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The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life

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From the celebrated British author and historian: a brilliant new book combining historical inquiry and storytelling élan to paint an unprecedentedly vivid portrait of Socrates and the Golden Age of classical Athens.
 
We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did; in his unwavering commitment to truth and in the example of his own life, he set the standard for all subsequent Western philosophy. And yet, for twenty-five ...
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Overview

From the celebrated British author and historian: a brilliant new book combining historical inquiry and storytelling élan to paint an unprecedentedly vivid portrait of Socrates and the Golden Age of classical Athens.
 
We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did; in his unwavering commitment to truth and in the example of his own life, he set the standard for all subsequent Western philosophy. And yet, for twenty-five centuries, he has remained an enigma: a man who left no written legacy and about whom everything we know is hearsay. His life spanned “seventy of the busiest, most wonderful and tragic years in Athenian history.” Athens in the fifth century B.C. was a city devastated by war, but, at the same time, transformed by the burgeoning process of democracy. Drawing on the latest sources—archaeological, topographical, and textual—Hughes re-creates the streets where Socrates walked, to place him there, and to illuminate for us the world as he experienced it.

She takes us through the great, teeming Agora—the massive marketplace, the heart of ancient Athens—where Socrates engaged in philosophical dialogue and where he would be condemned to death. We visit the battlefields where he fought, the red-light district and gymnasia he frequented and the religious festivals he attended. We meet the men and the few women—including his wife, Xanthippe, and his “inspiration” and confidante, Aspasia—who were central to his life. We travel to where he was born and where he died. And we come to understand the profound influences of time and place in the evolution of his eternally provocative philosophy.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The brilliant cultural historian Hughes (Helen of Troy) has again produced an intriguing and entertaining biohistory of one of the most important individuals in the ancient world, and of the Athenian society that condemned him to death for daring to question all received wisdom. Drawing on the abundance of contemporary references by both supporters and opponents to the philosopher, Hughes illustrates that "bsolutely of his time, he is also of ours," "the first ironic man" in an unironic age, a gadfly to Athens' citizens and leaders. Moreover, through careful description of fifth century B.C.E. Athens, she brings to life the social, political, economic, literary, and military realities of Socrates' society, in particular the centrality of the agora. Hughes devotes a substantial part of her account to the trial and forced suicide of the great philosopher, events which communicated Socratic humor mixed with courage. Regrettably, she offers little in the way of criticism of modern authors such as I.F. Stone who have clouded Socrates's reputation by championing the populist and "democratic" tyrants. But she aptly conveys the continuing urgency of Socrates' devotion to the inquiring mind. 16 pages of color illus.; 33 b&w illus.; 5 maps. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Hughes's (visiting research fellow, King's Coll., London; Helen of Troy) book isn't a biography of Socrates or a critique of his philosophy, but instead a look at what it was like to live in Athens during his lifetime. She uses the writings of Xenophon, Plato, and Aristophanes along with archaeological and historical discoveries to create a glimpse of the political and cultural life of Socrates' Athens. Socrates' life and philosophy are analyzed by looking at the lives of fellow Athenians such as Alcibiades and Diotima and at events he would have experienced as an adolescent in the gymnasium and as a soldier on the battlefield. His trial and death are covered at the beginning and end of the work, and Hughes examines, in detail, why Socrates' ideas were seen as so threatening for the younger citizens of Athens. VERDICT Hughes does a wonderful job of offering the reader a new and insightful look into Socrates' life and philosophy. The writing is engaging and will appeal to academics and general readers who are interested in Socrates and life in ancient Greece.—Scott Duimstra, Capital Area Dist. Lib., Lansing, MI
Kirkus Reviews

A smart and entertaining "biography" of Socrates as shaped against the great experiment of democracy in 5th-century BCE Athens.

