Socrates, Part 1

In which Socrates decides what to do with his life.

Socrates, Part 1

He was the son of a stonemason and a midwife.

Neither rich nor poor, neither aristocratic nor a peasant … every year, thousands of boys like him were born to thousands of parents in Athens, and every single one of them would live their ordinary lives and die their ordinary deaths, unknown beyond their own neighbourhoods.

He was a little strange, though. A little awkward, like the pieces wouldn’t quite fit. An average boy, an unremarkable boy, a boy blessed with nothing beyond life … but something about him was just a little odd. The type of boy you could play with well enough, but all the while there would be the slightest hint of something disconcerting. Something in the eyes, or perhaps it was in the calm, undramatic insistence on doing things his way … either way, something was a little uncanny.

They didn’t talk of such things in those days. But if anyone had raised it with him, he would have agreed. He felt strange. The world seemed alien to him, uncanny, somehow mysterious. And the most mysterious thing of all was how everyone else seemed to navigate it so smoothly. The rules, the laws, the Gods … everything was set up so neatly and everyone was so damned certain about everything.

He didn’t feel certain of anything. He felt confused, as a boy will in a world for which he isn’t made.

Later, much later, in a smoky bar in the foothills of Mount Olympus, he had run into a quiet Algerian called Albert who had chain-smoked and talked quietly about something he called “the absurd”. That was exactly what he had felt as a boy, he realised. But he hadn’t known the word then, and the limits of our language mean the limits of our world.

And then there was that damn voice. That strange bloody voice which he heard, speaking to him, telling him, no, don’t do that! And there was no disobeying that voice. If you heard it, you would understand. It wasn’t fear, the voice wasn’t scary. It was … it was the voice of something real. You couldn’t argue with it, just as you couldn’t argue with a tree. It was just there. Once you saw it, once you heard it, you couldn’t tell yourself you hadn’t. It was just bloody there.

The years passed, as they are wont to do. Around him, the young boys he had played, laughed and fought with grew up. They began to put away childish things, they took wives and fathered children, they entered into the life of the city and the professions of their fathers.

The boy tried. He married Xanthippe, he fathered children. But it is difficult to consistently pretend to be someone that you are not, and every so often, in ways both large and small, he would rebel.

He refused to take his father’s profession. Stonemasonry was fine, he said, a fine thing, even a noble thing, and he yielded to no one in his appreciation of what stonemasons had done for society. If he were lucky enough to be someday blessed with sons - someone whispered, you already have sons, but he moved smoothly past the interruption - then no one would be prouder than him were they to become stonemasons.

But he was not going to become a stone mason.

Fine, they said. You always were a pigheaded obstinate mule. Fine. What will you do instead?

I will, he said, learn how to live.


I will learn, he said, how a man should live.

Sorry, what?

I will learn, he said, a little impatient now but still clinging as best he could to the dignity of his ringing tones, I will learn how a man should live. I will go to the marketplace and ask men: How do you live? Why do you live that way? I will ask them if they know how a man should live and if they do I will ask them to teach me.

His family looked at each other. Finally, Xanthippe sighed, then shrugged.

Fine, she said. It’s porridge for breakfast. I’ll leave it out.

Part 2