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The Lost Dialogues: Mr Socrates
Michael Katz overhears Socrates’ private dialectic.
Socrates: Hello, Socrates. With no moon tonight I hardly recognized you.
SOCRATES: That’s a silly thing to say – but I suppose old men can be allowed a bit of foolish talk.
Socrates: I’m only talking because it’s so quiet. There’s not a soul stirring here in the marketplace.
SOCRATES: Why are you out so late?
Socrates: When you get old, you have trouble sleeping. After dinner I can hardly keep my eyes open. Then I wake in the dead of night and I can’t fall back to sleep.
SOCRATES: So you walk through the empty streets?
Socrates: Yes, I walk, and I talk to myself.
SOCRATES: Perhaps this is only a dream – a dream of some desolate place without people.
Socrates: There are no people, but there’s still the warmth of human spirits in these streets. I’m sure it would feel different in some far-off desolate place.
SOCRATES: You and I will never see those far-off places.
Socrates: It no longer matters. A different sound, an exotic smell, a strange vision – where would I store them? I’m a stretched out old wineskin, filled to the brim. If I dropped in even a tiny pebble, the wine would overflow. If I floated a new leaf on top, it would slide over the edge and fall onto the dirt. I’d rather just sit and sag in the warm midday sun. It’s the accumulated tiredness of seventy years.
SOCRATES: It’s not your old age, Socrates; it’s your old laziness. You’ve never wanted to do new things.
Socrates: That’s not true.
SOCRATES: Do you remember our first trip to Scyros?
Socrates: Of course.
SOCRATES: I had to drag you along.
Socrates: I hadn’t slept well and my back ached – I was coming down with a cold.
SOCRATES: Your supposed cold never showed up. Besides, the early morning was beautiful – the sky was bright, there were pink clouds on the horizon… When I finally got you going, your sea clothes were crisp and the air was cool.
Socrates: Cool? It was cool because everything was damp! The birds were loud, and the sun made me squint. If only I could have stayed in bed a bit longer – and then, with a long slow stretch, I would have slid out of the covers and put on my comfortable old tunic, instead of that stiff canvas sailing-shirt. I would have eaten an extra piece of oat bread, and finally, at a decent hour, I would have walked to the marketplace, with plenty of time to think about the unresolved problems from the day before.
SOCRATES: And what problems would those be?
Socrates: It was too long ago. I’ve forgotten.
SOCRATES: Was it virtue?
Socrates: Maybe venality.
SOCRATES: Or nemophily?
Socrates: Probably it was mnemonics. Who remembers? It was thirty or forty years ago.
SOCRATES: But you are still the same person.
Socrates: Am I?
SOCRATES: You are. Otherwise, how could you remember the trip?
Socrates: Well I don’t remember much about leaving Athens. But I do remember arriving on Scyros the next morning. I remember that Scyros rose like magic from the sea. One moment it was a faint jagged line, and then suddenly it was a full island. A few other ships rocked at anchor as we rolled in with the waves. Crabs skittered on the beach. We climbed out wet and salty, with the town high on a hill looming over us.
SOCRATES: What I remember were the clouds.
Socrates: The clouds – yes, they were striking. Gray bottoms and white edges, flowing steadily across the sky, indifferent to Scyros’ rocky peaks… Like those clouds up there.
SOCRATES: Up where? The sky is black, there are stars.
Socrates: I’m referring to the clouds beyond the hills.
SOCRATES: You have your eyes closed.
Socrates: Yes, I suppose I do.
Socrates: It’s cool tonight. Even my hair is shivering.
SOCRATES: Those few gray wisps? How can they notice the wind?
Socrates: Perhaps my hair is thin, but it’s as sensitive as a baby’s.
SOCRATES: Babies don’t have hair.
Socrates: Some babies have lots of hair.
SOCRATES: Maybe a few babies.
Socrates: More than a few. And what about those babies who are born too early? They have hair on their shoulders.
SOCRATES: That’s not hair, its fuzz. It’s like the fuzz on little ducks.
Socrates: You’re just being contrary. It’s hair and you know it.
SOCRATES: Listen to yourself, Socrates. You constantly quibble about words. It irritates people. You’re not well liked, you know.
Socrates: I know.
SOCRATES: Soon you will drink the poison, and you’ll float through these streets as a mist, hearing: “Finally old Socrates has left us in peace.”
SOCRATES: One man will turn to another and say, “When I was a boy, my parents corrected me constantly. I couldn’t wait to grow up. But when I grew up, there was Father Socrates, bothering me about my language, my thinking, my morals. I had enough worries without that contrary old goat setting dogstones on my shoulders. Who made him my parent? Finally, by the good gods, the old man has died. At last we’ve been left to live as adults.”
Socrates: I suppose that some Athenians will breathe more easily.
SOCRATES: Then was your life worth living?
