The Hemlock Cup

I have just this very instant completed reading The Hemlock Cup”. Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, by Bettany Hughes a splendid portrait of a man, an extremely documented and detailed description of a society and an marvellous representation of an epoch.

I have greatly admired, perusing its pages, the endeavour and conscientiousness with which the author has assembled countless pieces of information of different nature and sources (historical, philological, literary, archaeological etc.) in order to converge towards a unexpectedly brilliant portrayal of the man considered the father of modern western thought.

In truth many events concerning Socrates’ existence are wrapped in a veil of uncertainty, thus compelling Ms. Hughes’ serious philological background unavoidably to prevail and as a consequence to consciously and frankly infer a few facts. Nevertheless the narration never lowers its rhythm, on the contrary: continuous chronicled references on Athenian daily life and actual allusions on museum and archaeological sites spur the imagination and the time-travel experience of any – even the one not initially enthusiast – reader.

It is also true that there are many Socrates’ scholars and biographers, which most likely have dissected any possible historical and philosophical aspect of Socrates’ life and death; yet the book offers an original and multifaceted portraiture of Socrates’ times and society enriched with indirect and sometimes anecdotal information about his shoddy demeanour and inquisitive attitude, and  delivers us a closer view of the “human being” instead of the unreachable puzzling Greek philosopher.

Now I cannot refrain wondering a renown and yet recurrent paramount question: how could Athens, such a highly praised civilisation – probably the very incarnation of Western Golden Age – accuse and sentence to death its most prominent mind and eminent son? Athens, the cradle of the same philosophy which has dominated sciences, arts, politics and life at least until the Middle Age and still influences modern thought; the mother and model of democracy, implementing any possible device to involve and include as many citizens as possible in active political life and to avert bribery and enticement – and the eulogy could go on and on…

In this regard Alexis de Tocqueville in 1840 bluntly concluded that:

Athènes, avec son suffrage universel, n’était donc, après tout, qu’une république aristocratique où tous les nobles avaient un droit égal au gouvernement. [De la démocratie en Amérique, Tome Deuxième, Chap. XV]

More harshly George Bernanos, in 1942, thus accused the French collaborationists, considering that elite culpable of betraying the French loyal spirit and code of honour:

En parlant ainsi je me moque de scandaliser les esprits faibles qui opposent aux réalités des mots déjà dangereusement vidés de leur substance, comme par exemple celui de Démocratie

La Démocratie est la forme politique du Capitalisme, dans le même sens que l’âme est la Forme du corps selon Aristote, ou son Idée, selon Spinoza. [Lettre aux Anglais, Atlantica editora, Rio de Janeiro 1942].

But way before XIX or XX century even Plato, already in his days – not too far from those of the death of his mentor – identifies the very root of the question, when he allows his fictional Socrates to unveil it by quoting an ironical parody of the legendary self-celebrating Pericles’ epitaph for the dead soldiers of the Peloponnesian War (in Plato’s dialogue fictitiously ghost-written by Aspasia, Pericles’ mistress):

…ἐπιμνησθῆναι. πολιτεία γὰρ τροφὴ ἀνθρώπων ἐστίν, καλὴ μὲν ἀγαθῶν, ἡ δὲ ἐναντία κακῶν. ὡς οὖν ἐν καλῇ πολιτείᾳ ἐτράφησαν οἱ πρόσθεν ἡμῶν, ἀναγκαῖον δηλῶσαι, δι’ ἣν δὴ κἀκεῖνοι ἀγαθοὶ καὶ οἱ νῦν εἰσιν, ὧν οἵδε τυγχάνουσιν ὄντες οἱ τετελευτηκότες. ἡ γὰρ αὐτὴ πολιτεία καὶ τότε ἦν καὶ νῦν, ἀριστοκρατία, ἐν ᾗ νῦν τε πολιτευόμεθα καὶ τὸν ἀεὶ χρόνον ἐξ ἐκείνου ὡς τὰ πολλά. καλεῖ δὲ ὁ μὲν αὐτὴν [d] δημοκρατίαν, ὁ δὲ ἄλλο, ᾧ ἂν χαίρῃ, ἔστι δὲ τῇ ἀληθείᾳ μετ’ εὐδοξίας πλήθους ἀριστοκρατία. βασιλῆς μὲν γὰρ ἀεὶ ἡμῖν εἰσιν· οὗτοι δὲ τοτὲ μὲν ἐκ γένους, τοτὲ δὲ αἱρετοί· ἐγκρατὲς δὲ τῆς πόλεως τὰ πολλὰ τὸ πλῆθος, τὰς δὲ ἀρχὰς δίδωσι καὶ κράτος τοῖς ἀεὶ δόξασιν ἀρίστοις εἶναι, καὶ οὔτε ἀσθενείᾳ οὔτε πενίᾳ οὔτ’ ἀγνωσίᾳ πατέρων ἀπελήλαται οὐδεὶς οὐδὲ τοῖς ἐναντίοις τετίμηται, ὥσπερ ἐν ἄλλαις πόλεσιν, ἀλλὰ εἷς ὅρος, ὁ δόξας σοφὸς ἢ ἀγαθὸς εἶναι κρατεῖ καὶ ἄρχει. [ΣΩΚΡΑΤΗΣ ΜΕΝΕΞΕΝΟΣ, 238, c,d]

