Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes

From The Independent, November 5 2010

Paul Cartledge reviews
The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, By Bettany Hughes

The shining names of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Archimedes have left a permanent mark in the annals of human civilization". These are not my words, but those of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, and they are unarguably persuasive. Not a bad achievement for a thinker who, in the case of Socrates, left behind not a single unquestionably self-authored word.

Bettany Hughes indeed seems irresistibly drawn to ancient-world characters who when – and if - not frankly mythical are deeply, irretrievably mythicised. Her earlier quest for an at least partly historical Helen of Troy (and Sparta) is followed here by another, almost as chimerical perhaps, for the historical Socrates. From the ancient Greek world's most beautiful woman to one of its self-acknowledgedly ugliest men is quite a step, but one that Hughes accomplishes without breaking stride or pausing for breath.

Her enormous energy and enthusiasm are infectious. She writes up a storm. At the end of the road we may not be any closer to certainty or closure on the biggest issues of Socrates's inordinately rich life and afterlife but, as with the search for the historical Alexander or Jesus, travelling hopefully is quite possibly as good, and as much fun, as arriving. The journey is the reward.

No one before Bettany Hughes, a highly accomplished communicator, has thought to weave Socrates's examined life into quite so rich and dense a tapestry of democratic Athens's teeming high-cultural and mundane experience. Socrates was born in 469BC, too young by at least a generation to experience the highlights of Marathon and Salamis but old enough to profit from the heady intellectual and political and cultural ferment that those victories against the invading Persian empire brewed up.

Athens had become the world's first democracy (of its own unique sort) in around 500; 50 years on, by the time Socrates came of age (officially in 451), the Athenian citizen masses had gained the confidence and had the wit to accept advice from Pericles and many other lesser mortals. They voted funds for the Parthenon and the tragic dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles as well as for a virtually non-stop, and mostly successful, series of campaigns on land and sea against Greeks and non-Greeks alike.

Readers will be drawn by Hughes's beguiling prose into exploring the highways and byways of Athens's topography. She begins programmatically with "Athena's City", and Socrates was nothing if not a denizen of the urban jungle. Archaeology has always been a strong suit of the author. Recent excavations in advance of building Athens's rather charming underground rapid-transit system are properly laid under contribution - especially the plague pits of the early 420s that, as contemporary historian Thucydides unforgettably recorded, threatened to subvert the most fundamental norms of civilised Athenian life.

She is also particularly illuminating on the devices and desires of the world's first democratic regime, towards which Socrates maintained an unfortunately ambivalent stance. On the one hand, he seems to have participated in at least some aspects of the daily round of democratic life, such as being chosen by lot to serve for one year on the 500-strong administrative Council. On the other hand, he must surely have shared to the hilt, if for more purely intellectual reasons, the general distaste of the Athenian elite for a political system that amounted in their eyes to the dictatorship of the (ignorant, fickle, stupid) proletariat. His personal associations with the maverick Alcibiades and, even more, with the arch-oligarch Critias did nothing to enhance his philo-democratic profile.

Hughes shows no less gusto for recalling and describing a Mediterranean world of sex, violence, carousing and great man-made beauty that Socrates sought rather to question than embrace. Who having read the Symposium – Plato's multiplex meditation on erotic desire – can ever forget naughty boy Alcibiades bursting in on the party, half-seas over, and regaling the assembled (fictional) company, including the playwright Aristophanes, with a richly comic tale of failed seduction: his, that is, of the habitually self-controlled Socrates? Yet "I cannot remember a time in my life when I was not in love with someone," Socrates is supposed to have said. Hughes rightly devotes a whole "Act" (one of the eight in her dramatised biographical reconstruction) to "Socrates and Love".

