Our band of friends is growing every day: we hold our symposia within the convenient shade of the olive grove, discussing many topics, so that my time is fully occupied. Managing the political context of my teaching however, has never been a strength with me: over the preceding month, it has surely been neglected. There are emerging signs now that matters at the Palaestra and Gymnasium may be going awry.
Even I could hardly fail to notice two new arrivals amidst our expanding group. Both are young men, of contrasting physiognomic types: one gaunt, congenitally balding, with a whiff of the cold-blooded ascetic about him, while the other is corpulent with unkempt, shaggy locks, almost bovine, emitting a distinctive fetid odor.
“Shaggy…corpulent with unkempt, shaggy locks, almost bovine”
‘Not local’ says Hermarchus, ever wary of outsiders, probably with good cause, considering Mytilene’s history of invasions, and roughneck culture.
Both men are atypical in that they cluster together, rather than making the effort to mix within the group. If they talk at all, it is only to whisper between themselves, though they listen intently to our garrulous conversations. If asked to contribute to the discussion, they protest that they are only neophytes, whose ideas are too unformed for any useful exchange. Their reluctance to mingle freely was at first, put down to shyness.
Without meaning to be disrespectful, it wasn’t too long before the physiognomic comparison became too much for the friends. The pair henceforth became known to us, in reference to their hirsute status, deficient or surplus, as ‘Baldie’ and ‘Shaggy’.
Both men continue to be conspicuously withdrawn, maintaining a barely acceptable level of social contact, even when I make a point of approaching them. Moreover, they refrain from asking the customary questions normally expected from newcomers, seemingly unconcerned about remaining outsiders.
I have a growing suspicion they are covert Aristotelians, yet doing a lamentable job of secrecy, sent to report on our ‘subversive’ activities. Nevertheless, we accept their ‘clandestine’ presence, woefully obvious to all at this stage. Despite these misgivings, our ethical code always remains one of inclusion and welcome.
Meantime, our discussions have drifted to cosmology and the nature of Nature, especially the physical constitution of all matter. The speculations of Leucippus and his famous student, Democritus, are introduced. What follows is a summary of this discussion, sometimes fierce, always convivial, spanning several days, in which all friends participated in the symposium (with two notable exceptions).
Starting with Democritus, we begin with the proposition that all matter is composed of small, solid particles that are indivisible, therefore ‘a-tomic’, or atoms, moving on preset paths within a void.
“Indestructible and so small as to be invisible, these atoms comprise the ‘building blocks’ of all creation. Atoms could also spontaneously ‘Swerve’ away from their set paths, becoming intertwined and clumping together, which by this process of aggregation, build up into visible objects of different kinds, such as rocks, seas, mountains, plants, animals, and people.”
“That different objects vary in their appearance, with a wide range of tastes, smells, textures, and colors, or have a host of other divergent properties, depend upon how the atoms come together to form a myriad of atomic complexities. In fact, these smallest particles fill the universe with an infinity of other worlds.”
There are of course, the normal flurry of ebullient questions, pert answers, and wholesome haranguing, befitting a group composed of disparate individuals bound together by the notion of a community.
Abruptly, the babble of conversation ceases.
A pervasive silence follows, of such a quietude as one may find on entering an unknown prehistoric cave. One of the ‘observers’, as we now refer to them conjointly, actually stands up to speak. It is ‘Baldie’, who for the first time, poses a question:
“You say these atoms of yours congregate to form other worlds floating in a void of black nothingness. Yet how can this be so when Aristotle comes to an opposite conclusion: that a void is physically impossible? The universe must consist of matter, even if we can’t see it, just as we can’t see your imaginary little atoms.”
A most unusual question from a self-proclaimed neophyte, as my fears of Aristotelian mischief are confirmed. A titter ripples nervously across the group, who largely respond to Baldie’s provocation as if it is an innocent quip, a light-hearted attempt at humor. They politely give him the benefit of the doubt.
I have not failed to notice however, another intriguing behavior, that Baldie walks back and forth as he talks. This is not exceptional in itself of course, though it remains a distinctive characteristic of the justly named ‘Peripatetic’ school, that of Aristotle. I remember listening to Aristotle himself at the popular Lyceum temple during my hoplite training in Athens. Very impressive, and greatly stimulated my emerging ideas. The great man walked while he taught, believing that it facilitated thinking, and his followers adopted the same practice, maintained after his death, as a signature ritual.
I keep my growing fears to myself, and Baldie resumes, regardless of the tittering.