Socrates: Certainly it was. I lived up to my principles, as best I could.
SOCRATES: Yes, I’ve heard that before. But be honest, was badgering your neighbors really a good life?
Socrates: Who can say? But if I’ve educated even a few of my fellow men, then I –
SOCRATES: Come now! Did you really educate anyone?
Socrates: Plato –
SOCRATES: Oh, it’s true that Plato may know a few things he wouldn’t have known if he’d been born in Syracuse and never come to Athens. But does it matter? Is it worth a fig?
Socrates: This is just like you – badgering an old man. You ask an impossible question: “Have I made the world a better place?” How can I know for sure?
SOCRATES: Is that your answer? Are you unwilling to face the truth?
Socrates: What truth? I can’t know what the world would have been like without me.
SOCRATES: When has a lack of knowledge ever stopped you? If one question is difficult, you’re always quick to ask another.
Socrates: So you want another question?… Well, suppose I were a river. The River Socrates would do its best to water the land around it and to cool the people on its shores. And here’s the question: ‘What if there had been no River Socrates? What would have happened then?’
SOCRATES: What would have happened?
Socrates: There might have been just a little creek instead.
SOCRATES: Or perhaps woods or meadows or mountains, or even the seashore. There are plenty of fine alternatives. You certainly can’t pretend that you were irreplaceable as a river. What’s worse, knowing you, the River Socrates would flood regularly. And the way you ignore your clothes, you would undoubtedly have swamps on the edges. And then, being a river with a big mouth, you would also provide easy access for enemy ships. I think it’s quite possible that the people living on its banks wouldn’t like the River Socrates.
Socrates: Well, even with my faults, at least I’d provide water.
SOCRATES: It would be hard to take credit for that, old man. It’s only through the ingenuity of these people that they’d manage to use the water from your insect-infested swamps. Clearly they would have been better off with some flat pastureland.
Socrates: I see. So your position is that I wouldn’t be irreplaceable, and that I would probably be harmful?
SOCRATES: It’s certainly possible. But where does this river business get us? Does it tell us anything about Socrates the man? Was his life worth living?
Socrates: That’s an unanswerable question. Besides you brought it up. You asked the question, so you should answer it.
SOCRATES: But I am you. When I ask, you’re the only one who can answer.
Socrates: It’s at times like this I wish I had some other companion.
SOCRATES: Let me give you a hand. Tell me, why is it important to determine whether you’ve lived a worthwhile life?
Socrates: It’s important because I want to know whether my –
SOCRATES: Hold on, Socrates, let’s be a bit less glib and a bit more truthful. In a day or two, you will be drinking the hemlock. It’s not that you want to know, it’s that you need to know.
Socrates: Yes, yes – I need to know whether my life has been worthwhile.
Socrates: Because in the end, I want to be at peace.
SOCRATES: The truth, please. You said, “I need to know whether my life has been worthwhile.” That’s still not the truth.
Socrates: Alright, alright – I need to know that my life has been worthwhile.
SOCRATES: And it sounds as if you need an answer with some degree of certainty.
Socrates: Yes, I do. In the end and late at night, ‘maybe’ is of no help. Even ‘undoubtedly’, ‘probably’, or ‘it seems likely’ don’t make for a rock-solid resting place.
SOCRATES: So can you find peace? Where will you find the certainties to let you sleep at peace?
Socrates: Where can I find truths and certainties? Well, they’re not exactly common features of our mortal lives.
Socrates: At least, in our external lives.
SOCRATES: Why do you say “external”?
Socrates: Let me ask you a question: If you gave me a cup of wine and told me it was sweet, should I believe you?
SOCRATES: I hope so.
Socrates: But what if I tasted the wine and found it was bitter?
SOCRATES: How could that be?
Socrates: Perhaps you’d been joking with me.
SOCRATES: Remember, Socrates, you know me as well as you know yourself.
Socrates: Yes, but sometimes I’m quite surprised at what I say and do.
SOCRATES: Then, to assuage your doubts, I’ll go out into the streets and find twenty honest men – twenty, or eighty, or two hundred and eighty – and I’ll have them all taste the wine. If every one of them says the wine is sweet, would you finally admit you must have made a mistake?
Socrates: I would certainly wonder. Still, how can I be mistaken?
SOCRATES: You don’t think you sometimes make mistakes?
Socrates: I mean something different. In the final analysis, if the wine tastes bitter to me, then all the testimony of Athens can’t change the taste to me.
SOCRATES: But how would you explain the fact that everyone else tells you the wine is sweet?
Socrates: Perhaps the wine actually tastes bitter to everyone, but they’re using the wrong word – maybe what other people call ‘sweet’ is really bitter. But how can I get inside another person to find whether we both have the same experience?
SOCRATES: You can do what everyone does. You can match your words and your experiences with those of other men: you can all taste the same wine and agree that its taste is to be called ‘sweet’.