Above all, she does full justice - as perhaps the Athenian people did not - to the religious and philosophical endeavours of a unique career fatally shadowed by the ultimately disastrous Peloponnesian War against a Sparta backed decisively by Persian money (431-404 BC). In 399 Socrates, son of Sophroniscus, of the deme (ward, parish) Alopece was indicted for impiety. He was tried before a people's jury court (no judge, or rather 501 amateur citizen-judges) for inventing new gods, not duly acknowledging through worship the gods that the city of Athens did acknowledge, and corrupting key young men who would go on to become traitors and political revolutionaries thanks to – by inference – his teaching of them.

The religious charges were crucial. Athenians took their gods deadly seriously and ascribed their defeat by Sparta not least to divine displeasure caused by the presence in their midst of such an influentially bad citizen as Socrates. The combination of alleged impiety and traitorous pedagogy proved fatal for Socrates, who died a martyr to free thought, as a new kind of intellectual hero.

Or so his many fans, among whom Hughes counts herself, have fiercely believed and argued. Whatever the truth (an elusive concept, as Socrates would probably have been the first to confess), Socrates admirably enacted his own rightly famous nostrum – that "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being". Aged 70 he died the death of a philosopher by draining the prescribed hemlock dose and facing its consequences with enviable aplomb.

All of the above – and there is a good deal more here too, including an illuminating Act entitled "Socrates the Soldier" - demands reinvestigation and reappraisal. There can probably always be found room for a new book reminding us of Socrates's continued salience in our world of alarmingly unexamined prejudice and terrifyingly blind faith. The Hemlock Cup is, moreover, beautifully produced, filled with a host of stunning illustrations and tricked out most inventively on its endpapers with a plethora of extraordinary Socratic quotations running from Montaigne and Lydia Child (both 1588) to Nelson Mandela. The good life is an elusive concept but, however defined, arguably no search for it would be dangerously impeded by buying this handsome volume and reading it through, critically, as Bettany Hughes's Socrates would have devoutly wished.

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes

From The DailyTelegraph October 30 2010
Tom Payne reviews

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes

There’s a charming poem by Seamus Heaney about Socrates’ last day. It expresses a brief surprise that Socrates could believe in dreams. But the poet quickly acknowledges that the philosopher did live in a dream world. Bettany Hughes’s book leaves us in no doubt.

The Hemlock Cup is a biography of Socrates, and also a lot more than that. Yes, it speculates on the walks he would have taken around the Agora in Athens (admittedly with bundles of suggestive evidence); it suggests just what the hemlock would have done to him; and it attributes Socrates’ habit of standing stock still for hours to cataleptic seizures. For all that, Hughes is more concerned with the philosopher’s time and place.

As she unfolds the tale, she brings us an edited history of fifth-century BC Athens, too. This isn’t padding, or even scene-setting (atmospheric though it always is). Without overstating the case, she shows how the city’s life runs alongside the philosopher’s, and then takes a different course.

Socrates would always warn that an acquisitive life was not worth living and that the pursuit of gold is vacuous; meanwhile Athens revelled in becoming an empire, so it conquered more and mined more and showed off more. And then there was an attempt to colonise Sicily.

Out of Athens and Socrates, the former emerges as the more tragic character, with its greed and its failure to learn from its wisest citizen until in the throes of its downfall.

Still, Athens and Socrates have this in common: that we hold both up to be supremely rational entities, yet the mysterious, even the magical, holds some allure for them both. Athens is a town of traditions, superstitions and taboo. And the Socrates Hughes portrays is attentive to his inner voice, his guiding spirit, his daimon. As a result, Socrates ends up inflaming public opinion when his own instincts seem to set him against the pantheon of mischievous Olympians to whom his fellow citizens sacrificed as often as possible.

Now, to present Socrates in this way isn’t easy. It subverts his legacy as a philosopher. Hughes pleads right from the start that her book is about the busy and practical Socrates and that she is more a historian than a philosopher. So readers expecting a life of his mind, and to meet the Theory-of-Forms Socrates will be disappointed.

The author does deal with the ideas, particularly where they apply to love. Love, after all, is a real-world way of glimpsing things whose beauty is beyond this world. But she settles for a quick peek at the thinkers who, she suggests, most directly influenced Socrates: Parmenides and Zeno. The former explains the world by ascribing “being” to it; the latter formulates paradoxes that test ideas to destruction.

