Socrates in Love by Armand D'Angour review – the making of a philosopher

Was Socrates really turned on to philosophy due to unrequited desire? This is an erudite guide to the intellectual culture of classical Athens

What do we know for sure about Socrates? Perhaps his famous utterance, “the one thing I know is that I know nothing”? Sadly, there’s no real evidence that he ever said it: it’s first attested in a work of Cicero’s written more than 300 years after Socrates’ execution in Athens in 399BC. It’s always worth reminding ourselves how little we know of the most alluring of Athenian philosophers. Like Jesus (to whom he was often compared in antiquity), he wrote nothing himself, and was the subject of competitive mythmaking in his own lifetime. As Bettany Hughes, the author of a rival biography of Socrates, once put it to me, he is like a ring doughnut: tasty on the outside, but there’s nothing in the centre.

Celebrated classicist and polymath Armand D’Angour would disagree. If you squint at the sources from the right angle, if you’re prepared to run with some late sources, if you take a few imaginative leaps and fill in some gaps creatively, you can plug the hole in the doughnut with – well, if not deep-fried dough, then at least something palatable. This is a learned, agile and slickly written book, but it is not without its problems.

D’Angour’s biography reverse-engineers, from the aged, pot-bellied ironist depicted in Plato and Xenophon, a youthful Socrates: vigorous, athletic, an excellent soldier, traumatised by his overstrict father (to the extent that he hears voices in his head), and oversexed. The book’s big reveal is that he was, so D’Angour thinks, turned on to philosophy when he found himself turned on by Aspasia of Miletus, the learned and brilliant live-in lover of the politician Pericles.

The pivotal piece of evidence is Plato’s Symposium, in which Socrates appears as a character recalling the transformative effects of a conversation with a prophetess called Diotima. Diotima, Socrates says, taught him to think of erōs (desire) in a new way: not as lust for physical bodies, but as a quest for a higher truth. D’Angour thinks that Diotima is Aspasia in disguise. Socrates, he speculates, may have fallen for her; unconvinced by his suit, she gave him what was probably the most erudite brush-off in history, prompting him to turn from sex to philosophy. (He doesn’t address the fact that Diotima speaks only of Socrates’ love for boys.)

To be honest, this is not much of a reveal. The idea that Diotima is a version of Aspasia has gone in and out of fashion for 150 years. Even the ancient sources point in this direction. Another student of Socrates’, Aeschines of Sphettus, wrote a dialogue in which Aspasia played a similar role to Diotima’s in Plato’s text. Hellenistic and Roman Greeks presented Aspasia as Socrates’ teacher in matters of love. Imaginative fantasies about her pivotal role in Athenian culture proliferated in the 19th century: examples include Lydia Maria Child’s Philothea, Walter Savage Landor’s Pericles and Aspasia, and Robert Hamerling’s Aspasia.

In fact there is a wistful, 19th-century feel about this whole book. D’Angour frames the story with an account of an Oxford tutorial, as the “sun is slanting through the mullioned windows”. You can almost hear the patter of floppy-haired young men’s feet on the oak stairwell. Meanwhile Socrates is reclaimed as a military man, handsome, good at sports, middle-to-upper-class, prone to crushes on teacher, sexually confused and twisted by his loveless upbringing: it does all read as a portrait of a Victorian public-school boy. There’s a woman at the heart of it all, to be sure, but she’s a kind of Jungian archetype: the muse-like figure of the mother/lover, the unreal object of impossible desire. There is barely any other mention of a woman in D’Angour’s story. Nor, for that matter, are there any “lower-class” folk or slaves.

Most accounts of classical Athens focus on the democratic collective and its exclusions; D’Angour tells, rather, of networks of privileged, male individuals. This is, in a way, the book’s major contribution: he shows how the kind of prosopographical approaches that have been applied to the Roman Republic and the early empire can, with a bit of creativity, be applied to the less well-attested culture of Athens. In the most thought-provoking passage, he discusses Pericles’ funeral speech (as recorded by Thucydides – and, he thinks, as ghostwritten by Aspasia). D’Angour reads Pericles’ putting the boot into those who don’t contribute to the state and prefer to do their own thing, as a coded attack on Socrates and his chums. Here, in the middle of a book that is primarily led by narrative, D’Angour makes a powerful theoretical point. There are always different ways of reading a democracy: some will see it in terms of the collective narrative; others will see it as a complex set of relationships between peoples.

Socrates in Love is a salutary reminder of another Athens: not the democracy, but the tangle of aristocratic allegiances. D’Angour also offers an erudite guide to the intellectual culture of the time. I disagreed with details, but couldn’t help admiring his grasp of the material and his ability to communicate it compactly. But Socrates and Aspasia? That kind of donnish just-so story is best left to the Victorians.

Socrates in Love is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Tim Whitmarsh

The GuardianTramp

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