For an unassuming academic who spends his time tucked away in the atticy offices of UVM’s classics department, talking with students and reading Plato in the original Greek, associate professor Mark Usher just pulled off something seriously cool. Stepping out of the comfortable confines of the scholarly journal, Usher has turned the foundation of philosophy into a joyous romp of a children’s picture book published this month by Farrar Straus Giroux.
“Long ago in ancient Greece, a boy named Socrates declared that all he knew was nothing. So he spent his whole life asking questions,” begins Wise Guy: The Life and Philosophy of Socrates. Excepting the void of information about Socrates’ early life, Usher has based the text entirely on ancient sources, taking what is known about the adult to imagine the child, “a curious boy, and cheeky too.”
Anyone unfamiliar with the philosopher’s freewheeling standards of dress and decorum may be quickly disabused by William Bramhall’s playful illustrations. “Socrates was his own best caricature,” Usher wrote in detailed, page-by-page notes to the artist. “The fully mature Socrates…is a robust, bearded man; he is not stately or dignified, but a carefree and exuberant creature, barefoot, chubby, boisterous, teasing…the boy Socrates is not a precocious academic, but a thoughtful, playful street urchin…innocently puzzling things through.”
It was just these qualities, in fact, that got Usher musing, in the midst of writing a scholarly paper on Socrates as a satyr character in Plato’s Symposium, about the philosopher’s appeal, potentially even to “the read-aloud crowd.”
“Socrates is a personification of the desire for truth and wisdom, never proclaiming to have it but always desiring it,” Usher says. “And that just struck me as very childlike, comical, loving.” But to many who knew him, Socrates was also deeply annoying, even embarrassing, to be around, not, Usher notes, unlike small kids with their endless uninhibited questions, the ones they seem to save for the grocery-store checkout.
“Socrates was that sort of person,” he explains. “He brought those things to light in public and really there were no holds barred in his question asking…In a way, he’s kind of a guy who never grew up, as many great thinkers and artists are. They’ve chosen not to join adult society in some way.”
So if children are attracted by a kindred spirit in Socrates, Usher reasons, they might just pick up on his ideas too. Mimicking the classical form of text with commentary, Usher has created two tiers of text on each double-page spread, with a short narrative for young children and early readers along with more complicated exposition and historical detail in a sidebar.
“What is goodness? What is courage? What is justice? What is love?” questions the young Socrates in the book’s early pages, as the vivid ink and watercolor illustration features pompously important people who “huffed and puffed, claiming to know the answers and pretending to be wise.” The scruffy little thinker sneers skeptically in the background as the sidebar explains: “Socrates once said that, based on his experience, the people with the best reputations tend to be the ones who know the least. The reason for this, he thought, was that people who are overly concerned about how they look or seem to others fail to see themselves for who and what they really are.”
Wise Guy aims to entertain and inform at every age level, even for adults. “I wanted people to feel smarter by reading the book,” Usher says. And just as he vividly recalls illustrations from D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, his own introduction to the classics at age five or six, he hopes these humorous, loving images of Socrates will be ones that carry kids throughout their lives.
Usher says that he wrote the book to capture the mystique of the man, not to drum in some high-minded idea that children must know more about Socrates. And yet it’s clear that he’d like to see Socrates become an antidote to the consumerist, entertainment culture that kids are bombarded with.
“(What I want them to take away) is that they should not be afraid to ask tough questions, to be interested in finding answers that convince them,” Usher says. “(I want them to) see that there are more important things in the world than iPods and television and t-shirts and brand names… there’s something about Socrates and Greek philosophy in general that privileges the soul and the mind and things that are beyond the everyday dross that we deal with… If a kid decides that it’s okay to be intellectual and they associate (that) with asking tough questions all the time and talking about ideas with other people, that’s a good thing.”
Speaking of Classics aimed at kiddies, I still think Adrienne Mayor should make a kid version of the First Fossil Hunters, aimed at the grade six/seven level ...