A powerfully-built young man stands on the walls of Athens. His face is torn between Hope and Sorrow. He has clearly been there a while, staring into the west as the sun sets. Finally he sighs and turns to return home.
Just before he descends he glances back for one last forlorn look. Then freezes. He dashes to the wall, straining to make out distant details. Suddenly seized with certainty, he claps his hands and jumps for joy. He barely restrains the impulse to jump directly down the wall, but dashes back to the stairs and out the gate. His gleeful shouts trail in the air behind him. “He’s back! He’s here! Socrates has returned!”
Plato: [running up to embrace the older, smaller man he had seen on the road] It is you! I knew it. Have you truly returned?
Socrates: [warmly returning the embrace] Indeed? You knew it was me? Have you become so certain of knowledge since last I saw you? Perhaps you know me better than I know myself, and I should be asking you if I returned!
P. [laughing] I don’t care if you make an utter fool out of me with your questions. I am just so happy to see you. Did you… did you get to see the Oracle?
S. [smiling] Why, yes. Yes I did. [He wraps an arm around Plato’s shoulder and starts walking him back to Athens]
P. So… does that mean you found the answer you hoped for? In pursuit of which the Assembly agreed to spare your life, and instead sent you on a quest to Delphi?
S. Well. That is not an easy question to answer. I am not sure myself what I hoped for. Much less whether the answer I found will satisfy the Assembly.
P. But then you did find an answer! And surely you would not have returned unless you believed that it should satisfy the Assembly.
S. Ah, Plato, always so eager to make me wiser and more calculating than I am. Yes, I have received an answer. And I do believe I should share that answer with those who so graciously agreed to let me pursue it. But as to whether they will thank me for it — I am still of two minds.
To be honest, I do not yet know if this the greatest news ever revealed to human ears, or a horrid curse that should be locked away in Pandora’s Box.
P. But…. surely the Oracle spoke only truth. And there is no greater gift than to know the truth, so we can be wise. Why would anyone want to reject truth, and choose folly over wisdom?
S. Why indeed! That is the question that has troubled me ever since my trial. It is very nearly the question I asked the Oracle.
P. So then, what did you ask? And what was the answer?
S. Plato… son of my heart. If you never believed anything I have said, believe this: you will not thank me for sharing this answer. Indeed, you may curse the day you ever met Socrates.
Let me share this dark knowledge with the Assembly, that you may hear of it second-hand, and vent your anger at them instead of me.
P. [stops and stares at Socrates] Was it really so terrible?
[Socrates keeps walking.
Plato scurries to keep up.
After a long silence, Socrates speaks.
Almost to himself.]
S. That… is not an easy question to answer.
If I had heard this when I was young, it might have destroyed me.
Now that I am old, and near unto death, I find a strange comfort in them.
Perhaps you… perhaps the whole world… are not yet ready for them.
P. [after a long pause] Perhaps you could… write them down? To be read when I and the world are old enough?
S. [laughs] Ah, Plato, still trying to seduce me into making use of this fancy new fad of “writing.”
Gods, I hope this never caches on.
Knowledge is meant to be a living thing, passed on from teacher to pupil through the intercourse of a lived life.
Not collections of dead words to be invoked like sorcery by whomever stumbles across them.
P. Then by your own lights, you have no choice but to tell me the answer yourself! For is that not the duty of the teacher to the pupil, to pass on what you have learned?
S. Ah, Plato, why do you still insist on making a teacher of me? The only virtue I ever claimed was a desire to know the truth. I never claimed to have any truth to share. I simply wanted to encourage you to keep asking questions, to find truth wherever it may be hiding.
P. So be it. Perhaps you truly never knew truth beforehand. Yet by your own admission, you now know the truth of the Oracle’s answer. Is it not fair for me to demand an answer of you, as you have of so many others?
You have caught me in my own snare.
It seems the pupil has become the master.
I had thought to spare you this burden.
But perhaps I really wanted to spare myself the pain of your rejection.
And you are right, it is only fair that I should receive your censure, after having similarly thrust it upon so many of my countrymen.
P. Enough already! Just tell me the answer.
S. Very well. The word of the Oracle was:
The end of Wisdom is Folly.
The end of Folly is Wisdom.
Only in Death, is there Life.
P. Wait. That was the answer? But then what was the question?
S. [smiling] Perhaps you should have asked that first! Nay, fret not, I will not force you to drag it out of me. My question was simply this:
Why did my daimonion not prevent me from trying to prove the God wrong, even though I was destined to fail?
S. I see you are puzzled, my young friend. Perhaps it is for the best.
Let us leave it there, that the gods themselves can reveal its meaning to you in their own sweet time.
P. [crying] No, Socrates, please! Clearly you understand something of its meaning, or those words would not trouble you so. And surely you know the Assembly would not let you off so easily. I pray you, do not deny to your friends the interpretation you must anyway surrender to your enemies.
S. Ah, dear Plato, how I wish that I had true enemies, that I might curse them with this burden. Alas, I love the men of Athens as I love my own flesh. Perhaps more so. That is why it pains me so to bring these bitter tidings.
[Socrates pauses, but seeing the stricken look on Plato’s face hurriedly continues.]
S. Still having begun, I may as well make an end of my confession. Who knows? Perhaps you, or someone you tell it to, will yet find a better interpretation.
