36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars At last!
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...
Published on 26 Dec 2010 by Mr. Richard D. L. Sargent
31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Socrates as doughnut
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...
Published on 20 Mar 2011 by Will Arnold
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36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars At last!,
This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)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. However, this book is one of those rareties - an enjoyable and re-readable work of non-fiction. For Socrates fans it is one to keep you awake all night poring over its pages. For historians and classicists, it is rewarding and inspiring. And for the general reader, it is fascinating and atmospheric.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everything you didn't know you wanted to know about "The Greek Thing",
This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)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.
30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bettany is the best!,
This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)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!
54 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Socrates comes to life,
This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)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.
31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Socrates as doughnut,
This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)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. But as with her use of phrases such as 'it is easy to imagine', this is a history where vivid drama is more important than clear and careful weighing of the evidence.
The surviving texts are overwhelmingly pro-Socrates and Hughes falls too easily into following their line. Anytus, one of the prosecutors, for example, returns to Athens after the overthrow of a violent oligarchy. She disparages Anytus, saying he has come back with a chip the size of Crete on his shoulder. Given that the oligarchy has (as Hughes describes in great detail) been executing, confiscating and exiling it is unsurprising that he might be feeling a little chippy. It is also worth noting he is also a man of some importance in Athens at the time of Socrates's trial being part of the core group of 70 democrats that regrouped in exile and formed the base to strike back at the oligarchs.
Hughes skates over any political dimension to the case brought against Socrates, principally citing the recorded charges, whereas a reading of the evidence points to at least some political motivation in the prosecution of Socrates. Hughes attempts to dismiss Socrates's involvement in the rise of the oligarchy by arguing that he cannot be blamed for associating inter alios with individuals who went on to disappoint in later life. This is not the most rigorous examination of the depth and nature of the involvement.
And Hughes asserts for example the democrats went to Eleusis to kill the remaining oligarchs in 401/00. She doesn't consider the evidence the oligarchs were threatening moves against the democrats in Athens. This and a lack of consideration of the amnesty the democrats seem to have followed after the restoration contribute to a sense of a lack of balance.
The Hemlock Cup is a colourful, sometimes thrilling account of Athens, working well on social detail. But for an alternative analysis of the events leading up to Socrates's condemnation try Stone's Trial of Socrates. For Socrates's philosophy, try Irwin, Vlastos or Burnyeat.
Hughes finishes by telling us Socrates was a wonderful man; high praise for someone who started the book as the hole in the middle of a doughnut.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Book,
This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)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.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magical!,
This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)What a wonderful book this is. Having studied Classics to University level, I thought I knew quite a lot about Athens and Greece in the golden years of the fifth century BC, but how wrong I was. Bettany Hughes brings that world to life with a magical and magisterial account of the life, times and world of Socrates and his contemporaries. Her writing is as fluent and attractive as her TV programmes and her talks at literature festivals. She is mistress of a huge range of sources - not just literature and archaeology but the evidence of her own eyes and other senses - which she uses in combination to magnificent effect and without a trace of academic dryness. She brings to life not just the big things - the Parthenon, the law courts in the agora - but also the small or everyday: Simon the shoemaker friend of Socrates, the water clock and its attendant, the miners in Laurium. And her enthusiasm for her subject shines through on every page and carries the reader along. This is a "must read" for serious students and 'amateur' lovers of classical Athens alike.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "... there can be no good ... if each individual is not as good as he can possibly be ...",
This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Hardcover)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 Plato and Xenophone - and as Socrates apparently never wrote any of his own works down, the recreation of his life in this book is centred in the life of Athens.
The story of Athens itself during the "Golden Age" of its democracy, the Peloponnesian War, the Thirty, and all the political, philosophical, social, economic and military growth and development during this time, is fascinating in and of itself. Through the life of Athens, you catch glimpses of the life of Socrates himself - in the street, in conversation with friends, mixing with the young, the powerful - and always behaving just a little out of the way of Athenian expectations. Questioning, probing, not following the way of `democracy' as Athens would have its citizens.
And it was this way of behaviour - his own idiosyncracies, that got Socrates into trouble in the end.
Because when Athens is beaten, bloody, bowed into humility by Sparta at the end of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians turn in on each other. Democracy, the Athenian Empire, had grown, flourished, then fought long and hard for its existence - and in the end, when the Spartans stood triumphant and Athens' allies had all but deserted them - what did it stand for? And wasn't that what Socrates had been questioning all along?
There's a lot we don't know about Socrates - but there's a lot we do know about Athens, and about others of its citizens during the Golden Age, and about its enemies, its allies, its battles and its struggles to birth and give life to a new way of living. And from this we can, not unreasonably, extrapolate much that must have been real for a man such as Socrates in this place, this time. So while there is conjecture in this book (and how could there not be, when writing of the life of a man who lived so long ago and who left no known writings of his own), it is well thought out, well presented, reasonable and always true to its subject.
The only warning I'd post is that it pays, I believe, to have a good understanding of Athens, Sparta, the Peloponnesian War and some of the major players of the time to get the most out of this book. A lack of pre-knowledge in coming to this book may well leave a reader somewhat confused.
Totally highly recommended.
A further recommended book on Socrates is Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths by Robin Waterfield - also highly recommended.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but frustrating biography of the great philosopher,
This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Paperback)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 firmly as a product of this time and place, when democracy was born, for some citizens at least.
It gives some fascinating insights into the workings of the city; how it came to be so dominant in the ancient world; and then how it lost its grip on power, never again to be the influential and all conquering powerhouse that it once was. But one of the problems I have with the book is that, although it reveals some interesting facts about Socrates along the way, the reader never really gets under the skin of the man whose biography it purports to be. It talks around the subject of Socrates rather than being a true biography. Possibly this is because some of the only sources of real knowledge about the man come either via an Aristophanes play or the works of Plato. And of course he intriguingly never wrote down a single word of his own thoughts for posterity. I just found it a bit frustrating to end up with a vague picture of Socrates and his pursuit of rational thought, rather than a rounded picture that is normal to gain from a biography.
The other problem I have with the work is that I wanted to be transported to the world of ancient Greece, and not be constantly pulled back to modern day Athens with its dirty motorways and back streets by Hughes' own modern travels. These vignettes do not add anything to the story of Socrates, and if anything positively detract from it, by adding a layer of irrelevance that does not help Hughes' cause.
The story of how Socrates fought for, but also rebelled against his state, and paid the ultimate price for doing so is a great one. But truly accomplished biographers, like Claire Tomalin for example, get to the heart of their subject; readily signpost moments of educated conjecture on their part rather than fact; and are above all clear and meticulously researchers. By labelling this interesting historical book as a biography, it is bound to suffer by comparison.
5.0 out of 5 stars Bringing Socrates and ancient Greece to life,
This review is from: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Paperback)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, is never going to be easy.
Making it a facinating and even exciting read, and using a different perspective, is even more difficult - yet this is what Bettany Hughes has achieved.
Bringing ancient Greece to life, weaving a rich context around Socrates's life, structuring the book much like murder mystery - and really providing the answers as to why the Athenians should put to death one of the most remarkable thinkers of all time - rather than let him live out his last few years of retirement.
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The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes (Hardcover - 7 Oct 2010)