“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.
The philosopher preached totalitarian dictatorship as the only feasible way to govern and spawned through his teachings, students who specialized in overthrowing democratically elected governments and instituting a reign of terror.
Socrates shaped the world view of at least two of his star pupils, Alcibiades and Critias. Alcibiades (450-404 BC) was an Athenian General who proposed that the only successful mode of governance was not democracy but an oligarchy of a few powerful leaders who should decide the fate of the populace. The other pupil, Critias, became a 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 404 BC.
Together, with Spartan support, Alcibiades and Crtitias usurped power and wreaked havoc, in which thousands of Athenians were deprived of their property and either banished from the city or executed.
Aside from his extreme views on governance, Socrates was also well known for his pederasty, the practice of forcing young pubescent boys into having sex with him.
The world lionizes this guy today.
Ancient Arab merchants had a saying – “if you teach your pupils how to kill, it is only a matter of time when you will yourself be the victim”. So it came to pass with Socrates.
No one knows exactly when or how Socrates fell afoul of the oligarchs or if his open sexual deviance did him in. One day in 399 BC, he was made to stand trial before a jury of 500 of his fellow Athenians.
Those days, just about any offense could be deemed a capital crime. Long story short, Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to die by lethal poison. His famous student, Plato, has recorded what happened next – an executioner 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 did as directed and then walked around until his legs began to feel heavy like 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 as if he had remembered something, rubbed his eyes and said to his faithful Crito, “ Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Do pay it. Don’t forget.”
Do you just believe this guy? He was about to die and here he was, thinking of something as inane as repaying a personal debt of a cock.
Socrates’ last-minute command to his servant might be considered trivial but inanity at a moment of deep personal trauma 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.
The English King Henry VIII’s Queen, Anne Boleyn, insisted on leaving detailed 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 shoving him into a truck bound for the Bogdanovka Concentration Camp) 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. As parting becomes imminent, the mind goes sort of numb, unable to think of anything consequential to say. Desperate to keep a conversation going, to maintain the feeling of being together, 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.
We kept up a banter, while inside us 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. The closer you are, to the one you are leaving behind and the closer it comes to the good-byes, the more inane the conversation seems to turn.
Ah, but for the soothing emptiness of inanity. We are brimming with inanity. Getting rid of our inanities cannot be achieved without getting rid of ourselves.