PART III

"Failures"

I couldn’t stop myself however from making a reply of some kind that gives a nod to his ‘knowledge’. Pride dictates that I add to his statement sufficiently to balance the power-play without giving offense. Following Valerius’ lead, I am understanding his ‘process’ way of navigating a conversation. Interesting.

“My Athenian countrymen call Socrates ‘Great’ now, yet it they dosed him with poisonous hemlock.”

My suspicions are confirmed when he tellingly asks after my father, then adds,

“Why was your Athenian-born family on Samos in the first place, then ends up as refugees in Colophon? Didn’t the Athenians go to war with Samos and many Samians were then exiled?”

“Samos was originally a prosperous city-state with a proud history of naval warfare,” I say, “which made sense because the island is a hub for many trading routes.”

I add the following, making a local connection.

“That’s surely the same reason that you settled here in Colophon. The harbor at Notium gives you access to the busy trading routes plus you have the bonus of a lucrative local marketplace”

This is a compliment to Valerius’ business acumen. It’s also a subtle reminder that, despite his benefactor status in the community, he remains a foreigner. The elite of Colophon, a playground city for the privileged, trace their Ionian heritage back to Homer, his reputed birthplace. It’s an exclusive club . Valerius nods unabashed, ignoring my snub, so I continue.

“To answer your question concerning my family migrations, Athens has invaded Samos several times. Eventually, Athens installed its own colony of settlers, which included my parents, and I drew my first baby breaths a few years later. The Macedonians then took over while I was away serving my mandated military service in Athens, and in my absence, my father fled to Colophon. My mother had already died on Samos.”

I begin to wonder about Valerius’ litany of questions, first about my future plans and now my family history. While his lengthy enquiries are socially appropriate for a genial host, and appear to be innocent, even superficial, I’m having doubts. Do they belie a surreptitious evaluation of me as a prospective son-in-law, or else, as a subversive rival for Servilia’s attention ?

He changes the subject again, but more narrow-focus and personal this time. More sparring. Arduous yes, but I sense that we are converging on the main event, step-by-step, as we take the measure of each other.

“My Servilia tells me that you have helped her, for which I’m grateful. She also says that you spend much of your time thinking about thinking”

The possessive ‘my Servilia’ is duly noted. I get the impression that he is scouting me for weaknesses, to see how I defend myself. When he says “much”, the implication is “too much” time in thinking.

“Speaking as an experienced businessman,” Valerius continues, “I know first-hand that nothing moves in the world without determined action. Look at this villa. Every vision needs a strong will to make it happen. Plenty of people have ideas, but so often these ideas are stillborn, never going anywhere. The real world belongs to men of steely action, while the dreamers are still living in caves and debating whether the world is real!”

He has set up a contrived separation, an artifice of ‘Thinking’ versus ‘Doing’, to test my mental dexterity. His challenge demands a definitive response.

“Thinking for me always involves the idea that an ‘Output’ action may not lead to the ‘Outcome’ I want, the end result. The notion of ‘Outcomes’ forces me to re-consider what I really want. This distinction, that ‘Outputs’ are not necessarily ‘Outcomes’, is central to every action I take in your ‘real world’. I have to ‘think’ about where my wanting, or Doing, will eventually lead.”

We parry for mutual understanding, to set up the emotional ambience for real discussion, though I’m growing frustrated with his grinding inquisition. Meanwhile, Valerius stares at me blankly, expressionless, silent, waiting for me to provide him with a concrete example. I forget that he’s a boilerplate pragmatist.

“Take for example, the life of a young voluptuary,” I continue, “since there is no shortage of them in Colophon. I encounter them every day in my tutorials. The short term experience of sensory pleasure, sex for the sake of sex, results in a long-term ‘Outcome’ of blandness and apathy. Their life-weary faces say it all.”

I try unsuccessfully to gauge Valerius’ reaction to my colorful example. Introducing the idea of sex to a possessive father may not perhaps, have been a wise choice. I am indeed dating his only daughter. Alas, the dastardly wine! He remains as inscrutable as ever, making no comment, other than pausing to sip his own wine, sucking his lips, pondering as he goes, ever so slowly. It almost seems like he’s waiting.

