We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
The ruler of the world is the
Whirlwind, that has unseated Zeus.
—The Clouds, Aristophanes
If you listen to those who are wise—the people who defended my teacher at his trial before the state killed him—they will tell you that the war destroyed the golden days of our city. The Corinthians, fearing our expansionist stance and growing power, convinced the Spartans to make war against us. Our leader, Pericles, knew we were stronger at sea than on shore. So he had all the inhabitants of Athenian territory in Attica huddle inside the fortifications of the city, which left the lands of the rich to be ravished by our enemies. He gambled that after this sacrifice our swift and deadly ships, triremes outfitted with three banks of oars, would wear the Spartans down in a war of attrition. His plan might have worked. But at the outset of the war, a plague fell upon Athens, laying waste to those crowded in the city and, if that weren’t bad enough, Pericles himself died the following year. With his death, demagogues like the young general Alcibiades seized power in the Assembly. They convinced the voters to abandon our defensive strategy and launch an attack on Syracuse in faraway Sicily. This ill-advised military adventure drained the manpower and treasure of the polis, our city-state. Within two years, “the hateful work of war,” as Homer might have put it, had wiped out our ships and ground forces. However, this was just the beginning of what we later learned was the spell of chaos cast upon us by the goddess Eris.
The war dragged on for another ten years, dividing us, disenchanting our civic life. No one could stop the growing hatred of the poor for the rich, or the bitterness in those wealthy families who lost their crops year after year. The rich began to plot against the regime, against rule by the people, and against the Assembly, which had conducted the war in a dark comedy of miscalculations and decisions based on collective self-delusion.
When our defeat finally came, after a demoralizing 27 years, everyone knew it was the end of the empire, that we had unleashed the furies, and entered a time of dangerous extremes, a long-prophesied Iron Age. Crime, fraud, and violence increased. Many Hellenes started to feel that the gods, like Zeus and Athena, were either fictions or helpless to affect our lives. The gossamer-thin foundation of laws and traditions our fathers and forbearers had lived by (especially our devotion to sophrosyne or moderation) seemed arbitrary. The faith in a moral order that unified us during our Golden Age was no longer possible. Almost overnight loyalty to our sea-girt city-state reverted to family, tribe, and clan. A new breed of citizen was born: cold, calculating, and egotistical men like Jason in Euripides’s Medea, devoted not to civic duty but to the pleasures of food, drink, sex, and, most of all, power. These new men, who believed might was right, like Thrasymachus, saw “justice,” “honesty,” and “loyalty” as ideas created by and for the weak. A new level of nastiness, incivility, and litigation entered our lives. Of these men, Thucydides said, “The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things, but was changed by them as they thought proper. Each man was strong only in the conviction that nothing was secure. Inferior intellects generally succeeded best. For, aware of their own deficiencies and feeling the capacities of their opponents, for whom they were no match in powers of speech and whose subtle wits were likely to anticipate them in contriving evil, they struck boldly at once.”
Now, such new men needed new teachers, ones who were very different from the wonderful man who taught me. These teachers, foreigners, sprang up like Athena from the head of Zeus, and came from places like Corinth and Ceos. They were called Sophists, and for a nice purse of drachmae, they instructed children of the rich in clever, honey-tongued rhetoric and perfumed lies designed to soothe the mob and sway the members of the factious Assembly. Prostitutes, my teacher called them, because he charged no fee. The most famous of these was Protagoras, who argued that everyone knew things not as they are but only as they are in the moment of his perception. “Man,” he said, “is the measure of all things,” and by this he meant nothing was objective: all we could have were opinions, and so each citizen was his own lawgiver. (And, as you know, opinions are like assholes: everybody has one.) In my youth, then, at this hour in history, in the wreckage of our society, it came to pass that common values had all but vanished. Truth was relative to each man. And nothing was universal anymore.
But the greatest, most unforgivable crime of my countrymen was, if you ask me, the killing of my teacher for refusing to conform to the positions of the political factions. His accusers—Anytus, Meletus and Lycon—called him an atheist, a traitor, and a corruptor of youth. Then they brought him to trial, and I shall remember for all my days what he said in his defense: “Gentlemen, I am your grateful and devoted servant, but I owe a greater obedience to God than to you. I shall go on saying, in my usual way, my good friend, you are an Athenian and belong to a city that is the greatest and most famous in the world for its wisdom and strength. Are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honor, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul?”
He could have fled the city, escaping injustice with the help of his students. Instead, and because he could not imagine living anywhere but Athens, he drank the chill draught of hemlock.
