Friday, March 18, 2011

Book Review: The Hemlock Cup

Once again the quest for vivid historical scholarship turns up a good book. The Hemlock Cup by Bettany Hughes is about the life and death of Socrates and the democratic Athenians he walked among. Hughes has researched the latest artifacts dug up from the ground and has traveled to most of the sites in the book -- she'll often tell you what a battlefield or ancient town is like today. Her portrait of Socrates is illuminating, especially for the big question of how could a city like Athens kill a man like Socrates? I didn't think I could understand why but after reading this book I can finally see how it happened. This book is even more useful for its portrait of Athens than of Socrates: Socrates stands out from history so much that most people have some idea of what he was like, but Hughes is able to detail some of what must have been going on in the average Athenian's mind, which is harder to do. The detail of why and how they believed in the gods that they believed in is fascinating and certainly colors any wrongly over-rationalized pictures of the Golden Age of Greece one might have. In fact, if a person was walking around Athens 500 years later the first thing he'd probably notice was how many statues to how many gods they had scattered around (see Acts 17 for more). This was a very theistic city, and also very troubled by war with Sparta and the inherent insecurity of democracy. If I was a student of history and had time for it, I could write a whole book comparing and constrasting Jesus and Socrates, and this would be the main source for Socrates. It's that good.

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