Socrates and Me

Socrates - Ripley's Cover

The way I remember it, sometime during the summer of 1975 I picked up a copy of Ripley’s Believe It or Not comics for 25-cents from the local pharmacy. The cover depicted the ghostly apparitions of a coonskin-cap-wearing frontiersman and an Indian with a mohawk clenched in mortal combat. Behind them a stunned night watchman nearly drops his flashlight in horror.

Inside there was a story to match the cover. But there was also another story, one whose title caught my eye: “The Demon of Socrates.” I had no idea who or where “Socrates” was (and yes, I thought it was pronounced the way Bill & Ted say it) , but I liked stories about demons. I’d also learned a little about Ancient Greece in history class and so the opening caption piqued my interest:

Socrates, perhaps the greatest of Greek philosophers… taught in Athens during the fifth century B.C. He also struggled against those his honesty angered! But few know that he followed the advice of a “demon!”

The story’s action begins not unlike a Platonic dialogue, with an excited Xenophon running up to Plato on the streets of Athens. Xenophon informs Plato that their beloved teacher Socrates has been condemned to death by “the council.” Insisting that the only thing Socrates does is teach them to question, Plato runs to find his teacher. He quickly finds the philosopher, but Socrates is not alone.

Socrates and his daemon

Plato sees, perched atop a boulder next to his teacher, what appears to be a transparent replica of Socrates that stands about a foot in height. The young student is surprised by this “spectre” and asks his teacher to explain. Socrates reminds Plato, “Do you remember me telling you of my ‘demon’?” The teacher further explains that this apparition is actually his ghost, who has for many years warned Socrates of impending trouble. He surprises Plato by informing the lad he already knows of his impending execution because the ghost has already foretold it.

Suddenly Xenophon and others arrive. “We have arranged for your freedom,” they tell Socrates: a boat will be waiting to take him away during the night.

But the teacher refuses to flee. He has no reason to fear death, he tells them; the presence of his ghost confirms the existence of the afterlife. “I could not have taught you what I have if I were afraid of death,” he tells them. “I could not have spoken out! And yet my ghost gave me courage!”

The brief story concludes:

And so it was that Socrates – following the advice of his own ghost – gave up all hope of escape and was forced to drink hemlock! His belief in the afterlife was so strong that it could not be shaken, even by poison!

Aside from my interest in Ancient Greece, the story captivated me for a somewhat secret reason. Since the age of about five, I’d had an invisible (“imaginary”) companion of my own. He wasn’t my ghost, but was instead a pooka. On occasion he would leave me a message typed on an old typewriter I’d found in a closet. Other times he drew pictures in the dust, dirt, or fog on the windows. The pooka spent most of his time in the guise of a rabbit, sometimes giant but usually normal-sized; among his other disguises were a kangaroo, a long-haired hobbit-like man who had had a very large mouth that was constantly smiling, and a train conductor with black eyes and mouth full of shark’s teeth.

Harvey

The origin of this giant rabbit can be likely attributed to my fondness for the movie Harvey. The image of the wide-mouth hobbit is likely inspired by Tolkien as well as the Cheshire Cat. The ‘roo most likely from Pooh, and the train conductor was probably partially drafted from the Twilight Zone episode, “A Stop at Willoughby.” The pooka’s habit of leaving me messages on an old typewriter seems lifted straight from Archy and Mehitabel. All these influences synthesized in the over-active cerebellum of a precocious eleven-year old to construct an imaginary creature. That’s a reasonable explanation and should work for most people. Unless, of course, you choose to believe me when I assure you with all sincerity and sanity:

The pooka was – is – real.

But more on that later. For now, let’s get back to Socrates.

The story of this philosopher and his nearly-invisible friend fascinated me. I had to know more, so off to the library I went. There weren’t a lot of books for an eleven-year old that deal with Socrates. That didn’t matter much to me; my reading skills were quite precocious and advanced. I knew how to use the card catalog and the local librarian was familiar enough with me that she didn’t bother me as I perused the books on the “adult” shelves. But she did make comment when I brought Jowett’s hefty Complete Dialogs of Plato to the counter.

“Are you sure you want to read this?” she asked. “It’s a little advanced, even for you.”

I frowned. “I want to read about Socrates,” I told her. I showed her one of the other books in my stack: Plato for Pleasure, by Adam Fox. “This is supposed to be easier.”

She looked it over. “This will probably be easier for you to read,” she said of that small book. “But let me show you something else.” She walked over to the shelves where I’d found the books on Plato and came back with a large book. I could tell it had more pictures in it than these two. But it was a book about philosophy, not Socrates, so I had only skimmed the book earlier. She opened it and thumbed through a few pages, then set it on the counter to show me. “See here, this is more basic. You might start here.”

I looked at it and turned the pages. There were pictures of Socrates and Plato (and some chap named Aristotle, which I knew to be the name of Jackie’s second husband), including a large two-page spread of Jacques-Louis David’s painting depicting Socrates’ classic death scene. Then I looked past those pages and into the majority of the rest of the book. There were more pictures, some I recognized but most I didn’t. More curious than ever, I slipped the book into my stack and checked it out with the rest.

She wasn’t wrong about the Jowett: it took me a long time to read and comprehend Plato from these dialogs. The least of my difficulties was the language, the “big words” that most adults assumed were in such books. More difficult were the ideas: Symposium was relatively straightforward with its wild considerations of the varieties of love, but most of the other dialogs were about things I’d never encountered or considered.

The librarian had been correct: Fox’s book was much more accessible. Over the next few months that book alongside the Jowett’s got me through Apology and Crito, which were of particular interest to me as they seemed to parallel the comic book story. At another library I had discovered some “juvenile” books about classical civilization, but few of them focused on Socrates or philosophy. The generals and politicians of Athens and Rome got far more page time than the philosophers. It wasn’t an easy subject to study, especially for a precocious pre-teen in a small Southern town: there weren’t (aren’t) many adults who take seriously a kid who says he wants to study Greek philosophy. Still, I kept at it, convinced by some strange voice (my daemon?) that it was imperative I understand Socrates, Plato, Aristotle – that it was important to follow them to the numerous places they would lead.

It became a lifelong obsession. It wasn’t until college that I began to realize what I’d gotten myself into: this was one of those trips for which there is no destination, no way-points, barely even a milepost along the path (which is actually more than one path, and is only visible inasmuch as it’s had people pacing back and forth on it for centuries) – and it turns out the very best parts of the scenery are often found by treading off that beaten path. One day I ran into the Buddha and noticed he looked a lot like one of the disguises my pooka would wear: he wore a top hat with his robes and his smile was warm and friendly but filled with sharp teeth.

To be continued…