Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE HEMLOCK CUP by Bettany Hughes Kirkus Star

THE HEMLOCK CUP

Socrates, Athens, and the Search for the Good Life

By Bettany Hughes

Pub Date: Feb. 10th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4000-4179-4
Publisher: Knopf

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, the demos. 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.