I realize now only too well, why Valerius was hypervigilant of Servilia on any occasion when she and I were alone.
She was compelled to sneak out of the villa, under the pretext of visiting her girlfriends, who provided alibis for her. Valerius’ lack of acceptance of me, or so it seemed at the time, clearly didn’t help my own abiding sense of unworthiness.
At the time, I had attributed this obsessive scrutiny to Valerius’ overreaching possessiveness, his need to control his only daughter. While certainly true at some level, it was also more malignant than I had imagined.
With hindsight, I appreciate that the problem lay with Valerius and not myself. My very appearance reminded him of his lost love, the progeny that ensued from seducing my mother, used in turn, to palliate an earlier inconsolable loss. Now both women are dead.
As if the gods had singled out Valerius for special punishment, he must watch as the offspring of both losses then replicated this entanglement into the next generation. Valerius must carry a great weight on his shoulders! I wonder at his secret inner life, unreachable, impenetrable, even by Servilia. He could not divulge his secret to his only daughter, which of course, would also mean acknowledging his own moral weakness, until illness finally overtook his defenses.
Then there’s the matter of my mother’s suicide, which is not Valerius’ fault, though he is surely implicated. As a folk herbalist, she would be required to visit many households, her healing activities providing a natural cover for infidelity.
It’s sordid for me to think of my beloved mother in such immoral terms, though Valerius speaks well of her, even admits to loving her, if I am to take him at his word. It’s true that most people were smitten by her. Then there is Neocles, my father (now, stepfather?) who raised me, a man with few, if any friends. With his mood swings, he was never a good match for my mother’s free-spirited, effervescent personality. He also, is implicated in her tragic death.
I can’t help thinking that the ‘excitement’ generated by my father’s clandestine affairs was a kind of vicarious treatment for his chronic melancholia. He was free to present himself as a different person, having a charming ‘secret self’, while he lived two parallel lives. Yet there was an onerous circularity to all this, since his betrayal also fed the guilt of his trenchant melancholia, which in turn, found its outlet in further betrayal. One pathetic self would ‘whip’ the other!
Not long after my mother discovered his perfidy, my father orchestrated a very public rupture with his then current girlfriend. Of course, the end of the affair also ended the excitement of his other ‘secret’ self. Within a few months however, he had entered into yet another ‘hidden’ relationship of stealth and intrigue.
My mother and I were not supposed to know about this fresh betrayal, despite his telling pattern of behavior, and so the compulsion repeated itself yet again. ‘Secretiveness’ loses much of its restless appeal, if those who are betrayed, continue to remain blissfully ignorant. The enticement lies in walking the tightrope of tension between discovery and deception. Young children know this excitement when they cry out to their companions, “I know a secret!” followed by “But I’m not telling you!”
My father’s struggle was not only with my mother however, as his inner conflict and confusion came to the forefront at times. Within this self-destructive compulsion, ‘the two selves’ would betray each other, leaving clues to undo the other, so that arguably, the single true self could then emerge, integrated and free, which of course, never happened. In a sense, he was addicted to his own inner conflict: the excitement of the ‘secret’ struggling with the flagellation of guilt which it spawned.
At least that was the explanation that my mother and I constructed in private, as a means of coming to terms with his unpredictable glumness. We came to believe that this inner conflict was the real, deeper basis of his tempestuous mood swings. It was useful for us to think of it as a chronic illness, his ‘demons’ as we called it. He would become uncontrollably angry at a slight inconvenience, then later seek forgiveness to the point of obsequiousness.
Between these two poles, there were lengthy periods when he would isolate himself, mute and unapproachable, in a dark space of self-hatred. At other times, often lasting several weeks, he would emerge as a caring, gentle and loving individual. My father, Neocles, was a hard man to love, yet he was always supportive, if not expressive, when I truly needed him. Or, am I still a blind apologist for him, seduced by my own need for his love and approval??
Since my poor mother’s death, Marius tells me that my penitent father has had no further liaisons with other women. Furthermore, his moods have stabilized greatly, though the dread melancholia retains its stranglehold.
