PART V

"Followers"

PART V | Followers

Chapters 42-44

Lampsacus, Ionia

306 BC

Anaxagoras was the first philosopher to explain that the moon shines at night due to reflected light from the sun.

It was he who brought natural philosophy and the idea of observational enquiry from his homeland of Ionia to Athens. Such was his influence that Pericles consulted him before making the final decision to construct the Parthenon.

Anaxagoras was also behind those fateful scenes that erupted into the long, disastrous Peloponnesian War. After a series of grievous losses, the Athenians looked for scapegoats, as all people are wont to do. As an influential foreigner, Anaxagoras was an obvious target. Narrowly avoiding execution, he eventually found a safe refuge in Lampsacus.

He was greatly honored by that city-state, which has a long history of tolerance and inclusion. Upon his death, the good citizens of Lampsacus celebrated Anaxagoras’ wisdom with a grandiose marble altar to ‘Mind and Truth’, including a perpetual flame, and still venerate the anniversary of his death.

Lampsacenes begin with goodwill towards others, and expect it to be returned. Because of its welcoming attitude and reputation as a safe haven, Valerius chose this city-state as an ideal retreat for me to begin my mission, as did Anaxagoras in past times. Prior to my recent entry, for example, a colony of Athenian Platonists had turned up, bent on making ideological converts.

It soon appeared to the Lampsacenes that surprisingly, the new arrivals were abusing the generous welcome offered to them. This particular group were exceptionally zealous, putting aside the familiar tropes of Platonism. In their place, they favored a fiery brand of radicalism in which they somehow regarded themselves as the anointed ones, called upon to convert Plato’s ‘Republic’ into an earthly reality. They would become the elite ‘Guardians’ described by the great philosopher in his famous treatise. Such an arrogant pretension however, did not sit well with their provincial hosts. Furthermore, their ‘noble cause’ was not helped by an exclusive philosophy that denied freed-slaves and women entry to their symposia. It was not forgotten that the venerable Anaxagoras, revered by the local citizenry, had been exiled from Athens, barely escaping with his life.

As the saying goes, arrogance begets hubris. It wasn’t long before the strangers were hauled ingloriously before the Macedonian ruler, King Lysimachus, and expelled in disgrace at the point of a spear.

Their despotic attitude had made a mockery of the enlightened philosophy which they had inherited. This was not how Plato had run his school in the Academy district of Athens. On the other hand, I had not forgotten the Gymniasarch’s warning on the importance of political context: Valerius has already contacted his merchant partners, as sponsors and patrons for me. The ground has been tilled and furrowed, and now it’s my turn to sow the seed.

The expulsion of the Platonists reminded me of my own impulsive attempt to push my way into Mytilene philosophical circles. I must have been conceited in my own way, I suppose, though certainly not elitist. The planning of my entry into Lampsacus however, has been meticulous, and further blessed by good fortune. To my great surprise, I find a veritable absence of philosophical schools following the forced departure of the Platonists.

I can’t help wondering whether Valerius’ long reach had anything to do with the rapid demise of the Platonists? He has already mentioned to me that he is friends with the Overseer to the court of King Lysimachus. Is Valerius making up for lost time with me? Intervention or otherwise, providence has provided me with a wonderful opportunity. I trust that I may be worthy of it.

Located on the eastern side of the Hellespont at its northern peninsula, known as the Troada, in the region of Homer’s Troy, Lampsacus is a prosperous city-state, renown for its worship of the phallic god, Priapus.

I arrive on the harbor dock to find Hermarchus and several Mytilene friends waiting for me, a joyful reunion. Approaching me at a brisk clip is a wiry graybeard, attired in a pure white, elegantly draped toga, followed by a phalanx of servants. After my disastrous Mytilene experience, I hold back, cautiously, not knowing what to expect.

“Hail and welcome, Epicurus of Colophon, philosopher of good standing, son of Valerius Mela? I am Idomeneus, proud citizen of Lampsacus and high steward to the court of King Lysimachus, who greatly values learned men and extends his greetings and good will.”

