34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
If you were walking the marketplace of Athens a couple of millennia ago, you might have been accosted by an ugly man who wanted to talk to you. He wouldn't have anything to sell, he would just want to ask questions. Not questions like how to get to the upcoming festival or who you supported for civic leaders. He would want to know about truth, about love, about justice, and about how we could know anything about such subjects when he professed that he himself was no expert, and in fact he didn't have any answers himself, just questions. This would have been Socrates, and as everyone knows, his questions were to get him into trouble and cost him his life. Socrates talked about the founding ideas of philosophy, and although he didn't write anything down, his dialogues and speeches written down by Plato (they cannot have been transcriptions) have been the talk of philosophers ever after. Bettany Hughes is a historian focusing on antiquity, not a philosopher, and her book _The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life_ is a surprisingly detailed biography of Socrates and a history of the turbulent Athens of his times. It succeeds wonderfully in both spheres. Hughes is a brilliant explainer, taking a long-ago and strange land and brightly communicating it to us moderns; for example, when she writes about the trial of Socrates and how a poet testified against him, she tells us, "The glitterati and their lackeys were turning against the irritating gadfly." She does not write an informal biography and history; this is a large book, full of notes and her own translations of ancient texts. It is, however, far from dry; the city and the philosopher are dazzlingly brought to life in these pages.
Socrates was born around 469 B.C., and it was a spectacular time for Athens. Not only were art and architecture flourishing, but there was a bustling democracy. One of Socrates' roles before becoming a marketplace philosopher was to be a soldier. Sparta was a mere three days walk from Athens, and it was a constant worry during Socrates' life. He fought in the Peloponnesian War during his late thirties and into his forties, and he served well. Athens was to have its military endeavors after Socrates had finished up his years of soldiering. The history here, of a time rich in thought and action and populated not just by Socrates and his students but by Euripides, Herodotus, Pericles, Aristophanes and others, is punctuated and overcome by strife. Socrates was tolerated while the Athenian democracy thrived and expanded, but as times changed, "shamed by their defeats in war, confused by the freedom their own political system gave them, the Athenians from around 415 BC onwards chose oppression over liberal thinking." Socrates returned from his war campaigns and took up his peculiar life of wandering in the marketplace and holding philosophical discussions there; he did not do so in schools or homes where people would pay him. He was no killjoy; he liked beautiful things and people, and he liked a good dinner. One of the reasons he bothered Athens was that he may have enjoyed physical pleasures that could be bought, but he was resolutely unmaterialistic. The other great reason he bothered Athens was his effect on the youth; this (besides his unacceptable view of gods) was the other great charge against him, that he corrupted them. Socrates loved young men, but so did all of the city: "Being a young man in Athens brought with it an ecstatic belief that if raised in an appropriately virile, legal, state-sanctioned way, you could bring security, wealth, and great good to your _polis_." The worry was that Socrates was capturing young men from their efforts in the gymnasium, chatting them up not sexually but intellectually, and making them question family, religion, and democratic loyalties.
Hughes starts her book with scenes from Socrates' climactic trial, and intersperses them throughout the chapters. We learn that his jury of 500 (!) Athenians were randomly drawn by a mechanical device, a sort of primitive computer. Hughes even ground up hemlock, but sniffs rather than quaffs it ("a nose-wrinkling sour smell"). And of course we read again about Socrates' infuriating his jurors by his assuming the role of a know-nothing or innocent, refusing to play word games with his accusers but also refusing to flee from the judgement against him. If you have read these episodes before, you will encounter them here with a new appreciation for why Athens was scared of this man. The way Hughes explains it, they were right to sense the danger, as should we be: "Nowadays we look anxiously for our enemies; for anarchists, terrorists, capitalists, communists, nihilists. But Socrates reminds us of the uncomfortable truth, that the enemy is always within. It is down to us. That it is not `their' fault, but `ours' has to be his single most important, and hard-to-swallow, philosophy."
43 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on February 26, 2011
Sometimes a reader will find a book that was seemingly written just for him. For me, this is such a book. Having visited Greece twice myself (once in 1993 and again in the fall of 2009), I'm attuned to this subject matter as few readers outside the academic community would be. And I couldn't put it down. I was like a starving man being served a banana split that won't melt, so that I ate a little, savored, and ate again, relishing each bite. I will admit that I haven't yet quite finished reading it, and in some ways, I hope I never will. Once finished, all I'll have left is... to read it again. As an author myself of both fiction and non-fiction set in Greece, I've frequently tried to visualize ancient Greek cities, including Athens, with varying degrees of success. Bettany Hughes seems to hit the mark on every page. She provides a sense of discovery that won't be repeated with rereading. And this is a book of discovery. She takes you there, lets you walk around with Socrates, see his ancient world through his eyes, and bask in its glory and ruin. As it says on the dustcover, she "illuminate[s] the streets where Socrates walked, to place him there and to show us the world as he experienced it."
Her book is a marvel. It's history, it's archaeology, and it's biography. No one has done it better. I have 1,400 books in my home library, much of it dedicated to ancient Greece. Many authors have tried to make ancient Greece come alive, but so far I've not come across one that approaches what Ms Hughes has accomplished. The 120 pages of appendices, notes, bibliography, and index will also be of immense use when doing research.
If you have a shred of interest in the origins of Western Civilization, you owe it to yourself to indulge in Hughes' intellectual feast. Read it slowly, savor it on your intellectual palate like a slow-melting piece of the finest dark chocolate.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2011
Background: I am working my way through Greek classics and modern works on ancient Greek history. I have read the Landmark Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon (all three are awesome), as well as Anabasis, plays by Aeschylus, etc. Next year, I will dive into Plato and Aristotle.
Goal: I wanted a modern book that would tie together Greek history for me as each of the books above presents a beautiful view into different windows of the ancient Greek house, but not a unified view of the whole.
Solution: The Hemlock Cup was the perfect pair of glasses for me to look at ancient Greek history (up to 399 B.C.) as a collective whole. I strongly recommend this book to people who:
1. Want an overview of ancient Greece and do not have the time to read the ancient works
2. Want to read Plato, but first want to put Socrates in context
3. Want a capstone book that ties together the ancient Greek texts
Bettany Hughes is a great story teller that brings the sights, sounds, and smells of ancient Greece alive!
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2011
I came to this book wanting to learn more about Socrates and 5th century BC Athens given its outsized influence and importance on the Western world. You cannot do better than this book for non experts. The author expertly weaves in knowledge from many different areas: archaeology, Greek drama and comedies, geography, Plato's books...I almost felt like I was in Athens with Socrates, the sights, the smells, the strange religious rituals. I could barely put the book down especially when getting to the last sections. If you are looking for an entertaining read that is also educational, I strongly recommend this book.
44 of 60 people found the following review helpful
on April 30, 2011
There are certain historical figures of whom one must be excessively reverent of when attempting to produce a story of their life, Socrates being in this category along with your run-of-the-mill Leonardo da Vincis and Albert Einsteins. Although Cup of Hemlock is well-researched and at times quite appealing, Hughes' work is an average accomplishment which even with its embellished (excessive) headings and titles ("Dramatis Personae"), classy black and white fotos seamlessly woven into the text, sophisticated typeface and superb marketing campaign, ultimately pales in juxtaposition with its "subject".
Hughes herself identifies the central problem with attempting a biography of the father of Western philosophy in the book's Introduction: nothing is known about Socrates the man. All that is extant is his dialogues and speeches, but even these are secondary sources since Socrates did not favor writing. The book ends up, I felt, as a rather inchoate, superficial and incomplete landscape of Golden Age Athens (the positive reviewers seem to prefer the adjective "readable"). Incidentally, Hemlock Cup, has very little to do with the Hemlock Cup especially after the author explains that in all likelihood he did not drink from a cup at all but a small vial. So if you are, as I was, looking for a biography of the man Socrates as evasive in life as in death, I'd urge you to pass over this one, for it offers little added value over Plato or Xenophon apart from annoying repetition of already-known facts--and semi-facts (e.g. Socrates looks deeper than the material world to find the soul of man; Socrates was deeply suspicious of the written word; Socrates may or may not have been Alciabides' lover; Socrates was barefoot and ugly; Socrates was probably a misogynist).
