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I do not think it possible for a better man to be injured by a worse.... To a good man nothing is evil, neither while living nor when dead, nor are his concerns neglected by the gods.
--from The Republic
It was four hundred seventy years before Christ that Socrates was born. He never wrote a book, never made a formal address, held no public office, wrote no letters, yet his words have come down to us sharp, vivid and crystalline. His face, form and features are to us familiar--his goggle eyes, bald head, snub nose and bow-legs! The habit of his life--his goings and comings, his arguments and wrangles, his infinite leisure, his sublime patience, his perfect faith--all these things are plain, lifting the man out of the commonplace and setting him apart.
The "Memorabilia" of Xenophon and the "Dialogues" of Plato give us Boswellian pictures of the man.
Knowing the man, we know what he would do; and knowing what he did, we know the man.
Socrates was the son of Sophroniscus, a stonecutter, and his wife Phænarete. In boyhood he used to carry dinner to his father, and sitting by, he heard the men, in their free and easy way, discuss the plans of Pericles. These workmen didn't know the plans--they were only privates in the ranks, but they exercised their prerogatives to criticize, and while working to assist, did right royally disparage and condemn. Like sailors who love their ship, and grumble at grub and grog, yet on shore will allow no word of disparagement to be said, so did these Athenians love their city, and still condemn its rulers--they exercised the laborer's right to damn the man who gives him work.
Little did the workmen guess--little did his father guess--that this pug-nosed boy, making pictures in the sand with his big toe, would also leave his footprints on the sands of time, and a name that would rival that of Phidias and Pericles!
Socrates was a product of the Greek renaissance. Great men come in groups, like comets sent from afar. Athens was seething with thought and feeling: Pericles was giving his annual oration--worth thousands of weekly sermons--and planning his dream in marble; Phidias was cutting away the needless portions of the white stone of Pentelicus and liberating wondrous forms of beauty; Sophocles was revealing the possibilities of the stage; Æschylus was pointing out the way as a playwright; and the passion for physical beauty was everywhere an adjunct of religion.
Prenatal influences, it seems, played their part in shaping the destiny of Socrates. His mother followed the profession of Sairy Gamp, and made her home with a score of families, as she was needed. The trained nurse is often untrained, and is a regular encyclopedia of esoteric family facts. She wipes her mouth on her apron and is at home in every room of the domicile from parlor to pantry. Then as now she knew the trials and troubles of her clients, and all domestic underground happenings requiring adjustment she looked after as she was "disposed."
Evidently Phænarete was possessed of considerable personality, for we hear of her being called to Mythæia on a professional errand shortly before the birth of Socrates; and in a month after his birth, a similar call came from another direction, and the bald little philosopher was again taken along--from which we assume, following in the footsteps of Conan Doyle, that Socrates was no bottle-baby. The world should be grateful to Phænarete that she did not honor the Sairy Gamp precedents and observe the Platonic maxim, "Sandal-makers usually go barefoot": she gave her customers an object-lesson in well-doing as well as teaching them by precept. None of her clients did so well as she--even though her professional duties were so exacting that domesticity to her was merely incidental.
It was only another case of the amateur distancing the professional.
* * * * * * *
From babyhood we lose sight of Socrates until we find him working at his father's trade as a sculptor. Certainly he had a goodly degree of skill, for the "Graces" which he carved were fair and beautiful and admired by many. This was enough: he just wanted to reveal what he could do; and then to show that to have no ambition was his highest ambition, he threw down his tools and took off his apron for good. He was then thirty-five years old. Art is a jealous mistress, and demands that "thou shalt have no other gods before me." Socrates did not concentrate on art. His mind went roaming the world of philosophy, and for his imagination the universe was hardly large enough.
I said that he deliberately threw down his tools; but possibly this was by request, for he had acquired a habit of engaging in much wordy argument and letting the work slide. He went out upon the streets to talk, and in the guise of a learner he got in close touch with all the wise men of Athens by stopping them and asking questions. In physique he was immensely strong--hard work had developed his muscles, plain fare had made him oblivious of the fact that he had a stomach, and as for nerves, he had none to speak of.
