PART IV

"Secrets"

I have now resided in Mytilene for many long months, avoiding the agora and its nest of extortionate vipers, masquerading as philosophers.

Yes, I admit that it was naivety: I didn’t know that which I didn’t know, but arguably, it was a necessary rite of passage. The bloodening, though painful at the time, has imbued me with a newfound fighting spirit and sense of dedication.

‘Not to be like them’, is my private chant, repeated over and over to myself whenever self-doubt looms.

I am gradually learning how best to position myself and my message, gathering followers for whom my ideas make sense of their worldly experience. In a paradox of my grueling experience at the agora, it wasn’t long before this incident gained a certain gossip-driven publicity, even notoriety: a small cohort of ‘thinking individuals’ became curious to meet me. I suppose I should thank ‘One-Ear’ as my closet publicist. Maybe not.

I also changed venues to a local palaestra and gymnasium, so as to avoid the volatile, often intoxicated audiences and mob agitators of the marketplace. At the same time, I remain accessible for thinking individuals who may join the discussion if they so wish. I crave the intellectual traffic in ideas, to and fro, between us. Trying to ‘push’ people into accepting my ideas, convincing them by the sophistry and proselytizing of the agora, doesn’t work for me!

This is where my sensibility has undergone a dramatic shift. As Valerius had predicted, I was unduly earnest to spread my ideas, but in so doing, I was insensitive to the outrage which these ideas provoked. I had blindly followed what others were doing without realizing that my ideas, however self-evident to me, had represented a radical shift away from the traditional conservatism peddled at the agora. Rather than ‘pushed’ into a tenuous belief by clever sophistry, I want people who are ‘pulled’ to my ideas by virtue of the truth, innate within these ideas.

These good friends are still a meager few, but their number is steadily growing, and my ideas are spreading vicariously. Didactics, lecturing at a distance, inevitably creates a groundswell of passive reactance. Instead, we sit around together and discuss topics naturally and equally in a pleasant garden setting. For the first time, I fully understand that this is Socrates’ real legacy —- the principle of a lived ‘Demos’ and ‘Kratos’ between people. A self-learning, self-teaching community of Democracy.

Only now, when I am beginning to feel secure, even confident, am I overtaken by calamitous news. News which is long past the expedient date, that has finally caught up with me, like a kick to the belly, taking my breath away. I am shaking in shock and tears, to the very core of my being.

It’s the merchant galley ‘Hector’, my host ship of friends, that had brought me safely to Mytilene, at the dawn of my public life. A sentimental association, for it was on the rolling and pitching deck of the Hector, that I took my destiny into my own hands. After assisting in the offloading of cargo, I had bid farewell and wished them a speedy passage through the risky Hellespont narrows.

I recall parting with mixed feelings, wondering if I had made a rash decision which I would regret for the remainder of my life. Suspended on a precipice, at that precise moment in time when I needed to enact a life-changing choice, I found myself unaccountably dithering. My once solid resolve began to crumble. I was turning my back on Valerius’ carefully laid-out plans and his generous patronage, burning my bridges.

Do I stay onboard, wistful of a future that might have been, ashamed of my temerity, or depart forthwith, impetuously casting myself into an oblivion laden with risk? To stay, or to go? In the end, good-natured master Panyotis and his vagabond crew, frustrated with my reticence, had to coerce me to leave the ship and make for the agora. Hardy souls, they themselves were driven by the spirit of adventure, and self-determination.

“Master Panyotis…do your stuff as well as you can”

‘Now be off with you,” the master had said, in his gruff, avuncular manner, his final words of farewell still ringing in my ears, “do your stuff, as well as you can, and be done with it!’

Hermarchus had heard the grisly story months previously from the crew of a recently arrived galley, while he was purchasing fresh fish at the south harbor. The tale concerned a lost vessel and crew, another dire victim of piracy in the Hellespont. Hermarchus had expressed requisite sadness, made a shrug to indicate the fatalism of existence, and gone on his busy way. He had no reason to connect these events with myself.

Furthermore, the name of the vessel and the finer details of its travel itinerary, including its original berthing at Mytilene, at which time I had left the vessel, were lost in the gruesome telling of the main events.

