Sunday, 1 May 2011

Review: The Hemlock Cup (2011)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIX No. 1 Spring 2011


Tao Meditation and a drink from the Hemlock Cup
 
Every so often, the publishing industry drops a blockbuster into the little pool of philosophical writing. Such was the case with The Hemlock Cup*, Book of the Week, on BBC Radio 4 in December 2010. The response was ecstatic
'Bettany Hughes has done it again; she brings to life not only Socrates himself but the whole of Periclean Athens. Here is a work of dazzling erudition which remains hugely readable - what more can one ask' John Julius Norwich  
'From the ancient Greek world's most beautiful woman to one of its self-acknowledged ugliest men is quite a step, but one that Hughes accomplishes without breaking strides or pausing for breath, Her enormous energy and enthusiasm are infectious. She writes up a storm. At the end of the road we may not be any closer to certainty or closure on the biggest issues of Socrates' inordinately rich life and afterlife but, as with the search for the historical Alexander or Jesus, travelling hopefully is quite possibly as good, and as much fun, as arriving. The journey is the reward. No one before Bettany Hughes, a highly accomplished communicator, has thought to weave Socrates' examined life into quite so rich and dense a tapestry of democratic Athens' teeming high-culture and mundane experience.  The good life is an elusive concept but, however defined, arguably no search for it would be dangerously impeded by buying this handsome volume and reading it through, critically, as Bettany Hughes' Socrates would have devoutly wished.' Professor Paul Cartledge, The Independent 

'Riveting, passionate and learned...The Hemlock Cup is a biography of Socrates, and also a lot more than that...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... There's some terrific and passionate writing about a philosopher whose heroism is unquestionable (though that heroism resides in a constant questioning); and as lively and learned an introduction to classical Athens as you could want.' Tom Payne, Telegraph

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 this extraordinary figure. 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.' Daniel Hahn, Independent on Sunday 

'The Hemlock Cup is another vibrant and atmospheric work from this well-known promoter of the ancient world'...this is an exciting book that puts the reader into the footsteps of Athenians of the 5th century BC'  Dr. Michael Scott, BBC History Magazine 

'After over thirty years of reading philosophical books and articles on Socrates (and even writing some of them!) it is very refreshing to see him approached from the perspective of his material and cultural environment. It anchors and illuminates the nature of his mission and achievements and really brings the period alive'  Professor Angie Hobbes, Philosopher, Senior Fellow in the Public Understanding of Philosophy 

'Hughes cleverly extracts the man from the dramatic scene-setting in the Platonic dialogues and puts him in his life and times by reconstructing ancient Athens and putting the same questions to us that he puts to adherents and fellow citizens. Hughes credits two editors for saving her from 'extreme colloquialism' but enough survives to give this intelligent, bright-eyed, vigorous book a life as vibrant as that lived by its subject.' The Times 

'Hughes conjures up the life in which Socrates worked and lived.'...This book will come as a revelation to most of my brothers and sisters in the philosophical community' Nightwaves, BBC Radio 3 
'An ambitious book, taking us through the 70 years of Socrates' life during one of the most exciting moments in world history...its scholarship is impeccable and Hughes' command of the sources daunting' Sp!ked Review of Books 

'Hughes's beguiling prose draws the reader into the devices and desires of the world's first democratic regime, and a Mediterranean world of sex, violence, sympotic carousing and great man-made beauty. She does full justice - as perhaps the Athenian People did not! - to the religious and philosophical endeavours of a unique career fatally shadowed by the ultimately disastrous Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). All that - and a beautifully produced book too'  Professor P Cartledge, Professor of Greek History, Cambridge University 
'Bettany Hughes breathes life into Socrates, the thinker Athens both revered and condemned. Socrates' has benefitted from Hughes' considerable skills...Hughes' expert attempts to make him flesh and blood, to fill in the gap, do him no harm. They teach us about the value of the real as well as the philosophical.' The Scotsman 

So it is that the life of her hero becomes a peg from which to hang a vivid depiction of Athens in its golden age, from the pinnacle of its greatness to the abyss of its ultimate defeat... Hughes's prose is the literary equivalent of CGI, re-creating for the reader a sense of the clamour and dazzle of the classical city that has rarely been bettered. Not only that, she is expert in knowing when to alter and vary her focus. Sometimes we are led by her through the streets of modern Athens, sometimes across an archaeological site, and sometimes down into the basement of a provincial museum, where rare treasures lie hidden. She spares no effort in bringing the world of Socrates alive. Describing Athens amid the death-agonies of the Peloponnesian war, Hughes comments that it "must have been reminiscent of Kabul 2002-10: ragged, war-torn, veiled women in the streets with no husbands, brothers or sons". Hers is an ancient Greece that is authentically cutting-edge.' Tom Holland, Observer 

