“Socrates Rebukes the NSA”
by Gary Corseri
“1. A Spy Speaks: I was there. I saw with my own eyes, heard with my own ears. He was ranting, as usual, squawking in the agora—for all to see, for all to hear. Any passer-by—male or female; yes, some girls and women paused to hear him, too! Such blasphemy! And, his usual gaggle of unbearded youth—his students, disciples—Plato and the rest of them… all in my notes.
I pretended to be one of them, got close. Just one of the stragglers who comes to hear his carrying-on—all that questioning he does, misleading minds too young to make distinctions, minds pliable for his palavering. It’s in my notes! I pretended to be listening to all his slippery—what he calls “logic.” Two plus two equals… any proposition suits his fancy!
Mostly, babbling about the State (as he calls it), our fair city-state, Athena’s pride, proud Athens. Diatribing—if you will—against the recent laws. (As though those laws did not protect him, too!) As though we had a choice—with Sparta at our gates; and even downcast Persia gaining strength again, casting envious eyes at us! As though our officers foremost obligation was not to protect us from our enemies—“terrorists” abroad, “domestic extremists” within our very walls!
Extremists posing as though they, too, belonged! Citing ancient texts to justify their claims, ignoring the exigencies of these dark times! Radicals! Like the crop of rising “playwrights”—humanizing ancient foes; they’d have us weeping over the plight of conquered women!
Enough! I’ve done my duty. I have no regrets. I would do it again. And again. And again. Till all these damnable vermin are wiped out! How dare they question the Authorities, sow doubts? Now, when no one’s to be trusted—behind every cloak–a dagger! Suppose a wandering slave should hear his claptrap? Suppose that slave spoke to another, and that one still another, on and on? You see where such things lead?
I would do it again! They say he will be put to death now, offered hemlock for an easy passage. Let him go to hell! Good riddance to him and all his kind!
2. Jocasta speaks: I am not from there, have always heard great things of Athens, and confess I was amazed to see the alabaster walls, the works of marble Pericles commissioned. How unlike our own great Thebes! And, grandest of all—how shall I put it—an atmosphere of freedom–one could feel it in one’s bones. But now….
Of course, I could not go as myself, being known in Thebes, and perhaps familiar to some emissary who has visited our realm. So, I made myself to look the way their women look (a little younger than myself, I confess!). So, I was surprised when some strange man accosted me. (I am not young enough to be accosted by strange men, no matter how much wizardry I plaster on my face!) Truth be told, I was affronted by his boldness. Then, affront upon affront compounded!—another came, and another, bidding me go with them. “On what charge?” I calmly, half-politely asked. But, they were grim-faced, and with their hands upon my forearms ushered me away.
They led me to some cell underground. I could not see their faces in the light of the torch ensconced on the wall. It was hard to breathe in there… and I was scared. Always I had heard such tales of Athens—how well the women there were treated; it was said they ruled the roost (though not, of course, anything to touch on matters politic or military; such matters are best left to men!)
They wanted to know what business I had in Athens. So, I I told them frankly: my dear niece, still heartbroken from my sister’s recent passing, had sent me a disturbingnote. To soothe her anguished mind she was considering eloping with some young playwright—Euripides—something like that! Of course, I came as soon as I could. I could not let her throw her life away!
But, the men in the dim light were not amused. Nor bemused, either! They said I had been seen, pausing in the agora, to hear that ancient, bearded man, that Socrates, sowing his sedition! They wanted to know what I had heard. I said I’d only paused a moment. I’d other matters on my mind, wanted to get back to my own home. I was not aware that Athens had restricted travel!
And then, I swear it is hard to say it—two of them grabbed me and the other felt me up—put his hands all over me! What were they looking for? I demanded. Then, I pleaded, Did they know who I was? That I was Thebes’ own queen? They laughed. Horrible, Hadean laughter! They said they knew more about me than I did! It would come out in time! And they winked at one another. And, evil flashed in their dark eyes.
