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Socrates: A Man for Our Times

3.67  ·  Rating Details ·  581 Ratings  ·  95 Reviews
A brilliant portrait of the Greek philosopher who personified philosophy

Socrates was undeniably one of the greatest thinkers of all time, yet he wrote nothing. Throughout his life, and indeed until his very last moment alive, Socrates fully embodied his philosophy in thought and deed. It is through the story of his life that we can fully grasp his powerful actions and idea
ebook, 224 pages
Published October 1st 2011 by Penguin Books (first published 2011)
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Riku Sayuj

Holy Contortions, Batman!

Paul Johnson has made up his mind. Need I say more?

In his earlier writings Plato presented Socrates as a living, breathing, thinking person, a real man. But as Plato’s ideas took shape, demanding propagation, poor Socrates, whose actual death Plato had so lamented, was killed a second time, so that he became a mere wooden man, a ventriloquist’s doll, to voice not his own philosophy but Plato’s. Being an intellectual, Plato thought that to spread his ideas was far more i
David Prager
Jan 28, 2013 David Prager rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Short and enjoyable intro or refresher to the life and thought of Socrates. Johnson is a good writer, and this goes down easy.
Many reviewers are hard on Johnson. Maybe they think he should have written a different book, but I'm OK with the one he did write. I think it's OK for a historian to insert his own views into the work. The references to more modern events and times are meant to illuminate Socrates' ideas for modern readers. If you're looking for an in-depth description and analysis of So
Lauren Albert
Paul Johnson's Socrates is an Ancient Greek Paul Johnson. In his hands, Socrates becomes an anti-gay monotheist. Yup. To give you an idea of Johnson's reasoning, see this passage:

"When Socrates was at his most devout, he always refers to 'god' or 'the god,' not 'the gods.' He was a monotheist." 107

So, you can be sure that if Socrates mentions "gods" in the plural, he is not being very devout.

A similar reasoning comes into play when Johnson discusses Plato. If Johnson likes the Socrates that Plat
CentralPA Librarians
"One of the most influential philosophers in our history, Socrates left no written record of his beliefs or methodology. Writing a biography of him, even a short one, would seem a monumental task given this absence, but historian Paul Johnson is more than up to the job in his book Socrates: A Man for Our Times, one entry in his series of short biographies of influential historical figures. This straightforward, generally level-headed work not only sifts through the available sources to bring Soc ...more
Jan 09, 2012 Thomas rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, biography
Isolating the historical Socrates is made difficult by the fact that he himself wrote nothing down and we are able to see him only through the eyes of his friends and, less reliably, later historians. Plato and Xenophon are the primary sources, with Diogenes Laertius adding details later on, and Johnson makes use of all three. What is somewhat troubling is that he doesn't cite these sources (at least not in the Kindle edition that I read). He does acknowledge them (and in the sticky case of Plat ...more
Alex Obrigewitsch
Jul 01, 2017 Alex Obrigewitsch rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I would like to preface this by stating that I am not one who delights in polemics. But when a person employs a flagrant neglect of distinction between fact and opinion, or worse, complete fiction, with an air of supreme arrogance and supposed historical knowledge, to facilitate the description of a key historical figure in a way that mars what little of truth we possess of said figure, in the name of bolstering one’s own ethical and moral agenda, then I cannot remain silent.
I have never read a
Jul 09, 2013 Joshua rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
A helpful perspective on Greece around 500-400 BC; Johnson, as usual, describes varied aspects of the life and times, from the political to the artistic. Of particular interest is Socrates' involvement in Athenian life and the links between him and secular and Christian thought. His influence on Western civilization is enormous, though Johnson perhaps overemphasizes the debt we owe him. Ultimately, I think this book achieves its object (at least for those who are willing to be convinced) by show ...more
Jana L.
Feb 04, 2017 Jana L. rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Blergh. This was a good book to sort of string together the different events of Socrates' life, but I don't think Johnson presents the nuance required to separate Plato's presentation of Socrates from the reality of Socrates. There were far too many unsubstantiated claims to make me trust Johnson's account. Unreliable narrators do not make good biographers. Also, I still don't quite know how Johnson sees Socrates as "a man for our times," but maybe this was where the nuance happened and I failed ...more
Very quick read - a biographical panegyric on Socrates, founder of Western philosophy, and culture and thought, etc., etc.
Tom Stamper
Jan 11, 2017 Tom Stamper rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book answered a question I've had since reading The Republic in the 1990s. Is Socrates really speaking or is Plato speaking through Socrates. According to Johnson it varies from dialogue to dialogue. In The Republic it's Socrates voice in the first book and then Plato plays ventriloquist from there on. We know this because Socrates wasn't a prescriptive philosopher. Philosophy was a practical way to discover virtue. He liked talking with people and he desired to teach them to think about co ...more
Apr 18, 2014 Jeanne rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: reallly? no one
Recommended to Jeanne by: was considering it as part of a course on Plato (in Greek)--until I read it
"I prefer a broad-brush approach that makes a general contrast between the Socratic and Platonic mentalities and then counsels the reader to study the dialogues and make up his or her own mind." Never were truer words spoken. This broad-brush technique works like this: what Johnson finds sympatico in Plato, belongs to Socrates; otherwise Plato, who is, by the way, an intellectual academic, ergo bad. How bad? His transformation of Socrates from the real McCoy (because, according to Johnson, the A ...more
Megan Hewins
Nov 15, 2012 Megan Hewins rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This isn't exactly an introduction, because much of what Johnson discusses will require prior knowledge and familiarity with Socrates and this period of Greek history. However, this work is nowhere near scholarly quality either. This can only be a review or refresher - yet it is a review of the author's highly biased ideas of what he wants Socrates to represent. The author's style is at once narcissistic, pompous, and vague.

