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.