Best Russian Short Stories/The Shades, a Phantasy
THE SHADES, A PHANTASY
By Vladimir G. Korolenko
A MONTH and two days had elapsed since the judges, amid the loud acclaim of the Athenian people, had pronounced the death sentence against the philosopher Socrates because he had sought to destroy faith in the gods. What the gadfly is to the horse Socrates was to Athens. The gadfly stings the horse in order to prevent it from dozing off and to keep it moving briskly on its course. The philosopher said to the people of Athens:
"I am your gladfly. My sting pricks your conscience and arouses you when you are caught napping. Sleep not, sleep not, people of Athens; awake and seek the truth!"
The people arose in their exasperation and cruelly demanded to be rid of their gadfly.
"Perchance both of his accusers, Meletus and Anytus, are wrong," said the citizens, on leaving the court after sentence had been pronounced.
"But after all whither do his doctrines tend? What would he do? He has wrought confusion, he overthrows beliefs that have existed since the beginning, he speaks of new virtues which must be recognised and sought for, he speaks of a Divinity hitherto unknown to us. The blasphemer, he deems himself wiser than the gods! No, 'twere better we remain true to the old gods whom we know. They may not always be just, sometimes they may flare up in unjust wrath, and they may also be seized with a wanton lust for the wives of mortals; but did not our ancestors live with them in the peace of their souls, did not our forefathers accomplish their heroic deeds with the help of these very gods? And now the faces of the Olympians have paled and the old virtue is out of joint. What does it all lead to? Should not an end be put to this impious wisdom once for all?"
Thus the citizens of Athens spoke to one another as they left the place, and the blue twilight was falling. They had determined to kill the restless gadfly in the hope that the countenances of the gods would shine again. And yet—before their souls arose the mild figure of the singular philosopher. There were some citizens who recalled how courageously he had shared their troubles and dangers at Potidæa; how he alone had prevented them from committing the sin of unjustly executing the generals after the victory over the Arginusæ; how he alone had dared to raise his voice against the tyrants who had had fifteen hundred people put to death, speaking to the people on the market-place concerning shepherds and their sheep.
"Is not he a good shepherd," he asked, "who guards his flock and watches over its increase? Or is it the work of the good shepherd to reduce the number of his sheep and disperse them, and of the good ruler to do the same with his people? Men of Athens, let us investigate this question!"
And at this question of the solitary, undefended philosopher, the faces of the tyrants paled, while the eyes of the youths kindled with the fire of just wrath and indignation.
Thus, when on dispersing after the sentence the Athenians recalled all these things of Socrates, their hearts were oppressed with heavy doubt.
"Have we not done a cruel wrong to the son of Sophroniscus?"
But then the good Athenians looked upon the harbour and the sea, and in the red glow of the dying day they saw the purple sails of the sharp-keeled ship, sent to the Delian festival, shimmering in the distance on the blue Pontus. The ship would not return until the expiration of a month, and the Athenians recollected that during this time no blood might be shed in Athens, whether the blood of the innocent or the guilty. A month, moreover, has many days and still more hours. Supposing the son of Sophroniscus had been unjustly condemned, who would hinder his escaping from the prison, especially since he had numerous friends to help him? Was it so difficult for the rich Plato, for Æschines and others to bribe the guards? Then the restless gadfly would flee from Athens to the barbarians in Thessaly, or to the Peloponnesus, or, still farther, to Egypt; Athens would no longer hear his blasphemous speeches; his death would not weigh upon the conscience of the worthy citizens, and so everything would end for the best of all.
Thus said many to themselves that evening, while aloud they praised the wisdom of the demos and the heliasts. In secret, however, they cherished the hope that the restless philosopher would leave Athens, fly from the hemlock to the barbarians, and so free the Athenians of his troublesome presence and of the pangs of conscience that smote them for inflicting death upon an innocent man.
Two and thirty times since that evening had the sun risen from the ocean and dipped down into it again. The ship had returned from Delos and lay in the harbour with sadly drooping sails, as if ashamed of its native city. The moon did not shine in the heavens, the sea heaved under a heavy fog, and on the hills lights peered through the obscurity like the eyes of men gripped by a sense of guilt.
The stubborn Socrates did not spare the conscience of the good Athenians.
"We part! You go home and I go to death," he said to the judges after the sentence had been pronounced. "I know not, my friends, which of us chooses the better lot!"
As the time had approached for the return of the ship, many of the citizens had begun to feel uneasy. Must that obstinate fellow really die? And they began to appeal to the consciences of Æschines, Phædo, and other pupils of Socrates, trying to urge them on to further efforts for their master.
"Will you permit your teacher to die?" they asked reproachfully in biting tones. "Or do you grudge the few coins it would take to bribe the guard?"
In vain Crito besought Socrates to take to flight, and complained that the public was upbraiding his disciples with lack of friendship and with avarice. The self-willed philosopher refused to gratify his pupils or the good people of Athens.
"Let us investigate," he said. "If it turns out that I must flee, I will flee; but if I must die, I will die. Let us remember what we once said—the wise man need not fear death, he need fear nothing but falsehood. Is it right to abide by the laws we ourselves have made so long as they are agreeable to us, and refuse to obey those which are disagreeable? If my memory does not deceive me, I believe we once spoke of these things, did we not?"
"Yes, we did," answered his pupil.
"And I think all were agreed as to the answer?"
"But perhaps what is true for others is not true for us?"
"No, truth is alike for all, including ourselves."