It would seem that the explanation my mother and I adopted was more accurate than we could have imagined, though at such a price. As an unwitting protagonist in the drama, my mother’s death provided a partial resolution of Neocles’ inner conflict, since she was the necessary focus of his marital betrayal. On the other hand, her death also inaugurated a fresh baggage of guilt.
For me, he will always be my father who suffers from an unfortunate illness, and who I continue to love. I have now come to a point where I have turned the whole matter on its head and choose to think of it in positive terms. I am lucky to be blessed with two fathers, Neocles and Valerius, different in every respect. One staid but melancholic, the other, gregarious but manipulative. Both flawed, beset by demons, as are all of us, not least myself. The fact that my ‘two fathers’ are such different personalities actually aids my adjustment. In the recesses of my mind, they don’t compete with each other, but are neatly assigned, each in their separate, sealed box.
Lingering questions still remain. I continue to ask myself whether I have other unknown siblings out there? I also wonder about the telling signs that I ignored in my mother’s own behavior prior to her disappearance? Did my self-appointed role as her lead defender and advocate, intently focused on my father’s misadventures, blind me to her deteriorating condition?
If so, I should have listened to the emptiness that she increasingly raised in our meager conversations, in one who was normally so vital and expressive. Instead I dismissed it, because ‘I’ needed her to be back to normal, for me. If I had been there for her, instead of focused on my own needs, I could possibly have intervened on that fatal night.
As with my ‘sister’ Servilia, I share a level of guilt for my mother’s death, as she does also, in regard to her mother’s death. We are both enmeshed in this fatal legacy.
I too, am surely implicated!
Too much has happened!
I have exhausted myself, looking at matters from every possible angle, teasing out every implication, correlation, permutation, and explication, sensibly and rationally. I’ve been a very busy little philosopher. ‘Overthinking’, I think they call it.
Despite my ceaseless rumination, my feelings nonetheless remain jumbled and confused. Even in idle moments, my mind wanders back grudgingly to the question of my paternity, and the treadmill of emotion starts all over again. Try as I may, it seems that I can’t just let it go and move on with my life. I’m stuck in a treadmill of my own making!
It feels as if something is still missing, holding me back. I know not what it is, or where to start. I’ve reached the limits of my systematic thinking. I go about the drudgery of my daily activities, but beneath my lackluster attitude, I’m bursting inside, ready to explode: too much has happened, too quickly.
I need to talk with someone. Someone who is at once comfortably with all the bizarre circumstances, yet at the same time, can listen to me impartially as an objective third-party and help me sort out the tangle of emotions and facts. Accessible, supportive, wise, unbiased. Quite a list. But who? I’m sitting in my old bedroom, musing over this question, when I hear the splash of water outside the door.
Marius is washing the kitchen floor, in his characteristic unhurried manner. Even these small movements, the measured to and fro of the mop, seem to be imbued with thoughtfulness, a transcendence, as if he is savoring a grand task. There is an innate appeal to this, yet curiously, I find it disturbing to my sensibility of action and achievement.
Nominally a ‘slave’, Marius is my father’s age, and while he maintains his servile schedule of chores, he is treated as an ‘invisible’ member of the family. He surely must witness everything that happens in the main house, yet he remains discreet and trustworthy. He lives and eats alone, humble and kind-hearted, in a small detached cottage. In being respectful to all, he gains immeasurable respect by all.
I known little of his origins. My father has alluded to the rumor that Marius was a tribal ‘holy man’ of some kind, a Zoroastrian who worshipped fire, from one of the nomadic, warrior tribes of the eastern steppes, in the region of Scythia. So quiet, he goes about his chores like a benign spirit, bearing no grudges, needing no correction, nor seeking any approval.
My father is away teaching school, doing what he loves, so this is an opportune time. I approach Marius and ask him if we could talk privately in his cottage. He agrees immediately without question, unblinking, as if it was an everyday request and I had asked him to clean my room.
We sit together in his cottage, with his chair off to one side. With the door wide open, I have an unrestricted view of the flourishing vegetable garden and adjacent orchard. I find that it is easier for me to talk openly when I don’t have to stare at someone directly in the face.
“If I am not who I thought I was, then who, or what am I? I’ve lost my way, Marius.”
I assume, correctly as it turns out, that Marius is fully informed. My father also, uses him as a sounding board.