I remain somewhat shaken, an awkward situation where one has learnt to expect the worse, defenses at the ready, only to find that now, my temerity has become an embarrassment: all the city gates are flung wide open, and invitations abound! I lamely mumble my appreciation to Idomeneus and emboldened by the mention of Valerius’ name, I go straight to the issue that is uppermost on my mind.

“With your kind assistance, may I be considered as a suppliant so as to obtain court approval for my teaching?”

Idomeneus’ face opens up into a generous smile, and I take stock that he is a tall man, as I look up at his soft, intelligent eyes. He seems surprised by my wariness.

“My dear Epicurus, you already have court approval, otherwise I wouldn’t be standing here before you. Lampsacus has offered itself as a sanctuary and home to philosophers of good repute since before the time of the great Anaxagoras. My servants will gather your baggage and I hope that you and your friends will consider yourselves to be honored guests of my family?”

With this guarantee of protection, I am free to teach in Lampsacus. I acknowledge my heartfelt gratitude, while my relief is palpable. Judging by the accent he placed upon ‘philosophers of good repute’, I take this to be a veiled rebuke of the recently departed Platonists. Furthermore, I find out that Idomeneus is an eminent philosopher-biographer in his own right, so that we have much in common and soon become fast friends.

Idomeneus’ residence is another grand estate, resembling that of their close friend Valerius. I am given exclusive use of their complex of rambling garden terraces, including a large covered portico for my formal teachings, to foster my idea of a community of friends.

Idomeneus’ Villa, Lampsacus
(Entrance to the first ‘School of the Garden’)

The combination of intellectual curiosity, an open-minded attitude, and a Lampsacian culture of hospitality is irresistible. As Valerius predicted, it isn’t long before word spreads and our diminutive Mytilenian group blossoms into an amorphous company — all ages, genders, creeds, and races are here — spilling out over the estate.

Each shady glade and bower in the garden is occupied by groups, earnest in vigorous debate. It seems to me, that everyone I meet is interrelated by friendship, marriage, or business, so that the whole consists of one vast Lampsacene family. I and my group, much to our amazement, have been seamlessly absorbed and included among them. Of course, Valerius knew this would happen.

We have now become, if I listen to others, the ‘School of the Garden’, a spontaneous designation which I much prefer over the pompous-sounding ‘Epicurean School’. I am happy to be left out of any protracted naming debate. I wonder what Servilia would think of all this: the foundation of a philosophy school, as we spoke of it often in our futuristic plans. What was once a mere daydream has now come to pass?

I feel born again, a regenerate, rising from the ashes of my traumatic Mytilene experiences.

Like the sacred phoenix of Phoenicia!

Lampsacus, Ionia

304 BC

At our regular daily forum under the portico, I am asked to enlarge upon the central precepts of our community, that pleasure and tranquillity are the supreme goals of life.

While this statement sounds deceptively simple, it has profound implications for every moment of our daily existence. I stand up to begin my address, spiced up with a few new ideas and examples. I begin to speak, but only manage a few words. Timocrates stands up, facing me, and drowns out my words with peals of derisive laughter.

“I find your philosophy to be repugnant and self-serving, ripe with sexual permissiveness of all kinds, with you at its center like a bloated black spider, preying upon others entangled in your seductive web.”

“Timocrates…with peals of derisive laughter”

I sit down feebly, perplexed, shocked by his brashness. Unexpected certainly, though I am not totally surprised.

Timocrates continues, unabated.

“You give it the noble name of philosophy to hide behind, blinding others to your own lecherousness. You manipulate all these people for lurid purposes: forget tranquility — you want money, sex, and power!”

A rueful hush falls over the gathering, no shuffling, not even a cough. Everyone is spellbound.

