Wisdom and Folly in a City of the Mind

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THE HEMLOCK CUP: SOCRATES, ATHENS AND THE SEARCH FOR THE GOOD LIFE by Bettany Hughes Jonathan Cape, Pounds 25, 484pp Pounds 22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The shining names of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Archimedes have left a permanent mark in the annals of human civilization". These are not my words, but those of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, and they are unarguably persuasive. Not a bad achievement for a thinker who, in the case of Socrates, left behind not a single unquestionably self-authored word.

Bettany Hughes indeed seems irresistibly drawn to ancient-world characters who when - and if - not frankly mythical are deeply, irretrievably mythicised. Her earlier quest for an at least partly historical Helen of Troy (and Sparta) is followed here by another, almost as chimerical perhaps, for the historical Socrates. From the ancient Greek world's most beautiful woman to one of its self- acknowledgedly ugliest men is quite a step, but one that Hughes accomplishes without breaking stride or pausing for breath.

Her enormous energy and enthusiasm are infectious. She writes up a storm. At the end of the road we may not be any closer to certainty or closure on the biggest issues of Socrates's inordinately rich life and afterlife but, as with the search for the historical Alexander or Jesus, travelling hopefully is quite possibly as good, and as much fun, as arriving. The journey is the reward.

No one before Bettany Hughes, a highly accomplished communicator, has thought to weave Socrates's examined life into quite so rich and dense a tapestry of democratic Athens's teeming high-cultural and mundane experience. Socrates was born in 469BC, too young by at least a generation to experience the highlights of Marathon and Salamis but old enough to profit from the heady intellectual and political and cultural ferment that those victories against the invading Persian empire brewed up.

Athens had become the world's first democracy (of its own unique sort) in around 500; 50 years on, by the time Socrates came of age (officially in 451), the Athenian citizen masses had gained the confidence and had the wit to accept advice from Pericles and many other lesser mortals. They voted funds for the Parthenon and the tragic dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles as well as for a virtually non-stop, and mostly successful, series of campaigns on land and sea against Greeks and non-Greeks alike.

Readers will be drawn by Hughes's beguiling prose into exploring the highways and byways of Athens's topography. She begins programmatically with "Athena's City", and Socrates was nothing if not a denizen of the urban jungle. Archaeology has always been a strong suit of the author. Recent excavations in advance of building Athens's rather charming underground rapid-transit system are properly laid under contribution - especially the plague pits of the early 420s that, as contemporary historian Thucydides unforgettably recorded, threatened to subvert the most fundamental norms of civilised Athenian life.

She is also particularly illuminating on the devices and desires of the world's first democratic regime, towards which Socrates maintained an unfortunately ambivalent stance. On the one hand, he seems to have participated in at least some aspects of the daily round of democratic life, such as being chosen by lot to serve for one year on the 500-strong administrative Council. On the other hand, he must surely have shared to the hilt, if for more purely intellectual reasons, the general distaste of the Athenian elite for a political system that amounted in their eyes to the dictatorship of the (ignorant, fickle, stupid) proletariat. …