British historian and journalist Hughes (Helen of Troy, 2005) again seizes an elusive subject and fleshes it out by depicting the world around it. In this case, the Athenian philosopher who never wrote a word of his own springs to life through the work of his contemporaries (Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon) and the record of his trial and death by hemlock poison for not acknowledging the city's gods and for corrupting the youth. Socrates lived during the Golden Age of a virile, proud Athens, in which the spirit of open inquiry, justice and civic participation flourished among the common people, thedemos. Unaffiliated with any school and content to roam barefoot and simply clad through Athens's Agora engaging people in dialogue about how man could best lead a virtuous life, Socrates presented his listeners, often impressionable young men, with a moral challenge: What is the point of wealth if you are not happy? What is beauty? Who deserves power? Above all, Socrates goaded his followers to look deeper and to ask questions—a powerful and increasingly dangerous message in a new democracy that would soon be torn apart by plague, the Peloponnesian War and the rule of tyrants. Hughes thrillingly navigates the life stages of her subject. The young son of humble people, born just as Athens was constructing its Acropolis and Pericles came to glory, Socrates sowed his wild oats among the prostitutes in the city's Kerameikos red-light district, enjoyed early association as a soldier with the beautiful Alcibiades and frequented the gyms to admire and engage the young men. Love, truth, virtue, the place of women—these were the preoccupations for the wandering sage, but the city had darkened, and Socrates was put on trial as a way of, as Aristotle wrote, "cutting the tops of the tallest ears of corn."

An invigorating, tremendous work of scholarship.

Steve Donoghue
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 Socrates Hughes creates is ultimately a towering yet intensely human figure. He lives and speaks again in these pages: It's a singular accomplishment.
—The Washington Post
Walter Isaacson
What we get in The Hemlock Cup is many books interlaced: a biography of Socrates; a gritty description of daily life in Athens; a vivid history of the Peloponnesian War and its aftereffects; and—as an unexpected delight—a guide to museums, archaeological digs and repositories of ancient artifacts, as Hughes takes us by the hand while ferreting out her evidence…With great spirit and diligence, Hughes is able to piece together a surprisingly vivid portrait of the hairy, slovenly son of a stonemason and midwife…By necessity, the book has a lot of speculation…Academic purists may chafe that Hughes makes such imaginative leaps. But by doing so, she helps us imagine Socrates as a body of flesh rather than a bust of marble.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher
“Fascinating. . . . What Bettany Hughes provides is something vital: a life and times of Socrates that is so richly textured, flavorful and atmospheric that it makes human this most enigmatic of all philosophers. By the end of her book, we can almost see and smell the man, with all of his quirks and foibles and questioning brilliance.” —Walter Isaacson, The New York Times Book Review

“Bettany Hughes’ biography is far more than just that: this tour de force is a vivid political and social history of Athens in the 5th century BC. Hughes evokes a city steeped in change, looking past the Golden Age of democracy, new wealth and power to the reality of  a century tempered by war and infighting. With the plan of his life as a backbone, the book covers the whole experience of 5th-century Athenians, yet paints a picture of Socrates as a marvellous eccentric, paddling the streets barefoot, conversing with strangers and refusing to conform . . . this approach produces an extremely exciting narrative. Descriptions of Athens’ legal system aren’t dry but dripping with colour; the city itself is dirty, smelly, defiantly alive. And what other historian has spared a thought for the buttock pain of ancient jurors sat on hard stone seats in court? This is not a study of Socrates’ philosophy but his world. As thought-provoking as it is thrilling, the book is a beacon for the relevance and interest of classics today.”  —The Times (London)
 
“Bettany Hughes’s terrifically readable life of Socrates is more than just a life; it is also an evocation and explanation of the world that created him, and over which he would come to have such influence. . . . The Hemlock Cup makes a vivid and persuasive case for the study of Socrates as a valuable means to understanding how our way of thinking about our own world came to be, and a guide to how we might understand it better.” —The Independent on Sunday (UK)
 
“A beguiling book. . . . Hughes triumphs again. This is history, and historical reconstruction, exactly as it should be written. . . . 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.” —The Washington Post
 
“Delightful . . . Hughes presents a high-octane account of Socrates and his age. . . . Do read this book, both because of its marvelous storytelling and because it will stimulate a desire to learn more about the ancient world.” —The Wall Street Journal
  
“Bettany Hughes has done it again; she brings to life not only Socrates himself but the whole of Periclean Athens. Here is a work of dazzling erudition which remains hugely readable—what more can one ask?” —John Julius Norwich, author of Byzantium
 