[Plato glares at him skeptically. Socrates sighs.]
S. Let me speak plainly, then. I had always thought Wisdom an unequivocal good, like strength or health. The more you had, the better. A stronger man can carry heavier objects, and a wiser man can solve harder problems.
But now it seems Wisdom is more like, say, weight. A heavy man can cause more damage, yes, but also finds it harder to change direction. Worse, if he becomes too heavy, he won’t even be able to move.
The Oracle showed me that the pursuit of Wisdom initially brings great benefit, but ultimately accretes so much confidence and hubris that it ultimately ends in even greater folly. Or else so much skepticism and doubt that it destroys our very ability to act.
Even my own humility, which was the only Wisdom I ever laid claim to, itself became a point of pride that led me to shred the folk Wisdom of my countrymen without leaving them anything in return.
[Plato stares at him in shock. But Socrates doesn’t even seem to notice. He continues grimly, like a man possessed.]
That was why my daimonion could not stop me. That was the paradox I could not escape. To shun Wisdom is to court Folly. But to pursue Wisdom at all costs is to wind up in bed with Folly. Having once started down this road, there is no action I could take or not take that would save me. This is the lot of man, and even of daimonion, from which there is no escape this side of the grave.
[Plato’s shock turns to a kind of dumbfounded horror. Socrates finally notices him, and unexpectedly laughs.]
S. Peace, Plato. It is not quite so bad as all that. You see, now, the darkness of the abyss from which I would have spared you. But having drunk of the bitter, do not stop before receiving the sweet.
P. [incredulous] Sweet? What possible antidote could there be, if Wisdom itself is a deadly poison that destroys those who drink, yet those who shun it die of thirst?
S. [nodding vigorously] Yes, that. That exactly!
P. [exasperated] What exactly?
S. [almost giddy] Death! Death is the answer!
P. [groaning] Please, Socrates, enough with the riddles. If you have seen something I missed, can’t you just explain it to me?
S. [more soberly] Actually, I don’t think I can. I fear I owe you an apology, Plato. In many ways, spoken words are just a shadow of my inner experience, even as your written words are a shadow of my spoken ones. I should not have been so surprised that soldiers could not define courage, nor politicians wisdom. To reduce lived experiences to mere words is a cruel act, like flaying a goat to reveal its liver.
P. Master, please, do not berate yourself so! Perhaps it true that Wisdom can never escape Folly. But surely you were never so cruel.
S. How can anyone be sure of anything? Still, perhaps you are right. Maybe the forming of words is a violent act that may still be generous, like butchering a goat to feed a family. For if we did not reduce our thoughts to words, how could we ever help each other think more clearly, and perceive more accurately?
P. So you agree words and Wisdom are good after all!
S. Ah, dear Plato, you ask too much of me. After my encounter with the Oracle, I have lost the comforting solidity of words like “good” and “evil.” Is my Folly in attempting to refute the God good, if it ends up proving the God’s wisdom better than mere compliance would? Is my Wisdom evil if it strips comforting illusions from those not yet ready to seek deeper truth? And if Folly can be good, and Wisdom evil, do those words yet serve any useful purpose?
P. But… if you have lost all knowledge of good and evil, if even Life and Death seem two sides of the same coin, what could you have possible gained from the Oracle that you would consider worthy news, even a comfort?
S. Ah, Plato, I know not how to explain it. I can scarce credit it myself, much less dare defend it to another. I fear that if I would cross paths with my old self, he would dissect and mock me for a charlatan and simpleton.
All I can do is testify to what I experienced. When I stared into the abyss, when everything I had given my life to seemed as filthy rags, and I was naked and unmanned before the Eye of the God — I did not feel shame, or terror, or abandonment.
I felt Known. Understood. Accepted. Loved, perhaps, though that may be too weak a word.
I also felt Joy. Not just in myself, but in the infinitesimal glimpse I had of the glorious workings of cosmos, and the revelation that even my foolish meanderings were an essential part of that cosmic ecstasy.
You may think me mad, dear Plato, and I would not blame you for it. Sometimes I think so myself. But that is the only Truth that I found after unraveling all the Lies; and if it will not serve, I have no other.
[Socrates falls silent, and glances at Plato.
Plato does not respond, but appears lost in thought. The two men trudge almost to the city gates before Plato awakens, as if from a dream, and turns to Socrates. They halt, just out of earshot of watchers on the walls.]
P. Socrates… I don’t know what to think. What you say… goes against everything I’ve ever believed in. Everything you ever taught me.
[Socrates begins to speak, but Plato holds up a hand to silence him.]
P. I am not finished. I have just decided it does not matter what I think. What I know is that Socrates has returned. You are not the same man who left, that is true. Yet somehow, you are more yourself than you ever were. And therefore I believe you, even if neither of us can explain why.
[Socrates gives a cry and embraces Plato. Both men weep unabashedly. Finally Plato stops, wiping at his face.]
P. I fear this makes me a poor student, and a worse philosopher.
S. [laughing] Perhaps so, but I dare say it makes you a good friend, and a better man.
P. [choked up] There is no greater honor to be found in Athens, or all of Greece. Thank you, my friend.
[Arm in arm, they enter the city.]