“Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Do pay it. Don’t forget”
― Socrates to personal aide, minutes before he was forced to kill himself by consuming hemlock, 399BC
The citizens of Athens bore a massive grudge against Socrates.
If you preached totalitarian dictatorship as the only feasible way to govern and if you spawned through your teachings, students who specialized in overthrowing democratically elected governments and instituting a reign of terror, you would raise the common man’s ire, no question about it.
And so did Socrates’ students, Alcibiades and Critias. Alcibiades (450-404BC) was an Athenian General in the same mould as Nicola Machiavelli. Deceitful and treacherous by nature, he proposed that the only successful mode of governance was an oligarchy of a few powerful leaders who should decide the fate of the populace, not democracy. The historian Plutarch (46-120AD) regarded Alcibiades as “the least scrupulous and most entirely careless of human beings”.
And so was Critias, an Athenian statesman who also happened to be Plato’s mother’s first cousin. Critias was a particularly violent member of a group of bad guys called the thirty tyrants, a pro-Spartan oligarchy that unleashed a reign of terror on the Athenians for more than a year, around 404BC. Together, with Spartan support, Alcibiades and Crtitias usurped and engaged in havoc, in which thousands of citizens were deprived of their property and either banished from the city or executed.
Add to this, Socrates’ penchant for pederasty (forcing young pubescent boys into having sex with him), and you would agree that Socrates had it coming.
Thus it came to pass that one day in 399 BC, he was made to stand before a jury of 500 of his fellow Athenians. Those days these offenses, and in fact just about any offense at all for that matter, could be deemed to be capital crimes.
Socrates knew that he was up shit creek and he didn’t have a paddle. But hey, he also knew how to look at the bright side. If he had been in Rome, he would have been shoved inside an arena and told to fight ten armor-clad hulks wielding ball and chain.
The trial took place in the heart of the city, the jurors seated on wooden benches surrounded by a crowd of spectators. Socrates’ accusers, three Athenian citizens, were allotted three hours to present their case, after which, the philosopher would have three hours to defend himself. The 70-year old philosopher was known to all and knew many of those seated on the jury and they hated him. There was no way he was going to beat this rap.
Long story short, Socrates was found guilty, 280 to 220. His famous student, Plato, has recorded what happened next.
Taken to the jail, Socrates saw the executioner, a slight bespectacled man, approach with a grim face and he said to the man, ‘Now, good sir, you understand these things. What must I do?’
(I lied about the executioner wearing spectacles. The first eyeglasses were used on a regular basis only by the AD1300s in Europe. I do hope you have a salt cellar handy when you read my writing).
The shrimpy guy handed Socrates a cup that contained an extract of hemlock called coniine and said,” Just drink it and walk around until your legs begin to feel really heavy. Then lie down. It will soon act.’
Socrates was a windbag and loved an audience. He took the cup without a tremor and said, ‘How say you, is it permissible to pledge this drink to anyone? May I?’
The executioner replied, ‘We allow reasonable time in which to drink it.’
‘I understand’, he said, ‘we can and must pray to the gods that our sojourn on earth will continue happy beyond the grave. This is my prayer, and may it come to pass.’
With these words, he stoically drank the potion, quite readily and cheerfully. He walked around until his legs began to feel heavy as the executioner had said they would and then, he lay down on his back.
As the chill sensation got to his waist, Socrates suddenly rose up on his elbows, rubbed his eyes and spoke his last words, to his faithful Crito, “ Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Do pay it. Don’t forget.”
Do you just believe this guy? Here he was, about to die a painful 20-minute roller-coaster ride to his demise by an extremely painful poison and he was thinking of repaying a personal debt of a cock.
But Socrates’ last-minute effort at something anyone would consider trivial is not uncommon. At the point of death, condemned men seek to suppress the conscious knowledge of the direness of their circumstances by speaking of inane things and trying to maintain an illusion in their minds that everything is normal. Queen Anne (Boleyn) left instructions for the maintenance of her potted plants. The serial murderer, Ted Bundy, repeatedly reminded a warder to post a letter of complaint he had written, to a magazine that had incorrectly mentioned his place of birth.
Nobel Laureate and Nazi concentration camp survivor, Eli Wiesel, has written about a neighbor whom he heard asking an SS storm trooper (who was loading Jews into trucks outside his home in Sighet, Romania) in an everyday matter-of-fact tone, to turn off the lights inside his apartment, since electricity was expensive. The act of turning off lights in an empty apartment of a man who knew he was being carted off to his death, would in no way change his circumstances and yet that was the first thing that came to Wiesel’s neighbor’s mind.
Just seconds before the trapdoor he was standing on, gave and he plummeted to his death, Saddam Hussein was asking the Shiite militia guy adjusting the noose round his neck, to move the knot a bit to the side as it was tickling his nose. The executioner obliged, in a final act of kindness toward a man who did not deserve any.
A similar urge toward the inane also happens when one is on the verge of saying farewell to loved ones, just before the last call for departure is announced at the airport or when the signal turns orange at the rail station. Desperate to keep a conversation going, we say the most inane of things.
When I left India for good, my mother was at the airport. There was a wall-to-wall plate glass window inside the lounge where we sat waiting, watching aircraft take off and land. Security had already been called and it was just minutes before departure would be announced. I had no words to say to the one person to whom I owed so much.
“See how cute that kid is?” I said pointing at a toddler who was trying to break free from his mother’s grasp by biting on her fingers. My mother smiled and nodded, trying hard to hold back her tears.
“Can you read what’s written on that counter over there? I do have to get my eyes checked. Haven’t done it in a while,” said she. I nodded and smiled.
Inside us both raged emotions like wildfire, real conversations, that remained unsaid. Instead one was trying to read something hung up on a counter while the other found a pain-in-the-ass unruly kid, cute.
I suppose we try to grope for comfort inside the shroud of inanity.