The Hemlock Cup

Socrates, Athens, and the Search for the Good Life

by Bettany Hughes

Knopf, 528 pp., $35

In 399 b.c., in a prison cell in Athens, a man​—​convicted and sentenced to death a month earlier by his fellow Athenians for the crimes of impiety and corrupting the young​—​was handed a cup of poison hemlock by his jailer. After upbraiding his weeping friends for their shameful display of unmanly grief, he raised the cup to his lips and calmly drank. A few minutes later, Socrates was dead.

The image of his serenity and resolve in the face of death at the hands of his fellow citizens continues to exert a powerful tug on our imaginations and sympathies, 2,400 years after the fact. Since antiquity, readers of Plato’s dialogues​—​which constitute the principal source of our knowledge of Socrates’ life and teachings​—​have sensed something of enduring importance in the character and conduct of the man. The central images bequeathed to us by the ancient texts still retain their vividness and emotive power: the vindictiveness of Socrates’ prosecutors before a hostile Athenian court​—​and Socrates’ compelling, yet somehow enigmatic Apologia​—​his calmness as he awaits his fate, talking with and questioning (always questioning) his closest friends. And the final image: that pivotal moment​—​on which so much seems to turn​—​as he quaffs the poison.

An insistent question continues to press itself on us and demand an answer: What was it about Socrates, the philosopher-gadfly, that so egregiously offended Athens that its leaders felt justified in condemning him to death? Or to pose the question differently (though it is, in fact, the same question, seen as it were through a glass, darkly): What was it about Athens itself​—​the city we rightly refer to as the birthplace of democracy​—​that needed Socrates dead? And perhaps most important: Why does all this still matter to us today?

Bettany Hughes is well known to British television viewers as the author and presenter of a number of programs on a wide range of historical topics. Her last book, Helen of Troy: The Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, received considerable critical acclaim. In The Hemlock Cup she addresses the foregoing questions​—​and a great deal more as well. This is a lucid, erudite, and compelling work that brings Socrates and his city to life, offering a fresh and illuminating perspective on their times.

Although Hughes’s familiarity with Plato’s dialogues is evident, she writes as a historian, not a philosopher, and disclaims any intent to improve upon the vast corpus of philosophical commentary on Socratic thought. Her concern, rather, is to bring the figure of Socrates into sharp relief, to sketch “not a philosophical, but a topographical, map of the man.” Hughes’s attention to topography is not merely figurative, however: “This book aims, physically, to inhabit Socrates’ Athens​—​not just as recorded and as promoted, but as lived and experienced.” In pursuit of that aim, Hughes brings to bear an impressive knowledge of recent archaeological research as she seeks an understanding of the Athens that gave birth to (and killed) the one she boldly calls “the first ironic man on earth.” She has, quite literally, turned more than a few stones in the effort:

I have attempted to visit every site connected to Socrates’ life and to pin down what it is that gives cause to his ideas, and what throws them into context. This book follows the coordinates that Socrates himself would have used.

Hughes’s approach to historical topography is one she describes in overtly painterly terms: “[P]ainters will tell you that the truest way to represent a shape is to deal with the space around it.” That space is the entirety of Athens and its environs in the fifth century b.c. Hughes sets about to delineate every significant contour and lineament of the city-state’s political, intellectual, and social topography as it existed during Socrates’ lifetime, and to place the philosopher in the landscape thus delineated, so as to shed light on the insistent questions that Socrates’ life​—​and death​—​continue to pose. Hughes forthrightly states her purpose this way:

My ambition is very simple: to re-enter the streets of Athens in real time. Not to revisit a Golden Age city, but to look at a real city-state that was forging a great political experiment and riveting a culture; a city that suffered war and plague as well as enjoying great triumphs. To inhabit a place that is at once absolutely recognizable and utterly strange. To breathe the air Socrates breathed.

A “simple” ambition, perhaps, but a grand one. Happily, however, Hughes never succumbs to grandiosity in its pursuit. The result is neither a dry work of academic historiography nor a historical travel log​—​long on color and short on content. It is, rather, a fruitful melding of informed and nuanced historical narrative and personal observation that succeeds marvelously in realizing its bold ambition. Hughes’s determination to “inhabit” Socrates’ Athens reflects her conviction that doing so is essential to an understanding of the circumstances of the philosopher’s final days:

To understand the tenor of Socrates’ trial, its flavor, its taste, its smell, its surface tensions and its undercurrents, we must stand in the classical Agora, look around us, and see what Socrates would have seen as he made his journey through the streets and into the hallowed space of the law-courts.