“No one before Bettany Hughes, a highly accomplished communicator, has thought to weave Socrates’s examined life into quite so rich and dense a tapestry of democratic Athens’s teeming high-cultural and mundane experience. . . . Hughes’s enormous energy and enthusiasm are infectious.” —Paul Cartledge, The Independent (UK)
 
“An invigorating, tremendous work of scholarship. . . . A smart and entertaining ‘biography’ of Socrates as shaped against the great experiment of democracy in 5th-century BCE Athens. . . . Hughes thrillingly navigates the life stages of her subject.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“A compelling study of an exceptional man’s relationship with the one community that had a hope of understanding and accepting him. There’s some terrific and passionate writing about a philosopher whose heroism is unquestionable; and as lively and learned an introduction to classical Athens as you could want.” —The Daily Telegraph (UK)

“This is a lucid, erudite, and compelling work that brings Socrates and his city to life, offering a fresh and illuminating perspective on their times . . . A fruitful melding of informed and nuanced historical narrative and personal observation that succeeds marvelously in realizing its bold ambition.” —Weekly Standard

“The brilliant cultural historian Hughes has again produced an intriguing and entertaining biohistory of one of the most important individuals in the ancient world. . . . She brings to life the social, political, economic, literary, and military realities of Socrates’ society, in particular the centrality of the agora, [and] aptly conveys the continuing urgency of Socrates’ devotion to the inquiring mind.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)
 
“There are certain historical figures whose lives merit perpetual reexamination because their impact continues to reverberate century after century. . . . Not only a lively and eminently readable biography of Socrates the man, but also a vivid evocation of Athens, the city-state on the cusp of originating many of the greatest precepts of modern Western civilization.” —Booklist 
 
“One can plunge enthusiastically into the seething world inhabited by Socrates that Hughes recreates for us. . . . This is the grand sweep of Athenian history during its most politically inventive and culturally exciting period. . . . Irresistible.” —Literary Review (UK)
  
 “The life of Socrates becomes a peg from which to hang a vivid depiction of Athens in its golden age, from the pinnacle of its greatness to the abyss of its ultimate defeat. . . . Hughes’s prose is the literary equivalent of CGI, re-creating for the reader a sense of the clamour and dazzle of the classical city that has rarely been bettered. . . . Hers is an ancient Greece that is authentically cutting-edge.” —The Observer (UK)

 

The Barnes & Noble Review

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.

--Troy Jollimore

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400041794
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/8/2011
  • Pages: 528
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.52 (h) x 1.67 (d)

Meet the Author

Bettany Hughes is an award-winning historian, author and broadcaster. Her first book, Helen of Troy, has been translated into ten languages. She has written and presented numerous documentaries for the BBC, PBS, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and National Geographic, which have been seen by more than 100 million viewers worldwide. She received her degrees in ancient and medieval history from Oxford University and holds a Research Fellowship at King’s College, London. She was awarded the 2012 Norton Medlicott Medal for Services to History by the Historical Association. She was awarded the 2012 Norton Medlicott Medal for Services to History by the Historical Association. She lives in the United Kingdom and abroad with her husband and their two daughters.
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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

The unexamined life is not a life worth living for a human being.

—Socrates, in Plato’s Apology, 38a

We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did. Socrates’ belief that, as individuals, we need to question the world around us stands at the heart of what it means to live in ‘modern times’. In the Socratic Dialogues, generated twenty-four centuries ago, we find the birth of ethos – ethics – and the identification of the psyche. ‘The First Martyr’ – the Greek martys means ‘witness’ – a witness to ‘truth, virtue, justice’ and ‘freedom of speech’, is commemorated as a bedrock of our civilisation. Socrates stands at the beginning of our world – when democracy and liberty are first conceived as fundamental values of society. We need to understand him because he did not just pursue the meaning of life, but the meaning of our own lives.

Socrates sees us coming. He worries that the pursuit of plenty will bring mindless materialism, that ‘democracy’ will become just a banner under which to fight. What is the point, he says, of warships and city walls and glittering statues if we are not happy? If we have lost sight of what is good?

His is a question that is more pertinent now than ever. He asks: ‘What is the right way to live?’

I am a stinging fly, sent to goad the city as though it were a huge, thoroughbred horse,
which because of its size is rather sluggish and needs to be stirred.