Johnson rebukes Plato for using Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own id
A well summarized view and look at the life of Socrates. The first few chapters details Athens and Greek society as a whole. It also goes heavily into the Sophists, Plato, democracy, and a lot on Pericles and how his governing of Athens affected Socrates. It also goes into Euripedes and Aristophanes a lot and how they affected his life (especially Aristophanes' Clouds play).

Sadly, due to nothing being written by Socrates we have to take a lot from Xenophon, Plato, and others. And Plato tended to
Kevin Kizer
Interesting quick read on Socrates and how his thoughts and ideas were distorted by Plato, especially in his later work. Socrates is portrayed sort of like Athens beloved hermit-warrior. He lived in a small hovel with few comforts and, because of his size and satyr-like face, was a valiant warrior. It was said the Romans would avoid fighting him in battles. Plato was kind of the privileged kid with a great mind, whereas as Socrates was the street-smart guy with a great mind.

And of course his fa
Ross Cohen
A fine biography that nevertheless makes me wonder:

1) Why does the author, who holds Socrates up as an ideal thinker for recognizing his own want of knowledge, seem so sure about so many statements? Ancient Athens existed a long time ago, should we be so sure about everything?

2) If the purpose of an analogy is to bring a reader a clearer understanding, why refer to out of reach anecdotes about British history like Gladstone's farewell to his cabinet? Who's to benefit from this?
Jake Keyes
Jan 03, 2017 Jake Keyes rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not an in depth study on the philosophy of Socrates. This book is not meant for those who want heavy reading and analysis on his ideas. This book is best for people, like me, who want a concise understanding of the man, his beliefs, and his life.
Michael Andrews
It's always disheartening when a scholar of Mr. Johnson's caliber infuses his Christian ideals and perspectives into a study of a vastly important philosopher such as Socrates. It doesn't belong there.
Sharon Barrow Wilfong
A concise overview of Socrates based on what little information we have. While Johnson may employ some guesswork as to what part of Plato's Republic is Socrates or Plato coloring Socrates with his own ideals, he is no more guilty than most historians on this point.

I notice that some reviewers have been harsh almost to the point of vitriol on Johnson "infusing his Christian ideals" on poor Socrates. Every single historian has a slant or bias and to think otherwise is naive. It's the reader's resp
Sanjana Rajagopal
Jul 02, 2017 Sanjana Rajagopal rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philo-theo
This is not the Socrates who enchanted me in my very first philosophy class when we read Five Dialogues. (The life-changing philosophy class after which I went on to declare a major) This is also not the Socrates who fascinated me when reading Symposium and Phaedrus. This is a hollow attempt at characterizing one of the greatest men in all of history...and so poorly done that I, as someone who isn't even primarily focused on ancient philosophy in terms of sub-fields, can tell that there are cert ...more
May 04, 2017 Renny rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found this to be a concise and picturesque impression of early Greek life, thought as well as a reasonable sketch of who Socrates was. As the society was described and events played out, it had a feeling of almost recent history. The names are different but it could fit well into present day events as if it had happened only yesterday. I thought Johnson painted the characters of the various players in this scene, which I have not visited for many years, in recognizably very human terms. It dre ...more
Jan 18, 2015 Ted rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Paul Johnson has given us not just a concise summary of the life of Socrates, but a meditation on and argument for Socrates’ continued importance to us, 2500 years after his death. He also places Socrates in the context of his city and time: Athens at the peak of its influence, and just afterwards – the Age of Pericles, and its troubled aftermath. In clear prose, and with a distinctive point of view, Johnson reminds us that we are, in a very real sense, indebted to the ancient Greeks, and to the ...more
Sep 10, 2012 Vegantrav rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I haven't read, since I was in grad school, any of Plato's dialogues (which, if you are uninformed, feature Socrates in conversation with various and sundry of his fellow Greeks), so when I saw this short biography (just under 200 pages) of the brilliant man, the father of philosophy, and a true paragon of virtue, I had to pick it up to re-acquaint myself with the lovable old Athenian.

