Saturday, April 21, 2007

John Edwards' Favorite Book

John Edwards' favorite book is The Trial of Socrates.

This is I. F. Stone's superb 1988 philosophic investigation, published a year before his death at 82, about why Socrates allowed himself to die. Why he drank the hemlock, after Crito (according to Plato) had given Socrates a chance to escape. Why he allowed himself to go on trial in the first place, rather than leave Athens. Why Socrates went out of his way to antagonize a jury which, by most accounts, was not really out to sentence the great philosopher to death.

Stone, a journalist gadfly and publisher of I. F. Stone's Weekly from 1953-1971, had given up contemporary journalism, taught himself to read ancient Greek, and devoted himself to understanding what had gone wrong back in ancient Athens - what had driven the world's first recorded democracy to kill someone who even then was recognized by many as a world-class thinker. Stone's conclusion, based on his fresh reading, was astonishing: Socrates had allowed the Athenians to bring him to trial, had to some extent even provoked the capital verdict, and then accepted it, because he loathed democracy, and wanted to embarrass it - show the world and subsequent history just how corrupt a democratic system could be.

I had never bought Plato's account of the last days of Socrates. From the first I read and discussed it, in Professor Henry Magid's "Introduction to Philosophy" class that I took as a freshman at the City College of New York in 1963, I didn't believe it - didn't believe that Socrates wouldn't have taken Crito up on his good offer, to continue his philosophy in a city other than Athens, rather than submit to the painful, unjust death of hemlock. (I know I would have certainly said no thanks to the poison, had I been in Socrates' place.) So when I first came upon Stone's book in 1988, I was delighted.

I didn't agree completely with Stone's explanation, and went on to offer my own, in my novel, The Plot to Save Socrates, first published in 2006. But Stone's book remains one of my all-time favorites, and on many days, it is my favorite book, too.

Which brings us back to John Edwards. What does his putting Stone's The Trial of Socrates at the top of his list tell us about this candidate for President?

It tells us he loves philosophy and history. It tells us he has a taste for the intellectually daring, because that's what Stone's book is.

It tells us John Edwards has a keen interest in and sense of what can go wrong in even the most democratic societies. It tells us he is an enemy of censorship - Socrates was put to death for his words - and a friend of societies tolerant of dissidents and their views.

When was the last time we had a President like that? Franklin Delano Roosevelt? John F. Kennedy?

I'm not sure, but I know that John Edwards' favorite book puts him in excellent company indeed.

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