Socrates: A Man for Our Times. By Paul Johnson, Penguin Books, 2012.
To the Heights: A Novel Based on the Life of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. By Brian Kennelly, TAN Books, 2014.
The difference between hagiography and biography can be a slight one. Hagiography is a book about saints, and ideally, an explanation of what makes them saintly. A biography revolves around the facts of someone’s life. Often, however, there is not a lot of evidence to know the internal life of a person and the workings of that individual’s mind, and the writer is compelled to speculate or use dramatic license. Such approaches are in evidence in two very different books about very different figures: Paul Johnson’s biography Socrates: A Man for Our Times and Brian Kennelly’s historical fiction novel To the Heights: A Novel Based on the Life of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati.
Johnson’s book is strictly factual, at least as close to historical fact as is possible after so much time as elapsed. The central theme of his book is that Socrates’ life and attitude towards virtue and knowledge ought to serve as a model for contemporary people who believe that living well means acting and thinking well.
“Socrates was in no doubt that education, by making one virtuous, was the surest road to happiness. He was the first seer we know of who pondered deeply on what makes humans happy and how such a blessing can be acquired.
Such a man is well worth knowing about, and for 2,500 years the learned and intellectually enterprising in all countries have sought to know him. At a superficial level, it is easy. Socrates is the quintessential philosopher, the seeker and conveyor of wisdom. But the more one penetrates from the superficial to the essence of the man, the more difficult it becomes. Socrates wrote nothing. Nor did Confucius. But whereas Confucius was listened to attentively by scholars who then collaborated to produce an exact transcript of his teaching– rather as in the twentieth century the pupils of Wittgenstein, another philosopher who wrote little, tried to remember and set down every word from his life– Socrates had a quite different experience. Two remarkable men attached themselves to him and sought to immortalize him in words. Xenophon was a country gentleman, a traveler-adventurer and a general who, thanks to Socrates, whom he venerated, became an amateur student of philosophy… it has to be said that Xenophon never comprehended and so could not reproduce the sheer power of Socrates’ mind, its unique combination of steel, subtlety, and frivolity. If he were our sole authority for Socrates, we would never have learned to venerate him as the founder of philosophy as an expert science.” (pp. 8-9).
The problem with writing a book about Socrates is that there are very few surviving primary sources about the man’s life, and the secondary descriptions of him, such as the writing of Plato, may not be entirely reliable, as Johnson takes pains to note. Xenophon’s records are useful, but they provide an incomplete image of the scope of Socrates’ life and interests. Comparatively, Plato, who is most commonly linked with Socrates in the popular mindset, has created a heavily edited and perhaps fictionalized version of Socrates which may tell the reader far more about Plato himself than Socrates. Describing the unreliability of Plato’s evidence, Johnson writes:
“Our chief source, who sought with all his astounding ability as a writer and thinker to perpetuate the work of Socrates, was his pupil Plato. Plato was a genius, which is both our boundless delight and our misfortune. Being taught by Socrates was the central event of his life, and after his master’s death he spent much of his remaining time recording what he said in a series of dialogues or conversations. More than a score have survived, plus two companion documents: Socrates’ verbatim defense when on trial for his life, and a record of his last hours before his death sentence was carried out. These two documents, plus the earliest dialogues, are authentic records of Socrates the man, the historical seer at work.” (p. 9).
The passage of millennia has severely limited our knowledge of Socrates. It is hard enough to get an accurate understanding of a man’s personality and when he is alive and able to answer questions. It is even more difficult to figure out who a man like Socrates was when he is viewed through the distorting lenses of other significant figures, and through the veil of time and legend. Johnson’s major point is that Socrates becomes the product of other people’s views and opinions of who the great man should have been, according to the desires of the contemporary author.
“It is particularly damaging to our understanding of Socrates in that the line of demarcation in Plato’s writings between the real Socrates and the monster [a hybrid creature created by Plato’s imposition of himself on Socrates’ personality and views] is unclear. It has been argued about for centuries, without any universally accepted result, and anyone who writes on the subject must make up their own mind, as I have done in this account.” (p. 12).