Socrates did not marry until he was about forty. His wife was scarcely twenty. Of his courtship we know nothing, but sure it is Socrates did not go and sue for the lady's hand in the conventional way, nor seek to gain the consent of her parents by proving his worldly prospects. His apparel was costly as his purse could buy, not gaudy nor expressed in fancy. It consisted of the one suit that he wore, for we hear of his repairing beyond the walls to bathe in the stream, and of his washing his clothing, hanging it on the bushes and waiting for it to dry before going back to the city. As for shoes, he had one pair, and since he never once wore them, going barefoot Summer and Winter, it is presumed that they lasted well. One can not imagine Socrates in an opera-hat--in fact, he wore no hat, and he was bald. I record the fact so as to confound those zealous ones who badger the bald as a business, who have recipes concealed on their persons, and who assure us that baldness has its rise in headgear.
Socrates belonged to the leisure class. His motto was, "Know Thyself." He considered himself of much more importance than any statue he could make, and to get acquainted with himself as being much more desirable than to know physical phenomena. His plan of knowing himself was to ask everybody questions, and in their answers he would get a true reflection of his own mind. His intellect would reply to theirs, and if his questions dissolved their answers into nothingness, the supremacy of his own being would be apparent; and if they proved his folly he was equally grateful--if he was a fool, his desire was to know it. So sincere was Socrates in this wish to know himself that never did he show the slightest impatience nor resentment when the argument was turned upon him.
He looked upon his mind as a second party, and sat off and watched it work. Should it become confused or angered, it would be proof of its insufficiency and littleness. If Socrates ever came to know himself, he knew this fact: as an economic unit he was an absolute failure; but as a gadfly, stinging men into thinking for themselves, he was a success. A specialist is a deformity contrived by Nature to get the work done. Socrates was a thought-specialist, and the laziest man who ever lived in a strenuous age. The desire of his life was to live without desire--which is essentially the thought of Nirvana. He had the power never to exercise his power except in knowing himself.
He accepted every fact, circumstance and experience of life, and counted it gain. Life to him was a precious privilege, and what were regarded as unpleasant experiences were as much a part of life as the pleasant ones. He who succeeds in evading unpleasant experiences cheats himself out of so much life. You know yourself by watching yourself to see what you do when you are thwarted, crossed, contradicted, or deprived of certain things supposed to be desirable. If you always get the desirable things, how do you know what you would do if you didn't have them? You exchange so much life for the thing, that's all, and thus do we see Socrates anticipating Emerson's Essay on Compensation.
Everything is bought with a price--all things are of equal value--no one can cheat you, for to be cheated is a not undesirable experience, and in the act, if you are really filled with the thought, "Know Thyself," you get the compensation by increase in mental growth.
However, to deliberately go in search of experience, Socrates said, would be a mistake, because then you would so multiply impressions that none would be of any avail and your life would be burned out. To clutch life by the throat and demand that it shall stand and deliver is to place yourself so out of harmony with your environment that you will get nothing.
Above all things, we must be calm, self-centered, never anxious, and be always ready to accept whatever the gods may send. The world will come to us if we only wait. It will be seen that Socrates is at once the oldest and most modern of thinkers. He was the first to express the New Thought. A thought, to Socrates, was more of a reality than a block of marble--a moral principle was just as persistent as a chemical agent.
* * * * * * *
The silken-robed and perfumed Sophist was sport and game for Socrates. For him Socrates recognized no closed season. If Socrates ever came near losing his temper, it was in dealing with this Edmund Russell of Athens. Grant Allen used to say, "The spores of everything are everywhere, and a certain condition breeds a certain microbe." A period of prosperity always warms into life this social paragon, who lives in a darkened room hung with maroon drapery where incense is burned and a turbaned Hindu carries your card to the master, who faces the sun and exploits a prie-dieu when the wind blows east. Athens had these men of refined elegance, Rome evolved them, London has had her day, New York knows them, and Chicago--I trust I will not be contradicted when I say that Chicago understands her business! And so we find these folks who cultivate a pellucid passivity, a phthisicky whisper, a supercilious smirk, and who win our smothered admiration and give us gooseflesh by imparting a taupe tinge of mystery to all their acts and words, thus proving to the assembled guests that they are the Quality and Wisdom will die with them.
