The trial and death of Socrates stands alongside that of Jesus of Nazareth as a milestone in our civilization. What these deaths signify is far from clear. Neither man wrote memoirs about what he taught. Both were killed by political authorities intent on doing what politicians always do – keeping order. And both deaths have spawned passionate debate and interest thousands of years after each man breathed his last. Why we do care about these deaths?
Bettany Hughes’ The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life provides an answer of a sort. "Home sapiens," she writes, "craves the anonymity of the herd. All of civilization’s darkest hours have been bayed on by men who want scapegoats, who want the finger of blame to turn in any direction, as long as it is away from their own face. Loose, jealous tongues are the bane of history." That, at least, is a compelling reason for why Socrates was condemned to death in 399 B.C.E. (The vote among the 500 jurors sitting in his case was close as to guilt regarding the crimes charged, neglecting the Athens gods and corrupting its youth – 280-220; the vote in favor of death as a penalty was 340 to 160.)
Athens lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta, its population was decimated by disease and war attrition, and the imperial tribute that fed the leisure of its citizenry had dwindled to a trickle. And Socrates was the friend of Alcibiades, a sometime friend, sometime enemy of the city. Surely a scapegoat was needed. Socrates, the infamous Socrates of Plato and Xenophon, was just too different. The Delphic Oracle had reportedly declared no man to be wiser; yet the philosopher proclaimed that he knew no truth. He wandered the streets shoeless, debating endlessly and offending with delight. Socrates, implacable Socrates, philosophized while Athens burned. "We strive for answers, for closure; but all Socrates does is ask questions."
Hughes brings ancient Athens to life, weaving the setting for Socrates’ life out of historic records and recent archeological evidence. The tone of the book is not the sort of ponderous scholarship often encountered in serious works on ancient Greece. It is rather playful; she is a wit at work and at play, trying to make sense of the life and death of philosophy's founding father. The book caught me off guard, her breezy and almost playful tone put me off at first, but I could not put the book down, even though I profess not to like the writing. How like Socrates this book must be: not altogether pleasing in form, but irresistible.
In recent years, I’ve struggled with the question presented by the historical Jesus. What can we know about this man? Can we know anything? There is so much more written about Socrates by contemporaries, and Plato’s dialogues, whether fictive in whole or in part, at least have the ring of truth: he was a witness to what he wrote about. We have no eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, only Gospels written decades after his death and by men who never broke bread with the man -- nothing admissible, as we lawyers like to say. Why the great need to know about a man who cannot be known, and the easy acceptance of something less than knowledge as to Socrates?
One claimed that he was the truth and that to know him was to be set free. He was killed by Roman overlords. Socrates claimed to know nothing save that the unexamined life was not worth living. He was killed by fellow citizens. Perhaps the deaths have little in common. Yet they remain two of the most profound political executions in the history of the West. Hughes has nothing to say about this, of course. Her focus is the Athenian. I will shelve the book this afternoon, but I will miss it a great deal. She’s also written a volume on Helen of Troy. I suspect I will soon be in Hughes’ hands again. Can she be persuaded to take a try at the death of Jesus?