It is therefore clear that the image of Socrates presented in this book is Johnson’s version of the man, and is sure to be challenged by other scholars. In Johnson’s eyes, Socrates is a man who appreciated knowledge, was dismissive of glamorous reputations and luxurious possessions, celebrated health and wellness, and clung to his principles despite assorted pressures. Johnson dismisses interpretations of Socrates as a proto-revolutionary, and attacks recent presentations of Socrates’ sexual proclivities as being high in innuendo and low in fact. Perhaps the most unrealized part of Johnson’s analysis is his portrait of the relationship between Socrates and his wife, which appears to have been a contentious union, and a very interesting one that would have benefited from further attention. Johnson notes that Socrates lived long before the time of Christ, but Socrates’ insistence on a virtuous life supplemented with good citizenship, serves as a model for Christians in the public sphere.
Is Johnson’s version of Socrates more than that of Plato’s? It’s impossible to say, but it is clear that Johnson has painted Socrates as a fascinating and inspirational man. Similarly, Kennelly attempts to make a lesser-known young man from the early twentieth century accessible, warm, and admirable. Kennelly’s novel about Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a young man growing into adulthood and trying to find the virtuous path that God wants him to take, uses fictional license in order to reach the heart of the young man’s moral and spiritual journey.
When acknowledging that his book is a work of fiction based on fact, Kennelly explains his work by writing that,
“So why embark on such a project? Why not just write a biography?
There is certainly a place for biographies in the libraries and bookshelves of our world, especially of the Saints. They are informative, inspirational, and integral to spreading the Faith. But most are not told through the medium of a story, and there is nothing more powerful than this; one need only look to the greatest Teacher we’ve ever known, who chose to teach in parables.
There is no denying biographies have the ability to teach us many things about the colossal figures of our past, lessons we may even be able to apply to our own lives. But does it have the ability to make us cry the way a story can? Does it journey into the caverns of our soul, where the deepest truths hide, and bring those truths back to the surface?
I have always felt that reading a biography, or any non-fiction book, is like looking through a pair of binoculars, while reading fiction is like looking through a kaleidoscope. In both cases you’re presenting something new to your senses, but the binoculars merely draw you closer to a reality that is a distant part of this world, while the kaleidoscope draws you closer to the possible realities of the world beyond, where lights and colors dazzle in such a way we are not accustomed to here on earth. The beauty of historical fiction is that it combines the two, so that perhaps you’re looking through the lens of a telescope at the glittering lights of the cosmos, helping you to make sense of your humble place in the universe. But beyond any poetic analogy that can be made, the truth is that when you fall into a story, your own story begins to have more meaning.
It’s my hope that in relaying the life of a young man like Pier Giorgio Frassati through the prism of a story, we can come to know him better than we would in the pages of a biography, or even a book of his own letters. We can place ourselves in his shoes, relate to him, and view life through his eyes. His experiences become our experiences, and he holds our hand as we learn from them.” (pp. vii-ix).
Pier Giorgio Frassati is presented as an exemplary young man. Though we see hardly any real flaws in his character, Kennelly makes him more than a plaster saint. Young Pier is not a model of perfection that the average person can never replicate. He is, quite simply, a young man striving to be the best person he can possibly be. This is a story where the hero’s goal is not to slay the dragon, win the heart of the princess, or to gain wealth and status. Instead, Pier is constantly trying to figure out how to make himself and the world better through simple but effective actions, and how to win over his family, including parents who are suspicious of their son’s piety and desirous of leading him into the family business of journalism and politics. Throughout the book, the goal seems to be to make Pier a real person. For people unfamiliar with his life, Pier’s story is one of trying to be a light shining in the darkness, and his journey is both rousing and heartbreaking.
“But beyond his spiritual life, he was a good-looking, charismatic, and popular young man who loved to disappear in the rugged Alps of Northern Italy, climbing toward the heights and above the clouds. He had dozens of friends, girls loved him, and he possessed an eternal zest and optimistic attitude in everything he did. To use a modern term, he was simply “cool.” There is a quote attributed to Pope St. John Paul II where he claims that the Church needs saints who wear jeans and sneakers instead of veils and cassocks, and saints who eat pizza and go to the movies. If our late Holy Father truly said this, he needn’t look further than to this young Italian.” (p. x).
Pier Giorgio Frassati and Socrates were wildly different men with contrasting careers, achievements, and legacies. Despite the points of dissimilarity, it is equally important to note that both were charismatic men dedicated to lives of virtue and making the world better. Socrates lived a life of the mind, but his actions spoke as loudly as his words. Pier Giorgio Frassati performed acts of charity and spread kindness and dignity in many little ways, and shaped the lives of everybody he touched for the better. These are two strikingly different approaches to depicting exemplary men, but they are both effective in their results.