For a polity is a thing which nurtures men, good men when it is noble, bad men when it is base. It is necessary, then, to demonstrate that the polity wherein our forefathers were nurtured was a noble one, such as caused goodness not only in them but also in their descendants of the present age, amongst whom we number these men who are fallen. For it is the same polity which existed then and exists now, under which polity we are living now and have been living ever since that age with hardly a break. One man calls it “democracy,” another man, according to his fancy, gives it some other name; but it is, in very truth, [d] an “aristocracy” backed by popular approbation. Kings we always have; but these are at one time hereditary, at another selected by vote. And while the most part of civic affairs are in the control of the populace, they hand over the posts of government and the power to those who from time to time are deemed to be the best men; and no man is debarred by his weakness or poverty or by the obscurity of his parentage, or promoted because of the opposite qualities, as is the case in other States. On the contrary, the one principle of selection is this: the man that is deemed to be wise or good rules and governs.

Thus the enthusiasts of Athenian democracy have often failed, purposely or naively, to envisage the clearly distinguishable components and facets of an oligarchy of very few wealthy families, of which the rest of citizens (the vast majority, poor and illiterate) were easy preys; a sect of professional politicians/orators ruling the city slyly and untouched; an economic elite purporting an actual form of modern proto-imperialism over the Aegean Sea by means of a self-celebrating fame, violence and taxation to the benefit of a self-preserving authority.

It appears that the unconditional laudator temporis acti approach towards ancient Athens tends, still nowadays, to disregard the side effects even of the best democracy: its step-sister demagogy – perhaps the true responsible of Socrates’ death.

Political absenteeism in ancient Athens


The vastly celebrated Athenian democracy, still nowadays almost unanimously considered as the mother of all the modern forms of government unfortunately had its own flaws, perhaps less grave in terms of its overall design, but most certainly – and modernly manifest – in so far as its actual functioning was concerned. According to the Athenian Constitution every adult male citizen was admitted to the Ecclesia (General Assembly), thus – at least in theory – conservatively over 25,000 nationals could attend its discussion and deliberations. Nevertheless, in truth the actual number of participants was far lower: as 6,000 citizens were considered a sufficient quorum representing and expressing the political will of the polis; besides the venue where the meetings used to take place was on a hill near the Acropolis named Pnyx which, before its enlargement under Lycurgus in late IV century b.C., could hardly host more than 6,000 discussants.

Within this bare statistics it is quite remarkable the number of voices within the ancient texts which report the widely diffused lack of interest showed by the citizens towards the opportunity of personally taking part to the factual administration of the res publica. This social aloofness emerges in several unmistakable behaviours including non attendance to the ekklesia or other political/administrative bodies, non-participation in discussions and voting, retreating from public life and even the studied refusal of contacts with the state and its institutions and/or representatives – and this even when the polis was facing dangers, as Thucydides reports:

They also sent ten commissioners to Samos, who were to pacify the army, and to explain that the oligarchy was not established with any design of injuring Athens or her citizens, but for the preservation of the whole state. The promoters of the change, they said, were five thousand, not four hundred; but never hitherto, owing to the pressure of war and of business abroad, had so many as five thousand assembled to deliberate even on the most important questions.