Metrodorus, feeling responsible for his older, wayward brother, begins to rise off his chair, towards Timocrates. I flick my hand downwards several times as a gesture for Metrodorus to remain seated. I know that his brother’s anger, fueled by self-hatred, is not yet spent. Anything that Metrodorus has to say, however cautious and pacifying, would be immediately misconstrued, and only serve to fuel the flames. More is to come, I’m sure, that needs to have its day. The ambush isn’t finished.

“You strut around here as a proud Athenian, even as a proud hoplite warrior, lording it over us poor villagers. Yet how many people here know that you were born and raised on the remote island of Samos. This makes you a Samian, a poor peasant no more worthy than us, regardless of the false propaganda which you spread to impress others.”

I’m not sure the cultured assembly appreciates being included in his harangue, nor Timocrates’ baseless characterization of them. Clearly, his intent is to provoke an impulsive reaction from me, to stir up my equanimity into a raw, defensive outburst. He knows that the resultant confrontation would be a breach of the house rules that regulate our community, to which we have all agreed. While he may have embarrassed himself, I have much more to lose. I will have compromised myself and our shared philosophy in one foul step.

He pauses, and looks to me contemptuously, scowling, waiting for my defensive rejoinder. He is testing my mettle, such that even a gentle rebuke from me, would garner an avalanche of scorn. I bite my lip, and stare back with a laconic smile, feigning tolerance and goodwill, but remain resolutely seated, silent as the Sphinx. It’s hard for me, not to feel betrayed. The assembly titters and murmurs, uncomfortably, shifting and turning on their benches. This is not what they came for, or wanted.

It’s a trap, all too obvious, and I’m not ready to blithely saunter into it, despite the gross provocation. Obvious to others as well it seems, who depart the portico: only a trickle nearest the door at first, then a surge of friends, shaking their heads, disdainfully. Only an ominous few remain, his cadre of conspirators.

I have observed this unforeseen crisis slowly gestating for the last two years, with the potential to tear our precious community apart.

The advent of house rules, binding on all of us including myself, further aggravated poor Timocrates’ process of alienation. Looking for inner solace perhaps, my mind wanders over the various supportive personalities in our community of friends.

Everyone’s favorite, the mathematician Polyaenus, with his self-effacing and affable manner, can be counted upon to facilitate most rancorous situations. Not this one, however, whose roots run too deep. At the opposite pole, stands the stolid Metrodorus, the paragon of forthright honesty, who unabashedly speaks his mind, regardless of what others may think of him. Hermarchus, Metrodorus, and Polyaenus, all leaders with different strengths, yet friends together, have gradually come to assume informal roles as trusted advisers. There lies the nub of the present crisis.

Timocrates, volatile and opinionated by nature, is patently envious of the growing influence of his younger brother, Metrodorus. Yet I have treated Timocrates with great kindness, hoping to placate him. Despite my best efforts, his overwrought, blighting subjectivity takes offense at the most well-intentioned advice. My words are instantly drained of all goodness, twisted beyond recognition, so that he hears only a spiteful condescension.

He bandies around his favorite word, ‘solipsism’, a label of convenience which he cites as his own personal philosophy: that the Self can know nothing outside its own actions. He stretches its controversial meaning to include most things he deems undesirable, especially the philosophies of our community.

At the same time, he basks in the deference such an obtuse label gives him. He has become the anointed purveyor of its many interpretations, which as far as I can make out, is such a solipsistic thing to do. Yet I am being too harsh, and concede that our philosophies do accent pleasure, which in unkind minds, might be construed as ‘solipsistic’.

Whatever the ornate label, I give up trying to reach out to him and retreat into silence and tranquillity. What Timocrates misses, or chooses to misunderstand, is that any pleasure must lie within the bounds of tranquillity, otherwise it ceases to be pleasure. A simple idea, and no pretentious solipsism is required.

What started with Timocrates as whispered disgruntlement grew into impudence, and finally, into open defiance. At one time or another, all the friends have become the objects of his increasing scrutiny and vitriolic judgement, not least myself. Yet the crisis also goes back to an earlier time, to the first six months of the Lampsacus community.