"But perhaps when we must die and not some one else, truth becomes untruth?"
"No, Socrates, truth remains the truth under all circumstances."
After his pupil had thus agreed to each premise of Socrates in turn, he smiled and drew his conclusion.
"If that is so, my friend, mustn't I die? Or has my head already become so weak that I am no longer in a condition to draw a logical conclusion? Then correct me, my friend, and show my erring brain the right way."
His pupil covered his face with his mantle and turned aside.
"Yes," he said, "now I see you must die."
And on that evening, when the sea tossed hither and thither and roared dully under the load of fog, and the whimsical wind in mournful astonishment gently stirred the sails of the ships; when the citizens meeting on the streets asked one another: "Is he dead?" and their voices timidly betrayed the hope that he was not dead; when the first breath of awakened conscience touched the hearts of the Athenians like the first messenger of the storm; and when, it seemed, the very faces of the gods were darkened with shame—on that evening at the sinking of the sun the self-willed man drank the cup of death!
The wind increased in violence and shrouded the city more closely in the veil of mist, angrily tugging at the sails of the vessels delayed in the harbour. And the Erinyes sang their gloomy songs to the hearts of the citizens and whipped up in their breasts that tempest which was later to overwhelm the denouncers of Socrates.
But in that hour the first stirrings of regret were still uncertain and confused. The citizens found more fault with Socrates than ever because he had not given them the satisfaction of fleeing to Thessaly; they were annoyed with his pupils because in the last days they had walked about in sombre mourning attire, a living reproach to the Athenians; they were vexed with the judges because they had not had the sense and the courage to resist the blind rage of the excited people; they bore even the gods resentment.
"To you, ye gods, have we brought this sacrifice," spoke many. "Rejoice, ye unsatiable!"
"I know not which of us chooses the better lot!"
Those words of Socrates came back to their memory, those his last words to the judges and to the people gathered in the court. Now he lay in the prison quiet and motionless under his cloak, while over the city hovered mourning, horror, and shame.
Again he became the tormentor of the city, he who was himself no longer accessible to torment. The gadfly had been killed, but it stung the people more sharply than ever—sleep not, sleep not this night, O men of Athens! Sleep not! You have committed an injustice, a cruel injustice, which can never be erased!
During those sad days Xenophon, the general, a pupil of Socrates, was marching with his Ten Thousand in a distant land, amid dangers, seeking a way of return to his beloved fatherland.
Æschines, Crito, Critobulus, Phædo, and Apollodorus were now occupied with the preparations for the modest funeral.
Plato was burning his lamp and bending over a parchment; the best disciple of the philosopher was busy inscribing the deeds, words, and teachings that marked the end of the sage's life. A thought is never lost, and the truth discovered by a great intellect illumines the way for future generations like a torch in the dark.
There was one other disciple of Socrates. Not long before, the impetuous Ctesippus had been one of the most frivolous and pleasure-seeking of the Athenian youths. He had set up beauty as his sole god, and had bowedClinias as its highest exemplar. But since he had become acquainted with Socrates, all desire for pleasure and all light-mindedness had gone from him. He looked on indifferently while others took his place with Clinias. The grace of thought and the harmony of spirit that he found in Socrates seemed a hundred times more attractive than the graceful form and the harmonious features of Clinias. With all the intensity of his stormy temperament he hung on the man who had disturbed the serenity of his virginal soul, which for the first time opened to doubts as the bud of a young oak opens to the fresh winds of spring.
Now that the master was dead, he could find peace neither at his own hearth nor in the oppressive stillness of the streets, nor among his friends and fellow-disciples. The gods of hearth and home and the gods of the people inspired him with repugnance.
"I know not," he said, "whether ye are the best of all the gods to whom numerous generations have burned incense and brought offerings; all I know is that for your sake the blind mob extinguished the clear torch of truth, and for your sake sacrificed the greatest and best of mortals!"
It almost seemed to Ctesippus as though the streets and market-places still echoed with the shrieking of that unjust sentence. And he remembered how it was here that the people clamoured for the execution of the generals who had led them to victory against the Argunisæ, and how Socrates alone had opposed the savage sentence of the judges and the blind rage of the mob. But when Socrates himself needed a champion, no one had been found to defend him with equal strength. Ctesippus blamed himself and his friends, and for that reason he wanted to avoid everybody—even himself, if possible.
That evening he went to the sea. But his grief grew only the more violent. It seemed to him that the mourning daughters of Nereus were tossing hither and thither on the shore bewailing the death of the best of the Athenians and the folly of the frenzied city. The waves broke on the rocky coast with a growl of lament. Their booming sounded like a funeral dirge.
He turned away, left the shore, and went on further without looking before him. He forgot time and space and his own ego, filled only with the afflicting thought of Socrates.
"Yesterday he still was, yesterday his mild words still could be heard. How is it possible that to-day he no longer is? O night, O giant mountain shrouded in mist, O heaving sea moved by your own life, O restless winds that carry the breath of an immeasurable world on your wings, O starry vault flecked with flying clouds—take me to you, disclose to me the mystery of this death, if it is revealed to you! And if ye know not, then grant my ignorant soul your own lofty indifference. Remove from me these torturing questions. I no longer have strength to carry them in my bosom without an answer, without even the hope of an answer. For who shall answer them, now that the lips of Socrates are sealed in eternal silence, and eternal darkness is laid upon his lids?"