This lingo of meaningless words and high-born phrases always set Socrates by the ears, and when he could corner a Sophist, he would very shortly prick his pretty toy balloon, until at last the tribe fled him as a pestilence. Socrates stood for sanity. The Sophist represented moonshine gone to seed, and these things, proportioned ill, drive men transverse.
Extremes equalize themselves: the pendulum swings as far this way as it does that. The saponaceous Sophist who renounced the world and yet lived wholly in a world of sense, making vacuity pass legal tender for spirituality, and the priest who, mystified with a mumble of words, evolved a Diogenes who lived in a tub, wore regally a robe of rags, and once went into the temple, and cracking a louse on the altar-rail, said solemnly, "Thus does Diogenes sacrifice to all the gods at once!" are but two sides of the same shield.
In Socrates was a little jollity and much wisdom pickled in the scorn of Fortune; but the Sophists inwardly bowed down and worshiped the fickle dame on idolatrous knees. Socrates won immortality because he did not want it, and the Sophists secured oblivion because they deserved it.
* * * * * * *
We hear of Socrates going to Aspasia, and holding long conversations with her "to sharpen his mind." Aspasia did not go out in society much: she and Pericles lived very simply. It is worth while to remember that the most intellectual woman of her age was democratic enough to be on friendly terms with the barefoot philosopher who went about regally wrapped in a table-spread. Socrates did not realize the flight of time when making calls--he went early and stayed late. Possibly prenatal influences caused him often to call before breakfast and remain until after supper.
Just imagine Pericles, Aspasia and Socrates sitting at table--with Walter Savage Landor behind the arras making notes! Doubtless Socrates and Mrs. Pericles did most of the talking, while the First Citizen of Athens listened and smiled indulgently now and then as his mind wandered to construction contracts and walking delegates. Pericles, the builder of a city--Pericles, first among practical men since time began, and Socrates, who jostles history for first place among those who have done nothing but talk--imagine these two eating melons together, while Aspasia, gentle and kind, talks of spirit being more than matter and love being greater than the Parthenon!
Socrates is usually spoken of as regarding women with slight favor, but I have noticed that your genus woman-hater holds the balance true by really being a woman-lover. If a man is enough interested in women to hate them, note this: he is only searching for the right woman, the woman who compares favorably with the ideal woman in his own mind. He measures every woman by this standard, just as Ruskin compared all modern painters with Turner and discarded them with fitting adjectives as they receded from what he regarded as the perfect type. If Ruskin had not been much interested in painters, would he have written scathing criticisms about them?
In several instances we hear of Socrates reminding his followers that they are "weak as women," and he was the first to say "woman is an undeveloped man." But Socrates was a great admirer of human beauty, whether physical or spiritual, and his abrupt way of stopping beautiful women on the streets and bluntly telling them they were beautiful, doubtless often confirmed their suspicions. And thus far he was pleasing, but when he went on to ask questions so as to ascertain whether their mental estate compared with their physical, why, that was slightly different. It is good to hear him say, "There is no sex in intellect," and also, "I have long held the opinion that the female sex is nothing inferior to ours, save only in strength of body and possibly in steadiness of judgment." And Xenophon quotes him thus: "It is more delightful to hear the virtue of a good woman described than if the painter Zeuxis were to show me the portrait of the fairest woman in the world."