Additionally drastic measures were taken in order to coerce citizens to attend the assemblies: the stores and workshops must be closed, the only streets open to the public access were those leading to the Pnyx, plus a leash painted with vermilion used to be carried around the agora so that those who were there loitering, together with those who were still lingering outside of the venue could be impressed in red by the rope and consequently pay a penalty. Something that could not prevent Prytanes, Archons and the Epistatae, who shared the care of holding and directing the assemblies of the people from being late, though. Thus some citizens were gathered to participate, even though very much reluctantly – as this Aristophanes’ personage:

Still it is the day of assembly; all should be here at daybreak, and yet the Pnyx is still deserted. They are gossiping in the marketplace, slipping hither and thither to avoid the vermilioned rope. The Prytanes even do not come; they will be late, but when they come they will push and fight each other for a seat in the front row. They will never trouble themselves with the question of peace. Oh! Athens! Athens! As for myself, I do not fail to come here before all the rest, and now, finding myself alone, I groan, yawn, stretch, break wind, and know not what to do; I make sketches in the dust, pull out my loose hairs, muse, think of my fields, long for peace, curse town life and regret my dear country home…

Yet, in spite of all these efforts, seemingly there were still serious difficulties in involving the citizen in the governance of the πολις, and even in reaching the deliberative quorum. So much as that an attendance fee for all the participants had to be introduced, as Aristotle comments:

The proposal to introduce payment for attendance at the Assembly was on the first occasion rejected; but as people were not attending the Assembly but the presidents kept contriving a number of devices to get the multitude to attend for the passing of the resolution by show of hands, first Agyrrhius introduced a fee of an obol, and after him Heracleides of Clazomenae, nicknamed the King, two obols, and Agyrrhius again three obols.

Clearly this remedy generated, although not miraculously, some more audience at the assembly meetings, nonetheless it concomitantly compromised its quality, as somehow Plato remarks:

I say, in common with the rest of the Greeks, that the Athenians are wise. Now I observe, when we are collected for the Assembly, and the city has to deal with an affair of building, we send for builders to advise us on what is proposed to be built; and when it is a case of laying down a ship, we send for shipwrights; and so in all other matters which are considered learnable and teachable: but if anyone else, whom the people do not regard as a craftsman, attempts to advise them, no matter how handsome and wealthy and well-born he may be, not one of these things induces them to accept him; they merely laugh him to scorn and shout him down, until either the speaker retires from his attempt, overborne by the clamor, or the tipstaves pull him from his place or turn him out altogether by order of the chair. Such is their procedure in matters which they consider professional. But when they have to deliberate on something connected with the administration of the State, the man who rises to advise them on this may equally well be a smith, a shoemaker, a merchant, a sea-captain, a rich man, a poor man, of good family or of none, and nobody thinks of casting in his teeth, as one would in the former case, that his attempt to give advice is justified by no instruction obtained in any quarter, no guidance of any master; and obviously it is because they hold that here the thing cannot be taught. Nay further, it is not only so with the service of the State, but in private life our best and wisest citizens are unable to transmit this excellence of theirs to others; for Pericles, the father of these young fellows here, gave them a first-rate training in the subjects for which he found teachers, but in those of which he is himself a master.

Unfortunately, apart from the necessary transition to the “representative democracy” things have not changed that much, considering the current statistics of young people seriously and effectively committed to politics, not to mention the very scarce amount of active voters – whose  paucity is likely second only to the dearth of newly ordered priests…

Dignified slaves, venerable masters

Slavery in ancient Greece was a significant social and economical feature; this was – likewise anywhere else in the ancient world – undeniably a widespread custom that characterised Hellenic poleis, and further political institutions, during their entire development and history. There were a few actual forms of slavery: mainly chattel slavery, but also there were state-owned-slaves (as the Athens’ Scythians guards) as well as serfdom (the helots in Sparta or the penestaeΠενέσται of Thessaly). Any of all of these forms were generally accepted, deemed ordinary and quite indispensable to the normal course of economy, war and general living as it was deeply analysed by Aristotle in his Politics and by Plato in his Laws as well.

