From Socrates to the Apocalypse: new stuff from Paul Johnson and Peter Heller
by Jeremy Griffin
Socrates: A Man for our Times, by Paul Johnson
In the world of philosophy, Socrates is something of a conundrum: while he is widely regarded as the father of philosophy, he never actually wrote anyhing, or at least nothing that has survived from antiquity. Pretty much everything we know about him comes to us from the works of others, namely Plato, a devout follower of of the Athenian sage. Unfortunately, many of Plato’s works distort or misrepresent Socrates’ teachings to suit his own hypotheses. And this bugs the hell out of Paul Johnson.
Not that this is necessarily surprising coming from the author of such critically acclaimed works as A History of Christianity and Modern Times: Johnson expects from other historians the same uncompromising honesty with which he approaches his own writing, and he has no problem calling out those he sees as failing in this regard. And so it makes sense that he would devote a large part of Socrates: A Man for Our Times to clarifying the inaccuracies surrounding the eponymous philosopher’s life, including the bizarre circumstances surrounding his execution (Johnson devotes a significant chunk of the book to the 24 hours preceding the philosopher’s death). The vigor with which Johnson approaches this task underscores his immense respect for the intellectual realm at large: his prose is accessible, though not at the expense of the ideas’ integrity, and the protrait of Socrates he presents to us is as vivid as I’ve ever seen–though, to be fair, I know very little about Greek philosophy. But this kind of what makes the book so remarkable: Johnson exalts Socrates for his repeated claim that he didn’t actually know anything, that he was simply inquisitive, a lifelong Athenian patriot whose days were spent strolling through town, talking with whomever he happened to cross paths with. Endlessly fascinated by human behavior, Socrates’ primary–maybe even only–goal was determining what it means to be “a good person.” While the book does not necessarily advocate any one form of moral philosophy, Johnson still praises Socrates’ position of moral absolutism: “Socrates says plainly in Crito, ‘It is never right to do wrong, or to requite wrong with wrong, or when we suffer evil to defend ourselves by doing evil in return.’ It is this clear view that marks the point at which Socrates turns his back on moral relativism, in any guise or circumstances…If you know a thing is wrong, never do it, ever.”
In addition to an biography of Socrates, the book is also a brief history of Athens itself, though in this regard it doesn’t hold up quite as well. Johnson casts a big net here, touching on everything from Greek theater to the Peloponesian War to the Greeks’ general views on homosexuality, all in 200 pages. No surprise then that some of these minor forays seem tacked on, unnecessary, maybe even a little distracting at times. Of course, I have no doubt that all of these things played a role in Socrates’ worldview, it’s just not made quite clear how.
Nonetheless, Socrates: A Man for Our Times is a stunning read. Johnson writes not only for long-time scholars of philosophy but also for anyone who’s ever questioned the very nature of human existence. If you’re looking for an overview of Western philosophy, this is an excellent starting point.
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
A flu-like virus has wiped out something like 99% of the world’s population. Gangs of grizzled marauders roam the country, raping and pillaging and generally being end-of-the-world-style nasty. Those who have somehow retained their sense of civility have armed themselves and hunkered down on secluded farms or military strongholds or, in the case Hig–our narrator in The Dog Stars–a small regional airport. Having lost his wife to the unnamed illness, Hig now shares the considerable plot of land with his neighbor Bangley, a survival expert whose cold and unfeeling demeanor balance out Hig’s own overtrusting tendencies (he makes regular supply visits to a colony of disease-ridden Mennonites, much to Bangley’s frustration) nicely. Oh, and there’s a dog too, of course, a blue healer named Jasper–because every post-apocalyptic survivor story needs a dog.
Which is to say that author Peter Heller isn’t exactly breaking new ground here, though he seems to understand this, which I think contributes to the book’s success. Told from Hig’s first-person POV, the book offers few details regarding the superflu in question; even Hig seems to understand that what he’s experienced, however terrible it may have been, really isn’t anything new in a narrative sense. What we get instead is a gritty but hopeful exploration of human frailty and the strive to maintain a sense of identity in the wake unspeakable disaster. Like most post-apocalyptic stories, The Dog Stars focuses heavily on themes of isolation, using a stream-of-consciousness voice to emphasize this feeling. It’s an interesting tactic, once that highlights Heller’s poetic sensibilities, though at times it gets confusing, especially when it comes to dialogue:
The words are easy to remember: just the title over and over. Followed by the exhortative: We know you are here. You will become dog food like many before you.
Bangley made me add that.
Fuck no, I said. That’s unnecessary and disgusting.
Bangley just stared at me, his grin half formed.
It’s true ain’t it? Ain’t it Hig?
Hit me like a punch.
Add it, he said. This isn’t some debutante ball.
Indisputably, the book owes a lot to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is a hard to act to follow and which, consequently, establishes some very high standards. Luckily, The Dog Stars meets most of these (the ones that count, anyway ['cept for that whole Pulitzer Prize thing]); it’s a unique spin on some well-tread territory, and while the prose can be jarring and hard to follow, it serves the story well, making for a rewarding read.