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

Bettany Hughes
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Sep 2011

We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did. His aphorism 'The unexamined life is not worth living' may have originated twenty-five centuries ago, but it is a founding principle of modern life. For seventy years Socrates was a vigorous citizen of Golden Age Athens, philosophising in the squares and public arenas rather than in the courts of kings, before his beloved city turned on him, condemning him to death by poison.

Socrates lived in and contributed to a city that nurtured key ingredients of contemporary civilisation - democracy, liberty, science, drama, rational thought - yet, as he wrote almost nothing down, he himself is an enigmatic figure. In The Hemlock Cup, acclaimed historian Bettany Hughes gives Socrates the biography he deserves, painstakingly piecing together Socrates' life and using fresh evidence to get closer to the man who asked 'how should we live?' - a question as relevant now as it has ever been.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (1 Sep 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099554054
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099554059
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 47,179 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"Hughes cleverly extracts the man from the dramatic scene-setting... This intelligent, bright-eyed vigorous book [has] a life as vibrant and provocative as that lived by its subject" (The Times)

"In The Hemlock Cup Bettany Hughes does a very good job of recreating the material world in which Socrates lived...she is up to date on recent archaeological discoveries... She writes frankly of the nastiness of the world in which Socrates grew up and lived" (Mary Beard Sunday Times)

"No physical aspect of life as experienced by an Athenian man is left out...Hughes's expert attempts to make him flesh and blood, to fill in the gaps...teach us about the value of the real as well as the philosophical" (Lesley McDowell Scotsman)

"Terrific and passionate writing about a philosopher whose heroism is unquestionable (though that heroism resides in a constant questioning); and as lively and learned an introduction to classical Athens as you could want" (Tom Payne Daily Telegraph)

"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" (Observer)

Book Description

A riveting, lively and brilliantly researched biography of Socrates by the author of the acclaimed bestseller Helen of Troy.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars At last! 26 Dec 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a highly readable and thoroughly researched book whose subject matter might best be described as "the Life and Times of Socrates".

Anyone who has already studied Socrates will know that we have very little biographical information regarding this self-appointed gadfly, this stinger of the conscience of the Athenians. Some would even argue he never really existed, but was a type of Robin Hood or King Arthur figure from literary legend.

Bettany Hughes has exhaustively mined the extant archives. The usual suspects of Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes naturally feature prominently, as do Aristotle and Diogenes Laertius, as well as numerous other Greek and Roman authors whose writings are either directly or indirectly relevant.

We are given an exquisitely atmospheric rendering of Athenian life at the time of Socrates, and a most useful potted history of contemporary events - most notably the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath. Athenian attitudes towards love, religion, politics and philosophy are examined with some eye-opening or eye-watering descriptions.

For the more academically inclined, there are more than adequate footnotes, references and bibliographical citations, pp 388 to 472 (hardback copy).

And of Socrates himself? Don't expect to be informed of his innermost secrets or his most intimate life story. Unfortunately the extant contemporary writings simply do not contain these details. Although, who knows that one day, some dusty scroll in a classical collection may shed some more light?