Socrates: That’s already happened, my friend. I’m seventy years old. I’ve lived my life in reasonable agreement with other men’s language. Usually when I say ‘sweet’, they say ‘sweet’, and when I say ‘bitter’, they say ‘bitter’. But now, suddenly, I say ‘bitter’ and other men say ‘sweet’. Am I wrong?
SOCRATES: Who is more likely to be wrong – one Socrates or two hundred and eighty Athenians?
Socrates: But I’ve searched my heart, I’ve listened with my most open ears – and my inner self tells me ‘bitter’. Do I ignore what I experience so that I can become like other men? If I did this, I would be one of them and not me.
SOCRATES: You believe that your direct experience is more certain than the testimony of others?
Socrates: I do.
SOCRATES: Even when all the world swears otherwise?
Socrates: Even then.
Socrates: Because our only real intersection with the world is by way of our innermost perceptions, our direct personal experiences. To deny the truth of your innermost perceptions is to deny your only ties to the outer world.
SOCRATES: But what if these inner perceptions vary? Suppose what tastes sweet one day tastes bitter the next?
Socrates: How would I know it’s my perception that’s varying, and not the wine?
SOCRATES: Other men would tell you.
Socrates: How could I believe them?
SOCRATES: You might not believe the testimony of one man, but if two hundred and eighty men agree, you would have to face the facts.
Socrates: But there is my problem. What are the facts? Do I believe what others say at a distance but not what I experience directly? If I can’t believe my direct perceptions, how can I begin to interpret indirect experiences told to me through the mouths of others? Remember, we’re talking about my personal direct perceptions – those things experienced through the essential fabric of Socrates. This fabric is Socrates; and all his experiences can reach him only through this elemental fabric. I can’t change my direct perceptions without changing how the gods built me. I may not like what I perceive – I may want to blend in with other men and call the wine ‘sweet’– but to deny that it tasted bitter to me is to lie. It is to deny my direct experiences. It is to deny Socrates.
SOCRATES: So, you believe that your raw perceptions are true?
Socrates: ‘True’ is a tricky word. I believe that my innermost perceptions are as real as anything can be for me – they are as true a view of things as I am allowed.
SOCRATES: Perhaps it’s time to try the original question again: ‘Have you lived a worthwhile existence?’
Socrates: That same question again – and I suppose I must answer with sufficient certainty to let me rest in eternity?
SOCRATES: That’s what you need, isn’t it?
SOCRATES: Then what is your answer?
Socrates: In the dead of the night there is no escaping you. There are no men’s conversations I can interrupt, no women’s bargaining I can watch, no children playing with stones by the wall.
SOCRATES: That’s right – no men, women, or children.
Socrates: So you wish to know whether I’ve lived a satisfactory life?
Socrates: My honest answer is that I do not know.
SOCRATES: Socrates, this is your laziness again. You’re simply not willing to look for the answer.
Socrates: Oh? And where should I look?
SOCRATES: You just told me that the most ‘true’ answers are the perceptions inside you. Therefore, ‘Have you led a worthwhile life?’ boils down to ‘Do you, in the depths of your soul, feel that your life has been worthwhile?’ So look inside and tell me – is this how you honestly feel?
Socrates: Well… No, I don’t always feel that my life has been worthwhile.
SOCRATES: Are you ever satisfied with your life?
Socrates: Sometimes. Sometimes I’m content with myself. And there are times when I’m more than content. Sometimes I’m actually happy.
SOCRATES: When you say ‘happy’, do you mean ‘happy with yourself’?
Socrates: Yes, I think that when I’m truly happy, I’m also at peace with myself.
SOCRATES: And what makes you truly happy?
Socrates: I don’t think I can give a general answer.
SOCRATES: Then tell me about one happy time.
Socrates: Let me think… Here’s one: not long ago, I was walking with Plato. We were talking idly about this and that, and after a while we sat down on the steps outside the little Temple of Apollo – do you remember?
Socrates: The shade of the columns had kept the steps cool – at that early hour, the sun still hadn’t heated all the marble, and when I sat, my legs actually became cold. We sat, and I looked at my Plato. He is so young – nonetheless, there are already wrinkles on his face and his skin is worn. Then, for a moment, he seemed small and far away… Have you noticed how his bottom teeth are jagged and the edge of his lip sags?
SOCRATES: Yes, I have.
Socrates: But his eyes are always bright, and he is so serious and confident. He thinks that he is hard and tough, but he is young. He is young, and I am old. And suddenly I knew that if an archer were to shoot at him, I would step in front of him without hesitating and I’d take the arrow in my chest. I knew this, but he didn’t; and I knew it without a doubt. Then I was looking at him, not fully listening to what he said, and I was smiling because I was truly happy.
© Michael Jay Katz 2009
Mike Katz is a writer and teacher at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, USA.