Thus Ctesippus cried out to the sea and the mountains, and to the dark night, which followed its invariable course, ceaselessly, invisibly, over the slumbering world. Many hours passed before Ctesippus glanced up and saw whither his steps had unconsciously led him. A dark horror seized his soul as he looked about him.
It seemed as if the unknown gods of eternal night had heard his impious prayer. Ctesippus looked about, without being able to recognise the place where he was. The lights of the city had long been extinguished by the darkness. The roaring of the sea had died away in the distance; his anxious soul had even lost the recollection of having heard it. No single sound—no mournful cry of nocturnal bird, nor whirr of wings, nor rustling of trees, nor murmur of a merry stream—broke the deep silence. Only the blind will-o'-the-wisps flickered here and there over rocks, and sheet-lightning, unaccompanied by any sound, flared up and died down against crag-peaks. This brief illumination merely emphasised the darkness; and the dead light disclosed the outlines of dead deserts crossed by gorges like crawling serpents, and rising into rocky heights in a wild chaos.
All the joyous gods that haunt green groves, purling brooks, and mountain valleys seemed to have fled forever from these deserts. Pan alone, the great and mysterious Pan, was hiding somewhere nearby in the chaos of nature, and with mocking glance seemed to be pursuing the tiny ant that a short time before had blasphemously asked to know the secret of the world and of death. Dark, senseless horror overwhelmed the soul of Ctesippus. It is thus that the sea in stormy floodtide overwhelms a rock on the shore.
Was it a dream, was it reality, or was it the revelation of the unknown divinity? Ctesippus felt that in an instant he would step across the threshold of life, and that his soul would melt into an ocean of unending, inconceivable horror like a drop of rain in the waves of the grey sea on a dark and stormy night. But at this moment he suddenly heard voices that seemed familiar to him, and in the glare of the sheet-lightning his eyes recognised human figures.
On a rocky slope sat a man in deep despair. He had thrown a cloak over his head and was bowed to the ground. Another figure approached him softly, cautiously climbing upward and carefully feeling every step. The first man uncovered his face and exclaimed:
"Is that you I just now saw, my good Socrates? Is that you passing by me in this cheerless place? I have already spent many hours here without knowing when day will relieve the night. I have been waiting in vain for the dawn."
"Yes, I am Socrates, my friend, and you, are you not Elpidias who died three days before me?"
"Yes, I am Elpidias, formerly the richest tanner in Athens, now the most miserable of slaves. For the first time I understand the words of the poet: 'Better to be a slave in this world than a ruler in gloomy Hades.'"
"My friend, if it is disagreeable for you where you are, why don't you move to another spot?"
"O Socrates, I marvel at you—how dare you wander about in this cheerless gloom? I—I sit here overcome with grief and bemoan the joys of a fleeting life."
"Friend Elpidias, like you, I, too, was plunged in this gloom when the light of earthly life was removed from my eyes. But an inner voice told me: 'Tread this new path without hesitation,' and I went."
"But whither do you go, O son of Sophroniscus? Here there is no way, no path, not even a ray of light; nothing but a chaos of rocks, mist, and gloom."
"True. But, my Elpidias, since you are aware of this sad truth, have you not asked yourself what is the most distressing thing in your present situation?"
"Undoubtedly the dismal darkness."
"Then one should seek for light. Perchance you will find here the great law—that mortals must in darkness seek the source of life. Do you not think it is better so to seek than to remain sitting in one spot? I think it is, therefore I keep walking. Farewell!"
"Oh, good Socrates, abandon me not! You go with sure steps through the pathless chaos in Hades. Hold out to me but a fold of your mantle——"
"If you think it is better for you, too, then follow me, friend Elpidias."
And the two shades walked on, while the soul of Ctesippus, released by sleep from its mortal envelop, flew after them, greedily absorbing the tones of the clear Socratic speech.
"Are you here, good Socrates?" the voice of the Athenian again was heard. "Why are you silent? Converse shortens the way, and I swear, by Hercules, never did I have to traverse such a horrid way."
"Put questions, friend Elpidias! The question of one who seeks knowledge brings forth answers and produces conversation."
Elpidias maintained silence for a moment, and then, after he had collected his thoughts, asked:
"Yes, this is what I wanted to say—tell me, my poor Socrates, did they at least give you a good burial?"
"I must confess, friend Elpidias, I cannot satisfy your curiosity."
"I understand, my poor Socrates, it doesn't help you cut a figure. Now with me it was so different! Oh, how they buried me, how magnificently they buried me, my poor fellow-wanderer! I still think with great pleasure of those lovely moments after my death. First they washed me and sprinkled me with well-smelling balsam. Then my faithful Larissa dressed me in garments of the finest weave. The best mourning-women of the city tore their hair from their heads because they had been promised good pay, and in the family vault they placed an amphora—a crater with beautiful, decorated handles of bronze, and, besides, a vial——"
"Stay, friend Elpidias. I am convinced that the faithful Larissa converted her love into several minas. Yet——"
"Exactly ten minas and four drachmas, not counting the drinks for the guests. I hardly think that the richest tanner can come before the souls of his ancestors and boast of such respect on the part of the living."
"Friend Elpidias, don't you think that money would have been of more use to the poor people who are still alive in Athens than to you at this moment?"
"Admit, Socrates, you are speaking in envy," responded Elpidias, pained. "I am sorry for you, unfortunate Socrates, although, between ourselves, you really deserved your fate. I myself in the family circle said more than once that an end ought to be put to your impious doings, because——"
"Stay, friend, I thought you wanted to draw a conclusion, and I fear you are straying from the straight path. Tell me, my good friend, whither does your wavering thought tend?"