It so happened that one of the missing freemen aboard the Hector was a friend of Tolmaeus, a distant relative of Hermarchus. Only today, a few hours ago, Tolmaeus and Hermarchus had met coincidentally at the agora. During the customary process of catching up on family news and latest happenings, Tolmaeus had casually mentioned the sad loss of his friend aboard ship in the Hellespont, several months previously.

While describing the traumatic details of the loss, Tolmaeus recalled his nostalgic last meeting with his friend. He added that the meeting was only possible because the vessel had berthed at Mytilene on its outward journey to Lampsacus, disembarking cargo ‘as well as a passenger from Colophon.’

With gnawing disquiet, Hermarchus suspected that this vessel might be the same one on which I had arrived. Inquiring further, Tolmaeus told him that it was a merchant galley named after the Trojan hero-prince of Homer’s ‘Iliad’, Hector. The ship had already fought off one pirate attack with great success, which was celebrated at the time. That was the clincher!

Always a caring friend, Hermarchus immediately rushed to follow up his fearful speculations with me. I had always been reticent with him on the sensitive subject of my arrival, since it was prior to the time of our first meeting. It brought back sad memories of my ambivalence in parting from Master Panyotis and his lively crew. I had abandoned carefully prepared plans, launching myself impulsively into a dubious future in Mytilene. In glossing over the trivial details, I had failed to mention the name of the vessel to Hermarchus!

Among friends, I am sitting on a stone bench in a shady glade of gnarled old olive trees, ancient when Sappho was a girl. The public Palaestra, the rectangular area used for wrestling instruction and other athletic activities, lies nearby, partly enclosed by colonnades.

Unlike the Agora, the Palaestra and adjacent Gymnasium are strictly policed by a Gymnasiarch and his deputies who report directly to the Macedonian governor. The oversight and authority of the Gymnasiarch ensures a semblance of superficial amicability among the various philosophy teachers who frequent the complex and its adjacent olive gardens.

I am talking with friends, followers, and interested listeners when I spy Hermarchus approaching at a fast pace, his usual placid demeanor replaced by one of grave concern. Not a good sign. He is sweating profusely and breathing deeply from his exertion. He asks to speak with me privately on an urgent matter. Now, I am definitely alarmed. Between panting breathes, he shoots me a question in such pressured-speech, that I fail to understand. Finally, I get it.

“Yes, it was the Hector that transported me to Lesbos. Why do you ask, in such a distressed state?”

This is the torturous, convoluted means by which I finally receive, only by a string of coincidences, the bad news of the loss of the Hector, master Panyotis and his crew, many months after the event. I was indeed, an Outsider with no inkling of what had happened in that distant everyday world that lay beyond the bounds of philosophical enquiry, and the retreat of my shady olive grove. What I am told is all that Hermarchus knows: an abbreviated, much-repeated, thus exaggerated, version of the events as they unfolded. Painful in its colorful detail, the pertinent facts are undoubtedly correct, too lurid not to be true.

Moreover, it seems that the pirate vessel was the Artemis, commandeered by my nemesis, none other than ‘The Red Devil’ himself.

Contrary to the truism, misfortune has indeed travelled by a slow wagon to eventually run me over. So much time has passed since the tragedy, adding further to my sense of powerlessness and impotency. Also, an irrational sense of guilt —- that I have been going about my life unperturbed, building a foundation for my future, while my friends have suffered, having either no future, or a bleak one at best.

Instead, I lounge about in languid ease under the shade of the olive-trees, free and independent, safe and well, satiated with fresh fruit and nuts, looking forward eagerly, to a long future of fulfillment and achievement….

….But I can’t do it. I can’t just sit back and do nothing!

It’s not guilt so much, as the only known ‘survivor’ of the ill-fated Hector, but rather the emotional tumult that overcomes me, when I think back to all my fond memories of the crew and Master Panyotis, all lost!

Damn the risk. I’m going to the city authorities, despite the unproven rumors that have our Macedonian overlords in tacit collaboration with ‘Red’. Should the authorities be willing to apprehend ‘One-Ear’ and question him for information, by whatever means necessary, then it is likely that the trail will lead them to ‘Red’.

If only I had done this at the time of my alleyway assault, then the Hector and her crew would probably be saved! Instead, I was fearful of my personal risk, should the rumors be true, which leaves me with a haunting question. Did I indeed want the rumors to be true so as to relieve me of the greater obligation for my friends’ safety? Regardless of the truth back then, seemingly a lifetime ago, my obligation is patently clear now.

