15. The Spectator (Emma Park)

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? 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. 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. D’Angour’s most momentous claim concerns Aspasia, the seductively brilliant mistress, or possibly wife, of the great statesman Pericles, and one of only two women with a significant speaking role anywhere in Plato’s dialogues. D’Angour argues that the other woman, the priestess Diotima in Plato’s Symposium, is a fictionalised version of Aspasia. Socrates claims that Diotima has taught him ‘all I know about love’; this is surely a clue to his real feelings for Aspasia.

On the basis of this and scattered remarks in later sources, D’Angour imaginatively reconstructs the history of their relationship: Socrates fell in love with Aspasia as a young man; she rejected him for Pericles; and, seeking to assuage his disappointment, she introduced him to the method of deriving general definitions from particular examples which would form the basis of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy.

16. Standpoint (Hannah Betts)

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.

D’Angour 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.

Aspasia was 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. This book 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.

17. BMCR (David Sansone)

The reviewer finds my account “an intriguing alternative to the usual view of the real [sic] Socrates”. That was indeed one of my aims, but it is a pity that the central thesis of the book – that Plato has left distinct and unmistakeable clues about the identity of ‘Diotima’ as Aspasia – is so inadequately treated. Plato’s choice of the name ‘honoured by Zeus’ goes unmentioned by the reviewer, yet not only was Pericles referred to as ‘Zeus’ by comic poets (one of whom features in the Symposium), he was famous (or notorious) for honouring Aspasia as a wife. Nor can one make sense of Plato’s statement that “a clever woman delayed the Plague by 10 years” i.e. from 440-39 BC, without acknowledging that a key event of those years was Pericles’ sacrilegious (and potentially plague-inducing, think of Sophocles’ Antigone) conduct in a campaign against Samos allegedly instigated by the only “clever woman” of whom we are told at the time – again Apasia. The objections that ‘no evidence is cited for Aspasia’s expiatory rites’ (my inference), that the plague ‘originated in Ethiopia’ (no doubt it did), and that 10 years is ‘a conventional length of time’ (it may also be a specific one) are either feeble or irrelevant. Readers of the book may judge for themselves whether my interpretation, which draws on and discusses a host of other evidence for Socrates’ biography, is to be preferred.

17. Classics for All (Colin Leach)

The thesis of this engaging book (‘not written for specialists’) is that Socrates became enamoured of Aspasia, who turned down any putative proposal (possibly of marriage), but instead gave a disquisition on the subject of love, which appears in Plato’s Symposium in the words of the priestess Diotima, as related by Socrates.

After a Preface and a (most valuable) Foreword, the book’s six chapters are: ‘For the Love of Socrates’, ‘Socrates the Warrior’, ‘Enter Alcibiades’, ‘The Circle of Pericles’, ‘A Philosopher is Born’, and ‘The Mystery of Aspasia’. There is also an Afterword: ‘The Unknown Socrates’. Key is the identification of Aspasia with Diotima (= ‘honoured by Zeus’: Pericles was regularly given the nickname Zeus by the comic poets). It was also obviously essential, however, for Socrates to meet Aspasia, and here the person of Alcibiades is of the first importance: Alcibiades—a man for whom the epithet abebaios is far too weak—had actually been saved by the brave action of Socrates at the Battle of Potidaea (432 BC). He was the son of Cleinias (killed in the same battle), a friend of Pericles; and, as Alcibiades and Socrates were themselves close friends, it is clear that a conjunction between Aspasia and Socrates—they were close in age—becomes plausible: they would both have been in their twenties.

D’Angour goes to some pains to depict Socrates not as the unappealing figure (the ‘ugly satyr’ of one familiar bust), but as the ‘distinguished thinker’ of another bust, and, indeed, as a well-off, vigorous Athenian. And the book—as the subtitle indicates—is also about Socrates as a philosopher. Here, the reviewer strongly commends the long Foreword, entitled ‘Bringing Socrates in from the Clouds’ (and, one should add, the Clouds): Socrates, said Cicero, ‘brought philosophy down from heaven to earth’ (the reference—Tusc. Disp. 5.iv.10—would have been welcome).

There is much more to this book: an account of the (often deplorable) career of Alcibiades; the brutal conquest by Pericles of Samos (440 BC), possibly accounted for by his wish to gratify Aspasia, whose family came from Miletus, arch-rival of Samos; the evidence of Menexenus as possibly implying an intimate relationship between Socrates and Aspasia; the later evidence of Clearchus (pupil of Aristotle) and Hermesianax (florid poet of 3rd C BC) of Socrates’ ‘passion’ for Aspasia; and, of course, Socrates’ trial and judicial execution.

Nor should we forget—without placing undue emphasis upon it—that Aristophanes, in Acharnians (425 BC)was offensive to Aspasia, as being (absurdly) responsible for the Peloponnesian War, via the notorious Megarian Decree. The play was produced at the Lenaia, at which attendance was (with a few exceptions) limited to Athenian citizens.

The book’s blurb talks of its tremendous scholarship, ‘this brilliant study’, ‘eye-opening … thrilling and moving’. The book is much more than a jeu d’esprit, and what better book to recommend to a candidate for university, pondering whether or not to read classics?

19. The Philological Crocodile (Cokedril Ubique).

SOCRATES IN LOVE opens (or rather, is bookended) with a charming vignette: the author as don instructing his tutees. I’d like to offer my own experience, if only to lend some context to my interest in this book.

