It is indeed heartening to see a review (see below) of a new book on Socrates [The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life By Bettany Hughes] by Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman Walter Isaacson, the distinguished author of acclaimed biographies of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, considered by many America's first 'public diplomacy' envoy. (The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), according to its website, "encompasses all U.S. civilian international broadcasting, including the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio and TV Martí, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN)—Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television.")
Isaacson's perceptive review of a work on Plato's mentor suggests that, among the many who serve the US government, an admirable few find the time for thought and reflection. His piece may also be an inadvertent expression of what Mr. Isaacson may on occasion wish to do -- employ the "pause that refreshes" --
when faced, as BBG Chairman, with relentless criticism from Congress and BBG's own employees." Image from
February 18, 2011
By WALTER ISAACSON, New York Times
Review of THE HEMLOCK CUP
Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life
By Bettany Hughes
Illustrated. 484 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.
The problem with writing a biography of Socrates, as Bettany Hughes merrily admits, is that he’s a “doughnut subject”: a rich and tasty topic with a big hole right in the middle where the main character should be. Despite his fame and his insistence on an examined life, Socrates never wrote anything, and our knowledge of him comes mainly from three contemporaries — his devoted pupils Plato and Xenophon, and the parodist Aristophanes — each of whom had his own agenda. He produced no great answers, only great questions, and the most enduring image we have of his life is his leaving of it, as the title of this book suggests.
How do we examine the life of the man who told us that the unexamined life was not worth living? Hughes, a British television host and popular historian known for her book on Helen of Troy, does it by concentrating on the shape of the doughnut around the hole. She outlines Socrates mainly by describing the sights, sounds, mores and facts that surrounded him.
For the most part, Hughes is successful, and even when not, she’s fascinating. 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. At one point we travel with her to the rear of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, to study a scrap of papyrus — Fragment 4807 — in the Sackler Library. It contains some lines, apparently by Sophocles, casting light on what life may have been like during the Peloponnesian War.
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, who spends a lot of time at the gymnasium and holds philosophical discourses at shoe shops. By necessity, the book has a lot of speculation, with phrases like “there is every possibility that he sailed from Piraeus” and “Socrates would certainly have participated in such communal activity.” 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.
Born around 469 B.C., Socrates grew up as democracy and great art were flourishing in Athens. But a three-day walk to the south lay a rival, Sparta, where most males between ages 7 and 30 lived in military camps that gave meaning to the phrase “Spartan existence”: barefoot and with just one cloak to wear year round, the men were trained relentlessly for war.
During his late 30s and into his 40s, Socrates fought in the Peloponnesian War. Hughes portrays him as a courageous warrior, but not a foolhardy one; he has enough wisdom to be among the Athenian soldiers who managed to survive the bloody defeat at Delion in 424 B.C. Socrates fights with determination, while his beautiful young companion, Alcibiades, watches, but he also leads a group of fellow soldiers to safety. As Hughes notes, “He was a man strong enough to fight when challenged, he was unflustered by the difficulties of the day, he is portrayed to us as having about him a peculiar serenity.” This is the foundation, she implies, for one of Socrates’ great pieces of advice: courage is the ability to distinguish between real and perceived threats, being able to know what should be feared and what should not be.
When Socrates returns to Athens he pursues an odd life, padding the streets barefoot and holding philosophical dialogues, not at schools or in homes where he would be paid, but in places like the shop of a shoemaker named Simon. Thus he creates the Socratic Method, as well as arousing suspicions among some citizens of Athens that he is a corrupter of youth.
Hughes does not present a methodical study of the philosophy of Socrates, nor does she deal much with the famous Socratic problem of how to distinguish the real Socrates from Plato’s portrait of him. But she does tie the philosophy to the facts of his life, insofar as we know them. Because his mother became a midwife, Hughes takes us to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens to rummage through a cabinet that contains images, social records and crude objects relating to childbirth in classical Greece. Some terra cotta pieces “remind us of what a lusty, messy business giving birth really is.” This is important, for midwifery forms the great metaphor Socrates uses to explain his method of extracting truth through questioning others, rather than giving birth to it himself. As Plato has him say: “I am so much like the midwife that I cannot myself give birth to wisdom. . . . Although I question others, I can bring nothing to light because there is no wisdom in me.”