"I wanted to say that in my goodness I am sorry for you. A month ago I myself spoke against you in the assembly, but truly none of us who shouted so loud wanted such a great ill to befall you. Believe me, now I am all the sorrier for you, unhappy philosopher!"
"I thank you. But tell me, my friend, do you perceive a brightness before your eyes?"
"No, on the contrary such darkness lies before me that I must ask myself whether this is not the misty region of Orcus."
"This way, therefore, is just as dark for you as for me?"
"If I am not mistaken, you are even holding on to the folds of my cloak?"
"Then we are in the same position? You see your ancestors are not hastening to rejoice in the tale of your pompous burial. Where is the difference between us, my good friend?"
"But, Socrates, have the gods enveloped your reason in such obscurity that the difference is not clear to you?"
"Friend, if your situation is clearer to you, then give me your hand and lead me, for I swear, by the dog, you let me go ahead in this darkness."
"Cease your scoffing, Socrates! Do not make sport, and do not compare yourself, your godless self, with a man who died in his own bed——"
"Ah, I believe I am beginning to understand you. But tell me, Elpidias, do you hope ever again to rejoice in your bed?"
"Oh, I think not."
"And was there ever a time when you did not sleep in it?"
"Yes. That was before I bought goods from Agesilaus at half their value. You see, that Agesilaus is really a deep-dyed rogue——"
"Ah, never mind about Agesilaus! Perhaps he is getting them back from your widow at a quarter their value. Then wasn't I right when I said that you were in possession of your bed only part of the time?"
"Yes, you were right."
"Well, and I, too, was in possession of the bed in which I died part of the time. Proteus, the good guard of the prison, lent it to me for a period."
"Oh, if I had known what you were aiming at with your talk, I wouldn't have answered your wily questions. By Hercules, such profanation is unheard of—he compares himself with me! Why, I could put an end to you with two words, if it came to it——"
"Say them, Elpidias, without fear. Words can scarcely be more destructive to me than the hemlock."
"Well, then, that is just what I wanted to say. You unfortunate man, you died by the sentence of the court and had to drink hemlock!"
"But I have known that since the day of my death, even long before. And you, unfortunate Elpidias, tell me what caused your death?"
"Oh, with me it was different, entirely different! You see I got the dropsy in my abdomen. An expensive physician from Corinth was called who promised to cure me for two minas, and he was given half that amount in advance, I am afraid that Larissa in her lack of experience in such things gave him the other half, too——"
"Then the physician did not keep his promise?"
"And you died from dropsy?"
"Ah, Socrates, believe me, three times it wanted to vanquish me, and finally it quenched the flame of my life!"
"Then tell me—did death by dropsy give you great pleasure?"
"Oh, wicked Socrates, don't make sport of me. I told you it wanted to vanquish me three times. I bellowed like a steer under the knife of the slaughterer, and begged the Parcæ to cut the thread of my life as quickly as possible."
"That doesn't surprise me. But from what do you conclude that the dropsy was pleasanter to you than the hemlock to me? The hemlock made an end of me in a moment."
"I see, I fell into your snare again, you crafty sinner! I won't enrage the gods still more by speaking with you, you destroyer of sacred customs."
Both were silent, and quiet reigned. But in a short while Elpidias was again the first to begin a conversation.
"Why are you silent, good Socrates?"
"My friend; didn't you yourself ask for silence?"
"I am not proud, and I can treat men who are worse than I am considerately. Don't let us quarrel."
"I did not quarrel with you, friend Elpidias, and did not wish to say anything to insult you. I am merely accustomed to get at the truth of things by comparisons. My situation is not clear to me. You consider your situation better, and I should be glad to learn why. On the other hand, it would not hurt you to learn the truth, whatever shape it may take."
"Well, no more of this."
"Tell me, are you afraid? I don't think that the feeling I now have can be called fear."
"I am afraid, although I have less cause than you to be at odds with the gods. But don't you think that the gods, in abandoning us to ourselves here in this chaos, have cheated us of our hopes?"
"That depends upon what sort of hopes they were. What did you expect from the gods, Elpidias?"
"Well, well, what did I expect from the gods! What curious questions you ask, Socrates! If a man throughout life brings offerings, and at his death passes away with a pious heart and with all that custom demands, the gods might at least sent some one to meet him, at least one of the inferior gods, to show a man the way. . . . But that reminds me. Many a time when I begged for good luck in traffic in hides, I promised Hermes calves——"
"And you didn't have luck?"
"Oh yes, I had luck, good Socrates, but——"
"I understand, you had no calf."
"Bah! Socrates, a rich tanner and not have calves?"
"Now I understand. You had luck, had calves, but you kept them for yourself, and Hermes received nothing."
"You're a clever man. I've often said so. I kept only three of my ten oaths, and I didn't deal differently with the other gods. If the same is the case with you, isn't that the reason, possibly, why we are now abandoned by the gods? To be sure, I ordered Larissa to sacrifice a whole hecatomb after my death."
"But that is Larissa's affair, whereas it was you, friend Elpidias, who made the promises."
"That's true, that's true. But you, good Socrates, could you, godless as you are, deal better with the gods than I who was a god-fearing tanner?"
"My friend, I know not whether I dealt better or worse. At first I brought offerings without having made vows. Later I offered neither calves nor vows."