The book has a number of other problems. First of all, if you are writing a book whose axis revolves around a blinking subject then the remainder of your content will not cohere especially well. Hughes seems to follow no kind of organizational structure apart from a (very) rough chronological order. As the subtitle foreshadows, the work suffers from an identity crisis: am I an history or an archaeological accounting or a linguistics manual (Hughes is big on showing off her knowledge of Ancient Greek, which is fine except that in this context it is largely irrelevant) or am I a contemporary travel diary? Unfortunately the book is, like most today, quite overweight. The chapters, while exquisitely labelled and each marked with at least one quote to begin it, must average approximately 3-5 pages each. The content is quite repetitive, there are a number of not-really-relevent digressions that feel like they are there to take up more space or provide the author a solipsistic moment, or both, the important events (Pelloponnesian Wars, Battle at Salamis) suffer as a result of being under-reported, and--and this was my main problem with the book, it draws a significant number of consequential but egregious conclusions based on half-substantiated facts.
Hughes alleges with remarkable insouciance that Socrates never slept with Alciabides based on one line in the Symposium which states that Socrates had at one point resisted the fey youngsters' advances; she decides that Socrates must have been on close terms with Aphasia, Pericles' famed consort, because apparently there is no historical period in existence when a woman of repute to society was NOT known in all the salons; and the entire Apology is interpreted, unfortunately with not a little dogmatism, as being ironic and snide.
I wanted very much to like this book and it is not without its merits. We get a great, detailed and comprehensive glimpse into the culture and life of the famed Agora, and the theme of Socrates' relationship with Athens as being a product of the latter's political ebb and flow does inform us about how Socrates may have been regarded at the time and provides us with a useful understanding of events leading to his ultimate martyrdom. It also provides the layman with a rather facile history of 6th-4th Century Athens. It was not so bad that I put it down; however you might just be better off sticking to that Plato guy.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 9, 2013
The trial and death of Socrates stands alongside that of Jesus of Nazareth as a milestone in our civilization. What these deaths signify is far from clear. Neither man wrote memoirs about what he taught. Both were killed by political authorities intent on doing what politicians always do - keeping order. And both deaths have spawned passionate debate and interest thousands of years after each man breathed his last. Why we do care about these deaths?
Bettany Hughes' The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life provides an answer of a sort. "Home sapiens," she writes, "craves the anonymity of the herd. All of civilization's darkest hours have been bayed on by men who want scapegoats, who want the finger of blame to turn in any direction, as long as it is away from their own face. Loose, jealous tongues are the bane of history." That, at least, is a compelling reason for why Socrates was condemned to death in 399 B.C.E. (The vote among the 500 jurors sitting in his case was close as to guilt regarding the crimes charged, neglecting the Athens gods and corrupting its youth - 280-220; the vote in favor of death as a penalty was 340 to 160.)
Athens lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta, its population was decimated by disease and war attrition, and the imperial tribute that fed the leisure of its citizenry had dwindled to a trickle. And Socrates was the friend of Alcibiades, a sometime friend, sometime enemy of the city. Surely a scapegoat was needed. Socrates, the infamous Socrates of Plato and Xenophon, was just too different. The Delphic Oracle had reportedly declared no man to be wiser; yet the philosopher proclaimed that he knew no truth. He wandered the streets shoeless, debating endlessly and offending with delight. Socrates, implacable Socrates, philosophized while Athens burned. "We strive for answers, for closure; but all Socrates does is ask questions."
Hughes brings ancient Athens to life, weaving the setting for Socrates' life out of historic records and recent archeological evidence. The tone of the book is not the sort of ponderous scholarship often encountered in serious works on ancient Greece. It is rather playful; she is a wit at work and at play, trying to make sense of the life and death of philosophy's founding father. The book caught me off guard, her breezy and almost playful tone put me off at first, but I could not put the book down, even though I profess not to like the writing. How like Socrates this book must be: not altogether pleasing in form, but irresistible.
In recent years, I've struggled with the question presented by the historical Jesus. What can we know about this man? Can we know anything? There is so much more written about Socrates by contemporaries, and Plato's dialogues, whether fictive in whole or in part, at least have the ring of truth: he was a witness to what he wrote about. We have no eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, only Gospels written decades after his death and by men who never broke bread with the man -- nothing admissible, as we lawyers like to say. Why the great need to know about a man who cannot be known, and the easy acceptance of something less than knowledge as to Socrates?
One claimed that he was the truth and that to know him was to be set free. He was killed by Roman overlords. Socrates claimed to know nothing save that the unexamined life was not worth living. He was killed by fellow citizens. Perhaps the deaths have little in common. Yet they remain two of the most profound political executions in the history of the West. Hughes has nothing to say about this, of course. Her focus is the Athenian. I will shelve the book this afternoon, but I will miss it a great deal. She's also written a volume on Helen of Troy. I suspect I will soon be in Hughes' hands again. Can she be persuaded to take a try at the death of Jesus?
