Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life

From The Telegraph:

Hughesstory_1749573f There’s a charming poem by Seamus Heaney about Socrates’ last day. It expresses a brief surprise that Socrates could believe in dreams. But the poet quickly acknowledges that the philosopher did live in a dream world. Bettany Hughes’s book leaves us in no doubt. The Hemlock Cup is a biography of Socrates, and also a lot more than that. Yes, it speculates on the walks he would have taken around the Agora in Athens (admittedly with bundles of suggestive evidence); it suggests just what the hemlock would have done to him; and it attributes Socrates’ habit of standing stock still for hours to cataleptic seizures. For all that, Hughes is more concerned with the philosopher’s time and place. As she unfolds the tale, she brings us an edited history of fifth-century BC Athens, too.

This isn’t padding, or even scene-setting (atmospheric though it always is). Without overstating the case, she shows how the city’s life runs alongside the philosopher’s, and then takes a different course. Socrates would always warn that an acquisitive life was not worth living and that the pursuit of gold is vacuous; meanwhile Athens revelled in becoming an empire, so it conquered more and mined more and showed off more. And then there was an attempt to colonise Sicily. Out of Athens and Socrates, the former emerges as the more tragic character, with its greed and its failure to learn from its wisest citizen until in the throes of its downfall.

More here.