Two other takes on Socrates + a lesson

Prostitutes could confidently ply their trade by slipping on customised little hobnail boots and casually strolling up and down the alleyways. In the dust their shoe-nails would spell out akolouthei – ‘this way’, or ‘follow me’.

Isn’t that a great little detail? When strung together densely in one single narrative, these details transport you to a place and a time, to Athens during the life of Socrates. Kudos to Bettany Hughes for achieving such intensity in The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life.

And oh, what an Athens it was. This is the Athens of aromas and stink; of sweat, blood and sperm; of tanners pissing on their hides and Adonises oiling themselves for war games; of parades, assemblies and battles; of sex, slavery and domesticity; of democratic group-think, individual liberty and massacre; of humanity at its highest and simultaneously its lowest; of strutting health and vile disease.

Regarding disease, for example, is it not obvious that a plague such as the one that fell on war-torn Athens during Socrates’ prime must have influenced the subsequent events and the worldview of Socrates and his compatriots?

[W]ithin a year the disease danced its way through the caged population of Athens and across the hot streets; 80,000 died. At a cautious estimate, at least one-third of the city was wiped out. It had started in 431 BC.

Imagine one third of Americans, 100 million, dying in one year from a plague.

But we also need the lighter moments. For example, that time (beloved by artists, as above and below) when Socrates’s wife doused him with piss:

Xanthippe, raging after one argument with her maddening philosopher spouse, pours the contents of a bedpan over Socrates’ head; ‘I always knew that rain would follow thunder,’ sighs the philosopher, resignedly mopping his brow.

So Hughes accomplished something big: She brought that world-historical character, Socrates, to life. It’s a scandal how dull ‘philosophers’ (as opposed to historians) usually make Socrates. We needed this ‘biography’. She makes reading about Socrates easy and fun and personal. That is what I tried to do with Hannibal and the other characters in my own book.

(And, by the way, a reminder: Don’t ever assume that a thread on The Hannibal Blog has ended just because it slumbers for a few months. Both the series on Socrates and that on the Great Thinkers will continue. I have big plans for them.)

Another recent book on Socrates and the great philosophers is Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller. It tackles a selection of thinkers, one per chapter:

  • Socrates
  • Plato
  • Diogenes
  • Aristotle
  • Seneca
  • Augustine
  • Montaigne
  • Descartes
  • Rousseau
  • Kant
  • Emerson
  • Nietzsche

Since three of my own favorites were on the list, I bought the book. (The three, each with his own tag here on The Hannibal Blog, are Socrates, Diogenes and Nietzsche.)

Miller, too, sets out to write a biography (as opposed to a philosophical essay). His conceit, if I may paraphrase it, is to examine the lives of those who examined their lives.

Put differently, he wants to see how various philosophers lived and whether they just ‘talked the talk or also walked the walk’. Did their lives reflect their love of wisdom (= philo-sophy), or where they hypocrites?

Socrates, in this exercise, comes off splendidly. He embodied the love of wisdom and lived accordingly, searching for the good and treasuring simplicity. From Miller:

Socrates prided himself on living plainly and “used to say that he most enjoyed the food which was least in need of condiment, and the drink which made him feel the least hankering for some other drink; and that he was nearest to the gods when he had the fewest wants.” … Abjuring the material trappings of his class, he became notorious for his disdain of worldly goods. “Often when he looked at the multitude of wares exposed for sale, he would say to himself, ‘How many things I can do without!’ ” He took care to exercise regularly, but his appearance was shabby. He expressed no interest in seeing the world at large, leaving the city only to fulfill his military obligations.

And, of course, he died for his principles.

Diogenes, whom I admire so much for his extreme simplicity/freedom, arguably became the caricature of this Socratic lifestyle:

While Diogenes regarded Plato as a hypocrite, Plato saw Diogenes as “a Socrates gone mad”—and by Plato’s standards, he certainly was.

Masturbating in public and living in a barrel can give you that kind of reputation.

Plato and Aristotle arguably started that other trend, that of the hypocrite philosopher, talking/writing sophisticated words while, one way or another, selling out in private life. By the time you get to Rousseau, the hypocrisy becomes hard to stomach (I’ll leave that for another post some day.)

Storytelling lesson: unity vs fragmentation

But that’s not what I was mainly pondering after reading these two books, one after the other. Instead, I was reflecting why one author succeeded in a big way, and the other possibly failed in a small way.

Hughes, in The Hemlock Cup, succeeded big. She tackled an intimidating subject (intimidating because Socrates is not exactly an under-covered subject) in an innovative way and rose to the challenge by presenting one single, unified tale, no part of which a committed reader would dare to omit or skip.