This seems like a timely choice to me, so I follow suite, savoring my wine, pondering. An awkward silence ensues, or perhaps more likely, that it feels ‘awkward’ because my patience is fast coming to an end. I’m not sure that we are getting anywhere.

I fervently hope that we can begin talking more spontaneously with free-flowing exchanges, instead of butting heads. The present stilted formality feels more like a classroom ‘Question and Answer’. Come what may, I decide that it’s my turn to take the lead, so I throw a diplomatic sweetener into the mix.

“Though you may not use those particular words, I suspect that you know all about ‘Outcomes’. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be the successful businessman who lives in such a grand villa, enjoying such delectable, palatable, and glorious wine!”

My animated endorsement evinces a smug but jovial smile. I suspect that he may have been waiting to see how far he could stretch me, before I had the audacity to seize the initiative, if at all. He knows that I am playing him at his own game, or at least I think that’s the case. One can never be sure of anything with Valerius.

It could be the wine having an effect, or else my banal flattery, but whatever, there appear to be fractures in the ice.

We begin a lively, amicable discussion on wine varietals, a subject that makes it necessary for us to share yet another round of imbibing. The ice is definitely thawing, and I sense that Valerius also, is relieved.

It comes as a pleasant surprise when I first realize that, whatever his designs, Valerius desires a close connection between us, as I do also. He would not invest so much of his valuable time if this was not the case. While our exchange might appear aimless, I’m more convinced than ever that there is a meaningful purpose underlying the ‘process’.

While we have laboriously established goodwill, perhaps an even-handed rapport, the crux of our meeting remains for me, as mysterious as ever.

I trust that it will eventually be worth all the effort!

Valerius, ever dramatic, raises his goblet.

“I salute my young philosopher who, like a skillful slinger on the battlefield, aims his words with such accuracy, to take down his target.”

“As hoplites, we were trained in all manner of combat.” I reply, goblet in hand, returning the compliment.

“The training included slinging of course,” I add, earnestly, reminiscing of past times and comradeship, “though you may not have known that slinging was indeed my weapon of choice. Strange that you chose that comparison without any foreknowledge.”

“Not so strange, really,” he replies, as he grows more soft-spoken with wine, “tell me about it, then we can decide on the goodness of the comparison?”

“Slinging appealed to me simply because a warrior slinger could unleash a hailstorm of leaden projectiles, with a greater range than arrows. They cause terror as they whistle and whoosh in flight, until they strike, almost invisibly, leaving little outward sign of their deadly impact, unlike arrows, swords, or spears. This causes further havoc in the enemy ranks.”

I pause to check, but I have his full attention. Once again, I take note of Valerius’ listening skills which immediately ingratiate him with the speaker. Everyone likes to be heard, and I am no exception.

“You’re saying now that I’ve become a slinger of words,” I continue, “impacting the minds of others with my ideas, yet leaving little visible mark of their influence. I’ve never thought of it that way, and it’s true: slinging is deadly however, whereas I hope my ideas are life-giving.”

Valerius is right that I extract much enjoyment from the play of words, choosing and exploring, from a vocabulary of options, constructing and deconstructing the different nuances of meaning orbiting the germ of a vague idea. Future action is so often determined by the subtlety invoked in choosing one more emphatic word over another of lesser impact.

Even single words light up ideas for me, then chains of ideas, as if self-propelled, creating their own reality in which I become a passive instrument of a force larger than myself, watching from the outside. Meanwhile, a whole thesis or antithesis or both, falls into place. I form the impression that this love of language and expression has an equal appeal to my genial host.

“But you also, Master Valerius, are remarkably facile in your choice of words! It must a great help in your business negotiations”

He brushes aside my compliment, with a casual sweep of his hand. I think to myself that he is donning his versatile mask of humility, slipping into his professional repertoire.

“I’m just a merchant, too busy for fancy language, who likes to gabble too much when he drinks.”

Despite his disavowals, I can plainly see that Valerius is more contemplative and word-sensitive than he first presents. It’s an essential part of his artfully cultivated demeanor, one of guardedness mixed with convivial hospitality. Moreover, it was he, the astute merchant-cum-wordsmith, who raised the equivalency between slinging and language in the first place.

Whether he acknowledges it or not, our shared love of discussion, and the values conveyed by words, has become an integral part of the growing friendship between us? While I have lowered my guard, I remain cautious however, especially about his undisclosed agenda.