“What had I heard the old fool say?” they asked. “Who?” This Socrates! I asked them to unhand me and I’d tell them. They twisted my arm behind me. “I am not a young woman,” I cried. “Have you no mothers of your own?” They laughed again and twisted harder.
I told them what I could remember—eked it out against the pain: I could not so much remember what as how he said it. I’d never heard Greek spoken so well—precisely. One argument succeeding perfectly upon the other and leading to another even more refined. It was something about the need to keep the channels open. Not to be afraid to speak one’s mind, to see where thought might flow. It was something about not censoring oneself because of fear of who was listening. Something about the need to be fearless in the face of tyranny. Not to be a fool and provoke trouble; but to stand one’s ground and use one’s mind with subtlety. It was a kind of music how he said it!
They let me go then. They said I’d best be quiet if I knew what was good for me! They said they knew things about me—things I didn’t know—that would disgrace me and destroy my kingdom. They said I’d better watch myself–even what I thought! They laughed their evil laugh again, and let me wander down dim corridors, alone.
3. A Persian speaks: Of course I told them everything! You would, too. They were roasting me alive! I smelled my burning flesh! I heard the sizzling sound! I vomited. They smeared my vomit in my face and laughed.
I did not know this “Socrates.” I’d never heard of him! What was I doing in their holy city? Persian “scum” like me? I told them again: I was a poor man in my village. A sheep-herder. One day, marauders fell upon me, sold me into slavery. I’d escaped. I’d wandered, stowed away on a boat. Found myself in Athens.
How did I know Greek, they wondered? How had I survived? I confessed: a prostitute had taken pity on me. Who was she? I did not know… I could not say… (I dared not!)
When I awoke, after their hammering, my head was hammering, my body was hammering. Had I heard Socrates condemning the Authorities? Yes, I said, I’d heard him. Was I a “terrorist” who deserved death? Yes, I said. I was.
And was some man who consorted with terrorists, who encouraged them, who spoke against Authorities, was he not also fit to be hogtied, fit to be killed? Yes, I said. Yes….
4. Socrates speaks: Esteemed gentlemen of Athens, colleagues, friends, and less-than-friends. I thank you for this opportunity to speak in my defense against the charges brought against me by the Network of Spies of Athens, our NSA.
You want, I believe, something of an apologia. And I shall offer nothing less. But, I forewarn you: if you think me tedious, recall that I have now seen 70 winters; recall, as well, the battles I have seen—those fought with valor for our city’s sake… and for the sake of our democracy. Recall the years of penury I’ve known because I could not stop from answering the honest questioning of youthful minds; think that I was self-impelled to guide—not for a name or fame, but for our future’s sake.
Well… enough of that. So… without ado, let me apologize for… let me apologize for… [A long silence.]
Anorexia (impatiently–): Yes, Socrates, we are waiting!
Socrates: I’m sure it will come back to me; I had it on the tip of my tongue. And I must spit it out… because it is a poison!
Bulimius (sticking his finger down his throat; retching–): What’s that? What does he say? I told you all it was dangerous to let him speak!
Socrates: Ah, yes… I remember… I wanted to apologize… for a surfeit of belief—the wrong kind of belief in the Justice of the State. How could I ever have doubted that the gods would not forsake us? All my reasoning has led me into labyrinths—even as Jason was led. But, I have no golden fleece to show you… only more conundrums.
Honestly, I am confused. I know not for what I should apologize… because the charges against me are so… impalpable! It is alleged that I have corrupted the youth. But… who alleges it? No one has come forth. Testimony has been read before the Council… but neither I nor those who would speak in my behalf have the right of “cross-examination”!
Anorexia: Are you impugning the integrity of the Council?
Socrates: I impugn nothing, only wonder. Wonder, for example, about the testimony of tortured prisoners of war? Or, tortured slaves? Is it not reasonable to assume that tortured prisoners or slaves will say anything to stop the torture?