By contrast, Miller, in Examined Lives, put forth a list, then broke his narrative into discrete chapters for each person on the list.

There is a problem with such lists: Why this list, and not some other list? Why Augustine and not Aquinas? Why Descartes and not Spinoza? Why Montaigne and not Montesquieu? Et cetera.

The result is that the reader, as he progresses, is increasingly tempted to skip the chapters that don’t interest him to speed ahead to those chapters that do interest him. I confess that I did that. Life is short, and I was a bit bored on some pages.

A good author reins in his readers as a charioteer steers his horses. He has readers asking the questions he, the author, is asking, not some other question (such as: where is Hegel?).

What could Miller have done differently? He could have woven the various lives together so that each chapter was about a theme, not an philosopher, and the various philosophers that interest him reappear at the right places.

My choice

You should take this with a grain of salt, because I have a reason to be thinking such thoughts.

A few years ago, when I first contemplated the book I wanted to write, I also envisioned it as a collection of chapters about various individuals that interested me (around the theme of triumph and disaster being impostors). (Hannibal was to have one chapter, Scipio one, Einstein one, Roosevelt one, et cetera.)

When I pitched that to an agent, he suggested that a better (but also more challenging) book would thread the lives together into one unfolding story, so that readers would not be tempted to disassemble the book and cherry-pick among the chapters. That structure would also force me to do the hard work of actually teasing out the themes concealed in these lives.

I took that advice. You can soon (on January 5th) decide whether I succeeded at it or not. For now, I simply observe with fascination how other authors approach this choice.

18 thoughts on “Two other takes on Socrates + a lesson

  1. Thanks! Sounds like two books worth looking at. Funnily, as I was reading at the point you said “she makes reading about Socrates easy, fun and personal,” my first thought was “I’d like to see someone do that with Kant.”

    I didn’t think it would be possible so I wasn’t surprised when you said that the Miller book falls short.

    Looking forward to Jan 5!

  2. “Examined Lives” — What a title! The word “examine” is a killer of fun. Brings to mind corpses, not lives.

    On the other hand, a blog post that opens with the word “prostitutes” very nearly spells out akolouthei in the dust.

    🙂

    • Yay for post, nay for book. Good deal.

      Seriously, Farrar, Straus and Giroux let Miller down with BOTH title AND jacket cover. Strange. FSG usually know what they’re doing…

    • Alkolouthei. OMG. A new word (that I can’t find, exactly). Biblical? Inspiring nonetheless.

      there once sat a greek going solo
      the oil said yes, while the public said no
      ’til he picked up the trail
      of a kupia’s nail
      and paid for the alkoloutheo

  3. Author and title are printed in the same size & font on the cover of the Hughes book. Odd choice, but I’ve seen it done before somewhere.

    I had a venti hemlock latte at Starbucks yesterday. Been feeling a little dizzy ever since. I’m not used to drinking coffee.

    • Very funny. Isn’t it becoming clear that printing author and title in the same size & font is, clearly and patently, the trend du jour? Comme il faut. Just so. The new black.

  4. Diogenes reminds me of several people who I met in the late 60’s. However, Diogenes seemed much smarter. And I believe most of those I met in that period eventually gave up that life for one of houses and jobs and the struggle for “a good life.”

  5. When we, who are beguiled by all things Ancient Greek, come across tidbits like:

    “……Prostitutes could confidently ply their trade by slipping on customised little hobnail boots and casually strolling up and down the alleyways. In the dust their shoe-nails would spell out akolouthei – ‘this way’, or ‘follow me’…….”

    “…..Socrates prided himself on living plainly and “used to say that he most enjoyed the food which was least in need of condiment, and the drink which made him feel the least hankering for some other drink…….”

    “……..Xanthippe, raging after one argument with her maddening philosopher spouse, pours the contents of a bedpan over Socrates’ head; ‘I always knew that rain would follow thunder,’ sighs the philosopher, resignedly mopping his brow……..”

    “……Diogenes ‘…..masturbating in public and living in a barrel…….’ “

    we can rest in the comforting knowledge that every word is true. As worshippers at the shrine of Ancient Greece, we need not be troubled by any doubts.

    This is remarkable, in that happenings like the above, occurred 2,500 years ago – 500 years before the alleged birth of the alleged Christ. And even more remarkable, in that many historical truths of much later times are being impugned by DNA and other recent contradictory evidence. And more remarkable still, given how difficult it is to establish the real truth of events which happen today, even with the internet, smart phones and whatnot.

    It follows that if recording events by only word of mouth, or through writing on papyrus, leather, and marble slabs, with wooden styluses, was good enough for the Ancient Greeks, then these means of recording knowledge should be good enough for us today.

