Review: The Hemlock Cup – Bettany Hughes

(2010, Jonathan Cape/Random House)

Review by Ian Foster

When is the last time you read a good book? I mean a real, heavyweight, non-fiction book with something interesting to impart? Dare I say it, even an academic book written by an historian? . . .

Well if you set aside any pre-conceived ideas you may have and pick up a copy of Bettany Hughes book The Hemlock Cup – Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life you will be richly rewarded. By her own admission not so much a book about philosophy or a critique of Socratic thinking, The Hemlock Cup is in fact an archaeological reconstruction, as accurate as that may be in the light of current evidence, of both the life of the great philosopher, and as the two were intrinsically linked, life in the great city of Athens at the time of the birth of democracy.

Socrates life is reconstructed from the circumstantial evidence to be found in and around the city where he once lived, and from the testimony of his contemporaries such as his student Plato, admirer Xenophon and critic Aristophanes. Socrates himself, distrusting the written word and committing nothing of himself to writing in his lifetime, left little direct evidence for historians to follow; yet here I suspect we gain more than a little insight into the very real man behind the famous name and the big ideas. Painstakingly researched, beautifully written, described, detailed, illustrated and annotated, The Hemlock Cup is both educational and, crucially, enormously entertaining.

With her usual engaging, breathlessly passionate and gently intelligent manner Bettany will lead you bare-foot through the Agora of 5th century BC Athens, and despite her stated historical rather than philosophical agenda, along the way you will inevitably have time to consider and reconsider a great many things: about this ideal of ‘democracy’; politics, religion, societies and people; life and love. And when you finally arrive at the ancient law courts, you’ll think in particular about how one particular ‘democratic’ society condemned possibly the greatest thinker of his (or any other) time to death by hemlock poisoning, essentially for daring to suggest that people considered more carefully how they lived their lives.

More fundamentally, The Hemlock Cup may make you too think about what it is to be alive, to be human, and what it means to live ‘a good life’; and for that alone, I suspect, Socrates would approve . . .

Read our interview with Bettany Hughes here.

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