Lessons learned from Socrates

Sat, Dec 11, 2010, 00:00

HISTORY: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good LifeBy Bettany Hughes Jonathan Cape, 544pp. £25

THERE CAN’T BE, from my point of view, too many books about Socrates, so I am not complaining at the appearance of this one. It is less than 18 months, however, since I reviewed in these pages an excellent book by Robin Waterfield, Why Socrates Died,on very much this topic. To be fair to Bettany Hughes, though, she was at work on her equally fine version of the theme for at least 10 years, long before Waterfield’s book appeared.

In the meantime she has produced both a most lively evocation of Helen of Troy ( Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore, 2005), and a host of excellent BBC documentaries on classical subjects, so she is well qualified to write the present book. She is also, we may note, a graduate in ancient and modern history from Oxford and the current president of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers in Britain (in succession to Boris Johnson!), a well-deserved honour.

She begins with a vivid sketch of Athens, and in particular the Agora, or marketplace, as it would have appeared in May 399 BC, as Socrates was proceeding to the law court to face his accusers. The book then turns back, first to the period of Socrates’s birth and childhood, in the 460s (and prior to that again, the defeat of the vast Persian invasion of Greece in 480-79), to show how Socrates grows up with the new democratic state of Athens, in the most lively period of its intellectual growth.

What she provides us with, in fact, is a series of eight “acts”, each comprising a number of short chapters, which take us through various stages of the history of Athens in the fifth century BC, the period of its greatest glory (but also of its sad collapse), paralleled with corresponding stages in the life of Socrates, who was born in 470/69 BC, 10 years after the defeat of the Persians.

Each chapter is enlivened with striking vignettes, evoking the ambience, events and personalities of the period, enriched with shrewd employment of the latest archaeological discoveries.

A major part of the story, of course, is the build-up to, and then the increasingly grim course of, the great war between Athens and Sparta that dominated the last third of the century (432-404), the so-called Peloponnesian War, so well chronicled by Thucydides.

The build-up, corresponding to Socrates’s youth and early maturity, saw the establishment of an Athenian maritime empire, dominating the islands of the Aegean and many smaller mainland cities, but also the flocking to Athens of intellectuals (and chancers) from all over the Greek world.

We are given a vivid picture of the great statesman Pericles, a serious intellectual himself, entertaining such figures as the philosopher Anaxagoras and the musical theorist Damon, along with his glamorous mistress, the courtesan Aspasia of Miletus, gatherings at which the youngish Socrates himself might possibly have been present. Later acts chronicle the increasingly fraught course of the war and its aftermath.

Inevitably, Hughes has to conjure up much on the basis of imagination. This may lead to some harrumphing on the part of scholarly pedants such as myself but is well suited to the requirements of the general reader. We unfortunately know very little of the early life of Socrates – merely that his father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason. However, it is misleading, I think, to present Socrates as any sort of ragged-trousered proletarian, ragged as he doubtless was, by choice.

His father may have been “in trade”, but we do not have to suppose that he did other than run a large stonemason’s yard, where a host of slaves did the work. Certainly, Socrates, when we meet him, is comfortable enough, and on easy terms with the elite of Athenian society (including, indeed, Plato himself).

Nor is he being tried, strictly, in a religiouscourt – that makes things sound rather too ayatollah-ish.

The king-archon did try cases of impiety, but he did so in an ordinary civic court; and Socrates’s trial was really a political, not a religious, one – retribution for some unsavoury companions of his – for which he was fatally forced to drink a cup of hemlock.

However, there is no doubt that Hughes has given us a host of insights into Socrates and Athenian life, and in a most lively and attractive format.


John Dillon is regius professor of Greek (emeritus) at Trinity College Dublin. His publications include The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy; Salt and Olives: Moralityand Custom in Ancient Greece;and Platonism and the World Crisis