    • Aha, there you go off to deep epistemology again.

      “…we can rest in the comforting knowledge that every word is true. As worshippers at the shrine of Ancient Greece, we need not be troubled by any doubts…”

      No, we don’t, for one minute, assume that “every word is true,” and we are CONSTANTLY “troubled by doubts.” So we set out to recreate as well as we can whatever can be recreated at all. We do that because it’s edifying. And because it’s better than not to do it. That’s all.

      And yes, you could certainly use something written today on leather or marble as evidence for something. Those media are not inferior. In fact, they are superior in some respects to digital media: We don’t have “compatibility” or “obsolescence” issues.

    • @Andreas

      And yes, you could certainly use something written today on leather or marble as evidence for something. Those media are not inferior. In fact, they are superior in some respects to digital media: We don’t have “compatibility” or “obsolescence” issues.

      That is a very good point. I wonder just how permanent or “permanent” records actually are. I used to think magnetic media was permanent. Then I found it it didn’t last more than a few years. Perhaps all records should be copied to stone?

  6. @Andreas – You said of writings about Ancient Greece and of Socrates: …….. No, we don’t, for one minute, assume that “every word is true,” and we are CONSTANTLY “troubled by doubts.”……..

    While this, to your credit, is true for you, I’m not sure it’s true for most contemporary acolytes of Socrates and things Ancient Greek, who seem to approach this subject with all the uncritical enthusiasm of the religious zealot.

    As an historian “….constantly troubled by doubts….”, you will know that many experts are not sure that Socrates even existed. Hence Socrates may be as mythological a figure as Robin Hood, King Arthur and Jesus Christ.

    And, what of the text of Plato’s dialogues with the alleged Socrates? The earliest copies that exist were written more than 1,200 years after the original. This is so long a time that one wonders how faithful these copies were to the original, or even whether Plato was the author.

    Bettany Hughes appears not be afflicted with doubts, nor so are the writers of the reviews I’ve read, who are unanimously effusive in “The Hemlock Cup”‘s praise. Let it be said, though, that some reviewers do mention in passing the possibility of Socrates not having existed, but wrote their reviews as if he actually did, thus marginalising the notion that Socrates may have been a figure of fiction.

    In “The Hemlock Cup”‘s first chapter we learn at least two things that would cause an Applied Epistemologist to scratch his head. One, is that potential jurors at Socrates trial were volunteers; the other, is that Socrates was among the throng of the many hundreds (or was it many thousands?) of Athenians who were voluntarily converging on the Royal Stoa where Socrates’ trial was to be held.

    Given that many of these potential jurors journeyed from quite far away, so that their journey to the Royal Stoa took many days and involved much hardship; and given that jurors today in America and elsewhere detest jury duty so much, that the state must dragoon them to their duty on the threat of punishment, how true is it the potential jurors at Socrates trial were volunteers?

    As to Socrates voluntarily walking to the place of his trial, a likely outcome from which he would have known would be his death, why were the Athenian authorities so confident that Socrates wouldn’t escape? Was there no preventive detention, or at least no release on bail, of accused criminals in Ancient Athens? If not, then Dominique Strauss-Kahn must be rueing that he didn’t live in Ancient Athens.

    We also learn from “The Hemlock Cup”, as well as from all the other accounts of the alleged Socrates, that he habitually walked the stinking and disease-ridden streets of Athens and discussed philosophy with the vendors and the other ordinary people he encountered.

    Given that discussing philosophy on even today’s relatively pleasant-smelling and relatively disease-free streets is the very last thing that vendors today, or any ordinary people in America and similar lands today, would wish to do, or have the time to do, or would even have the intellectual capacity to do, how true is it that the alleged Socrates had philosophical discussions in the streets of Ancient Athens?

    You, as an historian, will of course know that the further back we go, the less we know for sure. And the further back in time, the more the time for subsequent historians to embellish and distort the happenings of that time, for reasons political, ideological and literary.

    As an historian you will also know of course that the Applied Epistemologist, in trying to determine what actually happened in the long, long past, long before the invention of the printing press and all of that, assumes that as people today behave, so they always did behave, unless there is compelling reason to think otherwise. Hence the Applied Epistemologist uses verisimilitude to try to guess the truth in the absence of tangible evidence.

    All that said, I did enjoy reading the first chapter, and the bits of later chapters of the Amazon-allowed tidbits of “The Hemlock Cup”, since I’ve always been allured by the sort of elegant prose in which “The Hemlock Cup” is obviously written. So I’m tempted to buy and read the whole book, despite that much of it may fail the test of verisimilitude, and that I’m not an acolyte of the alleged Socrates or of things Ancient Greek.

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