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Wise Guy

March 12, 2011

Walter Isaacson in NYT:

The problem with writing a biography of Socrates, as Bettany Hughes merrily admits, is that he’s a “doughnut subject”: a rich and tasty topic with a big hole right in the middle where the main character should be. Despite his fame and his insistence on an examined life, Socrates never wrote anything, and our knowledge of him comes mainly from three contemporaries — his devoted pupils Plato and Xenophon, and the parodist Aristophanes — each of whom had his own agenda. He produced no great answers, only great questions, and the most enduring image we have of his life is his leaving of it, as the title of this book suggests.

How do we examine the life of the man who told us that the unexamined life was not worth living? Hughes, a British television host and popular historian known for her book on Helen of Troy, does it by concentrating on the shape of the doughnut around the hole. She outlines Socrates mainly by describing the sights, sounds, mores and facts that surrounded him.

For the most part, Hughes is successful, and even when not, she’s fascinating. What we get in “The Hemlock Cup” is many books interlaced: a biography of Socrates; a gritty description of daily life in Athens; a vivid history of the Peloponnesian War and its aftereffects; and — as an unexpected delight — a guide to museums, archaeological digs and repositories of ancient artifacts, as Hughes takes us by the hand while ferreting out her evidence. [More]

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