Having placed our relationship on a firm footing of goodwill, albeit as fellow oenophiles, Valerius gets to the point. Finally, I think to myself, no more onerous digressions! He speaks now in a muted sonorous voice, probably his ‘business voice’, very convincing.

He fully realizes my ambivalence with my father. He reassures me that he feels under no obligation to disclose our private discussion with any “third-party, including Servilia”. I thank him his discretion. Privately, I puzzle over the unexpected reference to Servilia in our discussion. How is she implicated in whatever is looming?

“The golden years of Athens as the center of erudition and arts is declining,” he tells me, “and will eventually be overtaken by Alexandria with its wondrous library. I appreciate nevertheless that you are an Athenian by heart, descended from an ancient lineage.”

I interrupt to remind him that my grandfather fought alongside Socrates in the ill-fated Peloponnesian War.

“Yes, yes” as he quickly nods his understanding. I detect a hint of impatience that such anecdotal remarks are redundant now, and that it would be timely for me to listen.

“I know that whatever may come, you are driven to return to the city-state of your ancestors, but I would strongly suggest that you delay any impulsive action at this stage. It’s too soon.”

I don’t tell him that my sorry dearth of silver drachmas puts a damper on any immediate return to Athens, impulsive or otherwise.

Unlike Valerius, I am not a businessman. I know that I could greatly expand my tutoring “business” if I promoted it further, but truth be told, my heart is just not in it. If the old adage is right, that you should do the thing you love, then this is not it.

“You speak of outcomes, Epicurus. It seems to me as a businessman, that the outcome you really seek is an entry into the philosophical circles of Athens. You wish to be accepted as a fully-fledged thinker, questioner, and debater in your own right. I believe you have that potential.”

I thank him, ever so briefly, for his confidence in me. Apparently, I have past ‘the test’, but to what end ? He has my rapt, if somewhat perplexed, attention. Where is he heading with this discussion, but I keep my silence.

“Philosophers however, in my limited experience of them, are just like everyone else when it comes to outsiders” he continues, “Regardless of your ability, they will treat you as a parochial rustic from the provinces, to be belittled, ridiculed, then slow-roasted.”

He knows that’s not what I want to hear, and pauses to allow his message to incubate, before summoning up his punchline.

“Simply put, you are not ready for Athens yet!”

I know that he doesn’t intend his antics to be callous, though they hit at the very heart of my dream. I struggle to filter the hopelessness welling up from within me, and understand now why Servilia calls him ‘hardheaded’.

Is it as simple as she says, that her father suffers from a gross lack of tact without concern for others’ feelings? Or is he the action-oriented, reality-centered businessman laying out the problem in clear, unambiguous terms? I blink several times to fight back the tears, and regain some composure. Incubation takes more time.

“You may be right,” I concede, plaintively, “I am originally from Samos, now Colophon, and it’s true that I have a nasally provincial accent, or so I’m told. That’s my background however. It’s who I am, and I can’t change it now. I don’t see any alternative, other than clawing my way through their Athenian biases”

“That’s not going to work either,” he fires back, remorselessly, “You have to start the way you want to finish. You think you know Athens, but previously you were there as a conscripted recruit. That places you under the protection of the Ephebic College, since you were receiving military training as a prelude to citizenship. All Athenians respect that role, since they have graduated from it themselves. This time, you have no role other than the one you wish to impose, no College status, and no support. Athens is a voracious city.”

He pauses for emphasis, as if more was needed!

“They’ll eat you up for breakfast!”

A cutting remark that rubs harshly against my engrained sensibility, a bittersweet apparatus that both serves me as an aesthete, appreciative of beauty in language or nature, but also limits me as being too soft and vulnerable, in this case, the latter. Back to rejection, again. I need to harden up to life, and this is the time to do it.

“You invited me here to tell me that!” I exclaim, with Valerius’ admonition ringing in my ears.

My resentment is building, and this meeting is beginning to feel like a scolding — like rejection. Yet I need to be cautious of my own reaction. I recall my warning to Servilia, about the projection of rejection: the way it can feed a reactivity that is self-defeating.

In this case, Valerius ignores my last exclamation altogether, responding shrewdly, unexpectedly, with a challenge of his own.

