Friday, July 20, 2007

The Plot to Save Socrates

Paul Levinson (2006), The Plot to Save Socrates, (New York: Tor Books)

I love time travel stories. My favorite time travel Star Trek: The Next Generation story is “Time’s Arrow” Part 1 and 2 where Data’s head was found in a 19th century San Francisco excavation and the away team from enterprise have to travel back in time to discover why. In the process, they met up with Mark Twain.

Time travel story is a wonderful marix of paradoxes with which good authors can play fanciful games with historical figures and events. I grew up on a diet of time travel stories from Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Greg Bear, Ben Bova, and Gregory Benford. Those interested can join the Time Travel Institute.

Thus when I discovered Paul Levinson’s book at Kinokuriya bookstore in Singapore, I snap it up at once. Not only is it a time travel story, but it involves the Greeks and Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Alcibiades, Antisthenes, and inventor Heron of Alexandria. I have always been fascinated by the question on how Greek philosophy would have developed if Socrates had not been executed by drinking hemlock by the Athenians. Would it have taken a totally different direction?

Will democracy has taken a different direction? (Socrates was condemned by the 500 members of the Athenian assembly for corrupting the minds of their young. Socrates called this fledging democracy “mob rule” and wanted to use his death to show the inadequacy of democracy. His student, Plato speaks of philosopher kings rather than democracy).

Will Christianity be different if Socrates had lived longer? Greek philosophy influence on the development of Christian thinking through Origen, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas cannot be denied.

The novel started by the discovery of a fragment of an ancient dialogue of Socrates where he was offered a chance to escape through time and leaving behind a clone of himself by the future time traveler so that it seems that Socrates would have been executed. In his story, Levinson did not deal much with science. His mode of travel are chairs that are programmed to a certain time period and are located in London, New York, and Athens. He did not make the effort to explain the physics of time travel, paradoxes, the butterfly effect, and effect of two self in the same moment of time. This makes his story not too believable.

There is also the large number of characters time traveling which make it confusing, especially if Roman mercenaries from another time period were brought in. In the end, it turned out that Socrates was dying of brain cancer anyway and cannot be saved even with medicine from the future.

It would have been great novel if Levinson has been clearer in his plotting. It is also a mystery novel because we are guessing throughout the novel, who is actually the time traveler who set the whole plot to save Socrates. However, I was swamped with details about ancient Greece, philosophers, and also their incredible ability to travel around Londonium, Athens, and even to the Americas.

This novel however offers an interesting idea, that Socrates is actually dying from brain tumor and that is why he accepted the Athenian death penalty. History recorded that he had to wait for 30 days for the hemlock to arrive and he refused an escape offer by his disciple, Crito. If he did not have the brain tumor would he have escape? Levinson notes that “I.F. Stones argues that Socrates may also have wanted his death penalty carried out as a way of permanently shaming the democracy he hated. In any case, that was certainly the result: the death of Socrates by prescribed hemlock in 399BC redounds as one of the worst cases in history of a dissident destroyed by government, all the worst because that government was the world’s first known democracy.” (p.270). This implies that Socrates have an inkling on his own importance in Greek philosophy.

If I have an opportunity to travel back in time to meet some historical person, I would like to meet Jesus of Nazareth.

What about you?

If you have an opportunity to travel back in time, who do you want to meet?


  1. Jesus is a taken. Along with him Paul, David, Moses, Peter, John, definitely Hosea, Isaiah, the list goes on ... in other words, all of them.

    So aside from them, the person that came to mind was my grandfather. I have never met him, never knew him and I always wonder what he is like. What would I say when I see him? I couldn't think of any. Hi?

  2. You gave the story away! You must put a "spoiler ahead" warning. I am not reading it now :)

  3. Pearlie! Read it anyway - it's a fabulous book, and you won't be sorry!

  4. hi pearlie,

    I did not! really I did not give away the story :) Ask 'a fan.' It is still worth the reading.

  5. okie then ... it's on, since it is so highly recommended. I'd look out for it at the bookstores.

  6. I got it! The one and only copy in MPH on Saturday, I got it :)