Perhaps Thackeray is right when he says, "The men who appreciate woman most are those who have felt the sharpness of her claws." That is to say, things show up best on the darkest background. If so, let us give Xantippe due credit. She tested the temper of the sage by railing on him and deluging him with Socratic propositions, not waiting for the answers; she often broke in with a broom upon his introspective efforts to know himself; if this were not enough, she dashed buckets of scrubbing-water over him; presents that were sent him by admiring friends she used as targets for her mop and wit; if he invited friends with faith plus to dine, she upset the table, dishes and all, before them--not much to their loss; she occasionally elbowed her way through a crowd where her husband was entertaining the listeners upon the divine harmonies, and would tear off his robe and lead him home by the ear. But these things never ruffled Socrates--he might roll his eyes in comic protest at the audiences as he was being led away captive, but no resentment was shown. He had the strength of a Hercules, but he was a far better non-resistant than Tolstoy, because he took his medicine with a wink, while Fate is obliged to hold the nose of the author of "Anna Karenina," who never sees the comedy of an inward struggle and an outward compliance, any more than does the benedict, safely entrenched under the bed, who shouts out, "I defy thee, I defy thee!" as did Mephisto when Goethe thrust him into Tophet.
* * * * * * *
The popular belief is that Xantippe, the wife of Socrates, was a shrew, and had she lived in New England in Cotton Mather's time would have been a candidate for the ducking-stool. Socrates said he married her for discipline. A man in East Aurora, however, has recently made it plain to himself that Xantippe was possessed of a great and acute intellect. She knew herself, and she knew her liege as he never did--he was too close to his subject to get the perspective. She knew that under right conditions his name would live as one of the world's great teachers, and so she set herself to supply the conditions. She deliberately sacrificed herself and put her character in a wrong light before the world in order that she might benefit the world. Most women have a goodly grain of ambition for themselves, and if their husbands have genius, their business is not to prove it, but to show that they themselves are not wholly commonplace.
Not so Xantippe--she was quite willing to be misunderstood that her husband might live.
What the world calls a happy marriage is not wholly good--ease is bought with a price. Suppose Xantippe and Socrates had settled down and lived in a cottage with a vine growing over the portico, and two rows of hollyhocks leading from the front gate to the door; a pathway of coal-ashes lined off with broken crockery, and inside the house all sweet, clean and tidy; Socrates earning six drachmas a day carving marble, with double pay for overtime, and he handing the pay-envelope over to her each Saturday night, keeping out just enough for tobacco, and she putting a tidy sum in the Ægean Savings-Bank every month--why, what then?
Well, that would have been an end of Socrates. Xantippe was big enough to know this and so she supplied the domestic cantharides and drove him out upon the streets--he grew to care very little for her, not much for the children, nothing for his home. She drove him out into the world of thought, instead of allowing him to settle down and be content with her society.
I once knew a sculptor--another sculptor--an elemental bit of nature, original and, better still, aboriginal. He used to sleep out under the stars so as to wake up in the night and see the march of the Milky Way, and watch the Pleiades disappear over the brink of the western horizon. He wore a flannel shirt, thick-soled shoes, and overalls, no hat, and his hair was thick and coarse as a horse's mane. This man had talent, and he had sublime conceptions, great dreams, and splendid aspirations. His soul was struggling to find expression. "Leave him alone," I said. "He needs time to ripen. He is a Michelangelo in embryo!"
Did he ripen? Not he. He married a Wellesley girl of good family. She, too, had ideas about art--she painted china-buttons for shirtwaists, embroidered chasubles and sang "The Rosary" in a raucous Quinsigamond voice. The big barbarian became respectable, and the last time I saw him he wore a Tuxedo and was passing out platitudes and raspberry-shrub at a lawn-party. The Wellesley girl had tamed her bear--they were very happy, he assured me, and she was preparing a course of lectures for him which he was to give at Mrs. Jack Gardner's. A Xantippe might have saved him.
* * * * * * *
A captious friend once suggested to Socrates this: "If you prize the female nature so highly, how does it happen that you do not instruct Xantippe?"--a rather indelicate proposition to put to a married man. And Socrates, quite unruffled, replied: "My friend, if one wants to learn horsemanship, does he choose a tame horse or one with mettle and a hard mouth? I wish to converse with all sorts of people, and I believe that nothing can disturb me after I grow accustomed to the tongue of Xantippe."
