From an item in the Scotsman:
WHEN westen civilisation began, it was in the Agora, or marketplace, of Athens. There, in the Golden Age of Athenian democracy, about 450 years before the birth of Christ, Socrates – the man who, remember, thought the unexamined life not worth living – would contribute his pennyworth to discussions of ethics.
We know of him, said the wonderful Bettany Hughes, on the opening day of the book festival that wisely doesn’t call itself the Agora of the North, only through the works of three people – Plato, Aristophanes and Xenephon. Socrates wrote nothing himself – or at least nothing that we know about.
So why start a book festival by mentioning him? Because of this one fact.When Socrates was born, in 469BC, the population of Athens was about 200,000. When he died, 70 years later, it was 20,000.
Now this was a man who would have bumped into Euripides, who had Plato as a student, who would have gone to the first nights of Aristophanes’s plays and heard Pericles speak. The best of us, in other words. But through war (his democracy voted for war every other year, Hughes pointed out), disease and state-sanctioned “disappearances”, look at how heavily death weighed on that city, that civilisation, that first democracy.
I’d never realised that. It’s the sort of fact you might pick up at Charlotte Square, that well-known northern marketplace of ideas, which starts to put other ideas into focus. How, for example, did Socrates believe the examined life should be lived? “He is always saying that we need to look to the good in people,” said Hughes. “The world can only be good if we are our best possible selves.”
Forget, in other words, all those images from last week’s news, of people carrying off looted plasma screen TVs back to their unexamined lives and streets such as the one Hughes herself lives on in Ealing, where neighbours were threatened by men with knives and cars were set on fire. Civilisation stands firmer than that. It stands so firm that it survives even when 90 per cent of your city’s population is wiped out.
Yet Socrates, Hughes added, would have had a lot to say on mindless materialism. He would certainly have known that new trainers, looted or not, wouldn’t have made us happy. He was suspicious of the written word “because onceit goes out into the world it can be twisted, so he wouldn’t have been surprised at looters messaging”, but he believed in human beings meeting, in discussions, in questions and answers. Socrates would have hated books, in other words, but loved book festivals.