The Magazine

Athenian Justice

Why did Socrates have to die?

Feb 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 21 • By PETER LOPATIN
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The Hemlock Cup
Socrates, Athens, and the Search for the Good Life
by Bettany Hughes
Knopf, 528 pp., $35

Athenian Justice

‘The Death of Socrates’ (1788) by Jacques-Louis David

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.

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