The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life
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From the celebrated British author and historian: a brilliant new book combining historical inquiry and storytelling élan to paint an unprecedentedly vivid portrait of Socrates and the Golden Age of classical Athens.
We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did; in his unwavering commitment to truth and in the example of his own life, he set the standard for all subsequent Western philosophy. And yet, for twenty-five centuries, he has remained an enigma: a man who left no written legacy and about whom everything we know is hearsay. His life spanned “seventy of the busiest, most wonderful and tragic years in Athenian history.” Athens in the fifth century B.C. was a city devastated by war, but, at the same time, transformed by the burgeoning process of democracy. Drawing on the latest sources—archaeological, topographical, and textual—Hughes re-creates the streets where Socrates walked, to place him there, and to illuminate for us the world as he experienced it.
She takes us through the great, teeming Agora—the massive marketplace, the heart of ancient Athens—where Socrates engaged in philosophical dialogue and where he would be condemned to death. We visit the battlefields where he fought, the red-light district and gymnasia he frequented and the religious festivals he attended. We meet the men and the few women—including his wife, Xanthippe, and his “inspiration” and confidante, Aspasia—who were central to his life. We travel to where he was born and where he died. And we come to understand the profound influences of time and place in the evolution of his eternally provocative philosophy.
hubbub has died down, Socrates has the chance to speak. It is worth waiting to hear what the philosopher has to say: this is, after all, the man who has been accused not for his deeds, but for his words. And by all accounts, his clever command of the human tongue was exquisitely painful. Alcibiades once breathed that Socrates’ moderated voice and way with words was like that of ‘the music of Marsyas [a satyr fond of rivers]2 who only had to put his flute to his lips to bewitch mankind’.3 Now
calm, but his friends were not. Because now, four weeks on from Socrates’ trial, probably in early June, Theseus’ ship has been spotted off Cape Sounion – twenty-nine days after it left Athens.10 When the visitors to Delos land, Socrates must die. But in Socrates’ drama, as written, imagined, related by Plato, at this point there is suddenly a chink of hope. CRITO: … I only wish I myself were not so sleepless and sorrowful. But I have been wondering at you for some time, seeing how sweetly you
(to the letter of the law, this was state-sponsored suicide and his ideas could indeed, on the face of it, pose a threat to the robust orthodoxy of democratic Athens), but, in a Socratic system, he too was right to die as he did.6 Socrates would never have escaped, because this would not have been a ‘good’, or a sophon, a wise, thing to do. In short true virtue exists only with wisdom, whether pleasures and fears and other things of that sort are added or taken away.7 When Socrates died, Athens
S. Ahbel-Rappe and R. Kamtekar (eds.) (2006) A Companion to Socrates. Oxford: Blackwell: 353–367. Marcovich, M. (1996) ‘From Ishtar to Aphrodite’ in Journal of Aesthetic Education 30.2: 43–59. Marshall, C. W. (2000) ‘Rotting Timbers’ in Echos du Monde Classique 19: 351–357. May, H. (2000) ‘Socrates’ in Wadsworth Philosophers Series. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Mayor, A. (2003) Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World. Woodstock, NY, and
where sweat-flecked, steam-snorting horses could quench their thirst.4 In the 450s a census of the wealthiest ‘democrats’ in Athens had led to the formation of a ‘democratic’ cavalry. In reality these were old-style aristocrats legitimising a traditionally aristocratic pursuit. Alcibiades, who used his horses for self-aggrandisement when they won no fewer than seven Olympic chariot-races in a row, was one such. The Athenian cavalry trained in the Agora; their favourite spot was just outside the