To this very day, I regret that I could not be at his side when he died. I was sick that evening. But since his death, which wounded us all, I have tried everything to honor him. I feel like a son whose father has died too soon, right when he is on the verge of being mature enough to say something that might interest him. Sometimes I would see or hear something I wanted to share with him only to realize he was gone for the rest of my life. For years now I’ve carried on dialogues with him in my head, talking into the darkness late at night, saying aloud—perhaps too loudly—all the things I wanted to tell him, apologizing for things I failed to say, often taking his part in our imaginary conversations until my five slaves, who are like family to me, started looking my way strangely. I didn’t want anyone to think I had wandered in my wits, so I began quietly writing down these dialogues, adding more speakers in our conversations where he is always the voice of wisdom. That is how I want to remember him. Yet, and still, his death left a scar on my soul, and a question that haunts me day and night: how can good men like Socrates survive in a broken, corrupt society?
There was one man who seemed as bedeviled by this question as I was. I can’t say we were on the same friendly terms as Damon and Pythias, though sometimes he did feel like a brother—one who infuriated me because he said my lectures at the Academy were long-winded and a waste of time. He was not, I confess, my only critic. My teacher’s other students think my theories are all lunacy and error. They see my theory of eternal Ideas existing beyond this imperfect, shadowy world as being nothing more than my cobbling together the ideas of Heraclitus (who saw only difference in the world and denied identity) and Parmenides (who saw only identity and denied the existence of change). In their opinion, I’ve betrayed everything Socrates stood for. They hate my view that only philosopher-kings should rule. Antisthenes has always been especially harsh toward me, treating me as if I am as cabbage-headed as a Boeotian, perhaps because he, and not I, was present at Socrates’ side when he passed away. Years ago, he had his own school. In his teachings he rejected government, property, marriage, religion, and pure philosophy or metaphysics. Rather, he preached that plain, ordinary people could know all that was worth knowing, that an ordinary, everyday mind was quite enough. He taught in a building that served as a cemetery for dogs. Therefore, his pupils were called cynics ( “dog-like”), and among the most earthy, flamboyant, and, I must say, scatological of his disciples was the ascetic Diogenes.
For an ascetic, he was shamelessly Dionysian, and without an obol or lepton to his name; but Diogenes was also a clown with hair like leaves and tree bark, gnarled root-like hands, and eyes like scars gouged into stone. He made a virtue of vulgarity, wore the worst clothing, ate the plainest porridge, slept on the ground or, as often as not, made his bed in a wine-cask, saying that by watching mice he had learned to adapt himself to any circumstance. Accordingly, he saw animals as his most trustworthy teachers, since their lives were natural, unselfconscious, and unspoiled by convention and hypocrisy. Like them, he was known for defecating, urinating, masturbating, and breaking wind in public. He even said we should have sex in the middle of the marketplace, for if the act was not indecent in private, we should not be ashamed of doing it in public. Whenever he was praised for something, he said, “Oh shame, I must be doing something wrong!” Throughout Athens he was called The Dog, but to do him justice, there was a method in his madness. For example, his only possessions were his staff and a wooden bowl. But one afternoon Diogenes stumbled upon a boy using his hands to drink water from a stream. Happily, he tossed his bowl away, and from that day forward drank only with his bare hands.
Thus things stood in postwar Athens when one day The Dog decided to walk around the city holding a lighted lantern. He peered into all the stalls of the marketplace, peeked in brothels, and when someone asked what he was doing, replied, “I’m looking for an honest man.” His quest brought him to the Academy, where I was lecturing. As I placed several two-handled drinking cups before my students, I could from the corner of one eye see him listening, and scratching at dirt in his neck creases, and sticking his left hand under his robe into his armpit, withdrawing it and sniffing his fingers to see if he needed a bath. I sighed, hoping he’d go away. I turned to my students and told them that, while there were countless cups in the world, there was only one idea of a cup. This idea, the essence of cupness, was eternal; it came before all the individual cups in the world, and they all participated imperfectly in the immortal Form of cupness.
From the back of the room, Diogenes cleared his throat loudly.
“Excuse me,” he said, “I can see the cup, but I don’t see cupness anywhere.”
“Well,” I smiled at my students, “you have two good eyes with which to see the cup.” I was not about to let him upstage me in my own class. Pausing, I tapped my forehead with my finger and said, “But it’s obvious you don’t have a good enough mind to comprehend cupness.
At that point, he sidled through my students, put down his lantern, and picked up one of the cylices. He looked inside, then lifted his gaze to me.
“Is this cup empty, Plato?”
“Why, yes, that’s obvious.
“Then,” he opened his eyes as wide as possible, which startled me because that was a favorite trick of my teacher, “where is the emptiness that comes before this empty cup?
