The Hemlock Cup

Theexecution of Socrates casts a long shadow over Western history. The ancientGreek city-state of Athens, where Socrates made his home, was a tumultuous andfrequently violent place, and the list of Athenians killed in political coups,internecine strife, and pointless foreign wars would be long indeed. Butsomehow the case of Socrates, who was convicted (by a jury of five hundredfellow 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 tosymbolize the insidious, ineradicable danger of democracy run amok. The eventis both dramatic and traumatic, an original sin our civilization cannot seem toescape.

“Golden Ages arecomforting,” Bettany Hughes writes in TheHemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens, and the Search for the Good Life. “We love the thought that in the dim anddistant past we achieved absolute perfection, and that if as a species we didit once, we can do so again. We want ancient Athens to satisfy our yearning fora fair, ordered, beautiful society. We want to believe that ideologies such as’democracy,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘freedom of speech’ have, at some time, achieved aperfect form. But—even though Athens was unique, wonderful—that is laying toogreat 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 lifeand of the life of the troubled and turbulent society in which he lived anddied. The choice of a double subject, Socrates and Athens, is in part forced on Hughes by the lack of accuratebiographical data about Socrates, particularly his early years—a situation thatis exacerbated by the fact that he himself chose not to record any of hislengthy conversations with his fellow Athenians and, indeed, wrote nothing atall. But it makes sense, too, given how closely entwined his life was with thelife of his city. “My hope,” Hughes writes, “is that by lookingat the shape around the Socrates-sized hole, at the city in which helived—Athens in the fifth century BC—I can begin to write not quite a life ofSocrates, but a vivid sketch of Socrates in his landscape; a topography of theman in his times.”

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

Aboveall he was, or tried to be, a loyal and dedicated citizen. The very behaviorsthat irritated his fellow Athenians, and for which he was condemned—castingdoubt on common standards and ways of thinking, engaging (and hence’corrupting’) the city’s youth in searching conversations—were in his viewperformed in the service of Athens, with an eye to making it a more virtuoussociety.  

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

Elsewhere she providesvivid and evocative descriptions of ancient Athenian technologies, includingthe kleroterion, the”proto-computer” used to select jury members, and the water-clockthat measured the time prosecutors and defendants had to make their cases.

Such details help usimagine Athens as it must have been in Socrates’s time. But ultimately the bookmay be most memorable when it reaches past that historical era to speak tosomething more universal: the tendency of democratic societies to give in topopulist fear and resentment and to seek out and destroy those free thinkerswho challenge the status quo. “Had political tyranny in fact been replacedby tyranny of the mind? Athens was trying to shore itself up, to build andbuild . . . Shamed by their defeats in war, confused by the freedom their ownpolitical system gave them, the Athenians from around 415 BC onwards choseoppression over liberal thinking.” It was not so much a golden age, then,but an age that is worth remembering and contemplating, not only forcontemporary philosophers and historians, but for anyone who values thedemocratic ideas bequeathed to us by our very human and, in their way, verymodern ancestors.