Later, in the marketplaces and harbours of the ancient world, in temples and sacred groves, in Athens and Sicily, in Megara and Italy, they would whisper the stories to each other.

Later, in the marketplaces and harbours of the ancient world, in temples and sacred groves, in Athens and Sicily, in Megara and Italy, they would whisper the stories to each other.

Did you know, they said … have you heard …

Someone would lay another log on the fire, flames rising, the fire alive, crackling with blood and grease, the sacrifice rising to the Gods.

Later still, as the world grew up, as the ancient world gave way to Christ and Mohammed, as the light faded and the long darkness began to fall, to be found around such a fire, telling such stories, with such people - eventually all this was a passport to a slow and very painful death.

But still they told the stories, because some things matter more than pain.

And still they listened, because some things matter more than staying alive.

He was the son of God, they said. Apollo’s child.

Ariston was married to Perictione. Ariston was descended from Codrus, the last King of Athens, the King who had voluntarily given up his life to save the city. Perictione came from the lineage of Solon,  the lawgiver of the ancient world, the man who had established the laws of the city and then left for 10 years so that he would not be pressured into changing them.

A noble lineage, a noble pair.

To be descended from Codrus and Solon was glorious. But his lineage, they said, as they pulled their cloaks tighter and the flames licked higher, his lineage was more glorious still.

One night, Apollo came to Ariston in a dream and forbid him from intercourse with Perictione. Ariston obeyed. 10 months later, on Apollo’s birthday, on the exact day that Apollo had been born in Delos, Perictione bore a son.

Yes, they said. Yes. That Palestinian carpenter called Joseph, his wife Mary … yes. That’s exactly the same story.

Some stories are eternal because some people are eternal.

After the infant was born, Ariston and Perictione took him up the sacred mountain to make a sacrifice to the Muses. So that they could begin, Perictione laid the baby down amongst the myrtle trees.

Suddenly a thick swarm of bees appeared, buzzing, the air heavy with their sound and their menace. There were so many that the light itself changed, turning to darkness, the sun blotted out by the overwhelming buzzing cloud. Panic arose in Ariston’s chest, a cold fear gripping his heart, a wild pounding in his head, his body shaking, and blindly he fought forward, animal instinct driving him to the infant.

Perictione laid a palm against his wrist, the gesture soft, halting Ariston, pulling him out of the panic and returning him to the world. She tilted her head, nodded it forward, and said silently, without speaking, look.

The swarm of bees had settled around the infant’s mouth. The baby slept serenely on, a little smile-grimace on its face. The buzzing was no longer menacing. It was melodic and tender, a symphony for the sleeping child.

Ariston breathed, a long deep breath that came up from the soles of his shoes, that came up in fact from the mountain underneath it, and beneath the mountain the earth, and beneath the earth the depths of the underworld, and the beneath the depths of the underworld the unlimited light of the Gods … he breathed a breath, or the breath breathed him, and then he turned away from the bees and the child and returned to building the fire for the sacred sacrifice.

After the rites had been completed, Perictione took the child into her arms. His mouth was full of honey.

The child grew and a time arrived when Ariston and Perictione decided that he needed more teaching and education than they were capable of giving him. One morning, Ariston took the little boy to the Master they wanted for their son. They arrived as he was talking to a group of people, so Ariston stood quietly at the back, waiting for him to finish.

The Master appeared to be telling the group about a dream he had had the previous night. A baby swan, the bird of Apollo, the God that the Master was bound to, had flown onto his lap. Immediately, the cygnet grew into a full-blown swan and it flew into the sky, extending its wings to the heavens, singing a full-throated song of the purest sweetness.

Suddenly, the Master stopped.

“Come here,” he said.

Without hesitation, the little boy stepped forward.

“Here,” said the Master. “Here is the swan I met last night.”

And that was how Plato met Socrates and became his disciple.

In Brahminical tradition, there is a very old ritual called Upanayana. It is an initiatory rite and what the rite initiates is education - it is the rite by which the young boy is accepted by his teacher and thereby begins his education.

Like all initiatory rites, the Upanayana signifies both death and rebirth. The child is killed by the rite and the death of the child is the necessary condition for the birth of the disciple.‌
‌This is a profound truth about education: real education kills you. The true teacher is really an assassin.

This may sound shocking or ridiculous to our ears. But this is because we have forgotten what it is to be a teacher and what it is to be a student. Oh, of course, we have the pale, attenuated versions of this relationship, but they are all bloodless, these versions, they are the dull, bureaucratic versions of a relationship and an encounter that is in its essence both murderous and divine.

According to the Atharva Veda, what happens in the Upanayana is that the disciple enters the teacher and the teacher becomes pregnant with the disciple. The teacher bears the disciple in his belly and gives birth to him.

Believe me, there is absolutely nothing bloodless about birth.

There may also be nothing more divine.


Plato loved Socrates.

The love was not uncomplicated; it never is, between a parent and a child. As Plato learned, he began to find disagree, he began to find flaws. He grew, as he saw it, beyond Socrates, because he had an answer where Socrates only had his holy ignorance.

