Tim Blake Nelson's New Play Socrates

Tim Blake Nelson's New Play Reveals How Socrates Predicted Donald Trump—And the Tyranny of Democracy.
CUL_Socrates_Banner Source: Illustration by Britt Spencer

Four years ago, while filming Fantastic Four , Tim Blake Nelson began writing a play. "Especially when doing a superhero movie, I find myself in need of intellectual succor," says the writer, filmmaker and actor, who most recently, and delightfully, appeared as the titular character in the Coen brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

The play was now at the Public Theater in New York City (through May 11), starring Michael Stuhlbarg as the ancient thinker. Socrates was a brilliant man—often called the founder of modern Western philosophy—as well as an irascible outlier; he wrote nothing and claimed he had nothing to teach. So accounts of his ideas come from his acolytes, and particularly his most devoted, Plato, who published their dialogues after Socrates was sentenced to death. The charges were trumped up, a way of silencing a man whose mission was to relentlessly question social and moral conventions, as well as the status quo. He was offered the option of paying a fine or of banishment or confinement, but as Nelson's Socrates says at his trial: "To spend every day examining life, and yes, doing so publicly, is to me the only way to exist, and to cease doing so would make life simply not worth living. Why live at all without

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