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Short Story

The Philosopher’s Stone

by Geoffrey Scarre

In the 4,769th year of the punishment of Sisyphus, son of Aeolus, the gods set up a judicial committee to review his sentence. This was at the instance of Aphrodite, who had always had a soft spot for Sisyphus, and considered it very silly that anyone should spend so many centuries pushing a heavy stone up a hill just to have it roll down again.

“Call the meeting to order,” said Zeus to Hermes, lowering himself rather stiffly onto his throne. Hermes banged his caduceus several times on the ground and demanded silence for Zeus, the All-Seeing, Cloud-Gathering Hurler of Thunderbolts.

“Thank you for coming, everyone,” said the Father of Gods and Men. “I hope that this won’t take long, as I’ve a rain-making job over Thebes later this morning, but we do need to take a fresh look at Sisyphus’s case. The question is whether he’s done enough hard labour to earn remission of sentence. Now, does anyone have any views?”

“I think,” said Hades gloomily, “that eternity should mean eternity. What’s the point of sentencing someone to roll stones for ever and then letting him off for good behaviour? I’m sorry that liberalism is creeping even into this august assembly; I thought that gods were proof against new-fangled ideas.”

“You did get out of the wrong side of your couch this morning, didn’t you, dearie?” lisped Aphrodite, biting into a blood-orange. “It’s stupid to bear grudges so long. Would you like a taste of my fruit, it’s good for the liver? You wouldn’t? Poor darling Sisyphus – I positively weep torrents whenever I think of him. That stone-heaving is such a waste of his luscious masculine energy. When I think of what he could do with his hands free I go weak at the knees. Give him to me as my personal attendant, and see if I don’t keep him busy.”

“That’s her all over,” grumbled Hades, “she never could resist anything in a chiton. She’s lowered the tone for the last ten thousand years and she’s still at it.”

“Yet she does have a point,” said Ares, the God of War. “Sisyphus doesn’t actually do anything with the stones he rolls. Now, if he were to destroy a few cities with them, that would really be something. I can just see now the crushed bodies and broken buildings. Smashing! No one would miss Athens these days with all those foulsmelling horseless chariots.”

“I would,” said Athena, glowering over her spectacles; “and lf there’s any more talk like that, Ares, I’ll pull your beard for you. I wish Sisyphus would roll stones on you, to see how you liked it.”

“Listen to Madam Hoity-Toity,” said Ares scornfully. “She fancies she’s a cut above the rest of us because she reads books of philosophy. Fat lot she understands of them, too. The other day she said she’d caught me by a Simple Destructive Dilemma, when I swear her hands were empty. That owl on her shoulder knows more philosophy than she does.”

“You’re a boor, Ares,” said Athena with disdain, “as well as a vandal.”

“Gentlegods,” said Zeus wearily as the assembled deities took sides behind Ares or Athena, “why must we always quarrel like this? Have you forgotten that this is Olympus, not a tavern? Now get back in your seats and let’s settle this Sisyphus case. Dionysus, you look as if you’ve got something to say.”

“Right on, Daddy-o – hic ”, said the god of wine, straightening his vine wreath which had fallen over one eye. “Your mention of taverns – hic – gives me an idea. This pushing stones up hills isn’t very hip, man; people don’t do it these days for a turn-on. Why not have Sisyphus tread grapes instead? That way he’d still be bored out of his tiny mind – hic – while working for the general happiness.”

“Who let him in here?” demanded Queen Hera, looking cross. “If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s an ageing hippy. That’s right, Ares, shove him under that table with your foot.”

“My dear,” said Zeus, shifting uneasily in his seat, “I fear we’ve become inquorate.” “Nonsense,” said his wife, “I’ll vote for Dionysus as well as myself. It’s my privilege as top goddess. And why are you looking so uncomfortable today?”

“It’s just a twinge of rheumatism in my back,” replied Zeus. Some wood nymphs on the spectators’ benches tittered. Hera examined him closely through her pince-nez.

“The trouble is,” Zeus explained hastily, “I’m getting too old for my meteorological activities. Those clouds are very damp, my dear. Asklepiassuggests massage; he’s sending me to a good parlour in Crete next week. But – ahem – we still haven’t decided what to do about Sisyphus.”

“May I make a suggestion, O Father of Gods and Men?” said Athena, a thoughtful expression on her face. “Olly and I have been reading recently the works of a Gaulish philosopher, one Jean-Paul Sartre by name. He claims that existence precedes essence and that everyone is ultimately responsible for his own destiny. Once you face up to your untrammelled freedom to be what you will, you suffer dreadful anguish of soul. Of course, Jean-Paul Sartre denies the gods, which isn’t very good-mannered of him, but if we overlook that lapse he offers us a way out of our difficulty. Let Sisyphus make his own decision whether to go on rolling stones. That way we confront him with the agony of choice, which is a pretty stiff punishment still, but we don’t need to sit here all day pondering his fate.”

