Afterglow/The Philosopher

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4026363Afterglow — The PhilosopherMitchell Starrett Buck


Friend, thou art no longer young, and thou art unhappy. Thy garden, once so lovely, is in ruins. See; even the god has toppled over among the flowers.

The walls of thy house echo coldly to the distant laughter of thine own youthful voice and the laughter and sighs of those whose very names thou hast forgotten. The guests who come to thee now, come for thy food and wines; they depart, mocking thee along the highway.

Thou shouldst build thyself a new dwelling, at the border of a forest where silence holds no corruption. And, with the nymphs, thou shouldst sacrifice to other gods, at a flat rock lit by slanting rays of sunlight through the trees.

"Thessalos! My friend! Greeting to thee!"

A hand descended on the Greek's shoulder. He turned.

"Ah, Nisos! To thee, greeting. This is a surprise. I heard thou wert in Rome."

Nisos laughed.

"I have been in Mitylene and in Syracuse as well as Rome. Thou seest me greatly changed. I did not enjoy myself in Rome. They expect us there, to teach them how to understand our philosophers, how to appreciate our statues, how to copy our architecture; but they hate us for the birthright they can never have, yet which is ours without asking. They did not make things easy for me; in return I will admit I lavished no affection on them. And here I am. Alexandria is more to my liking."

Thessalos smiled, stroking his beard. Nisos resumed.

"All that matters little, now. In this city, everyone is welcome. But thou—thou also wilt soon travel, my friend, if all I hear of thee is true. Since I saw thee last, thy fame has multiplied upon itself and I have heard much of thee and of thy work in the schools here. I believe thou art a sensation of even this city, where new opinions are a daily occurrence and where marvelous complexities of thought awaken but a passing flash of interest. There has been no such agitation since thy friend, old Aristarchus, started us rolling around the sun. I hear that every priest in the city, from the temples of Isis, Serapis, Amon and, more especially, Aphrodite, has sworn to drive thee away for spreading thy questionings. Have I heard truly?"

"Let us walk, and I will tell thee."

It was the hour of evening, and the broad avenue through the Brucheum, the promenade of the royal quarter, was crowded with a throng of all ages and all peoples. There were Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Jews, dwellers of the desert. There were innumerable women, clad in costumes of all colors, laden with jewels in gold or silver or the blue clay of the Egyptians. Many of these were courtesans who moved proudly in conscious beauty among the groups of men. Here and there, a poor girl, clad simply in a rough tunic, walked with downcast eyes, darting an occasional appealing glance at men who turned carelessly away to admire her more richly bedecked rivals. The wide street was paved with marble. All about uprose the porches and columns of magnificent palaces, overtopped, beyond, with the golden roof of the Sena.

Thessalos had seen nearly three score years and his hair and beard were white. Yet he walked erect with a firm step, and seemed more like a soldier than a diligent and accomplished student of the philosophies of the world.

"Yes," he said, "the priests do not like me, to say the least. But, Nisos, I could not remain silent before their babbled nonsense. All my life, I have studied and observed earnestly, in an effort to perceive the truth of things. Thou knowest this. Life is a mystery. I dared hope I might, in some way, aid in finding the solutions of that mystery and a purpose for the existence of man.

"Some say that nothing is real to us except our souls, all else being a delusion born of ignorance. These men sit for untold years in silent, motionless meditation, fed by the charity of passers-by, watching without emotion their limbs consumed by ulcers and sores. The grasses and vines overwhelm them and unite with the hair of their heads and, in the end, they die—in silence. How strange such men are to our instinct! Others say the object of life is life itself and that each day should be lived for what it is, for whatever it brings us. You know these philosophers. Drunkeness, outrage, debauch! And through it all they smile and leer! . . . Others will question nothing. These men live by faith alone, and the inscrutable condescension of deity, thanking the gods for every breath they draw, for everything and anything which comes to them, their eyes turned continually toward the heavens or their quaking forms prostrate before the altars in the sanctuaries.

"All these and a hundred more! And in this city which makes liars or fools of them all! Here in Alexandria, I have seen horrors and misery without end. I have seen people starving, begging on their knees for even a piece of bread, that they might sustain themselves yet a little longer for future misfortunes. Men are slain in the night, for a piece of silver. I have seen young girls, not even nubile, soliciting the embraces of brutal men, in order to receive the few oboli necessary to purchase their scraps of food . . . Look at these women! A whole people mad with luxury and lust, to snatch the pleasures of a moment. While, in the schools, priests and philosophers deliberate the essence of the soul and the manifestations of the gods!"

The two men had turned from the crowded promenade along a wide street and into the cool green of the Gardens.

"All these abuses," remarked Nisos, "are lamentable. Yet unhappiness, or disbelief in the gods, will not mend them. With sorrows and abuses, there are also beauties in life, if one can see them."

"And thou canst?"

"I have my own philosophy, perhaps intolerable to thee, but sufficient to my needs. I am content. But thou art not; and it is only unhappiness and disbelief which thou canst give to others. If the priests thou disdainest can give no truth, and cannot argue the injustice out of life, at least they can give solace. Has thou realized that, my friend?

"It is not difficult to believe in the gods, although their ways may be strange to us . . . Forget for a moment, the life about thee. Is Amon of the Egyptians only a name, a statue, a painting? Is Zeus an idealism, whose thunderbolts must be the accidents of a blind nature only? Is Dis the fabled ruler of an impossible underworld, and are all the inhabitants of our ancient Olympus the picturings of a childish fancy? Dost thou not believe in Aphrodite? Dost thou deny Demeter, while enjoying her gifts? Tell me if these are not magnificent mysteries? Wilt thou say they mean nothing at all?"

The two seated themselves on a bench near the door of a little silent house, at the side of the path.

The short twilight had deepened. Among the trees, night had already come. The leafy branches lay black against the darkening blue of the sky where there lingered still a pale, cold light. Here and there, a bright star twinkled.

Thessalos rested his forehead on his palm, in silence.

Nisos adjusted his robe, thought for a moment, and resumed.

"I think it is less disbelief than perplexity which troubles thee. But the gods do not ask understanding. How couldst thou hope to understand, or why? Perhaps the gods themselves are but manifestations of something which lies beyond. Can we question that greater spirit, of which our Pan was but the earliest conception, which moves in the heart of all things, which brings the grain forth from the ground into the sunlight, which stirs the sap of the trees and loads the vine with grapes, because men work injustice on one another? Is it less present because we cannot understand, because we have seen the grain broken by hail and the grapes torn from the vines by bellowing winds?

"These very gardens are a place of worship for that Aphrodite whose ways displease thee but of whom thou really knowest nothing. Her spirit is in all things and in all creatures. The most wretched prostitute is not ignorant of her, nor the richest and most voluptuous empress and queen. The very beasts of the fields warm to her touch; the swaying branches of the palms breathe her name. In the shadowy depths of the sea, her spirit moves among pearly shells and branches of pink coral. And the creature which has, for an instant only, received her gifts, has not lived in vain . . ."

The door of the house behind them opened slowly, and a young girl appeared. She was dressed very simply and wore no jewels. Her eyes were red, a little, and her cheeks still bore traces of tears. But she smiled.

"Can I bring thee any pleasure?" she asked, timidly.

Thessalos threw a troubled glance at Nisos, who had turned toward the girl.

"Dost thou believe in the gods?"

The girl looked surprised.

"I believe in Aphrodite. That is enough for me."

"And dost thou really wish to please me?"

"Oh . . . Yes!"

Night had completely fallen. Nisos arose from the bench, in the shaft of yellow light which streamed from the door.

"It is possible," he said.