It’s an efficient move because it helps her persuade us that Socrates is at once a gadfly and also enlivened by the belief that things have a reality beyond our experience in this world. And it gives Hughes a chance to entertain a little gossip, and hint that Parmenides and Zeno were an item. She’s also keen to establish that there was more to the relationship between Socrates and the seductive Alcibiades than readers of the Symposium might think.

Often this is a book about gossip and quite right too. It was gossip that did for Socrates, as he told the 500 jurors who judged him. Hughes puts his fame in its Greek context, where the word’s root, pheme, means talk. Talk was everything in Athens, and Socrates was a constant topic. Why would he teach behind closed doors? Why did he hang out with the half-Spartan Alcibiades, who was so amused by the populace?

Early in Hughes’s story, we’re shown the binding nature of the blood sacrifice before the trial, and at the end, when Socrates must die, she calls him a scapegoat, while discussing the need that his execution be ritually pure.

It’s tempting to take these implications further, and see Socrates as a luminary who tickles his audience for a while and then is voted out, a sacrificial victim himself with no way back, so that Athens is too late to realise its mistake.

The author elegantly resists this and gives us a compelling study of an exceptional man’s relationship with the one community that had a hope of understanding and accepting him.

There’s some terrific and passionate writing about a philosopher whose heroism is unquestionable (though that heroism resides in a constant questioning); and as lively and learned an introduction to classical Athens as you could want.


From The Sunday Telegraph October 24 2010

Peter Jones reviews THE BATTLE OF MARATHON, by Peter Krentz (Yale 230pp £18.99)

The second couplet of the Greek tragic poet Aeschylus’ epitaph reads: ‘The grove of Marathon could tell of his famous valour, and the long-haired Mede knew it well’. Being one of the Marathonomachai of 490 BC was the one thing the man who composed the Oresteia wished to be remembered for.

He was not alone. The Persian Empire stretched from western Turkey to India. Its king, Darius, ruled some 70 million people. Athenians may have been foolish to stir to revolt some of the Greeks living under this mighty empire, but that’s the Athenians for you: a freedom-loving lot. There was now a price to pay. The Persian general Datis, the expedition leader, was under orders to bring the Athenians back in chains.

The chains remained unoccupied. On that late summer morning, 6,400 Persians were killed, and 192 Greeks. A visitor to Athens 600 years later, surveying all the monuments, commented ‘I reckon this is the victory of which the Athenians were most proud’. Some have argued it saved Western civilisation. Those who think it was not worth saving are free to try president Ahmadinejad’s vibrant alternative.

Next year we celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of this encounter, dated in our calendar to September 13th. If the American academic Peter Krentz’s is the only book published on the subject—somehow one thinks not—it will make a fitting memorial. Written with commendable clarity and good humour, it submits all the evidence to careful scrutiny, and adds a good deal more, to present a pretty convincing picture of what happened and why.

Our primary source is the Greek historian Herodotus, writing some sixty years after the event. To take a few of the problems. Herodotus says the Greeks ran 8 stadia (.9 of a mile) before attacking: the first time that had ever been done. Was it possible in full hoplite gear? Assuming with Krentz that such gear weighed c. 40 lbs (not the assumed c. 60 lbs) and that the run was a jog at 4.5mph and not the assumed 7mph—Krentz demonstrates the likelihood of both—the answer is ‘yes’.

But why did they run? Herodotus does not say. But he had said that the Persians landed at Marathon because it was wide enough to deploy their cavalry. Krentz shows that the Greeks attacked at speed in order to anticipate that deployment, adding that, had it been the Persian archers they were worried about, running the last stadion would have sufficed.

Herodotus says the Greek centre was driven back, but the wings won and turned round to attack the Persians from the rear. Some have argued this was too sophisticated a manoeuvre. But it was surely an entirely natural thing to do, even if, as Krentz argues, it was not in strict phalanx formation.

