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I.F. Stone Turns Trial of Socrates Into a Best Seller

The Washington Post

The second floor of I.F. Stone’s home is lined with the wisdom of the ancients. “This is my Greek and Latin library,” he says, rising from behind a desk brimming with paperbacks, magazines and newspaper clippings. “I’ve got a thousand volumes.

“It’s a good working library because I have all the Greek poets, all of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes.” He speaks quickly as though he might run out of time before he runs out of names. “I have a Greek anthology, Sappho, Homer and all the philosophers and all the Latin poets and all the Roman historians, and I have a lot of basic histories and commentaries.”

On tiptoe, he pulls a weighty tome from the top shelf and lowers it onto his desk. “This is the first translation ever made of Plato,” he says, sliding the book from a dusty case. “It was made in the Renaissance by a Florentine mystic. I found it in a bookstore in Washington, oh, about 20 years ago. Seventy-five dollars.”

The pages are yellow and tattered. Stone turns them delicately and runs his finger beneath a tightly scripted line of Latin. “Nobody ever got away with so much egregious nonsense as Plato out of sheer charm, so it was a pleasure to get to the common sense of Aristotle,” he says. “But then, after you’ve been in Aristotle, it’s a pleasure to get back to the poetry of Plato, because Plato is beautiful.”

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Anyone can recite a monologue; I.F. Stone conducts his own dialectics.

17 Years Later

It has been 17 years since heart trouble forced Stone, now 80, to cease publication of his renowned newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly. He has spent most of his retirement in Athens. Fifth-Century B.C. Athens. The fruits of his sojourn are revealed in “The Trial of Socrates,” a re-examination of the most famous free-speech case in history.

The book surfaced on best-seller lists when it was released in mid-January. “I’ve never been near a best-seller list in my life,” Stone says.

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But the venerable radical is suddenly in vogue. While he was reconsidering Socrates, younger writers were reconsidering him and his contributions to postwar journalism. Pantheon has published Andrew Patner’s “I.F. Stone: a Portrait,” and Little, Brown is reissuing five of Stone’s books in a series titled “A Non-Conformist’s History of Our Times.”

“What I said to my wife a long time ago is that if I lived long enough I’d graduate from a pariah to a character, and then if I lasted long enough out of that, I’d go from a character to a public institution,” he says.

“So those are the rewards of old age. When you are younger you get blamed for crimes you never committed, and when you’re older you begin to get credit for virtues you never possessed. It evens itself out.”

His day begins with newspapers and a magnifying glass. Stone, who wears thick wire-rimmed glasses, has only one good eye, and a cataract is developing on that one. Still, he pores over the papers with the aid of high-intensity lights hung above his bed.

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“It takes me several hours to read the Post and the Times, and I read them with pleasure because that for me is like reading history unfolding,” he says. “I read history like the daily paper. I read the daily paper like history.”

He sees his work on Socrates being of a piece with his exposes on the Atomic Energy Commission and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. “A reporter is an investigator, and a scholar is an investigator,” he says. “Either you are reprinting the press releases or you come up with something new.”

The difference being that to come up with something new on Socrates, Stone had to teach himself classical Greek. When he stopped publishing the Weekly after 19 years, his ambition was to write a history of freedom of thought. That drew him, inevitably, to ancient Athens.

‘Verb Is a Horror’

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“If I had realized how far I was going to go, I’d have gone back to school and taken night courses or something,” Stone says. “The Greek verb is a horror.”

In retrospect, the mental challenges he faced seem much less formidable than the physical ones. Stone’s eyesight has been deteriorating for years. He does much of his reading with the aid of a gift from Jerry Bruck Jr., who produced the 1973 documentary film “I.F. Stone’s Weekly.” The machine magnifies typescript to several times its normal size and displays it on a television monitor.

That lessened his difficulties in reading other people’s work, but made it no easier to produce his own. Stone thought he would have to settle for writing a series of lectures until Little, Brown offered him a book contract and his daughter Celia told him of a word processor that could project letters in headline-size type.

“So I got me one and did four drafts and a fifth revision,” Stone says. With the help of this technology, he found himself back in the arena of public debate.

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“You know, there are only half a dozen things in the world worth arguing about, and we don’t have any answers to these fundamental arguments,” he says. “But it’s fun to explore them.”

Ancient Death Sentence

In 399 B.C. Socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting the young and dishonoring the gods of Athens. The decision, rendered by a slim majority of the 500 jurors, stood for ages as an argument against the tyranny of majority rule.