The gods stared at her with furrowed brows. “Well – er – thank you, Athena,” said Zeus at last; “I’m not entirely sure I followed that, but anything for an easy life. Shall we take a vote on it, immortals? Will you be teller, Hermes? No blockvoting, except for Hera.”

The voting was equally divided. Zeus used his casting vote in favour of Athena’s proposal. “There, that’s settled,” he said. “Hermes, I want you to announce our decision to Sisyphus. You’d better take Athena along with you, to help you with the long words. My numinous friends, I can’t keep the Thebans waiting any longer. The meeting is ended.”

Sisyphus was leaning on his stone, taking a little rest, when the delegation arrived. It was hard to see him at first, for in the course of the centuries the stone had worn a deep channel in the earth, and from a distance only the top of the hero’s head was visible. As the visitors drew nearer, they heard Sisyphus muttering quietly to himself: “Work equals force times distance; average gradient of the hill, 19.6%; distance to top, 1872 metres; weight of stone 1273 kilograms; power equals work over time; constant of friction – Well, hello, Olympians, this is a pleasant surprise. Nice of you to drop by. How’s life on the airy heights? Speaking of heights, I was just running over a small calculation concerning this stone. If the work needed to raise a body of given weight to a height of – but you don’t want to hear all that, do you? Gods were never very keen on science.”

“You’re in good spirits, Sisyphus,” said Athena, sitting down on the edge of the trench and dangling her legs over the side. “Olly and I thought you’d be miserable. It can’t be much fun pushing that stone, year in, year out, and always ending back where you started.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Sisyphus reflectively, “my life isn’t a bad life as lives go. I can think of plenty of people in a worse situation. Now I see the way the land lies – if you’ll pardon the pun – I never have disappointed ambitions. Knowing what you can and can’t do is half the battle in beating frustration. I say, honoured gods, who’s that drunken fellow with you? If he doesn’t watch out, he’ll be tumbling in.”

There followed a loud crash and a yell. Athena sighed. “That’s Dionysus, I’m afraid. He insisted on coming with us. He’s one over the eighty today.”

“Groovy, man,” muttered the god of wine from the bottom of the trench; “but too deep. Oh, my head!”

The son of Aeolus regarded him with disapproval. “What a useless individual!” he said. “Look at that flabby flesh – I wonder when he last took some healthy physical exercise? I wouldn’t be like him for all the gold in Lydia. Should I hoy him out of the hole, do you think?”

“You may as well let him be,” said Athena, “or he’ll only roll in again. Now, Sisyphus, we’ve brought you a message from the gods which I think you’ll like. Tell him what it is, Hermes.”

Hermes touched his winged cap, grasped his caduceus firmly in his right hand and began: “Sisyphus, Son of Aeolus and Enarete, Grandson of Hellen, Father of Odysseus and Glaucus, Husband of Merope the Pleiad, Victor over Autolycus, Challenger of Death, the Ingenious, the Rippling-Muscled, the Favoured of Aphrodite, the – ”

“Can’t you get on with it?” interrupted the hero. “I could have had this stone twice to the top again by now.”

“Sorry,” said Hermes; “some like the formal touch, some don’t. Being an old-fashioned hero, I thought you’d want a bit of style. Well, the long and short of it is, cocky, that you’re released from your sentence and can do what you want from now on. Let me be the first with congrats.”

There was a lengthy pause while Sisyphus digested the news. “I see,” he said at last, rubbing his chin. You’re not having me on, are you? This isn’t one of Apollo’s jokes?”

“All fair and above board, mate,” Hermes said; “ask her.”

“Yes,” said Athena, “you needn’t have any doubts, Sisyphus. We held a judicial review and this is the outcome. I knew you’d be pleased.”

“Well, as to that,” Sisyphus said, rubbing his chin harder, “I’ll have to think a bit.”

Athena and Hermes stared. Even Dionysus sat up in the trench, was sick, and lay down again. “B-but I don’t understand,” gasped Athena, “you don’t mean that you like rolling stones, do you? It was intended for a punishment.”

“It all depends,” said Sisyphus, wiping his feet on the wine-god’s hair, “on your attitude. I mean, it could be the most awful bore if you let it get to you that way. But you needn’t, you know.”

Athena shook her head sadly. “I fear your brain’s softened over the centuries, Sisyphus. Stone-rolling is stone-rolling in anyone’s book. I can see you’ve acquired some phenomenal muscles, but it’s plain that your wits have gone wool-gathering.”