This book has instilled in me a feeling of deeper admiration for Socrates. I admit that I have been strongly inspired by his approach to knowledge for some time, and may therefore be somewhat biased.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
By J
Having read earlier excellent reviews I would like to add this. As someone who is coming to classical studies via fiction, (Mary Renault et al), I was slightly daunted by the scholarly introductions, but having read Bettany Hughes' unforgettable Helen of Troy I pressed on and was rewarded beyond my expectations! So much has been written, televised, and generally assumed about this period of history. This book brings together new and old research and opinions to weave a story better than any fiction.
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33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bettany is the best! 4 Dec 2010
By Dalgety
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Bettany Hughes is one of the best British historians of the classical world. Socrates is the founder of western thought and philosophy- Bettany Hughes more than does him justice here.The book is scholarly but the narrative flows easily and the analysis is first class.I particularly liked the way Bettany Hughes built the description of recent archaeological discoveries into the text to better illustrate the society of classical Athens from which Socrates came.Your money will not be wasted if you buy this excellent book!
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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Socrates as doughnut 20 Mar 2011
At the beginning of her book Bettany Hughes tells us that Socrates is a doughnut subject, with a hole in the middle. But she argues, 'painters will tell you the truest way to represent a shape is to deal with the space around it'.
The Hemlock Cup presents a picture of fifth century Athens as a city teeming with energy, ideas, wealth and ambition. At its best the book presents a detailed, heavily researched (the use of the latest archaeological evidence is particularly strong) account of Athens in its so-called Golden Age. It is rich with descriptions of voting systems and paraphernalia, symposia, theatre-going, wars, smells and noise. No sense is left undescribed, and if you like lots of adjectives, you'll love The Hemlock Cup. Others though might find it difficult to focus on the book through the deep haze of purple prose. This is television on the page, where thousands of words are used to paint a picture. At the same time, the book is tricked out with 'would have', 'it is easy to imagine', 'it is easy to imagine' and other ways Hughes invites the reader to use their imagination. It makes at least for a vibrant read.
The book is subtitled, 'Socrates, Athens and the search for the good life'. However, oddly for the subject, Socrates's philosophy is only sketched in (people should search for the good life; the unexamined life is not worth living). Instead, Socrates's life is used as a convenient thread through the book from which to hang descriptions of different parts of Athens ('As Socrates grew up, tributes [money from allies] steadily accrued'; 'On each morning of battle, Socrates would have heard... ').
In case the reader is wondering, Hughes is not, she tells us, a philosopher, but a historian.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Book 12 Jan 2011
This is a wonderfully rich and humane book. Bettany Hughes brings Socrates and his world vividly to life. As well as a fantastic account of classical Athens in both its grime and glory Hughes delivers an impressive study of Socrates' philosophy - not as a dry academic exercise but as, what seems, a genuine attempt to get inside the mind of the man and understand how he thought human beings could live 'good' lives. As relevant now as then. I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
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54 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Socrates comes to life 9 Oct 2010
This is, genuinely, a MUST READ book. I had heard of Socrates but knew very little about him or his life. Now I realise how central he is to both Western and Eastern thought, and also more importantly I feel as though I care about him and his work. Bettany Hughes has clearly spent many years deeply researching this rich subject. As far as I can tell she is the first historian brave enough to jigsaw-puzzle together all the scattered evidence for Socrates' Golden Age and to allow him to play his part as a real man the heady world of fifth century Greece. The pages bring him to life and, what's more, it's a great read. Thoroughly recommended.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The complexities of antique Greece life and times, its emerging political institutions, new technology, historical strife and rivalry, ongoing development in creative philosophy,... Read more
Published 7 months ago by james sacra
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read
I had to study Plato's 'Apology' whilst at school (in Greece) as a teenager. As well as Ancient Greek drama (e.g. 'Antigone'). Read more
Published 11 months ago by Kalinda Patel
4.0 out of 5 stars The Hemlock Cup
This is an autobiography of Socrates' life written so that the layman can understand all the events leading up to his trial and subsequent death by poisoning. Read more
Published 14 months ago by S. Max.
5.0 out of 5 stars Bringing Socrates and ancient Greece to life
Writing about someone who died a good 2500 years ago, & who has already been written about by Plato, and a good number since, and yet that someone never even wrote a word himself,... Read more
Published 17 months ago by Tomatzso
5.0 out of 5 stars a fascinating read
I loved this book. One of those you can't put down. I like ancient History and Philosophy and this book just hit the spot. Read more
Published on 2 Jun 2012 by M.
4.0 out of 5 stars History, but little philosophy
This is a great read, and I have to say I really enjoyed it. You get a strong sense of the daily life of Athens 400 years BC, how similar, and how wierdly different it was from our... Read more
Published on 29 April 2012 by Dogbertd
1.0 out of 5 stars briar
derivative, contrived belied. Four pages through this contrived derivative sensation seeking rubbish forced me tro consign it to the bin.
Published on 23 Oct 2011 by Briar
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but frustrating biography of the great philosopher
The ancient city state of Athens in Socrates' day is undoubtedly a really fascinating subject. And in her biography of the philosopher, Bettany Hughes, aims to place her subject... Read more
Published on 25 Sep 2011 by J. Coulton
5.0 out of 5 stars "... there can be no good ... if each individual is not as good as he...
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.

As so little is known of Socrates from sources from his lifetime - the main sources we have on Socrates are from writers such as... Read more
Published on 26 Jun 2011 by Keen Reader
5.0 out of 5 stars I can't put it down!
I did not at all expect this book to give me such an explicit insight into 5th Century BC Athens! The way Bettany Hughes has structured it makes it an easy read, you almost feel as... Read more
Published on 11 Jun 2011 by nobodysaknowitall
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