I must make every effort to gain justice for my friends, and put an end to Red’s regime of terror. The default would have me skulking around in the shadows of an olive grove, dewy-eyed and downcast, running away from my own shadow for the rest of my pitiful life!

Sometimes, philosophy is that simple.

Vale Master Panyotis

I find myself taking heart from the courageous yet tragic tale of avuncular Master Panyotis.

It is my own way of memorializing someone who had ineffably altered my outlook on life. When I need courage now, I think back to his personal sacrifice. I’m tougher because of him.

Those landlocked ‘pirates’ of the Agora are also after my head, to silence my voice, as if I too with my non-Aristotelian ideas, am about scuttling their own ‘philosophical ship’. Having known the Master personally, I associate my plight with his epic stance, drawing inspiration from his example of non-violent, yet resolute resistance.

Nevertheless, I ask myself the same question over and over, in moments of private reflection and sometimes openly with trustworthy Hermarchus.

“Why was I spared ? To what end?”

My passage was paid, and fully booked to Lampsacus, in which case I would have certainly confronted the pirates at the Hellespont. Most likely that would have meant joining Master Panyotis in his grisly fate, but not before taking down several of them with me, not least of all, ‘The Red Devil’. Instead, I disembarked albeit reluctantly, and remain vibrantly alive, while Master Panyotis was beheaded.

I find myself thinking about the master’s last moments before his callous execution. What were his thoughts and feelings, knowing the horror that surely awaited him? How does one even breathe, when in the next second, he will breathe no more? The future ceases to exist, compressed into the immediacy of that long, last second. Would I have been as brave and unflinching?

By what oracular sense did I decide, in a twilight state of semi-consciousness, lounging on the sun-drenched deck, to depart the Hector in favor of Mytilene instead of Lampsacus?

Even good Hermarchus shrugs, adding that…

“….it’s divine intervention, and the gods have something else in store for you. It wasn’t meant to be”

I am surprised, somewhat ruffled, at his primitive explanation, a regression to a predestined fate. Yet, I can’t believe in an inevitable destiny that somehow is mapped out for me by Providence, the ‘determinism’ of the Stoics: a love of fate which we must not only accept, but embrace, which is the only measure of control left to us. I believe in the destiny I carve out for myself by choice, and the enactment of my own free will, moment by moment.

Yes, it is true that I do openly acknowledge the gods, partly because I was suckled in that belief from infancy, so that it remains forever as an indelible part of my Being. Now as a grown man, and moreover as a philosopher with divergent views, I continue my loose adherence to the godly pantheon mostly out of political expediency — if I wish to survive and prosper. In prayer or sacrifice to the gods, I’m not sure myself whether I am placating the gods, or merely placating the political witnesses to my ‘piety’?

While not discounting the gods entirely, I don’t believe in their agency to direct human affairs, or if so, they must perchance do it very covertly under cover of my own free will. If so, this is a circular argument, a cheap way to avoid taking a position.

Yet, this position can’t be avoided, as it defines who I am. If I don’t have agency over my own actions, then I cease to be a free-acting individual, responsible for my own behavior, and remain merely a pawn of providence. This is where I am encouraged by the spiritual strength of Master Panyotis and part ways with the Stoics.

I come back again as I must, to my relentless questions, ‘Why me? For what?’. I am lost in a mire of conflated superstition, shameful guilt, betrayal, and onerous self-doubt. I have continued to flagellate myself with these self-righteous questions until now, right now, I have reached a certain precipitous point. I turn around in my mind and look at them clearly and squarely as if I am seeing them for the first time in the light of day.

Prior to this time, I have never doubted the provenance of these questions, their right to haunt me. My epiphany breaks through in a startling flash ! The Hector has sunk,…. regrettably; it’s in the past, so asking retroactively how things could have been different is a futile exercise, and worse still, a waste of energy in present time, which is needed for living now.

I even feel privately embarrassed at myself, if that’s possible. No one, other than myself, had imposed these questions upon me. Looking back, I realize that such questioning was absurdist, even self-indulgent. The trajectory of events is always clear in hindsight, yet unknown at the time.

