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Many a slip

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the search for the good life Bettany Hughes

JONATHAN CAPE, 486PP, £25 ■Tablet Bookshop price £22.50

S 01420 592974

ocrates, Bettany Hughes was warned as she embarked on this book, is a “doughnut subject: gloriously rich, with a whacking hole in the middle where the central character should be”. An insuperable obstacle, you might think, for the biographer. But instead The Hemlock Cup sets out to recreate Socrates’ world, to bring “the humble, the archaeological and the physical back into the Socratic experience”, to show how the philosopher was at one with the grime and grit of everyday life in classical Athens. It is a biography of a city, or indeed a culture, as much as of any single man. The result, though certainly rich, is more

trifle than doughnut. Socrates’ trial and death, though they provide a frame for Hughes’ account, in fact get surprisingly little attention. What (very little) we can know of Socrates’ life – his social “set”, his sex life, his military service, and so on – is interspersed with richly detailed invocations of, it seems, almost every aspect

of Greek history, society and culture of the classical period: drinking parties, legal procedure, prostitution, religious ritual, and much else. The reader is also treated to vignettes of Hughes’ own explorations – her visits to dusty museum collections down dodgy alleyways – so that we are drawn into the excitement of the scholarly chase. Or at least that must be the idea.

Whether The Hemlock Cup intoxicates any reader or leaves him or her stone cold is likely to be a matter of personal taste. Hughes’ sense of place in her invocation of ancient and modern Athens made me want to rush for a plane to see for myself. At the same time, could we keep up? Hughes’ tone of breathless awe and rapture, so critical to her success as perhaps the leading populariser of the ancient past today, can sometimes reduce you to exhaustion, over nearly 500 pages. And her style might not appeal to all. Athens is “stand-out progressive” with a “stakeholder population of more than 200,000”. The Acropolis, unflatteringly, has a “crusting of world-class buildings”. And, most bizarrely, of the device that measured the length of time that a speaker was given in the Athenian court, Hughes begins a section dramatically: “the pissing stream of the water-clock had drooped”. But perhaps the biggest issues relate, more fundamentally, to the shape of the

project. Attempts to make connections between Socrates’ everyday experiences – what he might have witnessed in the course of his military service, for example – and his philosophy inevitably sell the latter short. Socrates was exposed to so much that was “bad”, we are told, “that his search for the ‘good’ was ever more urgent”. And what can we know of his philosophy anyway? Hughes is very confident in attributing opinions and beliefs to her notoriously unsympathetic hero. Large chunks of Platonic dialogue – our main source for what we know of Socrates – are transplanted into the text, as if they offered a real-life insight into the man. But of course, as she is well aware, the relationship between Plato’s Socrates and the philosopher himself is extraordinarily difficult to establish. The dialogues do not only evade giving easy answers to the big questions posed. Through the dialogue form itself, they seem to stage the impossibility of finding any such answers – and certainly prevent us from distilling any stable set of Socratic positions. The Hemlock Cup passionately evokes the

drama of Athenian life. But the intellectual drama of the dialogue, the cut and thrust of philosophical debate, is scarcely glimpsed here. Ironically, then, it is in fact Plato – of whom we have plenty – who is the whacking absence at the heart of this book. Thomas Harrison

29 January 2011 | THE TABLET | 21

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