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.