Ancient Greek comedy (and its largely transposed Latin versions as well) has plenty examples of various slave characters: helpful and devote, astute and pitiless and ignorant and stupid, yet always within the unquestioned social framework where they maintained their status of mere personal properties. Nevertheless, in spite of this generalised reduction to very objects – just belongings to fully dispose of – during the end of the classic age, perhaps further to the evolution of the civil thought and maybe under the wave of the spreading Sophistic phenomenon, it is possible to gather examples of a rather modern reappraisal of the slave as human being, albeit to some extent quite lamely and without any legal influence on his/her destiny.

In literature a remarkable example of the consideration that slaves were slightly gaining is for instance palpable during this moving dialogue by Euripides in his tragedy Helen:

MESSENGER: Whoever pays no reverence to his master’s affairs, rejoicing with him and grieving with his troubles, is worthless. Although I was born a servant, let me still be numbered among honest slaves; my mind is free, if not my name. For this is better than to suffer double misery as one man: to have a worthless heart and, being a slave, to owe obedience to any other.

MENELAUS: Come, old man – often by my shield you have had your full share of trouble and hard work now also have a share in my success.

Once again, the same Euripides, in another work – namely Ion – focuses on loyalty and dignity of this servant and solicits a greatly important distinction between social/legal status and actual decorum and humanity:

TUTOR: I wish to help you in this work, and kill the boy, entering the house where he is preparing the feast, and when I have paid back my living to my masters, either to die, or live and see the light.

There is one thing in slavery that brings shame, the name; in all other respects a good slave is no worse than the free-born.

It is striking remarkable though, that these promising examples from the ancient Greek literature do not come only from tragedy. Actually the most significant contributions in terms of what nowadays we would probably call defence of the human rights came from speeches written by logographers (i.e. speechwriters who used to be hired to arrange and write speeches that were meant to be delivered by another person) or rhetors with political and/or legal professional background and skills.

One interesting example is found in a scholiast to Aristotle’s Rhetoric: in the very paragraph where he is trying to define justice and law:

“Let us now classify just and unjust actions generally, starting from what follows. Justice and injustice have been defined in reference to laws and persons in two ways. Now there are two kinds of laws, particular and general. By particular laws I mean those established by each people in reference to themselves, which again are divided into written and unwritten; by general laws I mean those based upon nature. In fact, there is a general idea of just and unjust in accordance with nature, as all men in a manner divine, even if there is neither communication nor agreement between them

where is quoted a fragment of a speech – the Messeniakos – delivered by Alcidamas of Elaea (a scholar of Gorgias the sophist) a renowned orator, in favour of the insurgency of the Messenians against Sparta:

God has left all men free; nature has made none a slave”.

Another famous Athenian rethor, Antiphon, had particularly modern ideas in so far as equality and human dignity are concerned:

“By nature we all equally possess with all respect the same origin, both Greeks and Barbarians”

Nonetheless they all seem quite weak and rather isolated voices, within a strongly consolidated practice and social framework, as Xenophon in his Memorabilia reports within this insightful dialogue:

EUTHERUS “I came home when the war ended, Socrates, and am now living here,” he replied. “Since we have lost our foreign property, and my father left me nothing in Attica, I am forced to settle down here now and work for my living with my hands. I think it’s better than begging, especially as I have no security to offer for a loan.”

SOCRATES “And how long will you have the strength, do you think, to earn your living by your work?”

EUTHERUS “Oh, not long, of course.”

SOCRATES “But remember, when you get old you will have to spend money, and nobody will be willing to pay you for your labour.”


SOCRATES “Then it would be better to take up some kind of work at once that will assure you a competence when you get old, and to go to somebody who is better off and wants an assistant, and get a return for your services by acting as his bailiff, helping to get in his crops and looking after his property.”

EUTHERUS “I shouldn’t like to make myself a slave, Socrates.”

SOCRATES “But surely those who control their cities and take charge of public affairs are thought more respectable, not more slavish on that account.”

EUTHERUS “Briefly, Socrates, I have no inclination to expose myself to any man’s censure.”

SOCRATES – “But, you see, Eutherus, it is by no means easy to find a post in which one is not liable to censure. Whatever one does, it is difficult to avoid mistakes, and it is difficult to escape unfair criticism even if one makes no mistakes. I wonder if you find it easy to avoid complaints entirely even from your peasant employers. You should try, therefore, to have no truck with grumblers and to attach yourself to considerate masters; to undertake such duties as you can perform and beware of any that are too much for you, and, whatever you do, to give of your best and put your heart into the business. In this way, I think, you are most likely to escape censure, find relief from your difficulties, live in ease and security, and obtain an ample competence for old age.”