When Socrates comes into focus, in Greece in the fifth century bc, he is no didact: he wanders through the streets of Athens, debating the essence of what it means to be human. For the young men (and women) of the city he is irresistible: his relentless questioning appears to tap man’s potential for self-knowledge. His ‘ethics’ programme centres on the search for the ‘good life’. His, it was whispered – then and through the next 2,400 years – is a voice of incomparable sophia: of knowledge, skill, wisdom and truth.

The greater part of Socrates’ life was spent out in public, in Athens, philosophising unrestricted. But when the philosopher was seventy, Athens turned against him. In March 399 bc the ageing citizen was tried in a religious court and found guilty of both primary and secondary charges: ‘not duly acknowledging the city’s gods and inventing new ones’ and ‘corrupting the youth’. The death sentence was passed: four weeks or so later Socrates killed himself by drinking the hemlock poison left for him by his jailer in his Athenian cell.

Socrates’ arguments were perhaps just too incendiary, too dangerously charismatic. He believed that man had the potential to enjoy perfect happiness. A clue to the contemporary impact of his ideas is given by his pupil Plato. In the Allegory of the Cave, with cool detail, Plato has Socrates describe a race of men who have been born in chains, and who, staring for ever at a cave wall, see only the shadows of creatures above them and believe these shadows to be reality. He then reveals the dismay and joy these captives feel when they are brought, blinking, into the light of the real world. The chained men represent those of humanity who have yet to hear or understand what Socrates has to say.

However, when it comes to wholeheartedly embracing the new, mankind displays a poor record. In a superstitious city, Socrates’ spiritual and moral make-up was unconventional, troubling. He seems to have suffered from some form of epilepsy or ‘petit mal’ (hence his curious cataleptic seizures, when he stared into the distance for hours on end), which in a pious age was interpreted as a malign ‘inner voice’. His contemporary the playwright Aristophanes talks of the passionate men who go to hear him preach and turn their minds to fundamental issues rather than frivolities as having been ‘Socratified’. And in his comedy Clouds, Aristophanes jeers at Socrates’ high-minded eccentricities, has him clamber into a raised bath and scramble around in the clouds to ‘peer at the arse of the moon’. Democracies need pragmatists, yet Socrates refuses to contain himself, to temper the power of principle. So pheme – rumour, gossip – starts to fly through Athena’s city. As the robust philosopher is only too aware, a whispering campaign is the most pernicious and insidious of enemies.

These people who have thrown scandal at me are genuinely dangerous. They’ve used envy and slander and they’re difficult to deal with. I cannot possibly bring them into court to cross-question them or refute their charges. I have to defend myself as if I were boxing with shadows.

Socratic thought and the living Socrates

In all cities, it is easier to hurt a man than to help him.
Plato, Meno, 94e

In the Metropolitan Museum in New York hangs a painting of Socrates, just before death, by the great neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David. Socrates – speaking slowly but determinedly, the hemlock about to run through his veins, a martyr to virtue and high principle – is surrounded by agitated disciples. Crouched around his bed are those men such as Plato who will carry his words into literature and thus on into the very DNA of world civilisation.

Now it is time for us to go away, for me to die and for you to live; but which of us is going to a better condition is not known to anyone except god.

This is not a book of philosophic theory. I am a historian, not a philosopher, and cannot possibly better the work of those who have gone before me, who have squeezed ever-evolving interpretations out of Socrates’ philosophical ideas; Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes the Cynic, Al-Kindi, Yehuda ha-Levi, Thomas Hobbes et al. – all these men have tussled with what Socrates’ philosophy means. That is a bulging canon and one I would not presume to augment. But I can turn my eyes to the stones under my feet. I can see how Socrates’ philosophy evolved in his time and his place.

