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.