None the Wiser

Review: 'Socrates' by Tim Nelson

It's clear that Tim Blake Nelson sincerely loves Socrates.

You may know Nelson as an actor from his turns in Coen Brothers works like the impossibly sympathetic and goofy Delmar in O Brother Where Art Thou, freaking out about his buddy being turned into a frog. Or, more recently, you may have seen him as the cheery and violent gunslinging "songbird" Buster Scruggs on Netflix. Now he's written a play, Socrates, currently running at the Public Theater in New York, about the second-most salient self-sacrifice in human history. It's poignantly set and incredibly cast, conjuring a world of Plato and Aristotle and Aristophanes that's engrossing. It's full of love, and it's full of rage.

The outline of the Socrates mythos, since he is a secular saint and very much has a mythos, is this: A man of no particularly high parentage rattles Athens by holding court, in the agora and in his Academy, by asking questions that usually cannot be answered. But they are questions about things society "knows" itself to have answers about. Must have answers about. What is piety? What is justice? He won't take any old definitions, only unitary ones that really explain the nature of the thing. And he never really finds them. Members of his school are radically skeptical. Those who claim to just know things, damn it, can't take it. An element of mysticism is involved, as the Delphic oracle pronounces of the man "none is wiser." Of himself he only claims that "all I know is that I know nothing."

He never writes, considering the philosophical life to be somehow inherently social and immediate. He seems immune to hunger, cold, drunkenness, and lust, without declaring any ascetic ideal. And, of course, for his questions and his insolence and for being an inconvenience in his search for truth, he is killed in 399 B.C. Like Jesus, he accepts the punishment. He administers it himself in the form of hemlock tea.

Plato paints it as relatively painless, but it's really not a good way to go. Nelson, in Socrates, goes the more realistic visceral route. Played by Michael Stuhlbarg (The Shape of Water, A Serious Man), Socrates writhes, seizes, and chokes for a very long time. Speaking of a very long time, this is an almost three-hour-long play, including intermission. Part of what I mean when I say Nelson loves Socrates is that he indulges Socrates. In Plato's dialogues, the interlocutors always conversationally indulge our hero implausibly ("yes, Socrates," "go on, Socrates," "a good question, Socrates"). Nelson, to the contrary, has Socrates attacked and interrupted, but he still lets him get in every last point.

And so the first thing that must be said about the play is that it's much too long. The first act does a beautiful job showing us the Socratic method of questioning. Clearly fascinated by his subject and his endless quest for definitions, we see a theatre version of dialogues like the Meno, the Crito, the poetry section of the Republic, and so on. Each one alone is good. Really good, in fact. The "virtue" section from the Meno, in which Socrates dances to his interlocutor's deep irritation through the subjects of bees and circles to prove he needs a better answer than anyone's yet got, is standout. But maybe two would have stood in for the half dozen.

Two more issues, one small and one big and the one related to the other: Socrates is set very dramatically against a crisis of Athenian democracy, in which the greatest sacred cows Socrates is shown tipping (never skewering) are patriotic impulses. Insofar as the play has a moral beyond valorizing the skeptical method of inquiry, it is that questioning things can be the highest form of participation in a democracy—that dissidence is patriotic. Socrates is shown as the ultimate Athenian in a deep way his fellow citizens are too gormless to grasp. This is somehow off—not untrue in my own view, but off from what Plato writes, anyway. Socrates in the Republic defends something quite unlike Athenian democracy, and quite like the system of government in Athens's main rival down in Sparta. The man was, I'm sorry to say, a bit of a fascist. Forgive a guy. It was 2,500 years ago.

Second issue: As a performance, what Stuhlbarg delivers is masterly. But as Socrates, it feels directorially off. His only modes seem to be snark and rage. We know Socrates mainly through Plato, but also through Xenophon and Aristophanes. And the character we meet there doesn't seem so shouty at all. He often seems like a sarcastic sonofabitch, yes. But in good fun. And he doesn't seem to only teach us to care "not what to think, but how to think." Rather, he really, genuinely wants to know the answers to these questions he cannot work out. He is also serious.

In making him vacillate between puckish provocateur and unbending, frustrated screamer, Nelson does his own saint a disservice. It reifies the cultural conception of the logical, philosophical, truth-seeking man as a sort of inhuman Spock type. There is even a line where they call Socrates' bullheadedness inhuman. And so he appears. Socrates in Socrates is basically unsympathetic, except for all the characters declaring to the audience how beloved he is to them. Instead, Nelson might have allowed that the need for truth-seeking is quite human, and can come from something entirely tender. Conceding this, perhaps, would be a mark of the true wisdom the play considers at such length.

It might please Socrates, though, to end with a sort of unresolved contradiction. Much of what there is to be said of Socrates is basically negative. But a review must answer the overall questions, is it good? and should I see it? Well, despite the many flaws, yes. It’s good. If you get a chance, by all means go. You'll be glad you did.