Right then my mind went cloudy. My eyes slipped out of focus for a second. I was wondering how to reply, disoriented even more by the scent of his meaty dog breath and rotten teeth. And then Diogenes tapped my forehead with his finger, and said, “I believe you will find the emptiness is here.” My students erupted with laughter, some of them even clapping, when he, buffoon that he was, took a bow. (That boy from Stagira, Aristotle, who was always questioning me, and expressed the preposterous belief that the ideas must be in things, laughed until he was gasping for breath.) “I think your teacher’s problem,” he told them, “is that he’d like to run away from the messiness of the world, to disappear—poof!—into a realm of pure forms and beauty, where everything has the order and perfection of mathematics. He’s a mystic. And so—so dualistic! He actually wants certainty where there is none.
“What,” I said, “is wrong with that? Things are terrible today! Everyone is suing everyone else. There’s so much anger and hatred. No one trusts anyone anymore!”
Again, his eyes flew open, and he winked at my students, raising his shoulders in a shrug. “When have things not been terrible? What you don’t see, my friend, is that there are only two ways to look at life. One, as if nothing is holy. The other, as if everything is.”
Oh, that stung.
All at once, the room was swimming, rushing toward me, then receding. I felt unsteady on my feet. Now my students would always tap their heads and giggle when I tried to teach, especially that cocky young pup Aristotle. (I think he’d like to take my place if he could, but I know that will never happen.)
“In my opinion,” I said, “only a fool would carry a lantern in the day time. Why don’t you use it at night like a sensible man would?”
“As a night light?” He raised his eyebrows and bugged out his eyes again. “Thank you, Plato. I think I like that.”
All I could do was dismiss my students for the rest of the day, which The Dog had ruined. I pulled on my cape and wandered through the marketplace until darkness came, without direction through the workmen, the temples of the gods, the traders selling their wares; among metics and strangely tattooed nomads from the steppes who policed our polis; past the theater where old men prowled for young boys whose hair hung like hyacinth pedals, and soldiers sang drinking songs, all the while cursing Diogenes under my breath because the mangy cur was right. He was, whatever else, more Socratic than Socrates himself, as if the spirit of my teacher had been snatched from the Acherusian Lake, where souls wait to be reborn, and gone into him to chastise and correct me from beyond the grave, reminding me that I would always be just an insecure pupil intoxicated by ideas, so shaken by a world without balance that I clung to the crystalline purity of numbers, the Apollonian exactitude and precision of abstract thought. Where my theories had denied the reality of our war-shattered world, he lapped up the illusion, like a dog indifferent to whether he was dining on a delicacy or his own ordure.
Tired, I decided to return home. And it was when I reached the center of town that I saw him again. He was still holding high that foolish lantern and walking toward me with a wild splash of a smile on his face. I wanted to back away—I was certain he had fleas—or strike him a blow for humiliating me, but instead I held my ground and said crisply, “Have you found what you’re looking for yet?”
“Perhaps,” he said, and before I could step back, he lifted my chin with his forefinger and thumb toward the night sky. “What do you see? Don’t explain, look.”
It was the first night of a full moon, but I hadn’t noticed until now. My mind started racing like that of a good student asked a difficult question by his teacher. I recalled that when Democritus tried to solve the mystery of the One and the Many, he said all things were composed of atoms, and that Thales believed that everything was made of water, and that Anaximenes claimed the world’s diversity could be reduced to one substance, air. Oh, I could plaster a thousand interpretations on the palpable orb above us, but at that moment something peculiar took place, and to this day I do not understand it. I looked and the plentitude of what I saw—the moon emerging from clouds like milk froth—could not be deciphered. Its opacity outstripped my speech. I was ambushed by its sensuous, singular, and savage beauty. I felt a shiver of desire (or love) rippling through my back. For a second I was wholly unconscious of anyone beside me or where I was.
As moonlight spilled abundantly from a bottomless sky, as I felt myself commingled with the seen, words failed me, my cherished opinions slipped away in the radiance of a primordial mystery that was as much me as it was the raw face of this full-orbed moon, a cipher so inexhaustible and ineffable it shimmered in my mind, surging to its margins, giving rise to a state of enchantment even as it seemed on the verge of vanishing, as all things do—poleis and philosophical systems—into the pregnant emptiness Diogenes had asked me to explain. A sudden breeze extinguished the wick inside his lamp, leaving us enveloped by the immensity of night. There, with my vision unsealed, I felt only wonder, humility, and innocence, and for the first time I realized I did not have to understand, but only to be.
All I could do was swallow, a gulp that made The Dog grin.
“Good.” He placed one piebald paw on my shoulder, as a brother might, or perhaps man’s best friend. “You didn’t dialogue it to death. I think I’ve found my honest man.”
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
In his new book, philosopher William MacAskill implies that humanity’s long-term survival matters more than preventing short-term suffering and death. His arguments are shaky.
In her new book, Danish poet Olga Ravn writes with open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations.
Draconian individual punishment distracts from systemic change and reinforces the cruelest and most racist system of incarceration on the planet.