Common to all embryonic movements, as the number of friends increases, with a greater mix of character types, so does the frequency and level of heated debates also increase. Something I had never anticipated.

There arises a corresponding need for some form of corrective by which debates remain productive, moving forward, rather than lapsing into destructive enmity. Much as I am by nature opposed to any restrictions, my three advisers upon request, made several pragmatic suggestions.

With considerable reluctance, even sadness, I put their suggestions before the assembled community for discussion. Somewhat to my surprise, the ‘rules’, as they have come to be called, are agreed by a resounding majority. I suspect perhaps, that most people had foreseen the pressing need for some mutual covenant. There are only a few dissenting voices, including that of Timocrates.

The ‘rules’, if such they be, are short, simple, and left deliberately vague, applying to all of us, including me. For example, that friends should remain open-minded at all times, embracing differences wherever possible; that everyone should be self-disclosing and revealing on all matters, though it may detract from their own arguments or prestige; that they should willingly accept reasonable correction from others without harboring resentment.

Since the ‘rules’ appeal to self-regulation, no penalties are assigned, and compliance is naturally assumed.

With most of the friends departed from the portico, Timocrates stands up, stony-faced and tremulous with rage, to deliver what I presume will be his parting announcement. I have said nothing throughout the proceeding.

Sometimes, ‘nothing’ speaks the loudest.

Timocrates makes a final appeal.

“I invite all independent-thinking people to join me now in departing from Epicurus’ tyranny of the mind. We will form our own assembly of free-minded people in which we can discuss our own ideas without supervision from others, and without the restriction of rules. As for you, Metrodoris, you are my brother no longer.”

With that, Timocrates struts out of the portico without looking back, followed by his small gaggle of adherents. Simmering for several years, the schism is finally ended. I comfort Metrodoris, mindful that it was my doctrine that became the instrument of rupture with his only brother. While regretful, he assures me that the separation had been incubating between the two of them long before my arrival. He adds, arguably to console me, that Timocrates had only been waiting for the right opportunity to part ways.

Such a public desertion, laden with canker and angst, nevertheless grieves me greatly. Upon reflection however, it seems that such breakaway groups must be inevitable in communities such as ours. What was once a small intimate circle, originally just Servilia and I conversing atop a Colophon hill, has become a movement in its own right, having its own boundaries, and even (horrors!) comes with rules. These rules however, are only intended to regulate conversation and avoid acrimony.

As a community of friends, everyone is welcome and we do not screen followers, as do other schools. For admission, these other schools also require competencies in mathematics and rhetoric, as well as societal position, wealth, or political connections. We ask for none of that, but our openness incurs consequences, including occasionally, people for whom our community, or any community at all, is not a good match. So it is with poor Timocrates.

People must choose whether to stay within those simple rules of politeness, or else to leave, as is their just right to do so. Either way, I accept their choice without comment. To do otherwise would mean divining what is best for another, and that’s an impossible responsibility. Everyone should be free to make their own choices in life, and if such choices turn out to be regrettable, then the individual has an opportunity to learn by that mistake. It’s a bitter lesson, not to be repeated, as I have found out for myself. Such is the hidden cost of freedom.

My interference would deny that learning, since then I would take responsibility for the choice. Even Timocrates would be welcomed to return, so long as he treats others with politeness and respect. On the other hand, Timocrates performs good service for me as ‘mine enemy’, since I too are prone to mistakes or oversights, and an ‘enemy’ ensures that I learn by such mistakes, providing the sharp stimulus for self-improvement.

A courier has arrived in Lampsacus from Colophon, after an arduous journey by horse relay, signifying an urgent matter.

I receive the scroll silently. As I look down at it, this detached object, seemingly inert yet loaded with dire tidings, I notice my hands are trembling, though I have no feeling in them. I dread to open it.

I recognize the the script immediately, written in a round, clear hand, each sentence beginning with a characteristic flourish, written by my beloved ‘sister’, Servilia.

