A short story of an early truth bearer, one of my Sunday best. A piece from my journal.
The air is heavy, acrid, and still. Dust hanging heavy and unmoving, resisting the pull of yet undiscovered gravity, held defiant by the raising heat from classical sunshine in this typical Greek summers’ day. A little chaff from a nearby cornfield catches in the throat of our first truth seeker. Both the chaff and this chastened man are dried-up remnants of their best days.
Our vagabond figure, clings to the edges of his robes. A tunic of questionable colour long faded in summers long past. Frayed cloth edges grabbing fresh dust as they sway back and forth to the cadence of stoic, hardened bare feet.
This is the outskirts of Athens, in 400BC. The long, curly, grey-white beard of this anti-sophisticate are well known to us now. As is the thinning hair atop his head. But the Zeus like features, seen upon modern day depictions of this man, are perhaps a little generous. For this face is politely described as characterful; the nose robust; eyes a little big, or perhaps sockets a little small. Features better suited to a battlefield than a play.
And this face has seen battle. And fared well. Bravery. Courage. Discipline. All terms he proved demonstrable in his youth - in later life undefinable against his wit. His was a reputation long standing for calm in chaos, to which even Spartans had given ground. A resilience to hardship. On long marches with empty stomach, seemingly impervious to winter bite, or summer heat. All it would seem, completely in keeping with these latter-day choices to roam free, without burden of duty or possessions. This tunic of questionable colour then, hiding enough, but reflecting all.
These are times none of us in this modern era can really know. They have been romanticised, and sanitised, over some two thousand four hundred years. A reflection of their significance, and of much of what we take for granted, but at this moment, on this road, still raw and real. As are many of the stings this man of words has dealt. Stings to many with long memory, thick veins of vanity, strong influence, and thin skin. It is a meeting with these 500 or so wounded peers, to whom this dusty road leads. The likes of Plato and Xephonese capturing all.
Indeed, it will not even be written by this wisest of souls. For nothing of this man’s great mind was captured directly by his own hand.
This simple life and the wisdom within it, needs a little context. For these are times when the norms of life, had different meaning to those we would contemplate today. Society has been crafted, redrafted, redefined, many times, and would be many more. In Egypt for example, these Athenians and Spartans are little more than a curiosity. But in all comparison of civilisations of this time, all forms of hierarchy of government stem from authority of the few. Egyptian theocracy, Athenian democracy and oligarchy, outside tribalism masquerading as aristocracy, all retain a tyrannical edge. Settlement by force. A powerbase and peace kept and broken by spear.
Not that most people in Athens or anywhere else on earth would really have had much to say of comparison between one tyranny or the next. For most of the world’s people, that had ever been, served no purpose of their own making. One master may determine the relative misery of those beneath, with much greater variance than the higher authority they depend. In spending life in service of another, seeing little more than the dirt in front of your face, and on the faces of those closest in kinship. It matters little who is holding the whip, beyond how keenly they deem it of use. For in these times, and all that had gone before, the great majority of peoples lived, or suffered, as slaves. Born into slavery, traded into slavery, or commuted there by their conquerors – the ones with better spears. If not slaves, then labourers, or craftsmen, or traders, or soldiers, or all. But all at the mercy of the next spear.
This is perhaps what makes this man on the road the most remarkable of all the truth seekers that will follow. At least in the west. This man of wisdom, who asked why and probed for better answers. Took on all-comers in discourse. He defiantly sought for better definitions from men of influence, stripping bare self-interest, revealing false piety, knocking at hollow argument and empty head. This man lived a free life, defiant of all subjugates, and all faith. At a time that none had seen need to outline life in such terms.
And what truth do we learn from this greatest of all rebels? First amongst the philosopher class to ask much but to answer question with another question. We learn that wisdom is found in knowing that you do not know. And that truth is found from within. From your reason and your divine spirit. And as such your truth, is perhaps yours alone. But that it cannot therefore just be taught or administered. And always it should be questioned. For this is the Socratic way.
Warren 24th January 2021