We were meant to write on the differences and similarities between Xenophon’s and Plato’s accounts on Socrates’ apology. This was probably meant to be our serious introduction to philosophy. I, of course, biffed it: I spent two pages comparing their prose styles and then finished with some inanities on Athenian Law and how it might relate. One colleague (seems too industrious a term for us…) trying to prove himself a wit, made a comparison with Jesus. 

“After all. Both Jesus and Socrates were craftsman. We know nothing of their early lives – before Potidaea and the ministry – both write nothing and had conflicting accounts produced by their students”.


So that’s the challenge D’Angour has chosen to take up. There are precedents. Though Diogenes Laertius’ account has sadly been lost, enough fragments and traditional material survived to provide inspiration for several medieval and renaissance accounts. Perhaps the most famous, Giannozzo Manetti’s Vita Socratis et Senecae, is little read today but a great example of facts never getting in the way of a story.

D’Angour neither writes in that fanciful tradition, nor in line with the recent(ish) popular craze for biographies.[1] Nor, even, is this like Lefkowitz’ magisterial treatise on Greek biographic tradition.[2] It is a wonderful mixture of fact, quellenkritik, and good old-fashioned classical philology (in its proper broad sense). You owe it yourself to get this book. I was constantly in awe not only of his grasp of the material, but his ability to weave it into coherent argument. Even where I remain unconvinced, I am more pensive and thoughtful.

The book stakes out two main claims. One, that the traditional image of Socrates as barefoot, ugly, and lower class is a fanciful construction – a literary trope – made to enforce his image as a philosophical archetype. That the real Socrates was in many ways like the real Alcibiades. Two, that Diotima was actually…Aspasia.

The first seems intuitively true, though I had never considered it in detail before. We know that the ancients often imagined portraits and speeches, and we know that there were all sorts of odd theories about physical appearance and character. Just look at the way Cleopatra is described vs her (probable) numismatic portraits.

D’Angour lays all this out brilliantly, with especial attention to the staging of Aristophanes’ Clouds. I was honestly surprised, I always thought S. looked like your typical satyr in a satyr play (presumably minus the erection). But the reasoning here is unimpeachable.

On his military background, I need no convincing. I still think Plato was playing it up, but service was incredibly important to Athenian men – consider Aeschylus’ tomb stele[3] – and the comic tradition could have been savage to him were he another Archilochus.

D’Angour’s S. has at least quasi oligarchic links. This is, again, intuitive to me: S. was clearly familiar with a wide variety of thought. Most of the ancient world lived fairly subsistence, he would need to be reasonably well off to even stand a chance at encountering the broad swathe of ideas of which he was evidentially familiar. People easily forget this. Stonemasonry was also a considerably skilled trade. Which leads me to the next point, D’Angour’s contextual reconstruction of S’ philosophical training and background is worth the price of admission alone.

We know that S. moved in aristocratic circles anyway – I maintain he was probably killed for his link to Critias – add to that Plato, Xenophon, Pericles (junior), Aspasia etc…it makes sense.

What we are treated to, then, is a tour of how the philosophical archetype was constructed and then a peek under the hood, behind the curtain, in a credible attempt to recover an historical S. The author is in excellent command of his material and we are treated to discussion on the Clouds, Symposium, Republic, and a smattering of other texts. This serves as a great introduction to the intellectual culture of the time. Not the squeaky-clean democratic pastiche moderns think Athens to have beem; but the kind of city where an ex-wrestler could become its greatest philosopher,[4] and a stonemason put to death for atheism, and the son of an aristocrat could make himself strategos for life and claim to uphold the democratic system.[5]

This, for me at least, was where the real value of the book lay.

Now, for the second claim, that Diotima = Aspasia. I think this is very clever, I won’t prejudice you either way here – read the book – but I’m not sure if I am convinced. It is clever. Perhaps more in a NAME OF THE ROSEway than a manuscript stemmatography and that seems to me a problem. It touches the evidence in all the right, if circumstantial, ways, but never quite clicks for me.

What is useful is a reassessment of Aspasia’s status in the Periclean milieu. ‘Hetaira’ in the traditional sense has always seemed unlikely given her aristocratic connections and the legitimate status of Pericles (junior). Its obvious that the status of women in the sources for the era isn’t always clear cut (see also the debate on S’ Xanthippe), and its interesting to see how a more hostile tradition about her arose in the ancient sources. Plutarch, for one, almost seems to confuse her with Neaira or Phyrne.

I have written overlong. There are way too many notes in my copy. I think you get the gist of my review, and I hope I have given a fair assessment without spoiling the arguments therein. D’Angour has produced a wonderful example of stimulating, accessible, scholarship. It is more than the sum of its parts and if its claims are perhaps a little ambitious, they are made in the true spirit of the discipline. You would be advised to read.

[1] Dunn on Catullus and Pliny. Room and Wilson on Seneca. A new translation of Azoulay on Pericles. Natali and (sort of) Hall on Aristotle. Le Bohec on Lucullus.Etc etc.

[2] Anyone interested in how such traditions were extracted from literature, constructed, and propagated, needs to read Lefkowitz.

[3] Αἰσχύλον Εὐφορίωνος Ἀθηναῖον τόδε κεύθει/μνῆμα καταφθίμενον πυροφόροιο Γέλας·/ἀλκὴν δ’ εὐδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον ἄλσος ἂν εἴποι/καὶ βαθυχαιτήεις Μῆδος ἐπιστάμενος

[4] Suck it Aristotle. Nobody likes you. You have no friends.

[5] Listen Cicero, not even Plato lived in Plato’s Republic. Romulus’ dungheap is more than good enough.

About Armand D'Angour

Fellow and Tutor in Classics, Jesus College Oxford.
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