Sisyphus laughed. “Well, I can’t blame you for thinking that. It must be a little strange to hear that rolling a boulder can be fun. To tell the truth, I didn’t think I’d like it at first. Tell me, how many years have I been here now?”

Athena took a small wax tablet from a pocket of her tunic and put on her spectacles. “Four thousand seven hundred and sixty-nine,” she said.

“That long?” said the hero, raising an eyebrow.

“Doesn’t time fly when you’re enjoying yourself! But, as I said, it wasn’t much fun at first. For one thing, I didn’t learn for a while the importance of getting out of the way when the boulder crashed down the hill again. The first time it happened, I lay seven months like yon fellow there while my bones grew whole. It was also harder work pushing the stone in the early years, until its rough edges wore down. But gradually the main problem became my sense of absurdity. I realised that I’d never be able to push the stone over the top, and that my punishment was the endless repetition of a pointless task. In those days I used to curse the gods till the local nymphs and fauns stopped their ears. Sometimes I would pause to watch a train of ants carrying burdens bigger than themselves, and then I’d curse the more, since the ants’ labour had a purpose and mine didn’t.

“Then one day I felt I couldn’t face my existence any longer. It was all just too foolish. If I could have killed myself I would cheerfully have done so, but being from the formal point of view dead already, that wasn’t an option. So I sat down against the rock to steady it, and said to myself, ‘Sisyphus, old man, what can’t be cured must be endured, but need it be endured with such a long face? Can’t you find some feature of your task to make it bearable? The trouble is, you’re not thinking positively enough.’”

“You mean,” broke in Athena, recalling some more Gallic wisdom she had recently come across, “you decided to embrace absurdity bravely, even try to like it?”

“Of course not,” said Sisyphus, surprised; “what odd ideas you get, Athena. It must be the company you keep. No, the trick, I realised, was to banish absurdity by making my activity meaningful. What could stone-rolling add to the quality of life? – that was the question I put to myself. And it didn’t take long to answer it.

“It struck me that I should become a philosopher. There I was, pursuing an occupation which didn’t call for a lot of mental effort, but kept my physical frame in good fettle. It was a golden opportunity to think about all the things I hadn’t had time for when I was laying traps for Hades and spying on Zeus. So I began to exercise my intellect on such hard issues as where sounds go to when we no longer hear them, or why snow is white. After a century or two I had fully worked-out theories of the origins of the planets and the cause of rainbows. Next I turned my attention to moral questions, like whether centaurs are born evil or become so by training, and if one may lawfully eat beans. Sometimes the satyrs and dryads would watch me in my work, and then we would talk for hours about whether sex between humans and wood-nymphs is perverted, or why mandrakes whine when you pluck them.”

“Did someone mention wine?” said Dionysus, sitting up and rolling his eyes. “I could use a drink, if anyone’s offering.”

“But Sisyphus,” said Athena, looking down her nose, “you can’t have found dryads and satyrs much company. Everyone knows that their brains are pea-sized.”

“That’s true,” replied the hero, a shade bashfully. “But they’re very good at experimental philosophy.”

“You can spare me the details,” Athena said primly. “But didn’t you find it a nuisance having to push this boulder while stretching – um – your intellect?”

“It got easier with practice,” said Sisyphus. “The initial problem was to overcome our Greek habit of gesticulating to emphasise our points. I lost the stone several times that way. One unlucky day I crushed to death a bevy of oreads and broke the pitcher of a river god. But gradually I learned better control.”

“You know,” said Athena thoughtfully, “I think I begin to see your point, Sisyphus. Having all that leisure for philosophy must be very gratifying. Most of us can only be part-time thinkers. Take me, for instance: I’m always being called on to help out in battles or invent musical instruments; I don’t get half the time I’d like for abstract thought. Let me have a feel of your stone, Sisyphus – mm, yes, this one’s on the big side for me, but maybe Father Zeus would allow me something smaller.”

“If you’re getting stoned, Athena,” said Dionysus, “don’t forget me. I haven’t wet my whistle for yonks.”

“The good thing about a stone,” said Sisyphus, who was warming to his theme, “is that it imparts an even rhythm to your life. You don’t need to worry about the time of day, or the weather, or the passage of the seasons – you just get on with trundling the stone from Alpha to Beta, and each cycle you try to have a bold new thought, or frame a syllogism, or work out a difficult problem in trigonometry.”

“How marvellous!” cried Athena. “You’ve solved the problem of existence most beautifully, Sisyphus. I see now that pushing a stone for all eternity is the highest form of good for any person of intelligence. How very clever you were to discover it! And what biceps it enables you to develop! In fact I’ve never set eyes on a better example of mens sana in corpore sano. No wonder you’re known as the Rippling-Muscled.”