These very same questions, repeated again and again in different forms, were surely tedious for poor Hermarchus, who had to listen patiently to my endless vacillations. Yet they were also necessary for me to get to this place in my mind. Of course, the questions are not merely looking for an answer; they themselves, in their asking, lie at the heart of the problem. Master Panyotis had little time to overthink matters as I am presently doing. As an honorable ship’s master, he simply took the necessary actions which he intuitively needed to do.

In a similar way, I had disembarked from the Hector at Mytilene because I intuitively needed to be the free agent of my own active choices. However well-intentioned he may be, Valerious must realize that it is my life to live, not his. Whether my choice was right or wrong, predetermined or spontaneous, plays no part in my present thinking. While such reasoning seems deceptively simple, albeit starkly black and white at the time, the emotional acceptance that these past actions were honorable and authentic has been a heart-wrenching process for me.

Clouded with grief, I had overlaid my intuitive actions with improbable questions of guilt and shame. I felt compelled to second-guess my own past actions. What if I had remained onboard? What if I had told the authorities about ‘Red’? What if….and so on, and so on, alpha to omega.

I created an artifice to deceive myself, perhaps punish myself, using the feigned rationale of assuaging my own guilt. In this way, I was able to deny the simple but painful fact that I couldn’t trust my own intuitive action without apologizing for it. Master Panyotis would surely scold me for such useless self-deception.

I had woven an unsolvable Gordian knot for myself, round and round in circular reasoning, when the only answer following the Great Alexander, was to cut straight through it! This is where he parted ways with Aristotelian reasoning.

This shift in my perspective, from searching for answers to scrutiny of the questions themselves, was not solely a fortuitous accident. While the final insight was indeed spontaneous, it sprang from the application of the Swerve analysis to my own thought process. Upon encountering the mental block of ‘destiny’ and Providence, I finally adopted after much anguish, a detached objectivity directed at my own subjectivity, and began to question the validity of my own questions.

While I agree wholeheartedly with the examined life as advocated by Socrates, there comes a point at which life needs to be fully lived, spontaneously and intuitively, rather than made subject to a constant auditing. If everyday life is reduced to an object of enquiry, to be examined retroactively, then it can’t at the same time, be lived fully as a flowing narrative. It’s a matter of balance between the two activities, and I had lost my balance.

My mental perambulations arising in the wake of the Hector’s loss took over my consciousness, paralyzing my ability to live fully in present time. I became depressed in spirit. On the positive side, this internal struggle has resulted in a significant step forward in my awareness as a philosopher, as well as a signal caution for me personally.

I need to strike up a better balance between Philosophy and Life as it is Lived. I suspect that it’s an occupational hazard in my line of work!

There remains a further consolation to this process of self-deception, and its resolution, which is the liberation of my energies for the task ahead. These vital life energies, previously bound up and entangled endlessly in sordid regrets, are soon to be fully tested.

I only hope that Ulysses, the eccentric Pelican mascot of the Hector, made good on his escape!

While I have dispensed with much of my self-flagellation surrounding the death of Master Panyotis, I am left with a hoard of practical questions in the wake of the Hector’s loss.

With the assistance of Hermarchus, and his knowledge of local personalities, I am able to gradually tease out further details. The redoubtable ‘Red’, cunning as ever, released one of the crew in a pinnace to spread the tale of Master Panyotis’ gruesome execution. The pirate chief hoped that such fear-mongering would act as a deterrent against any further scuttling of captured galleys. ‘Red’ may be sadistic, but he is also strategic!

From what I can gather, it seems that the lucky sailor met up with another merchant galley in the Hellespont, the Antigonus, also owned by Valerius, which was on route to Notium, port to the city-state of Colophon. It is likely that this was the same galley that berthed at Mytilene for a short while, several months ago, when the first shocking reports of master Panyotis’ demise were received by a dismayed populace. The Antigonus then continued to Notium, disseminating the news as it went.

Meanwhile, the only free survivor of the Hector refused to remain on board the Antigonus, fearful that the galley would attract more pirates, and his own re-capture. With a replenishment of supplies, he hoisted sail in the opposite direction, hugging the Ionian coast for safety in his small pinnace. Passing the ruins of ancient Troy, thence further into the Hellespont strait, he was last sighted entering the inland sea of the Propontis.