But all of that is consistent with love, and Plato loved Socrates.

When Plato was on his deathbed, Plutarch says, he looked back on his life and was grateful for three things above all:

Plato, when he was now at the point of death, lauded his guardian genius and Fortune because, to begin with, he had been born a man and not an irrational animal ; again, because he was a Greek and not a Barbarian; and still again, because his birth had fallen in the times of Socrates.

Socrates was Plato’s teacher, his initiator into the holy rites, the man who had lifted Plato out of the world and set him on the sacred path that had led to the divine.

We know what happened to Socrates. But we must try to imagine it as it happened to Plato.

Plato loved Socrates.

He watched as a group of puffed-up tyrants prosecuted Socrates on the most laughable of pretexts.

He saw Socrates in the dock, calm and arrogant, refusing to submit to the demands of “common sense”.

He saw Socrates smiling when the jury condemned him to death.

He saw Socrates mock the jury when he was asked to suggest an alternative punishment to death.

He saw Socrates reject the pleas of his friends and disciples to save himself.

And then he saw Socrates drink the hemlock and die.

The best of men … no, not the best of men. Socrates was something apart from men.

Socrates had been put to death by … by men. By men who were angry, who were drunk on power and inflamed with resentment, small men, scared men.

Plato had wanted a political career. He wanted to be involved in public life. He was enough of a man of his time and class to believe that this was both a man’s duty and his privilege: to participate in civic life, to actively bring about the common good.

He felt sick when he thought of it now. Politics? Public life? With men like these, men capable of putting Socrates to death? Serving a mob who cheered the murderers on?

A pox on all your houses, thought Plato. Better to be a common thief than be a part of all this.‌

Have you ever had your heart broken?

Of course you have. You’re a human being.

And so you know what it’s like when a person haunts a place. When every street, every door, every flower … when every damned thing reminds you of them. When the air is thick with them, when you can’t breathe because when you breathe you can feel them, inside your ribs, working away, grief first gnawing and then taking enormous chunks out of your flesh.

Yes. Of course you know.

Now Plato knew too.

It was too much. He left Athens.

He went to Megara to meet his friend, the philosopher Eucleides. He went to southern Italy to meet the disciples of Pythagoras. He went to Egypt and travelled throughout the Persian Empire.

Plato wandered the world, he suffered, endured, and learned. The Pythagoreans opened their mysteries to him. He was initiated into the ancient rites of the Egyptians. He was instructed in the words of Moses. He studied Zoarastrianism from the Persian Magi.‌
‌And all the while, he thought of the murder of Socrates. He would never forgive. But he was beginning to understand.

In 387 BC, twelve years after Socrates was murdered by the tyrants and the mob, Plato returned to Athens. He bought a piece of land just outside the city walls. The land was called the Academy because it was dedicated to the ancient hero Akademus.

And on this land, Plato began the work he had been born for. He talked and taught, held informal classes and discussions with whoever was interested. They would meet in the olive grove and talk long into the night, the air turning cool and the sky glittering with a hard light.

And 12 years after that, Plato wrote the Republic. This book, the culmination of the last 30 years, and arguably the crowning literary achievement of his philosophical life, had one fundamental question: What is justice?

Let us begin, says Plato, by looking at justice in a city. Why? Well, big things are easier to see, right? An ant is easier to hide than an elephant, right?

Yes, of course.

And so it is with justice, says Plato. A city is much bigger than a person, so it will be easier to identify justice when we examine than when we identify a person. And justice is justice no matter where it’s found, so when we’ve understood what justice in a city is, we can sort of transfer that over to an individual person and understand what it is for a person to be just.


Just as you say, old chap.

And thus begins the grand adventure of the Republic.

All of you living in this city, in our Republic, are brothers, says Plato. You are one blood, bound to one another through life and death.

Brothers, repeats Plato, the olive trees murmuring in the breeze. Do you understand what means?

They nod, slowly, uncertainly, thinking they understand, not entirely sure.

Before I say anything more, understand this: You were all made by the same Gods. You are all the children of the Gods. Do you understand?

Yes, someone says quietly, and again that uncertain nod spreads.

In some of you, the God has mixed some gold; in others, some silver; and in others still, some bronze. The ones with gold - you are the ones equipped to rule. The ones with silver - you are the ones equipped to fight. The ones with bronze - you are the farmers and the other craftsmen.

In our city, in the noble Republic of our dreams, each of you does what the God has created you to do. The ones with gold in them rule. The ones with silver in them fight. The ones with bronze in them farm.

In our Republic, the rulers will rule not because they love power but because they love their brothers. They will rule because they will understand that they are the best at ruling and so it will be best for the city if they rule. And so with the others, the men with silver and bronze in them.

That is what justice is. Each doing what they are meant to do, each doing what the God has intended for them - and doing it like brothers: doing it for each other, with love for each other, living and working like brothers, because that is what they are.

In a city like this, Socrates would not have been murdered.‌


And now we know what justice looks like in the city, we can identify it in persons.

Just as the city is divided into three parts, so is the individual soul.