Again we hear of his suggesting that his wife's scolding tongue may have been only the buzzing of his own waspish thoughts, and if he did not call forth these qualities in her they would not otherwise have appeared. And so, beholding her impatience and unseemliness, he would realize the folly of an ill temper and thus learn by antithesis to curb his own. Old Doctor Johnson used to have a regular menagerie of wrangling, jangling, quibbling, dissatisfied pensioners in his household; and so far as we know he never learned the truth that all pensioners are dissatisfied. "If I can stand things at home, I can stand things anywhere," he once said to Boswell, as much as to say, "If I can stand things at home, I can stand even you." Goldsmith referred to Boswell as a cur; Garrick said he thought he was a bur. Socrates had a similar satellite by the name of Cheropho, a dark, dirty, weazened, and awfully serious little man of the tribe of Buttinsky, who sat breathlessly trying to catch the pearls that fell from the ample mouth of the philosopher. Aristophanes referred to Cheropho as "Socrates' bat," a play-off on Minerva and her bird of night, the owl. There were quite a number of these "bats," and they seemed to labor under the same hallucination that catches the lady students of the Pundit Vivakenanda H. Darmapala: they think that wisdom is to be imparted by word of mouth, and that by listening hard and making notes one can become very wise. Socrates said again and again, "Character is a matter of growth and all I hope to do is to make you think for yourselves."
That chilly exclusiveness which regards a man's house as his castle, his home, the one sacred spot, and all outside as the cold and cruel world, was not the ideal of Socrates. His family was his circle of friends, and these were of all classes and conditions, from the First Citizen to beggars on the street.
He made no charge for his teaching, took up no collections, and never inaugurated a Correspondence School. America has produced one man who has been called a reincarnation of Socrates; that man was Bronson Alcott, who peddled clocks and forgot the flight of time whenever any one would listen to him expound the unities. Alcott once ran his wheelbarrow into a neighbor's garden and was proceeding to load his motor-car with cabbages, beets and potatoes. Glancing up, the philosopher saw the owner of the garden looking at him steadfastly over the wall. "Don't look at me that way," called Alcott with a touch of un-Socratic acerbity, "don't look at me that way--I need these things more than you!" and went on with the annexation.
The idea that all good things are for use and belong to all who need them was a favorite maxim of Socrates. The furniture in his house never exceeded the exemption clause. Once we find him saying that Xantippe complained because he did not buy her a stewpan, but since there was nothing to put in it, he thought her protests ill-founded.
The climate of Athens is about like that of Southern California--one does not need to bank food and fuel against the coming of Winter. Life can be adjusted to its simplest forms. From his fortieth to his fiftieth year, Socrates worked every other Thursday; then he retired from active life, and Xantippe took in plain sewing.
Socrates was surely not a good provider, but if he had provided more for his family, he would have provided less for the world. The wealthy Crito would have turned his pockets inside out for Socrates, but Socrates had all he wished, and explained that as it was he had to dance at home in order to keep down the adipose. Aristides, who was objectionable because he so shaped his conduct that he was called "The Just" and got himself ostracized, was one of his dear friends. Antisthenes, the original Cynic, used to walk six miles and back every day to hear Socrates talk. The Cynic was a rich man, but so captivated was he with the preaching of Socrates that he adopted the life of simplicity and dressed in rags and boycotted both the barber and the bath. On one occasion Socrates looked sharply at a rent in the cloak of his friend and said, "Ah, Antisthenes, through that hole in your cloak I see your vanity!"
Xenophon sat at the feet of Socrates for a score of years, and then wrote his recollections of him as a vindication of his character. Euclid of Megara was nearly eighty when he came to Socrates as a pupil, trying to get rid of his ill-temper and habit of ironical reply. Cebes and Simmias left their native country and became Greek citizens for his sake. Charmides, the pampered son of wealthy parents, learned pedagogics by being shown that, in households where there were many servants, the children got cheated out of their rightful education because others did all the work, and to deprive a child of the privilege of being useful was to rob him of so much life. Æschines, the ambitious son of a sausage-maker, was advised by Socrates to borrow money of himself on long time without interest, by reducing his wants. So pleased was the recipient with this advice, that he went to publishing Socratic dialogues as a business and had the felicity to fail with tidy liabilities.