The master of the Antigonus reported that the survivor’s only goal was to return to his native village and family somewhere near Colchis in the adjoining Euxine Sea. The sailor swore that he would then remain in his village to the end of his days, such was the terror of his experience onboard the Hector. He was done with the sea.

I immediately surmise that the master of the Antigonus, upon his arrival in Notium, was ushered into the presence of Valerius, who would have questioned him closely about my wretched ‘fate’. The good master could only answer what was passed on to him by the sole, free survivor: that Master Panyotis was executed, the Hector scuttled, and ‘everyone else’ sold into slavery.

I thought it very improbable that my departure from the Hector at Mytilene would have been reported by the survivor. It was an irrelevant detail and not pertinent to the story, overshadowed as it was, by the egregious nature of the tragedy. My fate was therefore unknown to the Antigonus’ master, who by default, could only advise Valerius that regrettably, I had probably been enslaved with the rest of the crew.

I had not previously advised Valerius about my disembarking at Mytilene, rather than continuing to Lampsacus on board the doomed Hector. Acknowledging that I had taken matters into my own rebellious hands would probably have incurred his wrath, and possible retribution of some kind.

Instead, I decided to withhold any news of my whereabouts and activities until I had achieved success and status in Mytilene. I could then make a triumphant return to Colophon, so that my achievements were mine alone, and owed nothing to Valerius. I had done it my way. My ‘obvious success’ would then vindicate the decision to remain in Mytilene, leaving Valerius silent, with little to say. At least, that was my self-absorbed, rather smug fantasy.

Now, everything has changed! I realize that the latency of the news, the protracted time it took for the loss of the Hector to finally reach me, thanks to Hermarchus, has further repercussions for me personally. By this time, it was reasonable to assume that Valerius, no less than poor Servilia, could only conclude that I was a prize specimen in an Assyrian slave market. Otherwise, I had been irredeemably sold as a human mule, at the mercy of the ‘slave-breakers’, fit for laboring until I dropped.

Many months have passed since the loss of the Hector, yet those people who love and care for me, such as Servilia, my father, even Valerius, are likely to be grieving over what they still believe to be my woebegone fate.

I could imagine the pitiful scenes they may have constructed of my probable situation: that I was languishing away in shackles in a fetid prison-cell. Worse still, was I a skeletal shadow trudging under a bloody whip in a foreign salt-mine? A dozen other morbid scenarios may be preying on their minds. I feel contrite for the unnecessary distress that I had unwittingly inflicted.

Despite all my rebellious plans, it was incumbent upon me to advise them, the people I love, of my decision to disembark in Mytilene, rather than Lampsacus. I had failed to consider others’ feelings in my assertive rush to stamp my independence on affairs, never dreaming that vicarious consequences may arise, making a mockery of all my fervid dreams. Like a naughty child, I believed that everything would fall into place, just as I wished it to be. That matters may be otherwise, never entered my head! Breathtaking naivety, or just plain narcissism, I know not which?

This was not a failure of omission, such as some minuscule oversight that I had inadvertently forgotten. It was every bit an act of commission: I had knowingly decided not to advise them, in order to surprise them with my grand triumph. The true moral course was clear: to simply advise them that I had left the Hector at Mytilene. If I had done only that, and nothing more, then they would have been assured of my safety and I would not have become implicated in the loss of the Hector.

The fact that I had not done so must surely speak to a certain level of arrogance and pomposity that I would otherwise not so freely admit. I had deceived myself with a self-serving argument, dressed up in the pliable garments of ‘rationality’. My ‘blind-spots’ are becoming cumulative.

I compose an open letter forthwith, chastened but self-disclosing, offering my fond greetings and profuse apologies. I am quick to advise them of my good health and public teaching in Mytilene, all the various happenings and friends I have made (or ‘followers’; I’m not sure I can separate between them), ending with the assurance,

“ that I hope to be returning to Colophon before long for a visit, as my busy teaching permits, and look forward to that happy event”

Prophetic words indeed, the substance of which is inexorably closing in upon me, while in my blindness, or ignorance, I innocently ponder the nuances of philosophy.

Events are moving in a direction that causes me to wonder once again, whether remaining on the Hector may have been the best decision after all.

 

(To be continued next week)