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Sunday, 25 September 2011

Books - The Hemlock Cup:Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes

Star rating – 6/10

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.

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