And what about those famous ‘Marathons’, first (to no avail) to get Spartan help, and then to announce the victory, run by Philippides, or was it Pheidippides, or, er, Eukles or perhaps, um, Thersippos? Read this compelling book and find out.

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes

From The BBC History Magazine, October 2010
Michael Scott reviews
The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good life

The Hemlock Cup is another vibrant and atmospheric work from this well-known promoter of the ancient world.

Bettany Hughes has taken one of history’s great enigmatic figures, the philosopher Socrates, and made him her guide to one of the world’s most interesting and important cities, Athens, during a glorious and yet highly turbulent periods of its history.

As Hughes makes clear in her introduction to the book, to write about Socrates is to rely on second-hand accounts, which need careful sifting and weighing to generate a reliable picture of the man and his world. This Hughes enhances with her welcome vivid descriptiveness (“Athens is a kingfisher’s whisper from the sea”; “they were lines of snails in an electric storm”) and her fast-paced narrative.

The book starts at close zoom on Socrates’s day of judgment. It then pulls back to examine Athens during his early life, his career as a soldier, his time as a middle-aged man, and as a lover, before finally returning to a dramatic retelling of his condemnation and execution.

By following Socrates in this manner, Hughes combines the difficult literary evidence with the archaeological remains to produce an enjoyable and thought-provoking tour through Athens’s major physical, historical and cultural landmarks and flash-points of the fifth and early fourth centuries BC.

Within such a rich text, there are only a few points that give pause. The focus on talking only about locations and themes that can be tied in some way to Socrates’s life means that Hughes misses out on some key features of Athens and her empire. It is difficult to understand the statesman Pericles’s building programme without thinking about its vast Attica-wide geographical scope, with buildings at Eleusis, Sounion and Rhamnous for example.

The footnotes to fantastic insights (particularly from the archaeological evidence) also sometimes frustrate you when trying to follow them to learn more (there are no references to the excavation publications of the Kerameikos, for example, in chapter ten on
the Kerameikos cemetery).

Perhaps the most difficult to swallow, though, are the headline-grabbing statements about Socrates himself: “He is hailed as humanity’s first-recorded ideological martyr” (without any footnotes to articulate the claim) and “the first man for whom we have an extant record who explores how we should all live in the world”.

Such phrases not only do an injustice to the balanced tenor of the rest of the book, but give a picture of ancient Greece isolated from other important ancient civilisations that surrounded and preceded it.

Despite these points, this is an exciting book that puts the reader into the footsteps of Athenians of the fifth century BC. It documents the slide from empire to defeat and political instability with passion and imagination, complemented by pull-no-punches descriptions of the modern landscape of Athens.

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes

From the Observer, October 24 2010
Tom Holland reviews
The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure does not tend to be rated as one of cinema's profounder treatments of the relationship between present and past. The story of two Californian slackers with a time machine who, for complicated reasons, have to assemble assorted celebrities from history in order to pass a high-school project, it is chiefly remembered for bringing Keanu Reeves to the attention of a mass audience. Classicists, however, will always cherish it as the only film ever to combine the music of Van Halen with Greek philosophy. When Bill and Ted embark on their quest, what should be their first destination if not classical Athens, and who should be the very first "historical dude" bundled into their time machine if not a bald-headed man in a sheet whom they persist in calling "Soh-kraytz "?

Even to metalheads, then, the philosophy of ancient Greece serves as something that is both primal and emblematic of civilisation as a whole. Socrates, in particular, the "lover of wisdom" who insisted that the most fundamental presumptions of his countrymen should be subjected to experimental investigation, and who ended up being made to drink hemlock for his pains, has always been admired as the very fountainhead of rationalism. Yet when it comes to identifying what he taught and believed, there is a problem, on which Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, rather unexpectedly, puts its finger. Socrates, transplanted to 1980s California, can only communicate with his abductors by gesturing and gurning – since Bill and Ted, it goes without saying, speak not a word of ancient Greek. Even the miracle of time travel, it appears, cannot serve to alter what is, for any historian, a most awkward fact: that it is impossible to be certain of what Socrates actually said.