“People are not perfect,” he replies dryly, then in the manner of an afterthought, adds a laconic twist, “anymore than you are.”
“Do you mean that I should just forgive them,” I ask, tersely, “as if all the lies are nothing but a mere slight between friends?”
“What is it that you are forgiving, or not forgiving, in this case?”
I have the impression, totally unfounded, that Marius loved my Mother. Most people did.
“I find it difficult to forgive the lie that Valerius and my mother continued to foster, year after year, upon which Servilia and I built our lives. Each of us trusted our parent, and that trust was sorely misplaced.”
“They let you down,” Marius remarks, barely above a whisper, “Betrayed your trust?”
“The very foundation of our lives has been torn apart, much as one casually rips a papyrus sheet in two. We’re ripped open, vulnerable!”
“Why don’t you speak for your own feelings, without including Servilia,” came the pointed reply, “I’m sure Servilia can speak for herself.”
I’m stunned, and more than a little offended, at Marius’ curt reply. Is it just factual bluntness, perhaps with an edge, or did he really mean it to be a cutting remark? I have to remember that I asked for this meeting.
“So I’m angry, me alone, as you say. Forget Servilia,” I reply, facetiously, “so where do we go from here?”
“So your mother should have told you then? When? At what age?”
This loaded question, heavily loaded indeed, sets me back. Firstly, it puts the responsibility on my beloved mother. If I object, Marius will say that she was my primary parent-figure, so that she should have told me the truth. It was her responsibility. I have to admit reluctantly, that he is right on that count.
In addition, Servilia has been summarily removed from the discussion, along with Valerius. I feel like I’m being pushed, yet he only asks questions? I need to think ahead where he is going with all this. It’s difficult for me to let down my defenses.
I lose any sense of time as I attempt to follow the implications of Marius’ reasoning. I was expecting weighty advice, but I have received none whatsoever, which perhaps, may be a good thing. After a lengthy period, I answer Marius’ question, halfheartedly, not really believing that it will withstand his probing scrutiny.
“Well, she probably should have told me the truth about my real father when I reached an age where I could reason for myself, say twelve years old.”
“And what would be your reaction at twelve years old? Would you have been relieved and thankful?”
“I’m sure I would have been very angry at first,” I admit, “but I’d get over it in time.”
“And what would happen around the household before you got over it, while you are acting out your anger on everyone?”
I see where he is going with this, as I suspected.
“You mean that I would refuse to believe it,” I murmur, “and ask my father directly if I was his son?”
“Would you do that, even if your mother said not to do so?”
His query is deceptively simple, yet why do I feel a conflict churning within me? Time passes, as I become fully absorbed in his question, seemingly so innocent yet loaded with latent implications. I struggle evasively to find an escape chute, but decide instead, to be brutally honest.
“Yes, I would probably ask him. Even if I had not done so, he would certainly have questioned me sternly about my anger, and would find out anyway. It was clear that he already had his suspicions.”
“He already had his suspicions?” Marius repeats, framing my statement as a question.
I stare intently at the garden, rubbing my temples, thinking about my own statement, which crosses the line between hypothetical questions and factual narrative. It’s true. My father did indeed, have his suspicions! Probably more than that, as I delve back in time, straining to recall. I remember his offhand sarcastic probing, leveled at my mother, who mostly ignored him.
“Yes”, I reply simply, succinctly, as I see the ‘pathway’ of associations and causes stretching onwards, ahead of me.
“So what about you? You tell me that your father had already suspected that you were not his son. Does that mean that you also had your own suspicions?”
The question is disturbing, even provocative, as I suspect Marius intended it to be. I stare at the garden. It looks like the asparagus is ready for harvest, though the beets still have a way to go. Memories begin to emerge, feint traces at first, forming into broken snatches, then finally, lucid and revelatory, from that vast repository of times past. Asparagus is my father’s favorite vegetable. Or is it to be step-father? What is it that constitutes a ‘father’, if I am forced to choose: biology, or parenting?
Neocles has a nuggety, muscular build, prominent jowls, an aquiline nose and black, bushy eyebrows, while I lean towards ectomorphic features, the obverse of his profile is almost every way. A slight build, though sinewy and strong, I inherited (from whom?) a thin, bony face, stub nose, almost no visible eyebrows, and blondish, wavy hair.
