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Cultural Philistine’

In response to:

Cracking the Socrates Case from the March 31, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates [NYR, March 31], M.F. Burnyeat writes:

One could read I.F. Stone’s book as the most intemperate attack on Socrates since he was tried and found guilty in 399 BC. Some have already read the book that way, calling Stone a “cultural philistine.” A grave mistake.

Burnyeat’s footnote reference is to my review of Stone’s book in The Wall Street Journal, January 20, 1988.

The phrase “cultural philistine” appears in the brief paragraph with which I concluded my review:

One final remark is required of me as a philosopher. No reader of Mr. Stone’s book will understand Whitehead’s remark that the whole of Western philosophy can be considered as a footnote to Plato’s thought. Mr. Stone’s jeering remarks about Plato’s philosophical doctrines are those of a cultural philistine.

Nothing can be clearer than that my reference to Stone’s cultural philistinism has nothing to do with the thesis of his book that Socrates was really a clear and present danger to the existence of Athens—something which he fails to establish. I was referring to the contemptuous manner in which Stone refers to Plato’s philosophical ideas throughout his book. Not only does Stone dismiss Plato’s theory of knowledge as “stratospheric nonsense,” he comments on Plato’s attempt to expound his doctrine of universals, “An irreverant bystander might well have interrupted at this point to say that if neither Socrates nor Phaedrus knew what a horse was, they were obviously too low on the IQ scale to be of any use, in the army anyway.” There are even more denigrating references to Plato’s intelligence. In places Stone comes close to impugning Socrates’ sanity in purveying his philosophical notions.

One does not have to agree with Plato—I don’t—to respect the power of his ideas or to recognize their pernicious influence in some areas of Western thought. But the point of this communication is that there is absolutely no justification for Burnyeat’s assertion that my reference to Stone as a “cultural philistine” refers to his thesis. If this is characteristic of how M.F. Burnyeat reads a text, it calls into question his exegesis of the writings of other authors.

There may of course be another explanation of Burnyeat’s reference to my review. He may not have actually read it but relied on someone else’s account.

Sidney Hook

Stanford, California

M.F Burnyeat replies:

Sidney Hook applied the epithet “cultural philistine” to I.F. Stone with reference to his remarks about Plato’s philosophical doctrines. Stone’s remarks about Plato’s philosophical doctrines are part and parcel of his attack on Socrates, for the doctrines in question are doctrines that Stone attributes to Socrates on the ground that they are represented as his by Plato. Anyone who had read both Hook’s review and Stone’s book with care and understanding would be entitled to conclude that Hook’s epithet “cultural philistine” had reference to Stone’s attack on Socrates. For the alternatives are that Hook did not grasp the implication of his own words or that he did not read Stone’s book with care and understanding. I paid Hook the compliment of presuming that neither of these was likely to be true.

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