But the two men who loom largest in the life of Socrates are Alcibiades and Plato--characters very much unlike.
Alcibiades was twenty-one years old when we find him first. He was considered the handsomest young man in Athens. He was aristocratic, proud, insolent, and needlessly rich. He had a passion for gambling, horse-racing, dog-fighting, and indulged in the churchly habit of doing that which he ought not and leaving undone that which he should have done. He was worse than that degenerate scion of a proud ancestry, who a-kneiping went with his lady friends in the Cincinnati fountain, after the opera, on a wager. He whipped a man who admitted he did not have a copy of the "Iliad" in his house; publicly destroyed the record of a charge against one of his friends; and when his wife applied for a divorce, he burst into the courtroom and vacated proceedings by carrying the lady off by force. At banquets he would raise a disturbance, and while he was being forcibly ejected from one door, his servants would sneak in at another and steal the silverware, which he would give away as charity. He also indulged in the Mark Antony trick of rushing into houses at night and pulling good folks out of bed by the heels, and then running away before they were barely awake.
His introduction to Socrates came in an attempt to break up a Socratic prayer-meeting. Socrates succeeded in getting the roysterer to listen long enough to turn the laugh on him and show all concerned that the life of a rowdy was the life of a fool. Alcibiades had expected Socrates to lose his temper, but it was Alcibiades who gave way, and blurted out that he could not hope to beat his antagonist talking, but he would like to wrestle with him.
Legend has it that Socrates gave the insolent young man a shock by instantly accepting his challenge. In the bout that followed, the philosopher, built like a gorilla, got a half-Nelson on his man, who was a little the worse for wine, and threw him so hard, jumping on his prostrate form with his knees, that the aristocratic hoodlum was laid up for a moon. Ever after Alcibiades had a thorough respect for Socrates. They became fast friends, and whenever the old man talked in the Agora, Alcibiades was on hand to keep order.
When war came with Sparta and her allies in the Peloponnesus they enlisted, Socrates going as corporal and Alcibiades as captain. They occupied the same tent during the entire campaign. Socrates proved a fearless soldier, and walked the winter ice in bare feet, often pulling his belt one hole tighter in lieu of breakfast, to show the complaining soldiers that endurance was the thing that won battles. At the battle of Delium, when there was a rout, Xenophon says Socrates walked off the field leisurely, arm in arm with the general, explaining the nature of harmony.
Through the influence of Socrates, the lawless Alcibiades was tamed and became almost a model citizen, although his head was hardly large enough for a philosopher.
"Say what you will, you'll find it all in Plato," said Emerson. If Socrates had done nothing else but give bent to the mind of Plato, he would deserve the gratitude of the centuries. Plato is the mine to which all thinkers turn for treasure. When they first met, Plato was twenty and Socrates sixty, and for ten years, to the day of Socrates' death, they were together almost constantly. Plato died aged eighty-one, and for fifty years he had lived but to record the dialogues of Socrates. It was curiosity that first attracted this fine youth to the old man--Socrates was so uncouth that he was amusing. Plato was interested in politics, and like most Athenian youths, was intent on having a good time. However, he was no rowdy, like Alcibiades: he was suave, gracious, and elegant in all of his acts. He had been taught by the Sophists and the desire of his life was to seem, rather than to be. By very gentle stages, Plato began to perceive that to make an impression on society was not worth working for--the thing to do was to be yourself, and yourself at your best. And we can give no better answer to the problem of life than Plato gives in the words of Socrates: "It is better to be than to seem. To live honestly and deal justly is the meat of the whole matter."
Plato was not a disciple--he was big enough not to ape the manners and eccentricities of his Master--he saw beneath the rough husk and beyond the grotesque outside the great controlling purpose in the life of Socrates. He would be himself--and himself at his best--and he would seek to satisfy the Voice within, rather than to try to please the populace. Plato still wore his purple cloak, and the elegance and grace of his manner were not thrown aside.