"What, not a single calf, you unfortunate man?"
"Yes, friend, if Hermes had had to live by my gifts, I am afraid he would have grown very thin."
"I understand. You did not traffic in cattle, so you offered articles of some other trade—probably a mina or so of what the pupils paid you."
"You know, my friend, I didn't ask pay of my pupils, and my trade scarcely sufficed to support me. If the gods reckoned on the sorry remnants of my meals they miscalculated."
"Oh, blasphemer, in comparison with you I can be proud of my piety. Ye gods, look upon this man! I did deceive you at times, but now and then I shared with you the surplus of some fortunate deal. He who gives at all gives much in comparison with a blasphemer who gives nothing. Socrates, I think you had better go on alone! I fear that your company, godless one, damages me in the eyes of the gods."
"As you will, good Elpidias. I swear by the dog no one shall force his company on another. Unhand the fold of my mantle, and farewell. I will go on alone."
And Socrates walked forward with a sure tread, feeling the ground, however, at every step.
But Elpidias behind him instantly cried out:
"Wait, wait, my good fellow-citizen, do not leave an Athenian alone in this horrible place! I was only making fun. Take what I said as a joke, and don't go so quickly. I marvel how you can see a thing in this hellish darkness."
"Friend, I have accustomed my eyes to it."
"That's good. Still I can't approve of your not having brought sacrifices to the gods. No, I can't, poor Socrates, I can't. The honourable Sophroniscus certainly taught you better in your youth, and you yourself used to take part in the prayers. I saw you."
"Yes. But I am accustomed to examine all our motives and to accept only those that after investigation prove to be reasonable. And so a day came on which I said to myself: 'Socrates, here you are praying to the Olympians. Why are you praying to them?'"
"Really you philosophers sometimes don't know how to answer the simplest questions. I'm a plain tanner who never in my life studied sophistry, yet I know why I must honour the Olympians."
"Tell me quickly, so that I, too, may know why."
"Why? Ha! Ha! It's too simple, you wise Socrates."
"So much the better if it's simple. But don't keep your wisdom from me. Tell me—why must one honour the gods?"
"Why. Because everybody does it."
"Friend, you know very well that not every one honours the gods. Wouldn't it be more correct to say 'many'?"
"Very well, many."
"But tell me, don't more men deal wickedly than righteously?"
"I think so. You find more wicked people than good people."
"Therefore, if you follow the majority, you ought to deal wickedly and not righteously?"
"What are you saying?"
"I'm not saying it, you are. But I think the reason that men reverence the Olympians is not because the majority worship them. We must find another, more rational ground. Perhaps you mean they deserve reverence?"
"Yes, very right."
"Good. But then arises a new question: Why do they deserve reverence?"
"Because of their greatness."
"Ah, that's more like it. Perhaps I will soon be agreeing with you. It only remains for you to tell me wherein their greatness consists. That's a difficult question, isn't it? Let us seek the answer together. Homer says that the impetuous Ares, when stretched flat on the ground by a stone thrown by Pallas Athene, covered with his body the space that can be travelled in seven mornings. You see what an enormous space."
"Is that wherein greatness consists?"
"There you have me, my friend. That raises another question. Do you remember the athlete Theophantes? He towered over the people a whole head's length, whereas Pericles was no larger than you. But whom do we call great, Pericles or Theophantes?"
"I see that greatness does not consist in size of body. In that you're right. I am glad we agree. Perhaps greatness consists in virtue?"
"I think so, too."
"Well, then, who must bow to whom? The small before the large, or those who are great in virtues before the wicked?"
"The answer is clear."
"I think so, too. Now we will look further into this matter. Tell me truly, did you ever kill other people's children with arrows?"
"It goes without saying, never! Do you think so ill of me?"
"Nor have you, I trust, ever seduced the wives of other men?"
"I was an upright tanner and a good husband. Don't forget that, Socrates, I beg of you!"
"You never became a brute, nor by your lustfulness gave your faithful Larissa occasion to revenge herself on women whom you had ruined and on their innocent children?"
"You anger me, really, Socrates."
"But perhaps you snatched your inheritance from your father and threw him into prison?"
"Never! Why these insulting questions?"
"Wait, my friend. Perhaps we will both reach a conclusion. Tell me, would you have considered a man great who had done all these things of which I have spoken?"
"No no, no! I should have called such a man a scoundrel, and lodged public complaint against him with the judges in the market-place."
"Well, Elpidias, why did you not complain in the market-place against Zeus and the Olympians? The son of Cronos carried on war with his own father, and was seized with brutal lust for the daughters of men, while Hera took vengeance upon innocent virgins. Did not both of them convert the unhappy daughter of Inachos into a common cow? Did not Apollo kill all the children of Niobe with his arrows? Did not Callenius steal bulls? Well, then, Elpidias, if it is true that he who has less virtue must do honour to him who has more, then you should not build altars to the Olympians, but they to you."
"Blaspheme not, impious Socrates! Keep quiet! How dare you judge the acts of the gods?"
"Friend, a higher power has judged them. Let us investigate the question. What is the mark of divinity? I think you said, Greatness, which consists in virtue. Now is not this greatness the one divine spark in man? But if we test the greatness of the gods by our small human virtues, and it turns out that that which measures is greater than that which is measured, then it follows that the divine principle itself condemns the Olympians. But, then——"
"Then, friend Elpidias, they are no gods, but deceptive phantoms, creations of a dream. Is it not so?"