I had reached sixteen years, that callow age of questioning everything, including the noticeable disparity in physiques between my father and myself. I remember now that we had a brief conversation about it, if ‘conversation’ is the appropriate term for such an acrimonious exchange.
While I was intrigued by the discordant family comparison in our profiles, I recall that he was obviously annoyed, even more than normal, by my questions. Naïve as I was, I remember now that I had asked him unabashedly if he was really my father, or whether I was adopted.
He erupted in fury, eyes bulging, such that I cowered backwards, fearing that for the first time, he was about to strike me. He thought better of it of course, and instead, stormed out of the house, cursing as he went. Being a powerless cuckold really didn’t sit well with him!
The truth should have been obvious, made explicit by my father’s abnormal reaction, yet at the time, I blithely ignored its meaning. I put it down to another one of his moody outbursts, and quickly dismissed it. Nevertheless, his eruption was extreme, even for him, a singular event that stands alone as I sift through my garnered recollections.
“And what would happen then,” says Marius softly, relentless in his enquiry, “if your father truly believed that you are not his son?
“I imagine that there would be a huge fight between my parents. My mother would probably leave, when he begins yelling at her. She won’t tolerate his abuse.”
I hear myself say the words innocently, then uncannily, without any effort on my part, the words become memories that change into jumbled scenes, all running together: the rain pelting thunderously on the tiled roof, and my mother and father yelling and screaming; as I lie on the flagstone floor where my father pushed me, Melanchaetes barking at him, as he marches me back to my bedroom; the flood of scenes continuing in flashes, playing and replaying. I realize that despite their poignancy, these scenes are not presently happening, that I have entered some kind of trance, yet I remain powerless to stop it.
My brain is racing on by itself. I am caught between two worlds, past and present, experiencing both at the same time.
I have blundered onto the unconscionable truth, buried within my memories, and I didn’t see it coming!
My mother’s disappearance happened on the same day as my discussion with my father in which I had unwittingly questioned my own paternity. Until this moment, I had never connected these two events, yet in that minuscule increment of time, my world changed forever.
In my father’s volatile mindset however, my questions had served to corroborate his long-held suspicions. He may have assumed that even I knew the truth, though it was concealed from him by a pernicious conspiracy.
In his feverish state, did he believe that I had been less than forthright with him in my oblique questioning, even perhaps, artfully raising the possibility of adoption as a ruse to legitimize the matter? Was I purposefully sent along to offer him an alternative face-saving explanation? A convenient cover-up for the cuckold?
I begin to understand the roots of my father’s anger, though it is blatantly self-righteous, since it conveniently ignores his own checkered history of infidelity. It would seem that illegitimate progeny (‘that’s me’), rather than infidelity, is his measure of immorality, and deemed a willful consequence, akin to a calculated act of defiance by my mother. In my father’s tortured world, cuckold is nothing but a synonym for castration.
I sit here, immobile, stunned. I stare out once again at the same asparagus, unchanged, though the same can not be said for me. The whole, thorny issue of my paternity, and the attempt to conceal it, is inextricably linked to my mother’s death. I am the incarnated ‘dirty little secret’ of which my father accused my mother in their final argument, the reason that she ran off into the stormy night. Without me, the material ‘evidence’, her infidelity would be no more than his.
My head is reeling. I try to take stock mentally. So much has happened in the last few days, and so, the chaos continues. First, my father is not really my father, then next, my beloved Servilia and sexual partner, is really my sister. Finally, I uncover yet another trauma, even more calamitous. Much to my dismay, I find out now that I am the latent reason lurking behind my mother’s disappearance.
My very existence as well as my mother’s infidelity, no less than her fate, are one and the same thing! The truth was there all this time, staring me in the face. I just needed to connect the dots, which I had obviously, though not intentionally, avoided doing. Marius helped me uncover that which I already knew, albeit subliminally. Again, the known unknown rears up before me. Too much.
I get up off the chair, floundering, unsteady. Tears fill my eyes, rolling down my cheeks, yet my face feels strangely contorted, frozen into a grimace. Tears for me, for my mother, …and my father, too. I stagger out of the cottage, and somehow reach my bedroom. Marius is talking to me. Though I can hear his words, interestingly, they sound muffled and distorted, as if they are echoing down a distant tunnel. I can’t comprehend the meaning of what he is saying, though I know he is repeating something, over and over.