However, although the question was merely slightly raised in maybe some of the more progressist Athenian intellectual circles, apparently there is no trace of a motion submitted to the attention, discussion or vote of the ecclesia on this matter, hence there is no evidence that an actual political or institutional change took place with reference to slavery whatsoever – well small wonder considering it as such a huge industry, profitable business and strong economic infrastructural backbone.

It is albeit quite impressive that this debate developed concurrently with the descending glory of post-Pericles’ age; a circumstance perhaps more than purely coincidental with Hermann Broch’s epoch: a period (1920/1940) he considered as the sunset of spiritual certainties and the eclipse of what was deemed sacred in Mitteleuropa, entirely swept by the fury of the mass propelled by creed discrepancies and inhuman ethnic pseudo-ideologies. He portrayed, in an extremely thorny style, Virgil on his deathbed dialoguing with his Emperor Caesar Octavian Augustus, and the divine poet – the very same who wrote of Turnus begging for mercy and yet hard-heartedly slain by Aeneas – solicits two acts of kindness of the Emperor, namely to set free his slave and to prove compassion to the subjugated:

be lenient to the conquered and temper your arrogance to that end.

Why and whys of Philosophy

Why Philosophy? In other words what is the use of Philosophy, especially nowadays: in a hyper technical world, characterised by a fast, often brief and strongly superficial communication and even more by a quite rare inclination to introspection and meditation, and a tough reluctance to activities without a direct either social, career-wise or financial return.


Well I must admit that the response is not an easy one. I would start by saying that in the first place the enquiry itself is not well formulated and it already contains and shows at the same time the limits of a widely diffused current way of thinking: not all the activities a person performs must necessarily have a direct usefulness, in terms of present return or even of future spendability.

If you consider it, you will realise that Philosophy itself is the repudiation of this principle, since it means love for study, research and intellectual speculation. This love for knowledge is pure and uninterested and its only aim is knowledge.

This approach has lead – and still leads – the philosopher to ask himself questions which not necessarily, and rather seldom, have answers. Regardless the difficulties or impossibility of proposing answers philosophers have been asking themselves on behalf of the whole human kind the most capital whys and hows. Why do we live? Why we feel necessary to believe in something supernatural? What are the laws of the universe? How is the world born? What is the sense of life? Is there something after death? Should we believe in an overall supernatural justice? Is everything already written somewhere or we have the power of changing the course of our life? What is the conduct we should maintain in our life?

I know it is overwhelming: for over three thousand years the early scientists, thinkers, religious at the beginning and the true sole philosophers afterwards have been trying to contemplate responses to these questions. Some, but not all, of their explanations and solutions might seem naïve, especially when you go to the dawn of these studies, in the Greek Ionian City-states located on the West coast of what we call now Turkey.

Of course within these three millennia the progress in scientific studies and their technical applications have been enormous, but what is remarkably important is to note the strong need for these people, along all these centuries and still now, to ask themselves and try to give answers, a constant research which demonstrates the consistency of the inquisitive aspects of human nature, regardless the achievements, discovers and inventions. Some scientific theories, therefore, have been surpassed, and many inventions have been outshined; but I challenge you to throw the entire thought of an ancient Philosopher, some or even many of his findings cannot be considered old and inapplicable to our times.


Naturally still now, most if not all, of these question are unanswered – which makes Philosophy so present. A very controversial situation, in a world into which people are so used to believe that there are answers ready made for everyone…


I personally believe that Philosophy ought to help anyone to give to things and events the right weight and significance, to balance the judgment of situations, persons and relations, to develop a deeper consciousness of being.

Thus it ought to be studied, not for the sake of reaching responses, since, as it is easily understandable it would be a real disappointing exercise; but for the sake of the questions themselves. The research, the introspection, the speculations will widen the spectrum through which reading of our experiences and hopefully to break the often narrowness of our vision of the world.

Then expect a new, more critical approach to the interpretation of life, against the supine acceptance of the too widely and invasively proposed standards and cliché.

Don’t you think it is worth? I know I myself fell into the trap of proposing to study philosophy in order to achieve a direct goal, the real freedom of thought… after all also I am a child of these times…

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