"Ah, that's whither your talk leads, you bare-footed philosopher! Now I see what they said of you is true. You are like that fish that takes men captive with its look. So you took me captive in order to confound my believing soul and awaken doubt in it. It was already beginning to waver in its reverence for Zeus. Speak alone. I won't answer any more."
"Be not wrathful, Elpidias! I don't wish to inflict any evil upon you. But if you are tired of following my arguments to their logical conclusions, permit me to relate to you an allegory of a Milesian youth. Allegories rest the mind, and the relaxation is not unprofitable."
"Speak, if your story is not too long and its purpose is good."
"Its purpose is truth, friend Elpidias, and I will be brief. Once, you know, in ancient times, Miletus was exposed to the attacks of the barbarians. Among the youth who were seized was a son of the wisest and best of all the citizens in the land. His precious child was overtaken by a severe illness and became unconscious. He was abandoned and allowed to lie like worthless booty. In the dead of night he came to his senses. High above him glimmered the stars. Round about stretched the desert; and in the distance he heard the howl of beasts of prey. He was alone.
"He was entirely alone, and, besides that, the gods had taken from him the recollection of his former life. In vain he racked his brain—it was as dark and empty as the inhospitable desert in which he found himself. But somewhere, far away, behind the misty and obscure figures conjured up by his reason, loomed the thought of his lost home, and a vague realisation of the figure of the best of all men; and in his heart resounded the word 'father.' Doesn't it seem to you that the fate of this youth resembles the fate of all humanity?"
"Do we not all awake to life on earth with a hazy recollection of another home? And does not the figure of the great unknown hover before our souls?"
"Continue, Socrates, I am listening."
"The youth revived, arose, and walked cautiously, seeking to avoid all dangers. When after long wanderings his strength was nearly gone, he discerned a fire in the misty distance which illumined the darkness and banished the cold. A faint hope crept into his weary soul, and the recollections of his father's house again awoke within him. The youth walked toward the light, and cried: 'It is you, my father, it is you!'"
"And was it his father's house?"
"No, it was merely a night lodging of wild nomads. So for many years he led the miserable life of a captive slave, and only in his dreams saw the distant home and rested on his father's bosom. Sometimes with weak hand he endeavoured to lure from dead clay or wood or stone the face and form that ever hovered before him. There even came moments when he grew weary and embraced his own handiwork and prayed to it and wet it with his tears. But the stone remained cold stone. And as he waxed in years the youth destroyed his creations, which already seemed to him a vile defamation of his ever-present dreams. At last fate brought him to a good barbarian, who asked him for the cause of his constant mourning. When the youth confided to him the hopes and longings of his soul, the barbarian, a wise man, said:
"'The world would be better did such a man and such a country exist as that of which you speak. But by what mark would you recognise your father?'
"'In my country,' answered the youth, 'they reverenced wisdom and virtue and looked up to my father as to the master.'
"'Well and good,' answered the barbarian. 'I must assume that a kernel of your father's teaching resides in you. Therefore take up the wanderer's staff, and proceed on your way. Seek perfect wisdom and truth, and when you have found them, cast aside your staff—there will be your home and your father.'
"And the youth went on his way at break of day——"
"Did he find the one whom he sought?"
"He is still seeking. Many countries, cities and men has he seen. He has come to know all the ways by land; he has traversed the stormy seas; he has searched the courses of the stars in heaven by which a pilgrim can direct his course in the limitless deserts. And each time that on his wearisome way an inviting fire lighted up the darkness before his eyes his heart beat faster and hope crept into his soul. 'That is my father's hospitable house,' he thought.
"And when a hospitable host would greet the tired traveller and offer him the peace and blessing of his hearth, the youth would fall at his feet and say with emotion: 'I thank you, my father! Do you not recognise your son?'
"And many were prepared to take him as their son, for at that time children were frequently kidnapped. But after the first glow of enthusiasm, the youth would detect traces of imperfection, sometimes even of wickedness. Then he would begin to investigate and to test his host with questions concerning justice and injustice. And soon he would be driven forth again upon the cold wearisome way. More than once he said to himself: 'I will remain at this last hearth, I will preserve my last belief. It shall be the home of my father.'"
"Do you know, Socrates, perhaps that would have been the most sensible thing to do."
"So he thought sometimes. But the habit of investigating, the confused dream of a father, gave him no peace. Again and again he shook the dust from his feet; again and again he grasped his staff. Not a few stormy nights found him shelterless. Doesn't it seem to you that the fate of this youth resembles the fate of mankind?"
"Does not the race of man make trial of its childish belief and doubt it while seeking the unknown? Doesn't it fashion the form of its father in wood, stone, custom, and tradition? And then man finds the form imperfect, destroys it, and again goes on his wanderings in the desert of doubt. Always for the purpose of seeking something better——"
"Oh, you cunning sage, now I understand the purpose of your allegory! And I will tell you to your face that if only a ray of light were to penetrate this gloom, I would not put the Lord on trial with unnecessary questions——'
"Friend, the light is already shining," answered Socrates.
It seemed as if the words of the philosopher had taken effect. High up in the distance a beam of light penetrated a vapoury envelop and disappeared in the mountains. It was followed by a second and a third. There beyond the darkness luminous genii seemed to be hovering, and a great mystery seemed about to be revealed, as if the breath of life were blowing, as if some great ceremony were in process. But it was still very remote. The shades descended thicker and thicker; foggy clouds rolled into masses, separated, and chased one another endlessly, ceaselessly.