I lie down, and close my eyes, eager to shut out the world in the hope of gaining some modicum of relief. All these disparate scenes, and incessant talking faces, still continue their inane revelry, playing out as they will, like a collage of crazed puppetry.
I can only cope with one discordant world at a time, or else slip into the refuge of madness, or suicide. Now, I begin to understand my mother’s raw, bewildered state, and even, her ‘senseless’ death which improbably, becomes ‘sensible’ though not acceptable. I have to think of those left behind, Servilia for example, that my impulsive death may fuel a relentless pattern of self-destruction.
I wake up the following morning, alert and calm, though my head aches. I remember lying down, in a state of collapse, during the previous afternoon, after my enlightening talk with Marius. I must have been emotionally exhausted; no, more than that, an emotional crisis, the like of which I have never experienced before or since, a total meltdown.
It feels like I went to the very brink,…but not over the cliff. It seems that cliffs come in all varieties. This epiphany certainly took me nearer to the truth, but beware — was I ready for the cliff edge of raw reality, or was my delusional ‘normal’ world, now gone forever, a sweeter place? There’s no going back.
I’m disturbed by the clamor and aromas of breakfast, frying pans rattling, pots boiling over, adding to my headache. At the same time, it’s a familiar, comforting commotion, and bereft of dinner, I realize that I’m insatiably hungry.
My father is serving his favorite dish of staititas pancakes, sizzling in olive oil, made according to his own inventive recipe of spelt flour, honey, and curdled milk, topped with sesame and melted cheese.
When my father cooks, unlike Marius, he has an infamous reputation for using almost every available kitchen utensil. Coordination and efficiency do not figure in his temperamental strengths, though his staititas however, more than compensate for the mess. I smile to myself. Life goes on, unabated. Cooking means he’s in one of his euphoric moods.
Half-awake, I slip into a morning reverie. While I may have been happily sleeping, it seems as though my brain has been busy, working overtime. I’m inundated by a parade of fresh thoughts that have their own momentum, while strangely, I remain a bystander. I watch them pass by for inspection, dispassionately, detached from them, as if I am seated in an amphitheater, many rows back. Curious, entertained, but not overly involved.
Was my mother’s death a self-inflicted retribution for her shame, when at the height of their argument, my father called her out on it? The shame of a betrayal and deception that conflicted with her own high moral code of goodness towards others, as well as her own sense of herself generally, as a good woman. She had endured this nagging conflict and shame for sixteen years, but could do so no longer!
Had she been planning her retribution beforehand, as a future possibility? Was she slowly building up the courage and means to take action, should the shame ever become so intense that it overwhelmed her drive for life? The act of leaving her scandals tilts the balance of probability against her death as an act of impulsivity. If so, the motive was long in the planning, and greater than a singular argument with Neocles.
They had frequent arguments of course, though this one was different. For the first time, it centered on her enduring shame, her “dirty little secret”, my paternity, that struck at the crux of her moral code and selfhood. The weapon of retribution had been slowly assembled, but this last argument pulled the trigger on her life-and-death struggle.
So be it.
I have come to realize, with Marius’ help, that in the course of my life, I must take on the pain of being fully present if I want to be fully alive. I can’t pick and choose with my memories, as if from a menu, however unwanted, pathetic, or melancholic those memories may be. The ‘orphan’ memories need a home, or else they will break the door down, to gain at least a nodding recognition, if not full acceptance.
Trying to keep my life limited to positive experiences and memories, not only serves to curtail my felt experience of life, but is also preternaturally impossible. The dubious search for constant happiness for example, ultimately ends with boredom and frustration, which are surely displeasures, as the most mighty of princes have found. On the other hand, tranquility, the embracing of life day by day, as it unfolds naturally, is attainable by the simplest of peoples. I have built my ‘philosophy’ on that principle.
I leave this ‘amphitheater’ of my mind, and its circus arena of wild thoughts, fully awake now, and spring out of bed for a pleasant, domestic breakfast with my father.