Hughes spends less time exploring Socrates’ relationship with Plato than the one he had with Alcibiades. As far as Hughes can tell (or at least Plato tells), he resists the sexual lures of Alcibiades, famous even centuries later as the most beautiful and dissolute boy of Athens. “Alcibiades is a latter-day Adonis — all flowing golden locks, a fine profile and with androgynously smooth skin,” Hughes writes. “He lisped sensuously, he loved women, girls, men, boys, dogs.” He represented the opposite of the introspective, virtuous life that Socrates spent his life examining, “yet Socrates did not condemn the boy, he was fascinated by him.” Socrates sleeps by him during the war, becomes enamored with him and saves him on the battlefield. Why? Because, according to Hughes, Socrates very much lived in the real world, with real-world pleasures, “and Alcibiades was the Athens that Socrates was struggling to live with.”
We like to think of Athens as a place where robed citizens wandered thoughtfully through the Parthenon and agora. Hughes instead describes the smelly atmosphere of the neighborhood Socrates frequented, the Kerameikos. It was filled with prostitutes, male and female, with small stalls available for what Athenians called “middle-of-the-day marriages.” “The Kerameikos is a key clue to his story and to the story of Athens’ Golden Age. These visceral, vacillating lanes, nooks and crannies were his ethical nursery.” There were two or three slaves for every adult, so leisured citizens, Socrates included, spent most of their time at the gym honing their bodies or in discussions sharpening their minds.
Hughes intersperses the story of Socrates’ trial in 399 B.C. with some wonderful details. We learn, for example, about the workings of the mechanical device that randomly selected, from 6,000 names, the jury of 500 Athenian citizens (yes, 500) that assembled at the law court to hear the case. This kleroterion, a replica of which can be viewed at the Agora Museum in Athens, was a proto-computer that used carved slots to send metal disks down a chute. “Every means possible has been thought of to prevent corruption,” Hughes writes. “Alphabetical blocks of seats, secret ballots, random-selection machines.” Her quest for authentic detail even leads her to grind up hemlock and sniff it. “It releases a nose-wrinkling sour smell,” she reports.
I don’t think that Hughes is quite as successful, however, with the larger aspects of the death of Socrates. She tells us early in the book about his definition of courage — knowing which threats should be feared and which should not be — but she does not tie that into the burning question surrounding his death: Why did he not choose exile or escape, or offer a serious defense? There are many theories. According to his pupil Xenophon, Socrates felt that, at age 70, he would be better off dead than to linger in exile or confinement. Perhaps he suspected that by drinking the hemlock he would create the founding myth of philosophy. From Plato’s “Crito,” we get an explanation that forms the basis of social contract theory: Socrates explains why it would violate justice to flee the verdict of the citizens of Athens.
When Hughes describes Socrates’ speech defending himself, as reported in Plato’s “Apology,” she seems struck by how arrogant he is. “He reminds the court he is the wisest man on earth,” she says. But she doesn’t fully explain the depth of irony in his speech. It contains the most wonderful Socratic paradox: He has questioned all the wise people of Athens, he says, and realized that they were not truly wise because they mistakenly believed themselves to be wise; on the other hand, he knows full well that he is not wise, which makes him wiser than they are.
There are also smaller glitches in her treatment of Socrates’ final scene. At the end of the book, she quotes, without much analysis, the memorable last line in the “Apology”: “I go to die and you to live; who knows which is the better journey.” Yet in the introduction of her book, she quotes the same line with a significantly different (and more conventional) translation — “which of us is going to a better condition is not known to anyone except god” — with no apparent rationale for the disparity.
But these are minor issues. There are scores of other books — including a delightful one by the iconoclastic journalist I. F. Stone — that explore the philosophical issues surrounding the death of Socrates. What Hughes provides is something far more 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 is the chief executive of the Aspen Institute and the author of biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein.