The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, By Bettany Hughes

A life of the original ethics man

Socrates, Bettany Hughes concedes in her introduction to The Hemlock Cup, is a "doughnut subject ... gloriously rich, with a whacking hole in the middle where the central character should be".

Not much is actually known about the great sage of Ancient Greece, beyond the potentially unreliable accounts we find in the work of his contemporaries: Plato depicted his mentor as a garrulous genius, while Aristophanes was less kind – his play Clouds has Socrates idly "peering at the arse of the moon".

Like an archaeologist unearthing a mosaic, Hughes takes the fragments of evidence we have about Socrates' life and skilfully reassembles them into a tessellated whole. We learn of his youth in the newly democratic state of Athens in the 5th century BC; his service as a soldier in the Peloponnesian War with neighbouring Sparta; his execution, aged 70, for corrupting the minds of Athenian youth. The author's vivid portrait of her subject is matched throughout by her vigorous descriptions of his milieu.

A study as vast and ambitious as this was never going to be perfect. Hughes experiments with narrative chronology, and her temporal hops and elisions can be baffling. There are stylistic infelicities, too: she has a tendency to repeat herself, and her phrasing can be eccentric (Greece is "truculent geographically"). For the most part, however, the book is wise, witty and winningly playful – rather like the philosopher himself.