Like Jesus and, according to Muslim tradition, Muhammad, he never wrote down a word. As a result, it is exceedingly difficult to know anything definite about Socrates as a historical figure. True, we have extensive accounts of what he said and did, and granted, these were composed much closer in time to his execution than were the gospels to the crucifixion, or the first biographies of Muhammad to the death of the prophet. Proximity, however, does not necessarily spell transparency. No matter that the historical Socrates does indeed seem to have patented the dialogue as a form of philosophical inquiry, the surviving accounts of his conversation are very far from being a documentary record. Most of them – perhaps regrettably, from the biographer's point of view – were composed by a man who just happened to be the most influential philosopher of all time, and a supreme literary artist to boot. Write about Socrates with the aim of disentangling the man from the myth, and it is almost impossible to tell where Socrates ends and Plato begins.

This, then, is the treacherous bog into which Bettany Hughes, with her new biography of the snub-nosed philosopher, has fearlessly plunged. She writes as a historian, and her focus, as she is careful to make explicit, is not Socrates's philosophy, but rather how it "evolved in his time and his place". So it is that the life of her hero becomes a peg from which to hang a vivid depiction of Athens in its golden age, from the pinnacle of its greatness to the abyss of its ultimate defeat. To this end, all the talents honed by years of making high-class documentaries about the ancient world are formidably on display. Hughes's prose is the literary equivalent of CGI, re-creating for the reader a sense of the clamour and dazzle of the classical city that has rarely been bettered. Not only that, she is expert in knowing when to alter and vary her focus. Sometimes we are led by her through the streets of modern Athens, sometimes across an archaeological site, and sometimes down into the basement of a provincial museum, where rare treasures lie hidden. She spares no effort in bringing the world of Socrates alive. Describing Athens amid the death-agonies of the Peloponnesian war, Hughes comments that it "must have been reminiscent of Kabul 2002-10: ragged, war-torn, veiled women in the streets with no husbands, brothers or sons". Hers is an ancient Greece that is authentically cutting-edge.

All of which only serves to emphasise the degree to which her book is frustratingly like Hamlet without the Prince. The skill and judiciousness with which Hughes puts together assorted fragments of evidence when writing about Athens is bewilderingly absent from her portrait of the man who is ostensibly her subject. To include great chunks of Plato's dialogues as though they were the ipsissima verba of Socrates himself is cavalier enough. Even more tendentious, however, is the degree to which everything quoted appears designed to make him acceptable to the sensibilities of her readers. That Socrates was a great man is not in doubt; but he was not a great man because he valued women, had his doubts about slavery, or believed in the redemptive power of love. Just as Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure shows Socrates enjoying the local mall like any west coast teenager, so The Hemlock Cup gives us a portrait of him as a liberal Observer reader. Situated as it is in the midst of such a wonderfully rich and nuanced evocation of the city in which he lived, Hughes's Socrates ends up seeming, if anything, even more anachronistic than does "Soh-kraytz".

Literary Review, October 2010

Peter Jones reviews THE HEMLOCK CUP: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, by Bettany Hughes

Athens in the fifth century BC was a place electric with intellectual energy and excitement. It was the perfect setting for the Athenian self-professed gadfly Socrates (469-399 BC), about whom three things stand out. He irritated a large number of people with his insistent questioning about their beliefs, especially what ‘goodness’ meant; he was executed for refusing to recognise the state's gods, introducing new gods and corrupting the young; and he never wrote a word.

His contemporaries Plato and the soldier-essayist Xenophon hero-worshipped him, while the comedian Aristophanes travestied him for laughs. His near contemporary Aristotle—born 384 BC and no admirer of Plato—went clinically to the heart of what he achieved philosophically: Socrates concerned himself solely with ethics, and we should ascribe to him ‘inductive argument and general definition’. Not that Aristotle was arguing that Socrates *invented* inductive reasoning; rather, that he was the first person to recognise its importance and use it systematically. But where do ethics come in?