“Such matter displaces and supports the moon and the sun as well as our own planets. This is merely a common sense logical deduction, as Aristotle makes absolutely clear. You have no evidence even that your invisible atoms exist, much less, the plenitude of unknown worlds that you describe. We can be certain however, about the visible planets that circle around us, and that’s all there is to know. The rest is nothing but overripe imagination.”
This is definitely a tear in the fabric of politeness, no longer humorous. One of the friends, I couldn’t see who it was, then fires back testily,
“But then what is it that makes up Aristotle’s celestial matter which as you declare, supports the sun and moon? Of what ethereal stuff is it comprised? If this presumption is taken to be true, without any evidence, then perforce of your logic, surely our presumption of atoms and void must then be equally true, or equally false? Unless of course, the Aristotelian ‘matter’ has already been drained away by nymphs and satyrs, leaving only the Epicurean Void, then all our questions, yours and mine, are fully satisfied!”
The group erupts in hilarious laughter, not disparagingly, but as one would do with a well-told joke. A sense of humor is part of our culture within the community and helps to dampen any hurt feelings.
There is no response from ‘Baldie’ however, who returns to his seat, tight-lipped and glum.
Alarm bells are ringing in my head.
I notice that Hermarchus, unlike his colleagues, is not amused by the last exchange, remaining stern-faced and reticent.
Over the passing months, I have come to recognize a kindred spirit in Hermarchus, loyal but also phlegmatic in ways that I am not. I see him rolling his eyes at my naivety, while at the same time, I fear for his incipient misanthropy. Maybe that’s why we get along so well — we cancel out each other’s biases.
Oftentimes I have looked to him in difficult situations, much like the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, for cues to aid my decision-making. Judging by his present countenance, his cues point to poignant and troublesome issues ahead.
Our group discussion however, has its own momentum and levity aside now, moves forward, as documented at the time. Such record-taking, sporadic at first, has happily evolved into a regular activity at these symposia, with our own self-appointed amanuensis, ready with her scrolls, reed pen, and lampblack ink. No particular individual is usually cited in the summary, since the discussion is condensed into a general consensus, as follows:
“All these many worlds are associated with stars, which are other suns just like our own sun, with planets circling around them. Contrary to the naked eye, and the doctrinaire teachings of Aristotle, this includes the startling but inescapable conclusion that our own world also, circles around the sun. The sun doesn’t rise in the east, to give us a morning, but rather, the morning dawns because our own world is ‘rising’ as it rotates on itself.”
In keeping with his thuggish demeanor, ‘Shaggy” interjects, inserting himself loudly, almost a bellow, shaking his copious mop of odiferous hair. It becomes immediately apparent that his style is more radical and sardonic than that of his gaunt accomplice.
“Your outpourings are nothing but a heresy. Aristotle tells us that our earth is the primal hub around which the universe revolves just as it was created by the Prime Mover, the gods themselves collectively, which you are choosing to defile. You need no more proof than your own common sense to look up and see that the earth is the still center of the turning wheel, the original spark of creation……”
By this stage however, Shaggy’s pedantic mannerisms have enlivened the crowd, who are taken with the comical side of it, and are bent on having a jolly time after all the serious discussions. Laughter reaches such a pitch that his voice is inaudible, though he carries on resolutely for several more minutes before throwing up his hands in disdain and resuming his seat.
It is unclear whether ‘Shaggy’, if not interrupted, would have introduced additional reasoning to create a more compelling overall case. I was genuinely interested to hear what followed. He had commenced his rejoiner with what was obvious to the eye, the concrete ‘facts’ apparent in Nature. In this case, the movement of the sun, moon, and stars around the earth.
I expected that, following the sophists, he intended to build upon this ‘indisputable’ foundation, as a basis for further argumentation. He would then end up with a monumental edifice, composed of systematic propositions, level by level, so as to overwhelm an unwary audience.
His fundamental assumption, based upon an appeal to ‘common sense’, the information provided by our senses, would then remain unchallenged, lost in the elegance of a rhetorical exercise. If this was to be the plan, his impulsive derogatory comments, loaded with prejudice and spite, only served to undermine his attempt at reasoned sophistry —— as well as providing a much-needed intermission for the group.
I am perplexed about Shaggy’s ‘apparent’ self-defeating behavior, which raises a further question for me. Why would anyone who is obviously skilled in sophistry, unlike ‘Baldie’, allow his emotions to undo that very same training, thereby negating his powers of persuasion? I don’t understand this, which feeds my increasing sense of unrest. It’s almost as if he was acting out something that was rehearsed beforehand, designed to raise the hackles of his audience. Or else, I’m needlessly overthinking the whole episode.
