Saturday, October 15, 2011


Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Pp. xxxv, 484, 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9781400041794. $35.00.

Reviewed by Ravi Sharma, Clark University (

Version at BMCR home site


For Bettany Hughes, Socrates embodies a longing for fulfillment, a drive to question the world around us, a democratic insistence on frank and open speech, and a passionate concern for justice. Hughes places those impulses against the backdrop of fifth century culture in order to exhibit the ways in which Athens by turns nurtured these things, celebrated them, fell short of them, raged against them, and ultimately fostered ambiguities that not even someone with the strength and single-mindedness of Socrates could negotiate cleanly. Hughes' tale about Socrates thus doubles as a device for celebrating what she finds most moving (e.g., the democratic spirit, the concern with one's inner state over one's material well-being) and condemning what she considers most objectionable (e.g., imperialism, the brutality of war, the subjection of women and slaves) about classical Athens. Her narrative is both lively and passionate, and it should be read – though read with caution – by anyone interested in the fifth century in general, or Socrates in particular.

Although she draws on a wide range of source material about Socrates, the heart of her portrait is derived from the Platonic dialogues. Philosophically, it must be said, there is little to the portrait. As she acknowledges (p. xix), she is not a philosopher, and she glides lightly over the intellectual complexities so persistently and lovingly explored by Plato's Socrates. Not a shadow darkens the burnished image of the philosopher. For Hughes, what is most important about the dialogues is their settings. Even if Plato could have known Socrates only during the last two decades of the latter's life, the dialogues are Plato's "visual memories" of Socrates' typical haunts: "It is very likely that the physical setting that Plato provides for Socrates can be relied upon; the punchy, sensuous real-life scenarios he supplies are exactly the kinds of details that stick in the cortex" (xxiv). However controversial this may be as a statement of method, Hughes impressively expands on Plato's descriptions by drawing on archaeological evidence and on recent work in cultural history. The resulting narrative is a rich evocation of the sights, sounds, and smells of classical Athens, delightful as well as disgusting. Indeed, Hughes frequently heightens the sense of liveliness by juxtaposing her depiction of an ancient setting with an account of what may be found there today. Here, for instance, is her account of the site of the Isthmian games: "Today . . . the place is quiet. A few after-hours students press their noses up to the metal perimeter fence, a child's swing creaks and a defunct alarm drones, but the most hectic activity inside is provided by bees and butterflies, which gorge themselves on the poppies that pretend to stretch down to the Saronic gulf." Yet for an athlete participating in the games during the fifth century: "Musicians tuning up for the added-attraction music festival would slowly drown out the sound of the bees and the passing birds; the tang of fat cooking and spitting on the hearth would swamp the smell of fresh sweat. The sound of running water, splashing into basins there to purify athletes and spectators alike, would soothe the nerves" (132).

All of this makes for compelling reading. Indeed, Hughes' book is at points a page turner, an especially impressive feat given the dryness of most other depictions of Socrates' life and times. However, her approach has some severe limitations as well. In ignoring Socrates' intellectual struggle to defend his larger ideals, she misses much of what is ultimately most mysterious and most beguiling about him. And although her interest in the physical landscape enables her to develop a lively narrative of fifth century culture and history, the book often loses its focus on Socrates. Her attempts to reestablish that focus are frequently unconvincing. For instance, compared to many of the great intellectuals of the day, Socrates seems to have been neither well traveled nor widely experienced. At points, though, Hughes strains to make a case otherwise. For instance, in discussing the growth of Pericles' imperial policies during the middle decades of the fifth century BCE, she lingers over the Athenian campaign against the island of Samos in 440-39. She connects her account of it with Socrates in a suspiciously tenuous manner. Noting that Socrates would have been about twenty-nine, and thus within the twelve year age range in which one could be required to perform military service, she pronounces: "Although we have no direct textual evidence that Socrates sailed east in 441/0 BC, it would be decidedly odd if he had not. And so it is now that we can meet . . . Socrates the soldier." (129)

Is there even any indirect evidence to support such a conclusion? Diogenes Laertius, the philosophical biographer and doxographer of the 3rd century CE, at one point remarks that, according to Ion of Chios, Socrates in his youth visited the island of Samos in the company of the philosopher Archelaus. Leaning on this, Hughes declares: "Socrates might have come to Samos to learn, or he might simply have come here to kill" (131). Now, some scholars (notably Burnet and Woodbury) have speculated that Socrates fought on Samos, largely out of a concern to reconcile the testimony of Diogenes Laertius with the remark in Plato's Crito that apart from one occasion, Socrates never left the city except for military service. (Hughes quotes the relevant passage of the Crito without comment on 431.) But such an interpretation makes little sense of the mention of Archelaus or of the reference to Socrates' youth.1

What is needed here is clearly a more careful sifting of the historical evidence, something that we almost never get in the book – not when it comes to conflicting reports about Socrates' life and movements, and (most strikingly) not when it comes to different accounts of the circumstances surrounding his trial. What did the oracle really say to Chaerephon? How, if at all, did Socrates defend himself against the charge of impiety? And why was he put on trial in the first place? Was it simply part of a general reaction against liberal thinking (277), or the result of impatience with the open-endedness of Socratic questioning (331)? And so on. Whether or not one writes for a popular audience, a book on so elusive a figure as Socrates must make some hard decisions as to which sources are to be relied upon and under what circumstances. Otherwise, it becomes all too easy to pick and choose episodes to fit a preordained story of the fifth century, or of what "message" Socrates was trying to convey.

Indeed, in pursuing a lively narrative, Hughes sometimes loses the thread of historical fact. (Athens, for instance, did not lose four fifths of its population during the Peloponnesian War and the subsequent rule of the Thirty (see 419-20).) What's more, the arc of Hughes' story often encourages her to make questionable judgments about the episodes in intellectual history that she discusses. Some of those judgments are simply off base: "Parmenides was clearly a firebrand thinker, a man who burned his own path through society's undergrowth" (75). Others are wildly speculative: "Given those who were active in Athens at this time, and their recorded fates, it could well be Diagoras of Melos (or one of his close circle) who wrote those beautiful, complicated words discovered burned beside a motorway in Derveni" (275). Others embroider upon on unreliable source material: "A Roman tradition tells us that Protagoras' life-work, On the Gods, was burned in public. Heralds called for every last copy to be jettisoned from homes, the conflagration filling the Agora with smuts and smoke. Only the first sentence of that work now survives, passed down in whispered oral memory." (277)

Such reservations should not turn anyone away from reading the book, or from recommending it to interested general readers. It is a full of passion and wit, and its quotations may well spur those unfamiliar with the ancient world to turn to the pages of Plato and Thucydides, Aristophanes and Sophocles. Yet such readers should take much of what is said with a grain of salt and an understanding that not everything is as it seems.


1.   On the whole issue, see D. W. Graham, "Socrates on Samos," Classical Quarterly (n.s.) 58, 308-13.

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