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.
Socrates in Love is a salutary reminder of another Athens: not the democracy, but the tangle of aristocratic allegiances. D’Angour also offers an erudite guide to the intellectual culture of the time. I disagreed with details, but couldn’t help admiring his grasp of the material and his ability to communicate it compactly. But Socrates and Aspasia? That kind of donnish just-so story is best left to the Victorians.
According to D’Angour, the problem with the Socrates of modern accounts is that his character lacks development, because it is restricted to his later years, when he was ‘physically unprepossessing’ and fully formed as a philosopher. This book aims to correct that picture.... The narrative, if a little donnish where the philosophy is concerned, is Hollywood in style (‘Ten years have passed since the Persians withdrew from Greece…’), with sensational love interests (‘Socrates encounters an extraordinary person who will change his life forever’), epic conflicts (‘he serves on the gruelling three-year campaign in Potidaea’), and political intrigue (‘Socrates’ foes gather their forces’) leading to the hero’s downfall.
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.
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.
Armand D’Angour’s Socrates in Love is a terrific read. Part novelistic fantasy biography, part deeply serious, source-based reconstruction, it will appeal in varying ways and measures to readers of different tastes and personal predilections. At one level it is an – I think probably doomed – attempt at Sherlock Holmes-style detection. At another level it is a bid to fill in intelligently the yawning gap in our knowledge of Socrates’s life between his birth in 470 or 469 BC and his bursting onto the Athenian public military-political scene – or at least his appearance in the papyrus rolls of his disciples Plato and Xenophon and their later (sometimes much later) followers – in the 430s and 420s. The book’s overarching theme is a love story, a story that – in the best conspiracy-theory tradition – Socrates’s later advocates allegedly did their best to cover up, so successfully indeed that no one (or almost no one) before D’Angour got wind of it.