“If you are really serious about philosophical teaching in Athens, you will need established credentials when you arrive. You must have a proven teaching background, with a base of devoted followers, and name-recognition in philosophical circles, ready to run your own school.”

“But I can…..” I begin to interject again, but this time he continues, unabated.

“You will then represent a viable competitor in your own right. The other schools, Aristotelians especially but also Platonists as well, will still do everything they can to resist you, and close you down. They will smear your name, as corrupting the youth of the city, and debunk your teachings as perverse, against the gods, or worse still, as trivial pedantry.”

He pauses, breathless, but I remain silent, listening.

“Nonetheless, they will be compelled perforce to respect you, if you have a prior reputation and the numbers of students to prove it. Ultimately, they will have no choice but to begrudgingly recognize your school, though they will never accept it. You are too real, too practical, for their abstractions. The time has come for you to begin serious teaching, rather than just talking about it. Instead, you waste your precious time tutoring the entitled, debauched sons of Colophon, sybarites and drunken profligates all of them.”

Tough talking! I feel like I am being tossed around on a stormy sea, down in a trough one moment, trapped at the bottom with no where to go, then in the next moment, suddenly lifted to the top, riding the crest of a wave, where everything is possible.

I’m left blinking, speechless and immobile.

Valerius continues in his bluff, no-nonsense manner, laying out my future life as if it is a step-by-step business plan in the making, or else a military campaign in which he is the general. Is this my desired Outcome, or is it his?

“What if you were to arrive in Athens as a renowned teacher, accompanied by your followers, from the Ionian city of Lampsacus? Would that make a difference?”

“Why yes, of course,” I quickly reply, “Lampsacus is a respected seat of learning, well-established. But that plainly doesn’t apply in my case”

Apart from its wide recognition for scholarship, I don’t know much about Lampsacus, other than its location on the Asiatic shore of the Hellespont. Then there’s its rather sordid reputation for worshipping Priapus, god of procreation and fertility, who is said to have been born there. Statutes with erect penises everywhere you look, apparently.

Valerius continues, speaking with measured assurance,

“This is your one chance, a steppingstone to Athens. You talk to me about free-will, so now is the time to demonstrate that heavy responsibility: the moment of choice is upon you, alone. It’s all about packaging the goods: wine in delicate blown-glass, rather than cheap clay amphora. Speaking of which, Lampsacus is also famous for its fine wines.”

He winks, and smiles, with a cheeky grin.

We both chuckle knowingly, a private joke, at his deft ability to generate goodwill and lightness in the conversation, precisely at the point where it gathers gravity and seriousness. He’s in fine form, enjoying himself, classic Valerius, all sophisticated simplicity, in a seamless mix. In spite of my misgivings and bruised vanity, it is difficult not to like him, and his penchant for levity as the salve of life.

We lift our glasses together, yet one more time, then I return to his proposal, as unexpected as it is provocative. He is calling me out on my advocacy of free-will: am I just preaching it with my lips, as empty words, or do I dare to live it with my life?

“How is it my choice,” I blurt out, haltingly, “I don’t even have the drachma to travel there, then comes living expenses?”

I hear myself wavering, unaccountably, in the face of everything I’ve ever really wanted! The hidden cost of free-will is the weight of personal responsibility for my own active choices: to be a philosopher means facing a high risk of dismal failure. Otherwise, I remain in that safe role into which I was born, swept along by the mainstream values of security and conformity in which choices are largely avoided, but rather play out passively by default.

“I will cover your travel to Lampsacus and all expenses” comes the rapid-fire response from Valerius, reverting to his demure, tuneless business voice.

“You can embark on the Hector, one of my trading galleys, with Master Panyotis at the helm, very experienced. Pirates are becoming an increasing scourge in the bottleneck of the Hellespont, so that in return, I’m hoping that you will bring along all your weaponry to assist the crew if needed.”

I nod my agreement, silently. I tell myself: “It’s what you have always wanted!”

“I can also arrange an introduction to Idomenous, a pleasant fellow, older than you, and comes with his own local following. He will help you get established in Lampsacus, and deal with officialdom now that the Macedonians are in charge. They tend to be problematic, and quick to take offense. I know Idomenous is having trouble with Platonists in his home city and is looking to form a alliance to counter their intrusion. He is offended not only by their teaching, but also by their bluster and vitriolic behavior towards anyone who disagrees with them.”