Wouldn't it have been worth our while to travel miles to see these friends: the one old, bald, short, fat, squint-eyed, barefoot; and the other with all the poise of aristocratic youth--tall, courtly and handsome, wearing his robe with easy, regal grace! And so they have walked and talked adown the centuries, side by side, the most perfect example that can be named of that fine affection which often exists between teacher and scholar.
Plato's "Republic," especially, gives us an insight into a very great and lofty character. From his tower of speculation, Plato scanned the future, and saw that the ideal of education was to have it continue through life, for none but the life of growth and development ever satisfies. And love itself turns to ashes of roses if not used to help the soul in her upward flight. It was Plato who first said, "There is no profit where no pleasure's ta'en." He further perceived that in the life of education, the sexes must move hand in hand; and he also saw that, while religions are many and seemingly diverse, goodness and kindness are forever one.
His faith in the immortality of the soul was firm, but whether we are to live in another world or not, he said there is no higher wisdom than to live here and now--live our highest and best--cultivate the receptive mind and the hospitable heart, "partaking of all good things in moderation."
It takes these two to make the whole. There is no virtue in poverty--no merit in rags--the uncouth qualities in Socrates were not a recommendation. Yet he was himself. But Plato made good, in his own character, all that Socrates lacked. Some one has said that Fitzgerald's Omar is two-thirds Fitzgerald and one-third Omar. In his books, Plato modestly puts his wisest maxims into the mouth of his master, and just how much Plato and how much Socrates there is in the "Dialogues," we will never know until we get beyond the River Styx.
* * * * * * *
Socrates was deeply attached to Athens, and he finally became the best known figure in the city. He criticized in his own frank, fearless way all the doings of the times--nothing escaped him. He was a self-appointed investigating committee in all affairs of state, society and religion. Hypocrisy, pretense, affectation and ignorance trembled at his approach. He was feared, despised and loved. But those who loved him were as one in a hundred. He became a public nuisance. The charge against him was just plain heresy--he had spoken disrespectfully of the gods and through his teaching he had defiled the youth of Athens. Ample warning had been given to him, and opportunity to run away was provided, but he stuck like a leech, asking the cost of banquets and making suggestions about all public affairs.
He was arrested, bailed by Plato and Crito, and tried before a jury of five hundred citizens. Socrates insisted on managing his own case. A rhetorician prepared an address of explanation, and the culprit was given to understand that if he read this speech to his judges and said nothing else, it would be considered as an apology and he would be freed--the intent of the trial being more to teach the old man a lesson in minding his own business than to injure him.
But Socrates replied to his well-meaning friend, "Think you I have not spent my whole life in preparing for this one thing?" And he handed back the smoothly polished manuscript with a smile. Montaigne says, "Should a suppliant voice have been heard out of the mouth of Socrates now; should that lofty virtue strike sail in the very height of its glory, and his rich and powerful nature be committed to flowing rhetoric as a defense? Never!"
Socrates cross-questioned his accusers in the true Socratic style and showed that he had never spoken disrespectfully of the gods: he had only spoken disrespectfully of their absurd conception of the gods. And here is a thought which is well to consider even yet: The so-called "infidel" is often a man of great gentleness of spirit, and his disbelief is not in God, but in some little man's definition of God--a distinction the little man, being without humor, can never see.
When Socrates had confounded his accusers, this time not giving them the satisfaction of the last word, he launched out on a general criticism of the city, and told where its rulers were gravely at fault. Being cautioned to bridle his tongue, he replied, "When your generals at Potidæa and Amphipolis and Delium assigned my place in the battle I remained there, did my work, and faced the peril, and think you that when Deity has assigned me my duty at this pass in life I should, through fear of death, evade it, and shirk my post?"
This man appeared at other times, to some, as an idle loafer, but now he arose to a sublime height. He repeated with emphasis all he had ever said against their foolish superstitions, and arraigned the waste and futility of the idle rich. The power of the man was revealed as never before, and those who had intended to let him go with a fine, now thought it best to dispose of him. The safety of the state was endangered by such an agitator--the question of religion is really not what has sent the martyrs to the stake--it is the politician, not the priest, who fears the heretic.
