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Now in Paperback: The Hemlock Cup

The Hemlock Cup

by Bettany Hughes

Vintage, 2012

The fifth century irritant-mendicant Socrates has had a great many boring books written about him in the two thousand years since the ancient Athenians sentenced him to die on charges of prophesying false gods and corrupting the youth of the city. The Athenian polity wanted him dead not only because he had degenerated into the adult equivalent of the particularly annoying child who asks ‘why’ and then follows up every answer with another ‘why’ but also because he spent every day instructing the city’s well-born teenage boys and young men to do the same thing. At least two of those young men – Plato and Xenophon – wrote accounts of Life with Socrates; Xenophon mostly just lobbed some anecdotes, but Plato constructed elaborate dramatic re-creations of the long talks Socrates liked to have with anybody who would listen, and those Dialogues have been assigned to college freshmen every since. Not a term goes by at Dartmouth or Harvard or Stanford where young people on the cusp of self-definition aren’t taught that the best thing a person can do is question everything, all the time – in high schools and colleges all over the world, Socrates continues to re-earn his death sentence.

Inevitably, that death sentence has come to be the best-known thing about Socrates, and the most fascinating facet of Bettany Hughes’ book The Hemlock Cup (now out in paperback and – mirabile dictu – not boring at all!) is how vividly and consistently it gives us Socrates the man, not the moral exemplar. Hughes reminds us that Socrates was once young and vigorous, that he led an entire life before he became the caricature worshipped by Plato and lampooned by Aristophanes. In Hughes’ reworking, fifth-century Athens comes alive with bright colors, street noise, and civic unrest constantly poised on the knife-edge of international events. And in the best storytelling tradition (a tradition, it should be remembered, she shares with Plato – one of the reasons those Dialogues are still read is because they’re still mighty readable), she grounds everything in personal details, including a quick modern-day glimpse of Socrates’ home district:

 Today Socrates’ deme, Alopeke, still keeps an old-world village feel. Only a twenty-five-minute walk from the city centre, it has wild snapdragons growing on the verges. A few traditional mud-brick houses cling onto the hillside. They will be replaced soon, by developers keen to buy the ‘air space’ above such prime plots of real estate. Alopeke is not a rich district. After heavy rains, bearded men – a little shamefacedly – still scour the grassy banks in search of snails to flesh out the family meal. Many of the elderly Athenians and refugees here have reached the end of the line.

The temptation in any account of Socrates is to reduce the Athenian state that eventually opposed him to one featureless bloc, at that pitfall too is avoided in The Hemlock Cup. Instead, we get a fascinating portrayal of democracy’s baby steps:

Democracy in Athens in the fifth century was – there is no doubt – a radical development. Every male Athenian over the age of eighteen could, by right, attend the ecclesia, the Assembly, which convened about once a month, usually on that raised, natural limestone auditorium close to the Acropolis, the Pnyx. Up here, where the sun beats hard and the clouds feel close, the active Athenian citizen had the chance to make direct decisions about his city-state’s affairs and ethos: should Athens go to war? What is an acceptable rate of tax? What the best penalty for rape? High offices, influential positions, were held by ordinary men, selected at random, on a daily basis. We say a week is along time in politics: for democratic Athenians, political life could be conceived and terminated in the span of one day.

Hughes’ book succeeds so well in large part through her lively, enthusiastic prose-style, and through her dedication to talk about mundane details, to anchor everything in the facts how how life was, rather than indulge in too much of the ‘founder of Western thought’ baloney that tends to clog up books on the subject. Her book is full of talk, yes, but it’s also full of marketplaces and military levies and back-alley grudges and those glorious evening-long talk-fests she’s quite right to remind us came with their own price-tags:

Dinner defined the Golden Age citizen. He was the true inheritor of Athens’ greatness, who could lie on a couch, listen to flute-girls, flirt with young boys and eat delicacies grown by another’s hand. It is often said that Socrates was anti-material because he refused payment for his work – but he did accept dinner; and the symposium was up there with the finest gifts that any man could give.

Of course, human nature being what it is, there will always be some Socrates-worship in just about any Socrates book. After providing such an incredibly well-done and admirably clear-headed panorama of a book, we can certainly grant Hughes her occasional gushes (however much some of us might disagree with them) and indeed end with one, in thanks for such a boisterous and enormously enjoyable read:

Socrates is a strange hero. His life interrupts the predictable beat of world civilisation, a rhythm that pumps out wars and tyrants, experiments, certainties, old solutions to new problems. We strive for answers, closure; but all Socrates does is ask questions … He embraced paradox; he delighted in the essences of what it is to be human, in the extremes of human life as lived. The heady, paradoxical, essential, extreme world of fifth-century Greece provided the flashpoint for his ideas.