The Hemlock Cup

The execution of Socrates casts a long shadow over Western history. The ancient Greek city-state of Athens, where Socrates made his home, was a tumultuous and frequently violent place, and the list of Athenians killed in political coups, internecine strife, and pointless foreign wars would be long indeed. But somehow the case of Socrates, who was convicted (by a jury of five hundred fellow citizens) and sentenced to die by drinking hemlock for what were, essentially, thought crimes continues to resonate in the modern consciousness. For Westerners with a sense of history, the death of Socrates continues to symbolize the insidious, ineradicable danger of democracy run amok. The event is both dramatic and traumatic, an original sin our civilization cannot seem to escape.


"Golden Ages are comforting," Bettany Hughes writes in The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens, and the Search for the Good Life. "We love the thought that in the dim and distant past we achieved absolute perfection, and that if as a species we did it once, we can do so again. We want ancient Athens to satisfy our yearning for a fair, ordered, beautiful society. We want to believe that ideologies such as 'democracy,' 'liberty,' 'freedom of speech' have, at some time, achieved a perfect form. But—even though Athens was unique, wonderful—that is laying too great a burden on both Athena's city and on history."


The Hemlock Cup offers an account not only of Socrates's death but also of his life and of the life of the troubled and turbulent society in which he lived and died. The choice of a double subject, Socrates and Athens, is in part forced on Hughes by the lack of accurate biographical data about Socrates, particularly his early years—a situation that is exacerbated by the fact that he himself chose not to record any of his lengthy conversations with his fellow Athenians and, indeed, wrote nothing at all. But it makes sense, too, given how closely entwined his life was with the life of his city. "My hope," Hughes writes, "is that by looking at the shape around the Socrates-sized hole, at the city in which he lived—Athens in the fifth century BC—I can begin to write not quite a life of Socrates, but a vivid sketch of Socrates in his landscape; a topography of the man in his times."


She is right on both counts: what she offers is only a sketch (and one that features a fair bit of assumption, extrapolation, and at times outright guesswork); but the sketch is entertaining and satisfyingly vivid. The Socrates that emerges is familiar from previous accounts, but is no less compelling for that. Philosopher, husband, father, soldier, lover (despite his notorious ugliness), he shunned the accumulation of wealth but had a healthy appetite for the pleasures of life.


Above all he was, or tried to be, a loyal and dedicated citizen. The very behaviors that irritated his fellow Athenians, and for which he was condemned—casting doubt on common standards and ways of thinking, engaging (and hence 'corrupting') the city's youth in searching conversations—were in his view performed in the service of Athens, with an eye to making it a more virtuous society.  


The Hemlock Cup is a popular history, not an academic one: Hughes, whose previous work includes a biography of Helen of Troy, is not the least bit dry or stuffy, and she brings an appealing enthusiasm and capacity for delight to her work. She has spent a good deal of time in Athens, walking the streets and poking around in the ruins, trying to find spots where Socrates would have stood or experience echoes of what he might have seen or felt. "I have ground up hemlock," she writes at one point, "and it releases a nose-wrinkling sour smell. It also sparks a pain above your eyes and across the brain."  (It is tempting to imagine that it must have taken a certain effort of will to resist the urge she must have felt to actually drink the hemlock.)


Elsewhere she provides vivid and evocative descriptions of ancient Athenian technologies, including the kleroterion, the "proto-computer" used to select jury members, and the water-clock that measured the time prosecutors and defendants had to make their cases.


Such details help us imagine Athens as it must have been in Socrates's time. But ultimately the book may be most memorable when it reaches past that historical era to speak to something more universal: the tendency of democratic societies to give in to populist fear and resentment and to seek out and destroy those free thinkers who challenge the status quo. "Had political tyranny in fact been replaced by tyranny of the mind? Athens was trying to shore itself up, to build and build . . . 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." It was not so much a golden age, then, but an age that is worth remembering and contemplating, not only for contemporary philosophers and historians, but for anyone who values the democratic ideas bequeathed to us by our very human and, in their way, very modern ancestors.

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