“My dearest brother Epicurus, one that I love more than life itself, greetings from your humble sister, ever proud of your wonderful accomplishments.

It is with a heavy heart that I must tell you that my father, our father, Valerius, who I know that you also loved, has passed. Another loss. He always seemed indestructible, a fixture, like the firmament of the heavens.

Word had reached me of his failing health. I obtained permission from the High Priestess at Eleusis to travel to his bedside, only to find him in a lamentable state, housebound, exhausted and dispirited.”

I had found a father, who had been lost to me, only to lose him again for a second time. My grief is profound, as it is also sad: I had been looking forward to sharing with him the fulfillment of his well-crafted plan.

Valerius had wanted me to move on with my life, fulfilling the potential that he foresaw. He had paved the way for me with his advice, patronage, and network of connections, yet knowing that he would probably never live to see his plans come to fruition.

Servilia continues, “Yet my arrival was the salve that he needed. He lit up, and came alive again, full of his old good humor. I devoted my time to him, as a loving daughter, ensuring that his last weeks were tranquil and endearing for both of us. Our time together was ‘sublime’, the best time ever, if I can use that word to mean something spiritual that passed between us.”

“It inspires me still, every time I think of it. I know that you say, ‘death is nothing’, and I do agree with you generally, but his death was ‘everything’ compressed into a short time. Our father had lived an exceptional life, as a proper Roman gentleman, trading in political favors, yet keenly aware of decorum, as well as being a patron of the arts.”

Valerius was an extraordinary man, vigorous, genial, and wise, the like of which is rarely encountered. I had foolishly doubted him, only because I couldn’t believe his sincerity was authentic. By default, I projected my own distrustful motives, which he forgave and passed over, as if nothing had happened.

Valerius concerned himself with everyone around him, his generosity extending to the welfare of his own servants, even seeking medical treatment for urgent cases in Athens or Rome. Where he strayed, it was for love, and how can this not be forgiven? It drives all of us the same way, mostly for the good; though sometimes, our everyday selves are momentarily suspended, and pining with unrequited passion, Eros induces us to act in crazy ways.

Hearing from dear Servilia under these morbid circumstances is a bitter-sweet experience. Unbeknownst to me, she has apparently followed my recent gains in Lampsacus, where I now have a large following.

Her letter rekindles old lovelorn feelings. It’s a struggle to relinquish my desire for her as a lover, no longer to be ‘in love’, and yet at the same time, continue to love her as a brother. Plato’s dualism discriminates between these two kinds of loving, allotting them to separate categories. In my particular case, keeping them apart is a difficult matter, perhaps impossible. I will continue to try however, because I care so much for her welfare, and we share so many memories. Whatever the pain, I can’t let her go, as she will always be a part of me.

It is probably better this way, now that she is a priestess herself, cloistered away in an Eleusinian temple. Happiness can never last forever, against the grind of daily life, but loving from afar has its own ersatz reward, a fetish of the soul, forever sacred.

Servilia continues.

“Our father has not forgotten you in designating beneficiaries. First there is a generous inheritance, easily sufficient to purchase a home and teaching garden in Athens. I know that he shared a belief in you, which I do also. Typical of him, he thoughtfully added a further endowment to amply cover your living costs for the remainder of your life, which dear brother, I trust will be a long one.”

She concludes, still as mischievous as ever —she couldn’t help herself, leaving it to the last:

“Until we next meet, and we shall,
I remain your loving sister,
And partner in philosophy
(remember our agreement!),

Servilia”

It was only then that I happened to notice, seemingly added as an afterthought, a short sentence scribbled as marginalia:

“Where Love Lies”

Afterthought or not, it goes straight to my heart, poignant as if all our shared yesterdays are compressed into these succinct, few words.

A telling remembrance of times past, these are the lines of her poem that captured our early love, free and unencumbered by the disparate paths we have now chosen, our much lorded ‘destinies’. I dropped the scroll, unintentionally, as my eyes become dewy.

It was after all, the cypress season of allergies.

 

(To be continued next week)