He’s pleased to see me, jocular and engaging, even merry. Following an indulgent breakfast, more than I needed, I compliment his culinary skills. His staititas really are delicious…and filling. He beams with satisfaction, and his simple joy gratifies me. A gift given is a gift received.
Only,….. I am left now to clean the kitchen pots and pans by myself!
Oh, Marius, where are you?
He knew my father was cooking today, and prudently, remembered that the far garden bed urgently required irrigation. Duty calls!
Pulling on my tattered chitonium that I had once used for such chores, a relic from younger days, I catch myself in this frozen moment of time. I feel unleashed, unblocked, flowing in a way that is new for me, ready to move on with life. I am at peace with my mother…..
…..and also, ‘both’ of my fathers, the old and the new.
Valerius greets me with his trademark Roman legionnaire salute, a symbol from his homeland, which interestingly, he appropriates to good effect as a businessman.
Such a greeting not only sets him apart from commonplace Athenian merchants. It also indicates that he is an outsider who is not embroiled in partisan city-state politics. Servilia has told me that, within elite business circles, he is famous for his eccentric gestures, played out amidst much wine and general merriment. His trading partners, surprised at first, have not only come to accept such irregular embellishments, but moreover, now eagerly expect them.
“Valerius in Roman legionnaire costume…his showmanship”
They were not to be disappointed in his showmanship, for example, when he chose to wear a gold wreath crown while closing a recent business transaction. He also adorned himself with the metallic trim costume and double-face mask of the god Janus. Ever sensitive to others perceptions, Valerius dug into his own Roman pantheon and chose the mantle of Janus as a distinctly Roman god. Janus has no local Greek equivalent, so it would not offend the sacerdotal sensitivities of the Athenians or their overlords, the Macedonians.
Janus was doubly appropriate, he explained, since the choice also conveyed a business-relayed message, as the glitzy bright god of beginnings and transitions, looking backwards to the past (successes) and looking forwards to the future (opportunities). If quizzed about his outlandish costumes, Valerius replies innocently that he only wants to inject some much needed levity into what would otherwise be rather joyless business transactions.
“There is no appeal in doing business,” has become his stock byline, “without the lubricant of entertainment.”
I strongly suspect that he artfully cultivates this lustrous image as a shrewd business strategy. At the same time, I believe that he also enjoys entertaining others wholeheartedly as a spontaneous expression of his own gregarious and generous personality. Making others happy is intrinsic to him, and the fact that this same irrepressible quality also makes him a natural salesman, not to mention a wealthy gentleman of high repute, is almost a secondary spinoff. Not surprisingly, his boisterous parties and exotic costuming become memorable as a frequent topic of conversation in the rarified circles of the rich merchant elite.
Tight-lipped, dour merchants have been known to convulse with laughter, bent double, holding their sides. In doing so however, they are talking about him. Whether the perception is that of facile publicity, or crass notoriety, it matters little to Valerius, so long as people are happy, which in turn, reinforces his presence in the competitive marketplace of merchant shipping. To know him, is not to forget him.
Other traders are even emulating his shenanigans, paying the ultimate compliment, by recognizing the halo effect of his astute marketing, although there can only ever be one Valerius. There is something at once engaging and distinguished, almost magical, in his demeanor.
Beyond the glimmer and sparkle, Valerius knows that simple trust is what really matters. He remains at heart, the consummate purveyor of genuine goodwill, in business or otherwise — and irresistibly, people love him for this!
Today however, his outstretched arm trembles noticeably as he presents the salute, and we both tacitly agree to ignore it.
Privately, I am worried and, with family in short supply, I don’t want to lose this other lost father, just as we are getting to know each other. He compensates with an offhanded heartiness that is endearing in its warmth, the old ebullient Valerius, true to form. He’s hard to resist, infectious even, and I embrace his love of life.
“I’m concerned for your future,” he opines, suddenly turning serious, “my good friend, the Gymniasarch of Mytilene has given you sage advice to avoid teaching in public places like an agora or gymnasium. I agree with him emphatically. Your teaching is provocative, and I know that is your just intention. I also agree with it, just as I attract attention in dressing up outrageously for my business meetings. But business is one thing, while peoples’ core beliefs are another thing altogether. You wish to provoke peoples’ minds for their own sakes, towards a greater good, which is an honorable motive, but there are those for whom your words only provoke anger. This can lead to violence, either directly or through the manipulation of officials such as the Gymnasiarch.”