Almost against my own wishes, I find myself becoming enthralled by Valerius’ expansive vision of my future, which he is able to illuminate as much by his personal charisma, as by his attention to detail.
“If you form an alliance with Idomenous, who is well known in Athens more by his opposition to the established schools, then you will have gained a recognition of sorts among the inner circles of philosophy. The important thing is that even as a rival, you would not suddenly appear in their midst as a complete ‘Unknown’. Notoriety is fine. The more effort they expend on vituperative attacks, the more they establish your credentials regardless, giving you immediate name-recognition.”

“I don’t wish to appear ungrateful,” I query, “but what do you ask back in return for such bountiful generosity?”

Valerius falls silent in thought. I see a spectrum of emotions flitting across his countenance, but surprisingly, a predominate sadness which I had never witnessed previously, nor even suspected would lie beneath his gregarious presentation. He is frozen, seemingly in a different space and time, not present. It is as if for a brief moment, I am seeing deeply into the man and his pain. Sensing my wide-eyed stare, he recovers his persona, avuncular and charming as ever.

“I had the pleasure of meeting Chaerestrata, your mother, back on Samos”, he replies, “She provided great assistance to me at the time of my wife’s early death in childbirth. I owe her a debt of gratitude, but then she too passed. You have my condolences. I wish to honor the memory of your mother and repay that debt, in some small way, by assisting you.”

We both lapse into quietude. Time passes — I’m not sure how long before Valerius speaks.

“May I ask what happened to your mother? I hear different rumors, and don’t know what to believe.”

Under the circumstances, a good deed not forgotten but repaid in kind, one sadness begetting another, it is hard for me to feel offended. I answer after a short pause.

“She took her own life.” I hear my own voice, flat and wooden. It sounds definitive, even convincing, as if I am merely stating an everyday fact beyond reproach.

But did she? Valerius obviously though highly of my mother, so his question is not one of idle curiosity. The day is turning out to be full of surprises, not all pleasant. At the same time, I can’t say that Valerius has opened an old wound, since if I take an unstinting look at myself, the wound has never healed beyond a superficial shrug.

Not for the first time, I ask myself if I have been too gullible in readily accepting the given account of my mother’s ‘suicide’? I have struggled mightily against letting any alternative narrative enter my mind, fearing that it may become obsessional and take over my functional life, without any resolution, leaving me stuck in an endless grief. Yet despite my best efforts, there still remains a feint but persistent knocking at the door of perception, perhaps the guilt of a denial that avoids the obvious questions.

My mother’s ornate sandals, for example, which I still carry with me in my baggage —- at various times, a talisman, fetish, and relic —- raise several questions. I do wonder how any person who is so emotionally fraught as to leap over a high cliff to certain death would have the clarity of mind to deposit both sandals so neatly arranged on the cliff top, side by side, pointing to the cliff edge, as my father said that he found them?

Would any poor soul in such a demented state, think of leaving behind the sandals as some kind of message, reinforcing her act of suicide as well as its exact location, or else, as a kind of proxy for a suicide note? None of these possibilities are implausible, but they are certainly less probable. Doubt springs eternal, but as I doggedly tell myself, in one platitude after another, life must go on! Or, life is for the Living, and so on!

I lay my gullibility aside, at least for the moment, and shift my attention away from the timelessness of speculation and back to my deserving host, who is avidly citing the merits of living in Lampsacus.

Valerius concludes his promotional rally and raises his electrum goblet to mine. I fumble for the right words, taken aback, rudely gulping down his wine, not without consequences. My burbulence is becoming embarrassing. I apologize.

I’m not sure if I’m intoxicated by the wine or the slowly dawning magnitude of Valerius’ offer. Either way, it’s one of those seminal events when as the day progresses, beginning normally but gathering momentum, I realize at a certain point in time, that an invisible line is crossed and my life has changed, irrevocably, forever. At the same time, I am left with a peculiar feeling, an intuition possibly, that there is more to Valerius’ interest in me than what he is admitting.

Thankfully, Valerius replies for me, as I am lost for words, such an exceptional state that Servilia, had she been present, would shake her head in disbelief.

“Of course, you need time to think about it,” he says calmly, “I understand that.”

He raises his goblet

“I salute your promising future!”

 

 

(To be continued next week)