She does a very good job of re-creating the material world in which Socrates lived, presenting ancient Athens as a much gaudier, dirtier, smellier and in some respects more industrial place than we often imagine. She is up to date on recent archaeological discoveries ...and she is full of vivid descriptions of what many of the famous landmarks look like to the modern visitor: run-down, and littered with fag ends and Coca-Cola cans. She can also be realistically unsentimental about the culture of classical Athens...she writes frankly of the nastiness of the world in which Socrates grew up and lived.' Mary Beard The Sunday Times 

'One can plunge enthusiastically into the seething world inhabited by Socrates that she recreates for us...This is the grand sweep of Athenian history during its most politically inventive and culturally exciting period...It all makes for a rich mixture; Socrates' early days as a keen natural scientist, his military career, his growing sense of what is important in life, his political scrapes, and his execution are played out in the company of Plato, Xenophon, Pericles, Alcibiades, Aristophanes, Aspasia, free men and slaves, shoemakers and sculptors, intellectuals and thugs ? a cast of millions ? against a backdrop of Athens with its markets, back streets, military engagements, theatrical performances, plague, triumph and disaster. Channel 4 must be licking its lips. It will make irresistible television' Peter Jones, Literary Review 

What then can mere philosophers add? Yet the publisher urges readers to contact them with feedback, saying 'Socrates would have insisted on it'. So we shall. Here is a thought-provoking review article by Peter Hubral.
 
The Hemlock Cup by Bettany Hughes: the first and second sentence inside the cover of the book read:
 
We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way we did! 
The unexamined life is not worth living .. is the founding principle of modern life.
 
Both statements are in complete disagreement with my own conclusions about Socrates and the ancient Greeks and other traditional cultures that disappeared from the globe (Why?). 
Ask yourself: How did Socrates examine his life? By confining himself to what I call Principle 1? 
Being (i.e. the world surrounding us) determines consciousness.
We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way we did!  or to what I call Principle 2? 
Consciousness (including the five senses) can be expanded to increasingly enhance what is. 
The unexamined life is not worth living .. is the founding principle of modern life.
 
My answer:
 
Socrates examined his life with Principle 2 and not Principle 1, which Hughes employs to interpret him. The Greeks called what results from employing Principle 1 to explain what is attained from Principle 2 mythos.
 
In other words Betty Hughes produces mythos, just like the Chassids and - I am afraid to say - all of us that rely on Principle 1.
 
Principle 1 is - as the reader may recognise - a statement made by Karl Marx. Nearly all the world confines itself to it: scientists, philosophers, politicians, etc. It provides the familiar knowledge, which is based on numerous hypotheses that all cannot be proven (e.g. division between the living and non-living, the belief that language is sufficient to understand the world, the belief that all events are causal and happen in space in time, mathematical axioms, etc.).
 There is no certain knowledge available from Principle 1.
 
Principle 2, on the other hand, can be verified by philosophical contemplation ? quintessentially Tao-Meditation. As I argue in my article on the links between Socrates and Eastern philosophy, Tao-Meditation provides unfamiliar knowledge not by assumptions (hypotheses) but by recollection. The Greeks (e.g. Socrates) and other traditional cultures employed it. What is attained from it results from the assumption that no assumption is to be made: Wuwei-principle. This provides universal eternal knowledge (gnosis).
 
Principle 2 provides ? which may appear strange to non-practitioners - as much knowledge as Principle 1, but of another kind. Principle 1 leads to what is erroneously called by those who do employ it objective knowledge and Principle 2 is called by them subjective knowledge.
 
As you observe, already the first two sentences of The Hemlock Cup tell me, what the rest of the book is all about: Assumptions, beliefs and fantasies about how beautiful and perfect we humans apparently are and that we all inherited this from the brilliant ancient Greeks. Who doesn't want to hear things like this to please his ego? Who doesn't want to be told that he is perfect and all the problems in the world are created by others (e.g. non-believers)?
 
Now imagine that I would attempt to feature Socrates in the way I indicate here to the masses? Would people consider me crazy, a doomsday prophet? The Chassids and many other religionists would consider me a heretic. Maybe you grasp now, why Socrates was forced to drink the hemlock cup.

The Philosopher's verdict: secular epiphany

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life
By Bettany Hughes, (Random House 2010) ISBN 0099554054

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