“The more I fell in love with the Greeks, the more agonizing grew the spectacle of Socrates before his judges,” Stone writes in his preface. “How could the trial of Socrates have happened in so free a society? How could Athens have been so untrue to itself?”

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At the heart of his book is a duel of gadflies--Socrates, whose nettlesome interrogations made him philosophy’s first martyr, and Stone, a democrat and a civil libertarian who decries the verdict yet sympathizes with the prosecution.

Stone set out “to give the Athenian side of the story, to mitigate the city’s crime and thereby remove some of the stigma the trial left on democracy and on Athens.” That meant portraying Socrates as he has seldom been portrayed before.

“You know, when you’re reading the dialogues, you come to a point and you say to the guy who is talking to Socrates, ‘Hey! Hey! Don’t let him get away with that. Why don’t you ask him this?’ ” Stone says.

“There’s something very wrong with the cross-examination of Socrates. The dialogues of Plato are in large part like fixed boxing matches. They are aimed to elicit the answer Socrates wants and what he mainly wanted was for people to admit they didn’t know what they were talking about. But, if the citizens did not achieve real knowledge and real virtue, how could they run the city? It would have to be run for them.”

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Plato presents Socrates as a secular saint, a wise man who sought only to clarify the thinking and puncture the pretensions of his fellow citizens. Stone, on the other hand, portrays him as a middle-class snob who neglected his wife, taught his followers a contemptuous cynicism and undermined the interests of the city.

But Socrates had twitted Athenian leaders for most of his adult life. He was a lovable eccentric and a figure of fun in the popular drama of his time. Why, suddenly, at the age of 70, would he become a threat to the life of the city?

Stone finds his answer in what he calls “the three earthquakes,” the armed revolts of 411, 404 and 401 B.C. In each case a band of well-born young men led an uprising against the Athenian democracy. The first two succeeded; the third, just two years before Socrates came to trial, was quashed.

Several of Socrates’ best-known pupils played prominent roles in these uprisings. Crito, a particular favorite, led the repressive dictatorship of the 30 that came to power after the second revolt. In 399 B.C., the restored democracy was particularly insecure, and tolerance for Socrates was at an ebb. Still, Stone says, the philosopher may have won an acquittal and could certainly have avoided the death sentence had he not deliberately antagonized the jury.

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Socrates’ Death Wish

“I could not defend the verdict when I started,” Stone writes. “I cannot defend it now.” But, he adds, Socrates had a death wish. “Socrates needed the hemlock as Jesus needed the Crucifixion to fulfill a mission,” Stone writes. “That mission left a stain forever on democracy. That remains Athens’ tragic crime.”

If Stone wanted to breathe life into the debate over classical antiquity he succeeded in spades.

“Mr. Stone’s jeering remarks about Plato’s philosophical doctrine are those of a cultural Philistine,” wrote Sidney Hook in the Wall Street Journal.

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Stone says three reviewers attacked him in public. “One was Sidney Hook calling me an autodidact. It’s really funny to have a guy who is really a lifelong teacher bawl out a lifelong student for continuing to learn.”

R.E. Allen, a translator of Plato, says Stone did Socrates a disservice by casting him as a political actor, and Richard Kraut, author of “Socrates and the State,” says, “I think you have to be wary of taking a thinker who has been influential in terms of practical politics and blaming him for the way his message was misinterpreted.”

Stone is not simply opposed to Socrates’ politics; he is opposed to the philosopher’s notion of a useful life:

“To my mind, the Socratic view leads straight to the desert saints who felt that the way to preserve their soul was not to help their fellow man, but to go out in the desert and pray and meditate. They cultivated their own souls and looked at their own navels. So in a sense the medieval world begins with Socratic and Platonic ideas of withdrawal from the city to preserve the purity of the soul.”

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A Neglected Navel

Isidor Feinstein Stone has never been much for navel contemplation. He has been a news junkie since he published his first paper, The Progress, at age 14. In the debut issue he attacked William Randolph Hearst, praised Mahatma Gandhi and quoted Sophocles.

He thought, at one point, that he might become a philosophy professor. This was shortly before he dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania in his junior year. But the academic life seemed so bloodless compared with newspaper work, which also offered an ambitious young man a way to make a little money.

He spent more than 20 years reporting and writing editorials for a succession of liberal newspapers. But when the New York Daily Compass folded in 1952, Stone, 44, found himself unemployed and without offers.

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“I couldn’t get a job doing and saying what I wanted to say, so I started my own little flea-bit publication,” he said then. With $6,500 and the subscription lists from two defunct liberal dailies, he and his wife, Esther, began I.F. Stone’s Weekly. The first issue in January, 1953, was mailed to 5,300 subscribers, who each paid $5 a year.