This is an appealing, and ultimately successful, approach, but it is not without hazard. In attempting to inhabit the places and times where the events central to her narrative unfolded, Hughes can be a bit breathy as she tries to evoke what it all must have been like:

We can perhaps imagine the stellar aristocrat Alcibiades standing one night on a high point in Athens and looking out across the crowded cityscape beyond the Acropolis to Piraeus bay and the dimpled lapping of the sea.

Well, we can perhaps imagine him, I suppose, but it seems a bit of a stretch. Similarly, attempting to evoke the atmosphere in Athens in 480 b.c. when, during a war with the Persians, conditions necessitated the evacuation of most of the city’s population, Hughes confidently tells us: “Children were whimpering, women sweated with effort and fear.” Well, yes, there might have been quite a lot of whimpering and sweating. And yet .  .  .

Or here, as she imagines the sights, sounds, and smells at the Isthmian Games:

And imagine the other sounds here 2,500 years ago when a man like Socrates competed. Musicians tuning up for the added-attraction music festival would slowly drown out the sound of the bees and the passing birds; the tang of fat cooking and spitting on the hearth would swamp the smell of fresh sweat. The sound of running water, splashing into basins there to purify athletes and spectators alike, would soothe the nerves.

Although one may question whether understanding the tenor of Socrates’ trial requires this much olfactory, auditory​—​and almost tactual​—​detail, its inclusion is unquestionably evocative. Moreover, such evocations​—​and they are numerous​—​are more than rhetorical ornaments, and are always contextually appropriate. While they are necessarily speculative, they reflect speculation informed by Hughes’s solid command of historical and archaeological evidence and her boots-on-the-ground familiarity with the physical landscape of Athens and its environs.

The central fact about the Athens of 399 b.c. is that it was a city-state still traumatized from four generations of political turmoil, warfare, and plague. Hughes ably guides the reader through the convulsions of those times, ranging widely over the political, military, and social conflicts that wracked the city. The Athenians’ bold and unprecedented experiment with direct democracy had proven, by turns, liberating and frightful, and always fragile. Athens was, in some sense, always at war with itself, and as Hughes so cogently elucidates, its democracy was not robust enough to endure the irritant of a man whose “single most plangent message [was] that there can be no good, even in a democracy, if each individual is not as good as he can possibly be.”

In such an environment, it is hardly surprising that as Socrates walked the Agora, exhorting young men of high birth to think critically of the status quo​—​rather than simply buttress and perpetuate it​—​he aroused the suspicion and resentment of those in power. Here was a man who served his city as a soldier in combat, yet questioned the point of empire, a man who performed the requisite religious rites, yet claimed privileged access to the spiritual world through his personal daemon, and who​—​in a city that reveled in its wealth and opulence​—​chose to walk without shoes and was disdainful of wealth. As Hughes puts it:

Socrates was a blot on the puff-filled, near-perfect city-state that Attic ambition was contriving to build. He encouraged men to humility rather than arrogance, to honesty rather than self-delusion. .  .  . His ideas were designed to stimulate, to provoke​—​and we all know how irritating, how needling that gadfly, that conscience-pricking gnat

can be.

Because Socrates left no corpus of philosophical writings, all that we know of him is hearsay. He remains, necessarily, an elusive figure. And as to the question of why we still care​—​and ought to care​—​about his life and death, Hughes offers this observation:

We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did. Socrates’ belief that, as individuals, we need to question the world around us stands at the heart of what it means to live in “modern times.” .  .  . Socrates stands at the beginning of our world​—​when democracy and liberty are first conceived as fundamental values of society. We need to understand him because he did not just pursue the meaning of life, but the meaning of our own lives.

There is, then, something very much at stake for us, today, in the effort to see Socrates’ life and death more clearly. As one who “incarnates the tension between the freedom of the individual and the regulation of the community,” he compels the attention of the modern democrat. And though he is elusive, we must continue to search for him:

Socrates is recondite. And he is essential. He reminds us to keep debating the meaning of life, to keep questioning, to keep speaking to one another, to keep looking for answers. However you value him, you cannot argue with the central tenet of his philosophy. Because he beseeches mankind not to be thought-less.

Peter Lopatin teaches at the University of Connecticut at Stamford.

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