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2013
This is a fine book, especially on the local details of the sordid world where Socrates came from -- it raises the interesting question of how and why he rose to the station he did, even as a young man. If Plato is right, Socrates was hobnobbing with the Sophists, etc., from pretty early on. This is a puzzle. The author is very good on Socrates' relationships with Alcibiades, Aspasia,etc. Perhaps Socrates came to notice originally as a soldier. I didn't realize that he had been in so many battles. We don't usually think of him as a rugged soldier, but clearly he was.
Curiously enough, the main thread of the book -- the trial -- is the least convincing part of it. We get everything leading up to the trial, and the mechanics of it, but not really the guts of the trial itself. Also, in general, the book is very light on is Socrates at work: his philosophy, his questioning method, and so on. The vexed question of sources, of Plato vs. Xenophon, etc., is hardly dealt with at all. People with a reasonable knowledge of the Platonic dialogues won't find anything new here, except, as stated, for the anthropological and scenic background on a stroll through Athens, ca. 432.
13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2012
I'm all in favour of popularization. And I think Hughes' project of situating Socrates' life, death, and thinking in its dramatic historical and political context is worthwhile. HEr goal is to give the reader a strong sense of what it was like to be living in Socrates' world, and she succeeds to some extent. But in my view she tries too hard and overreaches in her racy writing style. I eventually found the number of hyphenated adjectives ("the butter yellow sky"; "the yesterday-bright" writing) beyond irritating and going on towards nauseating. The book contains a huge amount of speculation. There are significant errors (e.g.she has Sophocles dying in 401 instead of 406-5). She virtually ignores some crucial material--e.g. the amnesty for anything done before the restoration of democracy in 401). Although the book is subtitled "Socrates, Athens and the search for the good life" she really says nothing very insightful about Socrates' philosophy concerning the good life. And the bok is decidedly longer and more repetitious than it need be. So overall, the goal is worthy; a lot of work has gone into the book; the links to contemporary Greece and archeology are usually interesting. But it would be a better book if it was shorter and less flamboyantly written.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2013
I enjoyed reading this book. I've been interested in ancient Greek history for almost thirty years, though I spend less time on the subject nowadays. This book refreshed me on what I had previously learned, taught me many new things, and added color and light to things that I thought I knew.
Here is what I liked most about this book:
1) Very well researched with hundreds and hundreds of useful footnotes. The huge bibliography also points the reader to a complete set of reference works on the subject of Ancient Greece. For a serious historian, these are reason enough to buy this book.
2) Bettany Hughes has a knack for wordsmithing. She uses many apt words and phrases I haven't heard in years, some she may have even coined herself. It is delightful to encounter these gems every page or two.
3) The book doesn't just present the facts of the matter (as I'm used to reading). The book gives the FULL historical context of Socrates' life, trial and execution. For the first time, after reading this book, I really feel I know the "Why" and not just the "What". This really should be my reason number 1.
What I liked least:
1) I'm used to chronological histories. Although this book is loosely chronological, it does jump around a bit, and most frustrating to me is that it occasionally discusses major events without providing a year for that event so I can fit things together in my chronological mind.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 2, 2012
Hughes tried to write a biography of Socrates by filling in the missing factual pieces with Athenian history and archaeological tales. The history of Athens and Greece is interesting and Hughes does a good job of engaging the reader with her alternating use of first, second and third person.
The downfall of the book is its organization. The chapters proceed chronologically but are on average only 6 pages long and are as short as 2 pages. Even the longer chapters are broken up into very small sections. This unfortunate because the story being told is generally a good one, but the abrupt shifts in focus make the work feel more like a Powerpoint presentation than a book. The narrative is also often interrupted with modern day archaeological accounts or interspersed quotes from Greek authors without enough context. Some of the archaeological stories could have been reserved for the footnotes in order to keep the focus on ancient Athens. In short, Hughes tries to do too much too quickly.
Ultimately though, the biggest disappointment here is that the book does not succeed in convincing the reader of the claim made in the first sentence of the Introduction: "We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did." The "Search for the Good Life" announced in the subtitle goes on, without much help from this book.