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Athenian Justice

Why did Socrates have to die?

Feb 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 21 • By PETER LOPATIN
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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.

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