CultureWatch Books: The Hemlock Cup and Train Dreams
In This Issue
Bettany Hughes' The Hemlock Cup transcends a mere factual recounting of what we know about Socrates; the book makes the fifth century BC as accessible as possible to a modern reader. Denis Johnson's protagonist in Train Dreams represents a tradition of American men in the developing great West who struggled through to their unnoticed deaths after surviving the first World War.
THE HEMLOCK CUP
Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life
By Bettany Hughes, © 2010
Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf; Hardcover: 371 pp.
Socrates Taking Leave of His Family, sculpted by Antonio Canova, 1787 - 02, Gallerie di Piazza Scala. Source: ArtGate Fondazione Cariplo
The author of this book is a woman of considerable accomplishment. Her education includes degrees in ancient and medieval history from Oxford University, and she holds a Research Fellowship at King’s College, London. Her first book, Helen of Troy, has been translated into nearly a dozen languages. She has written documentaries for the BBC, PBS, The Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and National Geographic.
The staggering amount of research that has gone into The Hemlock Cup is the kind of scholarship one would expect from an academic, but Ms. Hughes also possesses a fine story-telling mind.
Her gifts transcend a mere factual recounting of what we actually know about Socrates: they enable her to re-create the sights and sounds of his times, making the 5th century BC as accessible as possible to a modern reader.
Socrates may be the best-known of the Greek philosophers, but he left us no record in his own hand. We know whatever we know about him from the writings of others, his students and/or critics, men like Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes. They were, no doubt, reliable eyewitnesses, but they were writing within the context of their own time, i.e. with the supposition that a reader would be familiar with the physical surroundings, as well as the customs, politics, leaders, and religious influences in place during the 5th century BC in Greece.
Inasmuch as few among us have detailed knowledge of those influences, never mind
understanding the plain daily life of that century, we may be most appreciative of Ms. Hughes’ ability to fill us in from just about every conceivable angle, including the oft-neglected status of women (or at least of some women) in ancient Athens. Socrates’ wife, Xanthippe, is mentioned only briefly (but not, to be sure, as disparagingly as she has been pictured by others), but the profile of Aspasia, consort of Pericles, is detailed and quite surprising. Aspasia was one formidable woman, clever and skilled in many arts (including sexual matters). She also seems to have possessed the remarkable gift of the bards, a memory that allowed her to recite long tales and histories verbatim.
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