Unfortunately, the laughter and jeering from my throng of friends, though inconsistent with our philosophy of tolerance, puts a premature end to the morning’s presentation. While this derision is unseemly, it is no more so than the inflammatory accusations levied by the Aristotelian.
It is at this point that our two unrepentant ‘observers’ excuse themselves abruptly, yet with exquisite politeness, an obvious parody of the treatment they had received….or provoked. As they leave, I note that their manner doesn’t appear to be one of failure or even dissatisfaction with their effort; instead, I would describe it as pleasant, even gleeful!
For the first time, the prospect of a different explanation crosses my mind. Had they planned for a reactive disturbance from their audience and carefully engineered it, as an artful entrapment? If so, their accusations of heresy are a subterfuge, intended to create agitation and uproar.
Such a noisy rupture would attract attention and disciplinary action from the Gymnasiarch and his deputies! I remember Hermarchus’ cues. Too late: the trap is sprung! Now, it is his turn.
Hermarchus, usually taciturn, stands up immediately following their departure. He addresses the group in such grave terms that his quiet and ominous words command everyone’s attention:
“I fear that the early departure of our two observers is an ominous sign, foreboding of things to come. If such is proven to be the case, may the gods forbid it, then let all of us, not together, but at singular times, attend my private family residence, so that our group may carry on the fine work we have commenced, under the tutelage of good friend, Epicurus”
The friends are dismayed, somewhat distressed, so that I feel compelled to remind them of the context in which we live our lives together, the ethical and moral philosophy that we share and espouse to others.
I stand up before them and speak from my heart:
“I beg you all to follow the advice of friend Hermarchus, which I wholeheartedly endorse. We should disband for today, but we will meet again and continue our discussion at a time to be determined.”
“Before we do so, I wish to bring our discussion of the last several days to a close with a few summary remarks. Just like dust motes caught in a bright shaft of light, swirling and intersecting, atoms swerve way from their predetermined path at an invisible level.”
“At the visible level, individuals can also swerve away from the predetermined paths of their instinctual thinking or habitual reactions, by choosing one life direction, idea, or partner, over another. The outcome of this unexpected change in direction, our own meta-atomic Swerve, we refer to as ‘free will’.”
“May you continue to follow your own Swerve in all those choices which guide your life.”
“Until our next meeting.”
The omens of an ill wind have found our genial retreat of tranquillity, the consequences of which can only be a matter of time.
Be straightforward,” says reliable Hermarchus, “come to the point, and don’t trifle with him.”
I have always taken the goodwill and neutrality of the Gymnasiarch for granted. I had been warned however, that apart from his prestigious position, he is a personage whose authoritative bearing commands immediate respect.
I feel like an errant schoolboy, sulking and despondent, who has been caught out in the act of wrongdoing and is now reporting to the headmaster’s office for punishment. Compliant, but not contrite! Walking along the Gymnasium colonnade, I admire its renowned hunting frieze spanning the length of the inner architrave, and at the far end, the patina-bronze door of the tablinum of the Gymnasiarch of Mytilene.
This is the moment I have been anticipating since the hostile departure of the ‘observers’ cum spies, so much that I have dreaded waking up for the last several mornings. I knew it was coming. Hermarchus had expected it and tried to warn me against allowing them into our group. I had insisted that our community of friends was open to everyone; once we start making exceptions, we not only lose our diversity, but also introduce a policy that easily lends itself to misuse. That was the past, and now the moment of reckoning has arrived. Yet as I pace along the colonnade, chatting with friends, I experience a serenity that matters will happen as they may, a kind of surreal release.
My reprimand will soon to be over, certainly embarrassing, but perhaps also an education of sorts. I had been naïve to think that philosophy was above politics. I had assumed without questioning, that an implicit code of behavior existed between philosophers, a reflection of those profound truths which they professed. Otherwise, I remain flattered that the Aristotelians perceive me as a dangerous competitor who is attracting followers away from them. If they believe in the eternal truths which they expound so profusely, then I wonder why they feel so vulnerable?
I lift and release the heavy ring attached to the door plate, the dull metallic resonance announcing my arrival. Metrodorus, always the gentle giant, shakes me amiably by the shoulders, an act of togetherness, and departs without a word as the bronze door creaks open with a shudder. Obviously expected, I am ushered along the mural-lined walls and picturesque mosaic floors, into the presence of the Great One, in obedience to his summoning. To do otherwise, would court immediate imprisonment.
Bronze Entrance (Chambers of the Gymnasiarch of Mytilene)
He is preoccupied nevertheless in his reading, sitting to one side of a magnificent obsidian table, covered in rolled scrolls. An oil-lamp burns to one side, otherwise the spaciousness of the great room is lost in semi-darkness. I continue standing in the shadows: the beginning of a disciplinary action I presume, but it gives me time to take his measure.
He remains self-absorbed, inscrutable, seated on his carved klismos chair, dramatic with its curved back rest and outstretched, gilded legs, almost a throne. Patience has never been one of my virtues, but I dare not make a sound, which to me, would be an asthenic show of weakness, unbecoming of a hoplite. I will deny him that satisfaction.
Still standing, no shuffling, unflinching — with legs growing more leaden every minute! I distract myself by the deceptively simple exercise of converting my sensory observations into words and sentences, arrayed visually in my mind, but remaining unspoken. There is for example, a distinctly musty smell emanating from the scrolls, some of them tattered and weathered, appearing to be quite ancient.
The Gymnasiarch however, is a ruggedly handsome man, with a intelligent, sculpted face, whose every gesture signals strength and firm resolve. No dithering here. He wears the sartorial garb of a Tyrian purple tunic, with a sash of Pompeian red, over a muscular, tanned body. It’s the unexpected though, which captures my attention, a meticulously-trimmed pearly-white full beard, such that his age remains indeterminate, or so it seems to me.
The overall impression is that of refined, dignified bearing, even imperious, befitting a man of his lofty status. A sheathed dagger with garnet-encrusted hilt is fastened loosely under his belt. The symbolism is striking, probably intentionally so: an intriguing combination of cultured governance along with an ominously sharp warning.
Finally, his eminence turns towards me and nods a bland, wordless acknowledgment. It looks like I may exist after all, though no doubt, contemptible to his aristocratic eyes.
He even speaks, surely a great condescension to a poor lowly scholar from Colophon.
“It seems you have offended many people, not least the gods, with your impious speeches, such people who have come to me, willing to bear witness against you, and for you to provide me with good reason without further wasting my time, why you should not be imprisoned immediately, awaiting trial, as it is incumbent upon me to do so.”
The Gymnasiarch continues at length, legalese rolling off his tongue in grave monotone, outlining the weighty charges levied against me. It seems that the two Aristotelians have done their work well with added embroidery, over-stitching, and colorful patchwork, weaving an imposing artifice of impiety, heresy, inciting a public disturbance, sedition, as well as ‘the corruption of young minds’. I must have been a very busy fellow.
This fanciful construction was capped with the insinuation, so outrageous as to leave me gasping, breathless, that I was in league with the pirates! The Aristotelian overlords had gone all the way, creating this caricature of a sly and devious miscreant. Apparently, I am also an informant and had disembarked at Mytilene, using my teaching as a ruse, to avoid any semblance of a connection with the capture of the Hector.
In addition to the other outstanding offenses, I am therefore charged with complicity in the murder of good Master Panyotis! Unbelievable! The law of unintended consequences was never more plainly written.
I experience an odd mixture of laughter and anger simultaneously, as if there is an inner conflict with each one struggling to gain outward expression. Circumstances demand that I suppress both, the effort of which produces a discordant noise lying somewhere between a dismissive chortle and a choked cry of anguish.
The Gymniasarch looks up, bemused, sighs, and continues with his litany of my nefarious wrong-doings.
Furthermore, if ‘more’ was needed, it seems that my meditative strolls along the harbor each evening, unbeknown to myself, have been transformed into clandestine surveillance, evaluating vessels arriving and departing, as future pirate prizes. Viewed through this prism of legal paranoia, it would seem my every action becomes covertly evil. Job, well done, ‘Baldie’ and ‘Shaggy’!
The Gymnasiarch concludes his weighty recital of charges.
“The list of witnesses against you is a long one, and the body of evidence, while circumstantial in regard to some lesser matters, is nevertheless substantive when aggregated, and demonstrates a reasonable likelihood of criminal behavior. This is an initial indictment, and you have the right of response, which shall be duly noted. Since there is a high risk of absconding, and these are very serious charges, you will be imprisoned awaiting a public hearing.”
His voice is noble and cultured, a deep baritone, as he pauses expressionless, the bureaucratic face of high officialdom, awaiting my reply. Though I hear his solemn words, their effect on me is a different thing altogether, all wispy and feathery, far away. It all feels unreal, ethereal, as if this is happening to someone else — as if I am watching it, impartially, from outside my own body.
Is it really I, Epicurus of Colophon, son of Neocles, hoplite of Athens, who has been thrust into this bizarre predicament? I was expecting to be verbally admonished, targeted by an Aristotelian conspiracy with powerful political connections. Instead of a stern warning however, I am summarily charged with an exhaustive recital of grievous crimes, not least of which is that of an accomplice to murder, under penalty of death.