To generalise: philosophers before Socrates were mainly interested in what we would call natural science, the origins and workings of the cosmos. Socrates was not. He thought it much more important to ask what humans beings were for and what made a good (i.e. moral) and therefore happy one.

He began from an analogy with experts in crafts. They have a body of knowledge with its own rules, procedures, techniques etc. that enables them to produce material goods. By the same token, Socrates argued, there must be an expert in producing moral beings. What, then, is the knowledge that such a one will possess? Here comes the induction: let us inspect individual acts that we call ‘good/moral’ and see what is common to them all. That way we will find out what goodness is (the ‘general definition’). Bingo. But once we know what goodness is, does it follow that we shall do it? Yes, claims Socrates. If we really *do* know it, we will be unable to do anything else. In a sense, then, goodness and knowledge are inseparable.

Of course, Socrates never does find out what goodness is. Nor is the method sound: for how can we know that the acts we choose to examine are in fact ‘good’, if we are examining them in the first place to discover what goodness is? But what stands out about Socrates is that he was convinced there was such an objective entity as ‘goodness’; that it was the key to human happiness; that we would find it only by abandoning any pretensions that we possessed it and looking in the right direction for it; and that it was essential for men to pursue that objective to the exclusion of everything else, and be prepared to take the consequences too, if man was to be good (and therefore happy). It is a heroically idealistic and wholly impractical vision, and it killed him. Martyred him, some would say.

In her exuberant account of Socrates’ life in Athens in the fifth century BC, Bettany Hughes, Channels Four’s favourite classicist, barely touches on any of this. To that extent, one wonders why Socrates is the central figure at all: for it is his philosophical stance that makes him significant. Without it, he is just another Athenian.

Further, her approach can lead her astray. For example, she quotes Socrates as saying in Plato’s *Symposium* ‘Love [*ta erôtika*] is the one thing in the world I understand’, and suggests he ‘promoted the unifying power of love within human society’. This is simply not true. By *ta erôtika*, Socrates meant not sexual desire (which is what it is assumed to mean in the *Symposium*), nor ‘love’ in the Christian sense (which is what she seems to be getting at), but desire for what we lack, especially knowledge of the good. Without the philosophy, it is easy to make this sort of mistake.

The proviso, then, is to check the sources that Hughes extensively quotes. One can then plunge enthusiastically into the seething world of Socrates that she creates for us, following ‘the clues in Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes to the physical reality of fifth-century Athens and therefore the physical reality of Socrates’ life...To this end I have used the latest sources—archaeological, topographical, textual—to construct a life for a man we can all benefit from getting to know a little better.’

That, in fact, is too modest a claim. This is the grand sweep of Athenian history during its most politically inventive and culturally exciting period, and (like her *Helen of Troy*) it is history written with the rich invention of the novelist, clothing in living flesh—sweet, sweating, stinking, sensuous—the words on pages 2,500 years old. Socrates is a sort of ‘phantom’ figure, constructed out of everything contemporary sources have to say about him to guide us through the period.

This clearly creates an academic problem: where is the ‘real’ Socrates in all this? In a venture of this sort, Hughes is right to bat it away. She concentrates instead on what people made of Socrates. However different a picture of Socrates Xenophon may paint from Plato’s, Xenophon’s view is still history: a history of his feelings about and reaction to the man. Indeed, one could argue that other people’s reactions to Socrates give a far more instructive a picture of the man than any self-serving autobiography ever could.

It all makes for a rich mixture: Socrates’ early days as a keen natural scientist, his military career, his growing sense of what is important in life, his political scrapes, his trial and execution are played out in the company of Plato, Xenophon, Pericles, Alcibiades, Aristophanes, Aspasia, free and slave, shoemaker and sculptor, intellectual and thug—a cast of millions—against the setting of fifth-century Athens with its markets, back-streets, gymnasia, temples and rivers, its political battles, military engagements, theatrical performances, plague, triumph and disaster. Channel Four must be licking its lips. It will make irresistible television.