For the purposes of this book, the joy of Socratic thought is that Socrates did not believe in or deal with abstracts. For him, morality stemmed from and emerged to deal with real problems in a real world. The characters he employs as porters for his ideas are often cobblers, bakers, priestesses, whores. Socrates continually emphasises that he is flesh and blood, and that it is as a flesh and-blood man that he lived and understood life. It is one of the reasons his philosophy is so accessible to all of us. So bringing the humble, the archaeological and the physical back into the Socratic experience is appropriate. The totemic ideas that Socrates delivered were, put simply, as much to do with the religious ritual he had just witnessed down at his local harbour, with the pleasure of walking barefoot through Athens, with the death of a loved one, or the horror of living through a wasting-war, as they were with any kind of purely intellectual concept. Socrates’ prime concern was with the world as lived. As this book weaves together the mongrel evidence for his life, where material remains are as valued as literary and documentary sources, a picture emerges of a world that is, for the first time, self-consciously trying to build a ‘civilisation’ that is based on a ‘democracy’.

Yet Socrates is not concerned just with our surroundings, but what is within us. ‘He who orders us to know ourselves is bidding us to become acquainted with our soul.’ Socrates is soulful. The philosopher believes open conversation an essential balm for the psyche. His method gets inner thoughts out into the public sphere, not as a monologue, but as a dialogue. For him this was cathartic – Plato uses the Greek word katharsis– releasing ‘bad things’ from the spirit. Socrates is the first man for whom we have an extant record who explores how we should all live in the world, as the world was working out how to live with itself.

Truth is in fact a purification [katharsis] . . . and self-restraint and justice and courage and wisdom itself are a kind of purification.

Socrates’ philosophy is relevant to all of us, not least because it has been so tenacious. From Elizabeth I to Martin Luther King, from the Third Reich to twenty-first-century America, Socrates’ example has been used to try to understand what society is, and what it should be. Socratic words filled the halls of Italian Renaissance humanists. The Jewish philosopher Yehuda ha-Levi in the eleventh century ad cites Socrates in a dialogue with King Khazar concerning the nature of Judaism. John Locke and Thomas Hobbes scatter their treatises of political theory with Socratic quotations. Socrates was also a central influence in early Islam. Al-Kindi, the ‘first’ self-professed Arab philosopher, certainly the first Muslim philosopher, wrote extensive (long-lost) treatises on Socrates in the ninth century ad.18 Socratic wisdoms were quoted in coloured stone, mortared into the very fabric of public buildings in Samarkand. The philosopher was nominated one of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his nickname ‘The Source’. Socrates’ inner voice was thought by medieval Muslims a sign that he was an angel in poor man’s clothing. Throughout the Arab world from the eleventh century ad up until the present day he was said to refresh and nourish, ‘like . . . the purest water in the midday heat’.

And yet why should we still care for him? Why commemorate this longago life? One good reason is because Socrates does that shocking thing – that thing we still crave – he implies there might be a way to be fulfilled on this earth. Socrates was magnetic because he counselled care of the soul. He believed that men can achieve true happiness only when they are at peace with themselves.20 He suggested it is ‘us’, not ‘them’, who can make things better.

Socrates, as I have said, is tantalisingly elusive. But what we do have in our favour is the physical setting of his ‘not thereness’. If the play of fifthcentury BC Athenian life was lovingly crafted by Plato, and Socrates was his inspiration, then the stage-set, Athens, is still available to all of us. All agree, when it comes to Socrates, that he was down-to-earth. His was a great mind supported by feet of clay. And it is those muddy footsteps that I will follow. So this is not a philosophical, but a topographical map of the man.

There are many reasons why Socrates’ story demands to be told. It is, at its most basic, an electric courtroom drama. The men of Athens vote to exterminate Socrates. They think he is a threat. He thinks he can save the soul of the city. Is this mob-rule, a political conspiracy, or the perfect example of the rule of the majority? Is Socrates’ story a tragedy or a useful staging post in the development of civilisation? Who is in the right? The story of Socrates also incarnates the tension between the freedom of the individual and the regulation of the community. His refusal to compromise ends in his death. It is for this reason that he is hailed as humanity’s first-recorded ideological martyr.