“Rippling humbug,” muttered Dionysus. “What’s the point of thinking all the time when you could be enjoying yourself? Don’t you know that the purpose of life is pleasure?”

“If you’re an advertisement for hedonism,” said Athena crossly, “I don’t think much of it. I bet you couldn’t push a stone a tenth the weight of Sisyphus’s.”

“We shall never know, shall we?” replied the wine god, yawning, “ ’cos I ain’t going to try.”

“He’s a disgrace to the gods,” Athena snorted; “but you have to make allowances for him. He had a traumatic childhood – he was torn to bits by Titans and reconstituted by his grandmother.”

“That’s enough to make anyone fond of a drop,” said the hero sympathetically.

“So you see, what he says about the life of pleasure isn’t to be taken seriously.”

This argument seemed to Sisyphus a trifle ad deum, but he let it pass, especially as Dionysus had fallen asleep and had nothing further to say in his own behalf. He had never personally been much tempted by the life of the roué ; it was too boringly humdrum, not at all like the exciting existence of the sage, whose mind was a microcosm of the world’s extraordinary and colourful richness. Sitting in the tavern or making love to the latest fashionable hetaira were all very well in their way, but they were facile pleasures, soon over and forgotten. Intellectual delights were another thing entirely – you could spend years struggling to explain why water was wet or fire burned, and when you found the answer you knew you’d achieved something beyond the vulgar throng. It was nice, too, that thinking didn’t require any elaborate equipment, though a stone to roll certainly helped to keep away distractions. Without the discipline it provided, it was doubtful whether he would ever have squared the circle or devised the infinitesimal calculus.

“A drachma for your thoughts,” said Athena gently, seeing that Sisyphus had fallen into a brown study.

“I was wondering,” said the son of Aeolus, “whether I could bear to leave this place where I’ve been so happy. Do you think, if I did, that Zeus would let me take my stone with me?”

“Your fate is your own decision,” the goddess reminded him, “but what about the problem of transport?”

“ Oh, that’s easy”, replied Sisyphus brightly, “I’d push it myself. Indeed I don’t think I could walk any other way now without falling on my face. Really, Athena, it’s hard to know what to do; I’m not used to these situations of radical choice. Life here gives me almost everything I need. There’s just one thing which I sometimes wish for –”

Dionysus woke up and winked. “I can guess what, baby,” he said. “Bored with the local talent, eh? You heroes are well known for your proclivities that way.”

“ – a stylus and writing-tablet,” went on the hero, disregarding him.

“Oh my,” groaned the god of wine, and went back to sleep.

“The trouble with having lots of thoughts is keeping track of them all. For instance, I know that around two thousand years ago I formed a brilliant theory about the atomic structure of cheese, but I’m blessed if I can remember it now. If only I could write down my ideas, or dictate them to an audience, my cup of happiness would be complete.”

“If that’s all that’s bothering you,” exclaimed Athena, “I have the very solution. There’s a Chair of Philosophy in my gift at the University of Athens. Of course, we’d have to strengthen the floors a bit, but if you want it, it’s yours.” She fingered a dagger hanging at her belt. “I’ll make sure there’s a vacancy when you get there.”

“Thank you,” said Sisyphus. “A goddess in need is a goddess indeed. I’ll set out tomorrow morning, via Marathon. When I arrive I’ll sacrifice a pile of philosophy books to you. They should burn well, being full of gaseous material.”

“That’s very kind of you, Sisyphus. I’ll look forward to that nasal treat and so will Olly. Well, I’d better not keep Zeus waiting any longer, his rheumatism makes him so impatient these days. Besides, I’m anxious to examine some stones on Mount Lykabettos. Come on, Hermes, set wings to your helmet.”

“Wait!” cried Sisyphus, as the gods prepared to depart. “What should I do with Dionysus?”

“Ignore him,” said Hermes; “he’ll wake up at sundown and head for the nearest party. But don’t get into conversation with him; he’s been known to talk the hind leg off a donkey. Cheerio, mate.”

Sisyphus watched his divine visitors disappear into the clouds, then gave his stone a mighty heave. A smile played about his lips as he returned to a problem in astrometaphysics: “If the coefficient of substantiality of a comet equals the rate of evaporation of liquids from the surface of any planet with which it collides, then heat will be produced by the impact in the quantity needed to convert the remaining accidents of the planet into essential matter…”

Behind him, in the trench, Dionysus mumbled in his sleep: “A fig for metaphysics. Make mine a flask of Chian. Groove it, man, groove it.”

© Dr. Geoffrey Scarre 1993

Dr. Scarre pushes boulders at Durham University.

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