A blue light from a distant peak fell upon a deep ravine; the clouds rose and covered the heavens to the zenith.
The rays disappeared and withdrew to a greater and greater distance, as if fleeing from this vale of shades and horrors. Socrates stood and looked after them sadly. Elpidias peered up at the peak full of dread.
"Look, Socrates! What do you see there on the mountain?"
"Friend," answered the philosopher, "let us investigate our situation. Since we are in motion, we must arrive somewhere, and since earthly existence must have a limit, I believe that this limit is to be found at the parting of two beginnings. In the struggle of light with darkness we attain the crown of our endeavours. Since the ability to think has not been taken from us, I believe that it is the will of the divine being who called our power of thinking into existence that we should investigate the goal of our endeavours ourselves. Therefore, Elpidias, let us in dignified manner go to meet the dawn that lies beyond those clouds."
"Oh, my friend! If that is the dawn, I would rather the long cheerless night had endured forever, for it was quiet and peaceful. Don't you think our time passed tolerably well in instructive converse? And now my soul trembles before the tempest drawing nigh. Say what you will, but there before us are no ordinary shades of the dead night."
Zeus hurled a bolt into the bottomless gulf.
Ctesippus looked up to the peak, and his soul was frozen with horror. Huge sombre figures of the Olympian gods crowded on the mountain in a circle. A last ray shot through the region of clouds and mists, and died away like a faint memory. A storm was approaching now, and the powers of night were once more in the ascendant. Dark figures covered the heavens. In the centre Ctesippus could discern the all-powerful son of Cronos surrounded by a halo. The sombre figures of the older gods encircled him in wrathful excitement. Like flocks of birds winging their way in the twilight, like eddies of dust driven by a hurricane, like autumn leaves lashed by Boreas, numerous minor gods hovered in long clouds and occupied the spaces.
When the clouds gradually lifted from the peak and sent down dismal horror to embrace the earth, Ctesippus fell upon his knees. Later, he admitted that in this dreadful moment he forgot all his master's deductions and conclusions. His courage failed him, and terror took possession of his soul.
He merely listened.
Two voices resounded there where before had been silence, the one the mighty and threatening voice of the Godhead, the other the weak voice of a mortal which the wind carried from the mountain slope to the spot where Ctesippus had left Socrates.
"Are you," thus spake the voice from the clouds, "are you the blasphemous Socrates who strives with the gods of heaven and earth? Once there were none so joyous, so immortal, as we. Now, for long we have passed our days in darkness because of the unbelief and doubt that have come upon earth. Never has the mist closed in on us so heavily as since the time your voice resounded in Athens, the city we once so dearly loved. Why did you not follow the commands of your father, Sophroniscus? The good man permitted himself a few little sins, especially in his youth, yet by way of recompense, we frequently enjoyed the smell of his offerings——"
"Stay, son of Cronos, and solve my doubts! Do I understand that you prefer cowardly hypocrisy to searchings for the truth?"
At this question the crags trembled with the shock of a thundering peal. The first breath of the tempest scattered in the distant gorges. But the mountains still trembled, for he who was enthroned upon them still trembled. And in the anxious quiet of the night only distant sighs could be heard.
In the very bowels of the earth the chained Titans seemed to be groaning under the blow of the son of Cronos.
"Where are you now, you impious questioner?" suddenly came the mocking voice of the Olympian.
"I am here, son of Cronos, on the same spot. Nothing but your answer can move me from it. I am waiting."
Thunder bellowed in the clouds like a wild animal amazed at the daring of a Lybian tamer's fearless approach. At the end of a few moments the voice again rolled over the spaces:
"Son of Sophroniscus! Is it not enough that you bred so much scepticism on earth that the clouds of your doubt reached even to Olympus? Indeed, many a time when you were carrying on your discourse in the market-places or in the academies or on the promenades, it seemed to me as if you had already destroyed all the altars on earth, and the dust were rising from them up to us here on the mountain. Even that is not enough! Here before my very face you will not recognise the power of the immortals——"
"Zeus, thou art wrathful. Tell me, who gave me the 'Dæmon' which spoke to my soul throughout my life and forced me to seek the truth without resting?"
Mysterious silence reigned in the clouds.
"Was it not you? You are silent? Then I will investigate the matter. Either this divine beginning emanates from you or from some one else. If from you, I bring it to you as an offering. I offer you the ripe fruit of my life, the flame of the spark of your own kindling! See, son of Cronos, I preserved my gift; in my deepest heart grew the seed that you sowed. It is the very fire of my soul. It burned in those crises when with my own hand I tore the thread of life. Why will you not accept it? Would you have me regard you as a poor master whose age prevents him from seeing that his own pupil obediently follows out his commands? Who are you that would command me to stifle the flame that has illuminated my whole life, ever since it was penetrated by the first ray of sacred thought? The sun says not to the stars: 'Be extinguished that I may rise.' The sun rises and the weak glimmer of the stars is quenched by its far, far stronger light. The day says not to the torch: 'Be extinguished; you interfere with me.' The day breaks, and the torch smokes, but no longer shines. The divinity that I am questing is not you who are afraid of doubt. That divinity is like the day, like the sun, and shines without extinguishing other lights. The god I seek is the god who would say to me: 'Wanderer, give me your torch, you no longer need it, for I am the source of all light. Searcher for truth, set upon my altar the little gift of your doubt, because in me is its solution.' If you are that god, harken to my questions. No one kills his own child, and my doubts are a branch of the eternal spirit whose name is truth."
