THE TRIAL OF SOCRATES

By I.F. Stone

Little, Brown. 282 pp. $18.95

SOCRATES, the very embodiment of philosophy as a way of life, was tried and executed by the Athenian democracy for not believing in the city's gods and for corrupting the youth.

Every important thinker since has had to come to terms with this most portentous of intellectual events. Is there a tension between man's high aspiration to know what is natural and the concern for the conventional opinions of men and the imperious demands of the community? All have seen in the story the profoundest statement about the human condition, and all but Nietzsche believed that the preservation of the splendid, dangerous, theoretical life of Socrates is essential to our humanity. Now I.F. Stone, investigative reporter, has finally taken on the case, promising to give us the real facts.

As he goes about his assignment in The Trial of Socrates, one is irresistibly reminded of Mel Brooks' Two Thousand Year Old Man, who dated Joan of Arc and caught the last performance of Shakespeare's now lost Cleopatra and Murray before it closed on the road in Cairo. One can see Stone, with his trench coat, checking in at the Athens Hilton, meeting the members of the establishment press corps at the bar, calling the local chapter of the ACLU. Nothing human is alien, or even surprising, to him. He runs into Antiphon the Sophist, a Jeffersonian democrat, and Euripides, the Athenian Walt Whitman. He finds in Athens a whole city with "academic freedom."

History's central casting provides character actors for him we recognize immediately -- progressives and reactionaries, loyal defenders of the rights of man and storm troopers. Stone's unfailing eye for detail enables us to grasp the human picture. Plato never diapered a baby. Socrates preferred to spend the day of his death idly chatting about the immortality of the soul with right-wing youths instead of comforting his long-suffering wife, Xanthippe. It soon becomes clear that our voyager to the past has come not to investigate but to insert himself in the Platonic dialogues in place of all those weaklings and patsies who are K.O.'d by Socrates' bad arguments. He teaches the old logic-chopper a thing or two. He is living out the fantasy of every modern youngster who is required to read the dialogues in a humanities course. How different history would have been if Athens, so rich in all other human types, had produced an I.F. Stone to take on Socrates!

Actually, in spite of the journalistic pose, Stone is in Greece on a mission, having had a clear view of wwat he wants to do before he went. He wants to cleanse Athens of the Socratic blood guilt. Athens is a tragic protagonist, having itself violated what it holds most dear, its sacred principle of free speech. Socrates and his propagandists, Plato and Xenophon, succeeded in making Athens look bad to all later times. Socrates poses as the disinterested seeker for the truth, the man trying to turn from the darkness of the cave to the light of the sun, brought down by the prejudice of the city. Stone turns this around: Athens sought the truth and was tricked by the duplicitous Socrates. He really did engage in a conspiracy to discredit democratic openness and succeeded in getting Athens to betray itself. Lesson: philosophic detachment is inauthentic, a snare and a delusion. The thinker must be a participant in the progressive struggle of the people against the dark forces of reaction. History is the triumph of reason; distancing oneself from it in order to be reasonable is unreasonable and merely disguises old class interests. The true philosopher is engag'e or committed. Thus Stone is Socrates' accuser, the voice of Athens now become fully self-conscious and philosophic.

This is a lesson for today about the relation between thought and society. Stone reinvents the past in order to excise Socrates' great cautionary voice. Stone must assert the most implausible things about Athens to make it work. Wrenching Pericles' phrase about Athens being the school of Hellas out of its context in Thucydides, he teaches that Athens was probably the openest society ever to exist, a participatory democracy of almost perfect equality and freedom, possessed of a philosophy, pre-Socratic, of course, identical in content and force with that of the Enlightenment. Athens is the philosopher; Socrates, the seat of prejudice. HERE STONE really is an investigator, not however a reporter but an employee of the House un-Athenian Activities Committee. Mostly the suspicions turn around those young men, influenced by Socrates' anti-democratic harangues, who later turned against Athens. Stone hesitates and is unclear as to whether Socrates was organizing a pro-Sparta plot or was teaching the truth as he saw it, which resulted accidentally in the corruption of the youth. The former would be a crime; the latter a mistake, or so it would seem. Actually, it peeps through that Stone is more exercised by the possibility of philosophic detachment, thus giving unconscious witness to Socrates' assertion that that is the crime the people cannot understand or accept. Stone cannot contain his indignation at Socrates' lack of compassion and his indifference to the city's broils. He is not a good citizen (or, for that matter, a good husband).

Herein lies the strength of this often tiresome book. The beady-eyed, mean-spirited prosecutor is alert to the inconsistencies that more friendly observers tend not to notice. There is something fishy about Socrates and his story. He does not tell the whole truth; and the prosecutor, obsessed by state security and loyalty, sees this. But he takes seriously only that part of the accusation which says Socrates corrupts the youth. He interprets that charge as meaning that Socrates' students conspire against the city. He steadfastly, obstinately, refuses to take seriously the charge of impiety, the primary charge against Socrates. There was complete religious freedom in Athens; atheists were not only tolerated but were the sources of the public philosophy. Religious fanaticism is an invention of Christianity, so Stone tells us.

But why is Stone so passionate about this point? Because it is the heart of the matter. Socrates asserts that every society, always, has fundamental prejudices or myths, necessary to its existence and about which it cannot tolerate serious doubt. But it is precisely such prejudices which philosophy must test, if philosophy is to be a liberation. This means the philosopher always has an uneasy relation to civil society. Stone cannot endure this assertion. It qualifies total dedication to the cause of the people. He uses all his powers to deny the very existence of the Socratic problem. Stone can help us turn our attention again to Socrates, in the hopes that some will reconsider the relation between politics and the quest for truth. He exemplifies the prosecutor, lurking in all of us, who accuses Socrates in the name of state security. ::

Allan Bloom, professor with the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, has translated Plato's "Republic" and is the author of "The Closing of the American Mind."