As I re-read for the first time in years about Socrates' life, his trial, and his horribly unjust execution (whi
Schlow Library
Mar 31, 2016 Schlow Library rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"One of the most influential philosophers in our history, Socrates left no written record of his beliefs or methodology. Writing a biography of him, even a short one, would seem a monumental task given this absence, but historian Paul Johnson is more than up to the job in his book Socrates: A Man for Our Times, one entry in his series of short biographies of influential historical figures. This straightforward, generally level-headed work not only sifts through the available sources to bring Soc ...more
Greg Mcneilly
Another fine mini-biography from Paul Johnson.

Johnson makes it effortless to walk with Socrates through the dusty streets of Athens, 2400 years ago. He also makes the perplexing and contradictory tales of Socrates make some sense.

The myth of Socrates is that he was a martyr for Truth; head of a long line of academic Truth-seekers who found their physical demise in opposition to prevailing orthodoxies.


Was the real Socrates a blowhard? The original hipster? Did he occupy the first seat amon
Evanston Public  Library
In two hundred pages Johnson sketches Socrates' life and influence. That influence was enormous despite Socrates' having left no writings of his own--what we know of his teachings reaches us mainly via his student Plato and Plato's student Aristotle. Particularly influential was Socrates' death. His execution was ordered by Athenian authorities but opposed by many contemporaries (including his prison guards). Yet Socrates virtually embraced the death sentence himself, recognizing that how he die ...more
Sep 23, 2014 Semnebune rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Una dintre figurile de cândva care mă fascinează este Socrate. Aşa se explică faptul că m-am grăbit să iau volumul semnat de britanicul Paul Johnson – Socrate. Un om pentru timpurile noastre. Nu mă aşteptam la ceva anume, nici nu îl mai citisem pe Paul Johnson, ştiam doar că are deja destui fani la noi, la fel cum ştiam că anumite idei conservatoare ale sale nu sunt tocmai pe placul meu.

S-a dovedit în primul rând o lectură utilă, pentru că bibliografia folosită de autor este una stufoasă şi inte
Douglas Dalrymple
An acceptable popular biography that might make a good introduction for, say, an interested high-schooler or a Philosophy 101 class, so long as the students in question are also reading the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. The challenge facing any biographer of Socrates is how to separate his ideas and opinions from those of that troublesome Plato. Thanks to the dearth of primary material (Socrates famously wrote nothing himself), you can basically slice it any way that suits. This is what Johnson un ...more
Sep 24, 2012 Sean rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"He was the first to call philosophy down from the sky and establish her in the towns, and bring her into homes, and force her to investigate the life of men and women, ethical conduct, good and evil."

-- Marcus Tullius Cicero describing Socrates

If you want a quick introduction to Socrates, then this is an excellent book for it.

The author provides some fascinating arguments about the difficulty of distinguishing the voice of Socrates from the voice of Plato. He explains Socrates' prosecution and
Mar 13, 2015 Alexis rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was such an interesting book about Socrates. Clearly, Johnson loves him, and yet he takes care to be earnest in his historical review and analysis. I've ready Plato directly several times back in my earlier college days, and I picked up this book because I wanted to recall what I liked and what I had problems with in the actual texts. This is an historical look at the man Socrates himself and I found it to be a great reminder of his pros and cons as a philosopher, as well as a really nice e ...more
Andy Bird
May 24, 2015 Andy Bird rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015
A short biography and over view of Socrates & his work. It's by no means serious, it's with out footnotes, and reads more like a friend who's just finished his MA in Phil talking to you over dinner than an academic book. It's also very very very British. Oxford, Churchill all get mentions. He compares Socrates' death scene to Gladstone resigning :|

There is also lots of "surely, presumably, he must have". You can hear the author shaping the narrative and filling gaps in what is know about hi
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Paul Johnson works as a historian, journalist and author. He was educated at Stonyhurst School in Clitheroe, Lancashire and Magdalen College, Oxford, and first came to prominence in the 1950s as a journalist writing for, and later editing, the New Statesman magazine. He has also written for leading newspapers and magazines in Britain, the US and Europe.

Paul Johnson has published over 40 books incl
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