By a small majority, Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to death. Let Plato tell of that last hour--he has done it once for all:
When he had done speaking, Crito said, "And have you any commands for us, Socrates--anything to say about your children, or any other matter in which we can serve you?"
"Nothing particular," he said; "only, as I have always told you, I would have you to look to your own conduct; that is a service which you may always be doing to me and mine as well as to yourselves." ...
"We will do our best," said Crito. "But in what way would you have us bury you?"
"In any way that you like; only you must get hold of me, and take care that I do not walk away from you." Then he turned to us, and added with a smile: "I can not make Crito believe that I am the same Socrates who has been talking and conducting the argument; he fancies that I am the other Socrates whom he will soon see, a dead body--and he asks, 'How shall he bury me?' And though I have spoken many words in the endeavor to show that when I have drunk the poison I shall leave you and go to the joys of the blessed--these words of mine, with which I comforted you and myself, have had, as I perceive, no effect upon Crito. And therefore I want you to be surety for me now, as he was surety for me at the trial: but let the promise be of another sort; for he was my surety to the judges that I would remain, but you must be my surety to him that I shall not remain, but go away and depart; and then he will suffer less at my death, and not be grieved when he sees my body being burned. I would not have him sorrow at my hard lot, or say at the burial,'Thus we lay out Socrates,' or, 'Thus we follow him to the grave or bury him'; for false words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil. Be of good cheer then, my dear Crito, and say that you are burying my body only, and do with that as is usual, and as you think best."
When he had spoken these words, he arose and went into the bath-chamber with Crito, who bid us wait; and we waited, talking and thinking of the subject of discourse, and also of the greatness of our sorrow; he was like a father of whom we were being bereaved, and we were about to pass the rest of our lives as orphans. When he had taken his bath, his children were brought to him--and the women of his family also came, and he talked to them and gave them a few directions in the presence of Crito; and he then dismissed them and returned to us.
Now the hour of sunset was near. When he came out, he sat down with us again after his bath, but not much was said. Soon the jailer, who was the servant, entered and stood by him, saying: "To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison--indeed I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are the guilty cause. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must needs be; you know my errand." Then bursting into tears, he turned away, and went out.
Socrates looked at him and said, "I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid." Then turning to us, he said: "How charming the man is! Since I have been in prison, he has always been coming to see me, and at times, he would talk to me, and was as good as could be to me, and now see how generously he sorrows for me. But we must do as he says, Crito; let the cup be brought."
"Not yet," said Crito; "the sun is still upon the hill-tops, and many a one has taken the draft late, and after the announcement has been made to him, he has eaten and drunk and indulged in sensual delights; do not hasten then--there is still time."
Socrates said: "Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in doing thus, but I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should be sparing and saving a life which is already gone: I could only laugh at myself for this. Please then to do as I say, and not to refuse me."
Crito, when he heard this, made a sign to the servant; and the servant went in, and remained for some time, and then returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said, "You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed." The man answered, "You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act." At the same time, he handed the cup to Socrates, who, in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of color or feature, looking at the man with his eyes, Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: "What do you say about making the libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not?" The man answered, "We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough." "I understand," he said. "Yet I may and must pray to the gods to prosper my journey from this to that other world--may this, then, which is my prayer, be granted to me!" Then holding the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully, he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now we saw him drinking, and saw, too, that he had finished the draft, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself, my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept over myself, for certainly I was not weeping over him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having lost such a companion. Nor was I the first, for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up and moved away, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out into a loud cry, which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness. "What is this strange outcry?" he said, "I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not offend in this way, for I have heard that a man should die in peace. Be quiet, then, and have patience." When we heard that, we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to directions, and the man who gave him the poison, now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while, he pressed his foot hard and asked him if he could feel; and he said, "No"; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said, "When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end." He was beginning to grow cold, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said (they were his last words), "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?"
"The debt shall be paid," said Crito. "Is there anything else?" There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two, a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.
Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, whom I may truly call the wisest, the justest, and best of all the men whom I have ever known.
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