The Red scare was raging when the Weekly made its debut, and Stone found himself ostracized from official Washington.

Stone attacked Joseph McCarthy and John Foster Dulles and questioned official accounts about the origins of the Korean War. Because his hearing was poor and he had no inside sources, Stone developed his stories by poring over documents, piecing together contradictions, showing how one official version of the truth did not jibe with another. His writings, though largely ignored by the powers that be, had a deep influence on a new generation of journalists and historians.

“In those years when I was in college, I.F. Stone was the man who was right on top of what was breaking,” says Stephen Ambrose, biographer of Lincoln and Nixon. Stone’s “The Hidden History of the Korean War,” published in 1952, questioned whether the United States and South Korea might have known about, or perhaps precipitated, the North Korean attack that began the war. It was published by a small left-wing publisher and was blasted by reviewers before it disappeared from sight.

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‘Unanswered Questions’

“All I wanted to call attention to were unanswered questions that are still unanswered,” he says. “And then it also calls attention to the fact that some in the American military really welcomed the war.

“Truman and General Eisenhower and General Bradley as his chiefs of staff had begun to demobilize the army after the Second World War, and Korea started the arms race and the buildup going again. So I wanted to bring out the hostility of the military.”

His on-the-spot analysis was remarkably similar to that developed by New Left historians who began studying the Korean question a decade later. Yet his contribution is seldom cited in historical literature.

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“He was way ahead of the pack,” says Bruce Cumings, professor of East Asian history at the University of Chicago and author of “The Origins of the Korean War.” “His book has essentially been validated on a number of key points by archival documents that have come out in the past few years.

“I think the reason historians haven’t cited his book all that much is that it got a reputation for being some type of conspiracy theory. But that refers only to the start of the war and not to two-thirds of the book. I’m still in awe of that book.”

In the ‘60s Stone reaped the benefits of seeds sown many years earlier. The New Left adopted him as a hero, and the circulation of the Weekly soared to 36,000. His integrity and enthusiasm had made him a cult figure. Many of today’s most celebrated investigative reporters cite Stone as their inspiration.

“I was a kid reporter at the AP and had the pleasure of Izzy encouraging me,” Seymour Hersh says. “In one of the Anne Tyler novels there is a wonderful scene in which she is describing what a dog thinks of the people who are its masters. And every other Saturday or so the dog must think, ‘What a hunter. The guy goes out, he comes back and he’s got all kinds of meats. They’re wrapped.’ And the dog thinks, ‘What a hunter!’

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“It was the same way with Izzy. I’d read his stuff and say, ‘What a hunter!’ ”

When Stone closed the Weekly in February, 1971, he had more than 70,000 subscribers.

“I really have so much fun I ought to be arrested,” he says in Bruck’s documentary. “Sometimes I think it’s wrong of me. . . . It becomes like you’re a journalistic Nero fiddling while Rome burns, or like a small boy covering a hell of a big fire. It’s just wonderful and exciting, and you’re a cub reporter, and God has given you a big fire to cover. And you forget--that it’s really burning.”

Time in the Library

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He still dabbles in journalism, but spends most of his time in his library on the second floor.

“It’s not solitary because you are living with the living dead,” he says. “All these people are not dead. These are all wonderful people. These Greek poets--every one of them is a human; Sappho in her jealousy, and her passion is so alive. Archilochos the anti-hero writes in a poem about ‘I threw away my goddam shield, if somebody else gets it, let him have it. I saved my life. I’ll get me a new one.’

“No heroics. The anti-heroic poet. Every one of them is a personality. And they’re alive. They’re more alive than a lot of people that you pass on the streets.”

Lately his studies have been interrupted by writers, photographers and television interviewers who ask him about the Greeks, old age, Ronald Reagan, whatever wisdom he cares to dispense. Most of his comments are variations on a theme, his faith in democracy.

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“You know, Lincoln was an autodidact too, and in the Inaugural, which is one of the noblest things ever written in the English tongue, this self-educated Illinois farm boy speaks of ‘the better angels of our nature,’ this appeal for peace. So what does that mean? It’s a view that we’re divided, that we have evil and good in us, and I think Reagan has appealed to the worse angels of our nature by making people feel, ‘The hell with others, grab what you can, do what you can.’

“If you take a long view of history, then you have the common man rising to equality and governing himself,” he says. “There’s pitfalls and backslides and dictatorships, but from a long-range point of view, it’s the rise of the common man. It’s what’s in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and in the Athenian way of life. It’s been a steady march.”


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