Bulimius (sticking his finger down his throat; retching–) We have heard these arguments before–from you and others… And we have explained—we are at war! The Spartans, the Persians, even now, challenge us on land and sea. Surely you can understand, Man, the necessities of these temporary measures?
Socrates: I am sorry… I am slow of understanding… What I have learned in my long life is this: “temporary measures” have a way of stretching out. People become comfortable with the uncomfortable—even with the absurd.
Anorexia: Speak plainly, Socrates. Do not try our patience, we are trying to hear you out!
Socrates: Hear me out, or stretch me out? Hearing me out is the problem! Invisible spies assault my words, twist my meanings, redact and cut; they highlight my asides, stress ironies, misinterpret. Every word I say collected and stored—not for “hearing me out,” but for hear-say evidence against me.
Consider: A man has some objection to his neighbor’s dog! The dog barks every morning—not once as the noble roosters do. But, over and over. The man asks his neighbor: Can he not quiet his dog? Keep him in the cellar where it will not see the disturbing light? Perhaps he can muzzle the dog—just at night. He can train the dog. All reasonable requests. But, the neighbor harrumphs, spits, turns his back on him, and proceeds on his un-merry way.
Bulimius: Can we get on with this, puh-leaze?!
Socrates: Forgive me. I am a little vexed considering what tomorrow brings. But, let’s stretch things thus: the very next day, 19 racing charioteers kill the dog beneath their spinning wheels. It is an accident, plain and simple. But, the neighbor, sick with grief, perhaps, does not blame the unskilled charioteers, but blames the “ill will” of the man who suggested the dog be muzzled! Now, did the dog bark before the charioteers ran over it? No, it happened too quickly! But, the dog’s owner is convinced that the mere thought of muzzling the dog somehow found its way into dog’s mind and precluded its barking! The grieving owner spreads this fantastic tale and the gullible multitudes believe him! (They have troubles of their own with their neighbors and each of them has heard at least one fantastic tale or another that later turned out to be true! (Or so they believe.) Plus, there’s the grieving owner’s biased reporting. Well, without further ado, the gullible find the complainant and kill him.
Bulimius (sticking his finger down his throat; retching–): All well done, I’d say!
Anorexia: And your point is?
Socrates: That men may be led by their noses. That reason, in this fair city built in homage to the goddess of Reason, is rare as the fabled unicorn. Consider: Did the mob that murdered the complainant hear the man out? Did they get his side of the story?
Now… I am brought before this Council, charged with certain crimes. It is alleged against me that... And it is alleged against me that… Well, you see, it is all very vague. Spies say that I have done this or that, but they do not appear before this Council. It is bruited that if they should appear, it will endanger the State! Is the State so fragile? Is not the very basis of democracy open debate and “due process”?
Bulimius (sticking his finger down his throat; retching): It is not for you to question the basis of our democracy, Socrates! You are here to apologize. Wind it up!
Socrates: Yes, I must wind it up. So, I shall apologize… for my lack of “due process.”
Socrates: I have failed to explain my syllogisms. I was not clear enough to show how A leads to B leads to C. I could not break through the mold of these times, the ague and fear in the hearts of those condemned to die.
Bulimius (sticking his finger down his throat; retching–): It is only you who are condemned to die, Socrates.
Socrates: Forgive an old man’s folly, sir, but we are all condemned and must make our peace with that fact… before that fact has made a “piece” of us…. It has been urged on me by some… I have heard murmurings—even before I came before you today—that I should escape; to hightail it to Sicily, etc... But, I am old. Where should I “start over”? I have a long-term marriage to a quarrelsome wife who berates my eternal philosophizing, my poor provisioning, lack of a good living.Where should I escape? I have grown used to the old girl’s quarreling… and I would not have her fret about me, worrying if I am well in exile. Better let her be at peace, thinking I am at peace, with my bones in my homeland. Let me go now, with my apology to every future generation: that we were not good or wise enough to clear the brambles for you. You must fight these Minotaurs again. That is your destiny… Gentlemen, let me go now to the other world while you tarry here. Who can say who will be in a better place tomorrow?”