Socrates’ life was spent in search of treasure, of an intimate understanding of humanity. And the combusting energy of that search drove him around the city of Athens. This book pursues the path he burned. His quest was to identify what place ‘the good’ might have in human society. We might not find that ultimate prize; Socrates himself was never sure that he had done so, and the only thing he seems to have been certain of was the futility of trying to find ‘real’ scientific explanations for everything in life. He thought it fruitless to stare at the skies and travel to the ends of the earth in order to catalogue the world, without learning to love it. Yet by inhabiting the Athens that raised him, we might just get a glimpse of the treasure-seeker: hot and cross sometimes, bad-tempered, self-absorbed, brilliant, dangerous, droll. Socrates never lost sight of his own temporality. The day he is condemned to death he declares: ‘I am, as Homer puts it, “not born of an oak or a rock”, but of human parents.’ And so this books aims, physically, to inhabit Socrates’ Athens – not just as recorded and as promoted, but as lived and experienced.

The city of Athens is Socrates. Nothing means more to Socrates than Athens, and, more importantly, than the Athenians within it. He tells one of his colleagues, Phaedrus, that his home, his world, is the city – a city full of people. For Socrates, people are his magnetic North: he loved them. Xenophon reports that his conversations ‘were always about human concerns. He dealt with questions such as how people please and displease the gods, what is the essence/purpose of beauty and ugliness, justice and injustice, prudence and moderation, courage and cowardice.’

All his philosophy is drawn to understanding the being of men and women around him. This understanding, this consciousness of one’s own consciousness, is what Socrates calls the psyche – the life-breath or soul. And it is in the city of Athens, between the years 469 and 399 bc, that Socrates’ soul flits.

My ambition is very simple: to re-enter the streets of Athens in real time. Not to revisit a Golden Age city, but to look at a real city-state that was forging a great political experiment and riveting a culture; a city that suffered war and plague as well as enjoying great triumphs. To inhabit a place that is at once absolutely recognisable and utterly strange. To breathe the air Socrates breathed. To meet democrats who pre-date democracy and philosophers who operate before the science of philosophy is born. This history is pathos. Socrates’ life and trial and death by hemlock are stories that Athens did not want fully told, but which we need to hear.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 21 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2011

    Read the real reviews

    These "reviews" on the B&N website are simply complaints about the price of the Nook edition. I suggest you read the reviews in the London Telegraph, New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 11, 2011

    What the Price?

    I know the publisher has a lot to do with setting ebook prices, but a little common sense would be good. . .

    2 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2011

    Not at this price!

    I cringed a bit when I ponied up $15 for the Nook version of "Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche" but since I had a gift card I went ahead with the purchase. I thought this book would be a good follow-up read until I saw the Nook price. How on earth can B&N justify asking $28 for the Nook version when the hardcover is selling for $19.25. I guess I will kill another tree and buy the book--from Amazon.

    2 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2011

    If only ...

    was ready to get the e-book but $28.00!!!!!??????
    Should not have let the store Nook person talk me out of returning it!
    What a shame and BN should be ashamed! Usury

    2 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2011

    Why?

    Why does the NOOKbook version cost almost $9.00 more than the hardcover version? Why did I buy a NOOK book?

    2 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2011

    Yikes too much!!

    Wld love to buy this...but can't afford the nook price..what happened to all the freebies and discounted prices!!!

    1 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2011

    Nookbook?

    I'd love to read this as a NookBook but the eBook price is twice the hardcopy price. Why did I buy a Nook again?

    1 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 21, 2012

    Each chapter is riveting, engaging, and makes me want to look things up so that I can know more.

    _The Hemlock Cup_ is actually three narratives in one book: the physicality and history of Athens during Socrates' life, a largely-guesswork biography of Socrates, and a guided tour through the digs in modern Greece that resulted in the foundations for a lot of Bettany Hughes' supposition. Each chapter is riveting, engaging, and makes me want to look things up so that I can know more. Taken as a whole, the piece is disjointed and jumpy, uneasily sitting between the history of Athens and the after-image of Socrates. It's odd the things she explains to her readers and the things she doesn't, often seeming as if she's forgotten to put in a parenthetic statement or footnote in a number of passages (the introduction of Alcibiades was particularly frustrating to me). I was left with the feeling that she wrote some chapters with an academic audience in mind, and others with a popular audience in mind.

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  • Posted March 17, 2011

    Book & Price

    Book is wonderful. Nook price is a joke!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 15, 2011

    Content

    I hate reviews based on nothing about the actual book or by people who obviously hadn't read the book. this book is fun and interesting.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted March 11, 2011

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