The three parts of the individual soul, of your soul, of mine, of all souls, are these: reason, spirit, and appetite.

The woman ruled by reason, says Plato, is characterised by a love of wisdom. That is what she desires and pursues.

The man ruled by spirit, on the other hand, pursues social prestige and honour.

The person dominated by appetite values material pleasures above other things, and generally ends up pursuing wealth, because wealth is the most effective means to satisfying most material desires.

Justice in the soul is the same as justice in the city: it is the three parts of the soul each doing what they are meant to do, each doing what the God has intended for them.

Justice, Plato is saying, is harmony.

It is the harmony created when each part has its proper place, when each part does what it was created to do, when each part allows the other to do what it is supposed to.

In a just city, all the parts are honoured as necessary. The men of gold do not look down upon the men of silver and bronze. They are brothers and they recognise they are brothers.

So it is also in a just soul. Reason rules, but it does not tyrannise. In a just soul, reason guides the pursuit of wisdom but it is both constrained and guided by the spirit and the appetite. A soul ruled only by reason, where only reason is honoured, would not be a just soul. It would lack the courage and vigour that comes from spirit and appetite.

Justice is sometimes associated with the word “integrity”. Let us dig into this a little, because it will allow us to understand Plato better.

The word “integrity” comes from the Latin word integer. This word, integer, means: “complete, whole, intact”. In the original sense, then, to have integrity means to be whole, to be the opposite of fragmented and divided.

For a soul to have integrity is for it to be whole, to be a soul which is not fragmented and divided, a soul which is not at war with itself.

And this is exactly what Plato tells us justice is: it is the three parts of the soul working together, living in harmony, each in its proper place, each loved and honoured as itself. To be just is to have a soul that is at peace with itself.


‌Socrates was a just man. He may have been the only just man in Athens. But instead of honouring him, the tyrants had prosecuted him. Instead of begging him to rule, the mob had murdered him.


It is in the nature of grief to look for reasons. If only we could understand, we feel, things would be better. If only we knew, if only he told me why he did it, if only she had explained.

Plato was the son of Apollo, but he was also a man. The question gnawed at him. Why had they done it? How was it even possible to do it?


Imagine a cave, said Plato. It’s dark and damp and very deep. Imagine now that human beings live in this cave, deep down, far away from the entrance. Those humans were born in this cave and have always lived there. Their necks and their legs are bound in iron chains so they can only see in front of them.

Imagine them, says Plato, and something in his voice makes you really try. You can see them now, perhaps. A row of hobbled, haunched humans, staring straight ahead of them. Emaciated, the iron fetters solid against their scrawny flesh.

Plato smiles, and the smile is the kind that makes you shiver.

Now, says Plato, imagine that behind these human beings a wall has been built. A low wall, a wall like the screen that puppeteers use.

And then, continues Plato, imagine that people are carrying stuff on the wall, all kinds of things that project above it. Statues of people, of animals … everything.
And behind the wall and behind the people carrying those things, a long way behind, imagine a fire burning. A big fire, the only source of light in the cave.

Picture them. Picture the carriers on the wall, some speaking and others not, picture the fire burning high above them, and picture the fettered human beings staring ahead of them.

What do the prisoners see, asks Plato?

The shadows thrown onto the surface in front of them.

Can they see anything else?


Remember, he says: they know nothing else. They have been born there, they have always lived there. To them, the cave, the shadows, the echoes … that is what there is. That is the world, that is reality.

And now, he says, now … now imagine that one of them is freed. Imagine he loosens the fetters and struggles up to the top, to the very top, beyond the wall and beyond the fire, all the way to the sunlight. At first he is blinded, the light is too much - he is used only to shadows, remember?

But he remains in the light and slowly his eyes get used to it. He begins to see - to really see. For the first time in his life, he sees not shadows but the things themselves. Imagine his happiness!

And imagine what he feels now about the world below, the world that used to be his, about the ways in which people there talk, the things they talk about. Imagine what he feels about the things they care about. How can he take any of it seriously?

But he comes back down. Out of love or pity, who knows, he comes back down to the world of the shadows and the people who live in it. He wants to tell people about the light.

When he comes down, his eyes have to adjust again, because they are no longer used to the shadow. He can’t see in the shadows as well as the other men. And instead of praising him for finding the light, the prisoners mock him for ruining his eyesight.

He cannot live in the cave anymore. He has seen too much. He cannot take the shadows seriously, he can no longer worship the illusions that the people in the cave lie and die for, the illusions that they kill each other for. It is all laughable to him.

So the prisoners of the cave find him laughable, because he has none of the things they value: no money, nothing to buy or sell, nothing that is honoured in the land of the shadows.

Imagine, now, that this man tries to free his brothers.

Imagine he hacks at their fetters, imagine he keeps telling them they are living in the world of shadows, that everything they value and live for is a lie … imagine he loves his fellow prisoners so much that despite the mockery and the scorn, despite the anger and the hate, he keeps trying, over and over again, never relenting, desperate in his attempts to help them reach the light?

I knew such a man, says Plato. They killed him.