Round about, the fires of heaven tore the dark clouds, and out of the howling storm again resounded the powerful voice:
"Whither did your doubts tend, you arrogant sage, who renounce humility, the most beautiful adornment of earthly virtues? You abandoned the friendly shelter of credulous simplicity to wander in the desert of doubt. You have seen this dead space from which the living gods have departed. Will you traverse it, you insignificant worm, who crawl in the dust of your pitiful profanation of the gods? Will you vivify the world? Will you conceive the unknown divinity to whom you do not dare to pray? You miserable digger of dung, soiled by the smut of ruined altars, are you perchance the architect who shall build the new temple? Upon what do you base your hopes, you who disavow the old gods and have no new gods to take their place? The eternal night of doubts unsolved, the dead desert, deprived of the living spirit—this is your world, you pitiful worm, who gnawed at the living belief which was a refuge for simple hearts, who converted the world into a dead chaos. Now, then, where are you, you insignificant, blasphemous sage?"
Nothing was heard but the mighty storm roaring through the spaces. Then the thunder died away, the wind folded its pinions, and torrents of rain streamed through the darkness, like incessant floods of tears which threatened to devour the earth and drown it in a deluge of unquenchable grief.
It seemed to Ctesippus that the master was overcome, and that the fearless, restless, questioning voice had been silenced forever. But a few moments later it issued again from the same spot.
"Your words, son of Cronos, hit the mark better than your thunderbolts. The thoughts you have cast into my terrified soul have haunted me often, and it has sometimes seemed as if my heart would break under the burden of their unendurable anguish. Yes, I abandoned the friendly shelter of credulous simplicity. Yes, I have seen the spaces from which the living gods have departed enveloped in the night of eternal doubt. But I walked without fear, for my 'Dæmon' lighted the way, the divine beginning of all life. Let us investigate the question. Are not offerings of incense burnt on your altars in the name of Him who gives life? You are stealing what belongs to another! Not you, but that other, is served by credulous simplicity. Yes, you are right, I am no architect. I am not the builder of a new temple. Not to me was it given to raise from the earth to the heavens the glorious structure of the coming faith. I am one who digs dung, soiled by the smut of destruction. But my conscience tells me, son of Cronos, that the work of one who digs dung is also necessary for the future temple. When the time comes for the proud and stately edifice to stand on the purified place, and for the living divinity of the new belief to erect his throne upon it, I, the modest digger of dung, will go to him and say: 'Here am I who restlessly crawled in the dust of disavowal. When surrounded by fog and soot, I had no time to raise my eyes from the ground; my head had only a vague conception of the future building. Will you reject me, you just one, Just, and True, and Great?"
Silence and astonishment reigned in the spaces. Then Socrates raised his voice, and continued:
"The sunbeam falls upon the filthy puddle, and light vapour, leaving heavy mud behind, rises to the sun, melts, and dissolves in the ether. With your sunbeam you touched my dust-laden soul and it aspired to you, Unknown One, whose name is mystery! I sought for you, because you are Truth; I strove to attain to you, because you are Justice; I loved you, because you are Love; I died for you, because you are the Source of Life. Will you reject me, O Unknown? My torturing doubts, my passionate search for truth, my difficult life, my voluntary death—accept them as a bloodless offering, as a prayer, as a sigh! Absorb them as the immeasurable ether absorbs the evaporating mists! Take them, you whose name I do not know, let not the ghosts of the night I have traversed bar the way to you, to eternal light! Give way, you shades who dim the light of the dawn! I tell you, gods of my people, you are unjust, and where there is no justice there can be no truth, but only phantoms, creations of a dream. To this conclusion have I come, I, Socrates, who sought to fathom all things. Rise, dead mists, I go my way to Him whom I have sought all my life long!"
The thunder burst again—a short, abrupt peal, as if the egis had fallen from the weakened hand of the thunderer. Storm-voices trembled from the mountains, sounding dully in the gorges, and died away in the clefts. In their place resounded other, marvellous tones.
When Ctesippus looked up in astonishment, a spectacle presented itself such as no mortal eyes had ever seen.
The night vanished. The clouds lifted, and godly figures floated in the azure like golden ornaments on the hem of a festive robe. Heroic forms glimmered over the remote crags and ravines, and Elpidias, whose little figure was seen standing at the edge of a cleft in the rocks, stretched his hands toward them, as if beseeching the vanishing gods for a solution of his fate.
A mountain-peak now stood out clearly above the mysterious mist, gleaming like a torch over dark blue valleys. The son of Cronos, the thunderer, was no longer enthroned upon it, and the other Olympians too were gone.
Socrates stood alone in the light of the sun under the high heavens.
Ctesippus was distinctly conscious of the pulse-beat of a mysterious life quivering throughout nature, stirring even the tiniest blade of grass.
A breath seemed to be stirring the balmy air, a voice to be sounding in wonderful harmony, an invisible tread to be heard—the tread of the radiant Dawn!
And on the illumined peak a man still stood, stretching out his arms in mute ecstasy, moved by a mighty impulse.
A moment, and all disappeared, and the light of an ordinary day shone upon the awakened soul of Ctesippus. It was like dismal twilight after the revelation of nature that had blown upon him the breath or an unknown life.
In deep silence the pupils of the philosopher listened to the marvellous recital of Ctesippus. Plato broke the silence.
"Let us investigate the dream and its significance," he said.
"Let us investigate it," responded the others.