Valerius takes to his couch, and indicates for me to do the same. His movements are painfully slow and deliberated. My respect for his wisdom however, has grown immensely since our first meetings. Once settled comfortably, he continues.
“Your teaching must be restricted to the private residences and gardens of powerful patrons who can endorse and protect you. I had arranged all this for you with my merchant friends in Lampsacus…..but you are willful and stubborn, just like your sister, so you chose Mytilene instead, a hotbed of political dissidents. You taught openly in the public agora, inciting anger and fomenting trouble which can quickly escalate to mob rebellion in a marginal city like Mytilene. Spurred on by the Aristotelians, you played into their hands. Officialdom was left with no other option but to react punitively, which may easily have ended with your crucifixion.”
I lower my head in heartfelt contrition, avoiding his steady gaze. Valerius doesn’t raise his voice, yet his measured speech is more compelling than any dramatic gestures.
“Yes, I agree. I misjudged the situation profoundly and didn’t trust you, as I should have done, and must apologize. I gave you small return for your bounteous generosity.”
“You avoided the sad fate of the Hector,” he continues, in his rational, monotone manner, “only to put yourself in equal peril. In your innocence, you failed to realize what is common knowledge, that the Aristotelians have a monopoly on philosophy teaching in Mytilene.”
We are both sitting on lounges now, rather than lying, bent forward towards each other, quite close together, each of us intimate and attentive to the other. While he relates the sorry tale of my misadventures, what I hear is paternal concern rather than judgement, nor do I feel any need to be defensive.
The conversation is draining for him, and he leans back, in a spasm of coughing. His resilience is impaired, yet he trusts me in exposing his vulnerability. His openness is profoundly touching. While he recovers, I pick up the thread.
“In my future teaching, I know that I must pay special attention to my safety. I realize that my heterodoxy as a free-thinker makes me a sitting target for other traditional schools, whose spirit of ‘competition’ extends to violence, and even judicial murder. I never counted on that. But I have another matter that requires your advice and experience?”
He smiles at my request, flattered perhaps, much as a caring father would seek to guide a prodigal son. I feel as if we have broken through an invisible barrier. He doesn’t want me as a sniveling ‘repentant sinner’, leaking filial deference, nor does he seek to control my life. We don’t discuss it, but we both know what has happened, unspoken between us. I put my question before him, with more than a touch of wishful thinking.
“Avoiding public forums for my teaching however, raises another question. How can I gather a community of likeminded friends for discussion and debate if I am sitting comfortably at home, lost in introspective isolation?”
My ‘father’ nods as he listens attentively, pauses to carefully consider all options and consequences, then replies in that characteristic tone that I have come to appreciate —- slow, even, and thoughtful. Such a distinctive mode of response is instructive of itself, one that I hope to emulate.
“You will need influential patrons, at least initially, until you become established in your own right. Such patrons, high-ranking merchant friends of mine, will endorse your teaching, and facilitate your political entry. They will discuss your ideas, thereby raising interest in their social circles, or at least idle curiosity, enough that their colleagues and friends will attend your garden symposiums so that they also can provide comment when they in turn host their own dinner parties. You become the latest gossip! The rest is up to you.”
At this point, Valerius, my ‘father’, grabs my hand to lend significance to his words. The human touch, literally.
“You are safe so long as you remain in your patron’s garden. While you may think that this emphasis on safety is a negative, that isolates you from possible followers, you may want to turn the whole idea on its head, since it is actual a positive. What you have is a shrewd strategy. Your residential garden symposiums set you apart from the other philosophy schools who actively solicit in public areas, as if they are mere tinkers and hawkers, selling their wares amidst the raucous of the agora.”
He gasps, breathless, his once resonant voice has become feathery with fatigue. A long pause follows….. then he gathers his strength, and raps up with his closure.
“Your school is then immediately different from all the rest, appealing in its meditative garden setting, a context that is truly consistent with its philosophical goals.”
As the experienced trader, shrewd negotiator, and strategist, he leaves his punchline to the last.
“Let them come to you; you don’t go to them!”