Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Hughes has presented TV series including ITV's 'Britain's Secret Treasures' and BBC2's 'Divine Women', and is the author of bestselling books

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People tend to have a knee-jerk response to the word 'philosophy' You imagine it's abstract and inaccessible. But the famous thing about someone like Socrates was, as Cicero said, that he brought philosophy down from the sky and on to the street. He lived a real life: he drank, had sex, had two wives and was not a hero or a saint. One idea he had that I like was that when we do wrong to someone, it's not that we damage that person, but ourselves, inflicting harm on our most precious possession – our soul.

Socrates would not have allowed the modern Greek state to get into this mess He had this great line: "Never pursue wealth at the expense of wisdom." Now, he doesn't say you have to be a saint or hermit – he says enjoy life, but find a middle path between self-denial and selfish excess. But at some point – from the Greek politicians' side and the lenders' end – the way finances were structured to get that balance was wrong.

Forgiveness gives you a chance to be fulfilled rather than be eaten up with anger For a BBC1 show I did on the history of forgiveness, I interviewed the widow of the pilot of the first plane that went into the Twin Towers. She'd done an extraordinary thing by choosing to forgive the hijackers. It was very brave and she took a lot of criticism from people saying she was being anti-American. But she said, "I had to forgive as it was the only thing that gives me power over them: until then I was consumed with anger, sorrow, resentment and rage."

Evil can start in a deceptively banal way Rumour, gossip, slander – single drops of poison can pollute an entire system. The journey to Auschwitz and the gas chambers began with a foul word, a stone in the street, a story deliberately mistold.


I'm a know-it-all I wrote my first book when I was five: it dealt with my theory on the death of Tutankhamun, which I wrote after an exhibition I'd seen on him. It was six pages long and I came to the certain conclusion that it was malaria or, as I called it, "Sum germy mosquitoes." Sadly it's yet to be published. I believe now that I'm always right: it's how I wear down my teenage daughters into submission over things such as doing the cleaning, and how they should pursue their love lives.

Keep an eye on your umbrella Misfortune is an unfortunate truth of life and it's the subject of our favourite family rhyme, by an anonymous author [credited to the late Victorian judge Baron Bowen]: "The rain it raineth on the just, and also on the unjust fella; but chiefly on the just, because the unjust hath the just's umbrella."

I don't know how to use the TV remote It's a terrible admission for someone who makes TV programmes. My youngest daughter is the only one who can work it, and as I get home quite late, I actually wake her up in the middle of the night so she can come down and put on my recording of News at 10, which is like my comfort blanket.

I don't generally cook, but I do bake – particularly my mum's chocolate cake. It has a cheeky ingredient: vinegar. I was always popular with my kids when they were younger when it came to their birthday parties, as they knew I would make this huge, three-tier cake for special occasions: it's not a proper cake unless it has three tiers!

Bettany Hughes, 48, is a historian, author and broadcaster specialising in classical history. She has presented TV series including ITV's 'Britain's Secret Treasures' and BBC2's 'Divine Women', and is the author of bestselling books including 'The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life'. Her three-part philosophy series 'Genius of the Ancient World' begins this week on BBC4, starting with Buddha