Correction to This Article
This review misspelled an ancient Greek term for "good man," which the book described as applying to the "noble in mind and appearance." It is "kalos kagathos" or "kalos k'agathos," not "kalos k'athagos." The review also described Socrates as a 4th-century philosopher. Though he died in 399 B.C., Socrates is more properly described as a philosopher of the 5th century B.C.

"The Hemlock Cup," a history of Socrates

"The Death of Socrates," 1787, by Jacques-Louis David, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
"The Death of Socrates," 1787, by Jacques-Louis David, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Sunday, February 13, 2011

When Bettany Hughes published her study of Helen of Troy in 2005, skeptics had good cause for doubt that anything worthwhile could be made out of such a hackneyed and intangible subject. Yet Hughes was vindicated: The result was searchingly intelligent and quite beautifully written. In her newest book, "The Hemlock Cup," she visits a subject almost as mythological as Helen and, if anything, more frequented, the 4th-century Athenian philosopher Socrates - and she triumphs again. This is history, and historical reconstruction, exactly as it should be written.

The figure of Socrates, at least in broad outline, will be familiar to anybody who's ever taken a freshman lit. course: Physically ugly and mentally astute, Socrates the thinker and seeker after "the good" gathered about himself a circle of friends and followers who thrilled at his questioning of societal precepts, were entertained by his demolition of pretentious debating partners and very likely simply enjoyed his company.

For decades, while his city underwent war and hardship and defeat and civil war and political restructuring, Socrates settled himself in the agora and talked of inner things, the essence of things. Some of his words were taken down by acolytes such as Plato and Xenophon; some of his mannerisms were mocked by playwrights such as Aristophanes; the master himself, a man Hughes claims "we can all benefit from getting to know a little better," wrote nothing, but his recorded dialogues, his "Socratic method" of relentless questioning, have become indispensable pieces of our Western mental furniture.

Hughes revisits all of this with the panache of a born explainer, enthusiastically filling out the world of ancient Athens, "a city where the eyes have it. Visual references are stitched through the language - old women were called 'gauna,' literally 'hot milk-skin'; you spoke not of being good but of appearing good; the most precious possession in the city were the well-born, pulchritudinous young men, the kalos k'athagos - the 'noble in mind and appearance.' " She takes readers through the torturous birth and early crises of Athenian democracy, and she's refreshingly even-handed about the resentment such a democracy might feel toward somebody like Socrates: "Gallingly, this cocky philosopher doesn't seem to take the privilege of a fair trial seriously. The man who is accused of poisoning democracy with words has a chance to use words in self-defence, yet he acts the dolt, the innocent. He refuses to play word-games. Socrates' professed ignorance of typical democratic activity might have been endearing to start off with, but by this stage in his life, and with the troubled back-story of Athens, it has become intensely infuriating."

Her book is divided into eight segments, or "acts," and the final one, "The Trial and Death of Socrates," is the highlight of the book, a masterpiece of dramatic presentation. Our author has made a series of canny stylistic decisions, and they pay off. She intersperses italicized quotes from the various Socratic dialogues at key points in her narrative - Socrates acts as his own Greek chorus on every page, and the effect is mesmerizing. Hughes has also chosen to reserve her more personally passionate outbursts for the book's endnotes, where she can address the issues in more evocative language than the main book's sober historical analysis allows: "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."

As thought-provoking as that is, it's easy to agree with the decision to relegate it to an endnote, and for some readers, it's always been equally easy to understand why Athens would have wanted to do something similar to Socrates himself. It must have been extremely annoying to be told that the enemy is always within while the Spartans are burning your warehouses and setting up military checkpoints in your marketplace. This tension between "the good" and the real is given full respect in this beguiling book, and the Socrates Hughes creates is ultimately a towering yet intensely human figure. He lives and speaks again in these pages: It's a singular accomplishment.

Steve Donoghue is the managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.


Socrates, Athens, and the Search for the Good Life

By Bettany Hughes

Knopf. 484 pp. $35

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