The Trial of Socrates
When one legend writes about another, the result is bound to be explosive. 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 already have read the book that way, calling Stone a “cultural philistine.”1 A grave mistake.
The attack on Socrates does not spring from intemperance, but from Stone’s devotion to ancient Athens, cradle of freedom, democracy, and the love of justice and truth. These are the values for which Stone has fought, on behalf of us all, in the contemporary world. The book begins with a cry of pain:
How could the trial of Socrates have happened in so free a society? How could Athens have been so untrue to itself?
The pain is not resolved:
I could not defend the verdict when I started and I cannot defend it now. But I wanted to find out what Plato does not tell us, to give the Athenian side of the story, to mitigate the city’s crime and thereby remove some of the stigma the trial left on democracy and on Athens.
The rest of the book is a battle between one uncompromising idealist and another.
The battle between Stone and Socrates was first joined in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, April 8, 1979, but, according to Stone’s own account, the story really begins in 1971 when he was forced by ill health to close his famous one-man publication, I.F. Stone’s Weekly. After a lifetime’s practical involvement in campaigns for civil liberties, he retired from full-time journalism and decided to write a study of freedom of thought in human history. He was then sixty-three.
He began with Milton and the English revolutions of the seventeenth century. That took him back to the Protestant Reformation, that in turn through the Middle Ages to the origins of it all in ancient Athens. “There, like so many before me, I fell in love with the ancient Greeks.”
He learned Greek. A footnote in the book records with justifiable pride the hard work he put into reading the three plays of Aeschylus’ Oresteia in the original: twelve weeks, five to six hours a day, seven days a week. I well remember an evening in a Soho restaurant—my one meeting with him. Whether we discussed Pindar or Thucydides, Sophocles or Plato, his admiration and enthusiasm were exceeded only by his curiosity and desire to know more. Most of the questions he plied me with I could not answer. Not long afterward he “went public” in The New York Times Magazine. The heading of his piece read:
I.F. STONE BREAKS THE SOCRATES STORY. An old muckraker sheds fresh light on the 2,500-year-old mystery and reveals some Athenian political realities that Plato did his best to hide.
At that stage Stone had…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.