Who would have believed that my ‘fellow philosophers’ would condemn one of their own, whose only crime was that of divergent thinking? The indictments are so pervasive and burdensome, that it feels as if a great weight is pressing down upon me such that I even begin to doubt my own self. Crazy thoughts cross my mind. Would it be easier just to give up, and plead for mercy? Confused and distraught I may be, but I must….must….must regain my composure and commence my rebuttal, or suffer the unthinkable consequences. I never imagined I would be fighting for my life.
“As a philosopher, I will speak only to the charge of impiety which is the principal reason that I have been brought before you. As such, I invoke the freedom of thought and speech, without which, philosophy is reduced to nothing but mindless dogma.”
“As for the other charges, I will say little in defense, since there is nothing to defend. To do so lends them a credibility which they are sorely lacking. Apart from the biased witnesses, all Aristotelians or their proxies, such charges are baseless and fabricated to the point of being ridiculous.”
My voice has been quavering so far, with a mix of feelings, fear and anger mostly, and seems to be echoing in my ears, as if I am a silent spectator to my own responses. Yet my dander is surely rising as my true voice begins to emerge, and along with it, a growing defiance come what may, in the face of such outrageous injustice.
I continue, but more recalcitrant this time.
“I will now state the platform of my philosophy and leave it to you to judge its impiety or not, as the dice fall, for I am truly a philosopher in the spirit of the great Socrates, and must call out the truth as I see it.”
“Let me say first that I believe in paradoxes, as against the false dualities implicit in the works of Aristotle. Such dualistic reasoning makes his subjects, whether societies or the physical world, appear to be more ‘black and white’ than their true natures, which are nuanced, and loaded with contradictions. This present farce is in itself, a prime example of such contrived falsehoods.”
“Because my philosophy is contentious, as opposed to the doctrinaire writings of Aristotle, does not necessarily condemn me as an atheist. If paradoxy makes me guilty of impiety, then so be it.”
The Gymnasiarch gives me a patronizing scowl, but then offers an indulgence for which I am totally unprepared, though it is most surely welcomed — he waves for me to be seated in the one remaining klismos chair. Most irregular, to be seated in his presence, at his level.
After all that I have been through, I’m perplexed. Anything is possible. Is this some chicanery to let down my guard, as a prelude to flogging? Fiend, or Friend? Now he nods for me to continue, inscrutable as ever, though I detect a hint of intellectual interest.
“The greatest paradox of all is that of absolute nihilism, as an answer to that impossible question: the meaning of life. Nihilism for me, means that nothing exists other than the physical world which my senses can detect, such as sight, sound, smell, touch, and so on. If nihilism is the most reasonable response, then as entities governed by reason, we should fully enjoy every pleasure that life offers. Nihilism liberates us to such enjoyment, rather than the artificial delusions and constraints fostered by society and superstitions.”
There is no response from the Gymnasiarch, so I carry on, enlivened by discussing a favorite topic.
“Such enjoyment however, is limited to the extent that pleasure-seeking does no harm to others, and further, that it does not degrade into dis-pleasure. Then finally, I will turn to the most important precept of nihilism, that we should not waste our lives by constantly asking the meaning of it all.”
The Gymnasiarch holds up his hand, for me to pause. He rubs his hands together, back and forth, as if he is coalescing ideas, deep in thought for several minutes, then expansively opens his arms for me to continue. He says nothing.
“In other words, the meaning of life IS life itself, to be lived fully, for which the circuitous attempt to derive meaning is meaningless. ‘Words’ themselves contain their own sophistry, though we have created them, yet they tie our thinking into knots. We turn these words back upon ourselves, so that words like ‘subject’ and ‘object’ foster this artificial delusion that ‘life’ and ‘life’s meaning’ are separate things.”
“What about the gods?”, says the Gymnasiarch, frowning, “Do they have a place in your colorful thesis of nihilism, life, and meaning? It troubles me greatly that you have not addressed the charge of impiety before the gods, by allowing no place for them!”
“I was coming to the gods. We raise the question of life’s meaning as if it is an object to be found outside ourselves, when ‘life’ is the subject asking that question for which ‘lived life’ is the meaningful answer. The mind makes an object of everything, ‘object-ifying’, including the very thing that gives it life, our own Eros, projected out into the world, as a search for meaning.”
“In regard to the gods, then think of them as arising from Eros, the primordial god, who came before all the others, and abides within us, through us, making love possible, and by the union of the sexes, the ongoing procreator of life.
I see no conflict between my teachings and the gods, through the medium of Eros.”