Jonathan Cape £25

The Hemlock Cup, By Bettany Hughes

This bright read examines not only how Socrates shook up his time, but also why he's still relevant

If you happened to be wandering the streets of Athens a little over 2,400 years ago, you might have found yourself assailed by a pot-bellied man, bearded, energetic and famously ugly. He wasn't after any money – indeed, he might be prepared to pay you if you'd talk to him; all he wanted was to pose a question. A big, moral question; a question about society, about the nature of goodness, the nature of happiness. This, of course, was Socrates. And as this book begins, he is on trial, to be judged by his peers – it's a particularly rowdy affair.

Bettany Hughes' terrifically readable life of the philosopher, The Hemlock Cup, is more than just a life; it is also an evocation and an explanation of the world that created him, and over which he would come to have such influence. This extraordinary figure emerges into an Athens still roiling in change – social and political ("democracy" is just now taking root) – bursting with new wealth, as well as serial flashes of violent warfare.

It is also a time in which large characters in all fields jostle for oxygen – Euripides, Aristophanes, Xenophon, Herodotus, Pericles – a Golden Age. (Quite literally, too, the city glowing with bronze statuary and gilt paint.) Into this age, then, wanders a man who asks big questions. (Not, Hughes argues, a sophist, but a true philos sophos: one who loves wisdom.) Big questions, but also awkward ones, troublesome challenges to power and money and empire.

His story begins in Alopeke in 469BC, and runs for 70 years, until finally he is brought so famously to trial. So Hughes ends her story where she began, in May 399BC, with the disruptive 70-year-old answering charges of denying the gods and corrupting the young (a charge, Hughes explains, without any sexual connotations, however much the myth has since been distorted). He is found guilty, and drinks a cup of hemlock, a self-administered death sentence.

The Hemlock Cup makes a vivid and persuasive case for the study of Socrates as a valuable means to understanding how our way of thinking about our own world came to be, and a guide to how we might understand it better. To be thoughtful, to examine our own lives. "We need to understand him," Hughes writes in her introduction, "because he did not just pursue the meaning of life, but the meaning of our own lives. Socrates saw us coming."

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