Where the European novel is concerned, there are few literary acts as originary as reimagining the life and death of Socrates. Cervantes referenced Plato in the first chapters of Don Quixote, Kierkegaard wrote his master’s thesis on the representation of Socrates in literature, Nietzsche called Plato’s dialogues “the prototype of the novel,” and Dostoevsky broke down in tears while reading Hegel’s lectures on the Platonic dialogues. But even these writers and thinkers, all of whom invoked Plato’s literary techniques in their own work, were not bold enough to take a stab at novelizing anew the leadup to Socrates’s death sentence and his decision to drink hemlock and die with his integrity rather than escape and become a fugitive.
Then came Babette Deutsch, a Jewish-American poet, writer, and critic, who in 1933—just as Hitler rose to power in Germany, Franklin D. Roosevelt became president of the United States, and Soviet Communism was making a play for power vacuums across the world—published a short novel that emphasized the personal cost of free thinking in times of social upheaval. As she wrote in her author’s note, “The foundations of society are more seriously shaken today than they were in Socrates’s time. . . . It seems worthwhile, then, to recall a man who under similar circumstances stood for the spirit of free inquiry, for the inviolability of the individual, with that lonely honesty and courage which are the badge of human dignity.” In a time when she was herself a potential target of political forces—having in the early 1920s published her writing in the New Masses and even traveled to the Soviet Union—Deutsch, who was not yet forty, gave new life to one of the most significant martyrs of the culture in which she was raised.
Today, Babette Deutsch is remembered mostly as the author of Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms, first published in 1957 and still in print over sixty years later in its fourth edition. But she was also the author of numerous poetry collections, critical studies, children’s books, and novels. Modern Times Publishing reissued one of her early critical works, Potable Gold: Some Notes on Poetry and This Age, which combines literary criticism with cultural criticism, Rogue’s Legacy, a novel about the ribald poet François Villon, and Mask of Silenus, a novel about Socrates. This is an excerpt from Mask of Silenus, exhibiting Deutsch’s ability to put readers today back in the time and place of vengeful targeting and social uncertainty.
It was a hot climb up the Acropolis. But Theodotus was dazzled less by the fierce power of the sun than by the whirl of his own thoughts. The promise of the banquet was wonderful. His absence from the sacrifice unforgivable. But how could he do otherwise? He could not imagine with what lie he would satisfy his father. And when he was gone for good, as now he knew that he must go, for he could bear his servitude no longer, the tanner would find his impiety a worse crime than his theft and flight. Antyus still believed that the desecration of the Hermes had been the beginning of the ruin of Athens. He hated Socrates no less for his dubious religious than for his political opinions. But what did he know of either? Only such scandal as found its way into the theatre where everyone was a butt for the comic writers, or from such bigots as the poet Meletus and Lycon the orator.
It will be nine days’ wonder when I’m gone, the boy said to himself, smiling bitterly. He wondered how Socrates would learn of it, what he would say. But he told me, thought Theodotus defensively, to keep out of the tan-yard if I could. There is no other way.
Why, what is the choice? That I steal my father’s money, or that he steals my life. For to rot in the tan-yard is to lose my life. And if I were to end up in the slave-marker, that would not be the worst. Suppose I were caught, not by my father but by some gang of outlaws, and sold for a slave: I might be ransomed, he thought with a leap of the pulse, as Phaedo was, and become the companion of some great man. Oh, Aphrodite, he whispered, frightened at his imagination, for love was sweet and almost as remote as fame itself. He wiped his wet forehead, and toiled on up the hill, not seeing the road, forgetful of his errand.
But where will I find a greater than Socrates, or such men as he gathers round him? Plato, Aristippus. … Oh, they are lucky, they have wealth, position, leisure. They come from great houses, mix with princes and scholars, while I … But he would see the inside of a great house tomorrow night, meet men, hear talk, different from the talk in the lyceum, even when Socrates was there to lead it. He would see the flowers of Athens, mingle with the noblest, though he was born the son of a common tanner and might die a common thief. Arrogance lifted him, flowed in his veins like wine.
And suddenly he was at the propylaea. The shrines and temples and treasure-houses that were the glory of the violet-crowned City lay before him in a thick splendor of bronze and marble, picked out in glowing gold and blue, with flashed of red and orange. The tall majesty of Phidias’ Athena, the brilliance of the Parthenon beyond the smaller buildings and images crowding the sacred hill, all washed in the luminous air of mid-afternoon, gave him a chilling delight. This was the home of the Goddess, this was his Mother City, worthy of adoration, not his only, but that of all the Greeks, even the dull Spartans who had conquered her. What did Sparta matter, what did the quarrels of politicians matter, before this matchless thing? Could Syracuse so take the breath? Could Carthage, Persia even, glitter like this? And must he, tiptoe and atingle with it, never so much an Athenian as when he was thus lifted above the vulgar bustle and dirt of Athens, submit to sink his vision in the routine of his father’s craft, as he must soak his hands in the stinking tan-vats?
He did not want to leave it. He wanted, his eyes fixed on the great frieze of the Parthenon, beaming where the sun struck it, he wanted to live wholly in the Athens this hill summoned before him, the City that rose and stirred vaguely behind the words of Socrates’ companions. If he could play a part there, not as a common juryman, or a mere member of the Assembly, but as a leader, a general . . . like Alcibiades, no, not like Alcibiades exactly. . . His day-dream became confused and his face clouded. He turned and walked hastily toward the Erectheum, thinking to find Meletus there.
A tall stringy figure stood with attentive gaze fixed upon the northern horizon. He need look no further.
Meletus greeted him kindly.
“Those birds,” he observed then, “are flying from the east. The omen is a good one.”
“You think so?”
The poet pulled at his thin beard and smiled.
“I do not presume to make auguries. That is the trouble with you young men nowadays, you think we invent these things. They are older than Athens herself. How is your father?”
The invitation to the sacrifice placated Meletus. But he was doubtful about the tanner’s son, knowing that he had been sticking like a burr to Socrates, though he honored the lad for his father’s sake.
As they walked down the sacred hill together Meletus regretted that he was not wearing an amulet against the Evil Eye. He would stop at the nearest shrine to lay a votive offering and say a prayer.
There was a fountain at the turn of the road, and beside it a weatherworn herm. An old crone crouched nearby, with a tray full of cakes baked in the shape of sacrificial animals. Meletus purchased a lamb of barley meal, and having washed with lustral water, laid it on the old stone altar, which was covered with broken fragments of similar tributes, and streaked white with the droppings of the birds that came for crumbs. He prayed briefly, while the withered cake-seller gestured to Theodotus—she was toothless and inarticulate—to buy an offering of his own for the shrine. He turned away. He could not join in Meletus’ devotions. The man froze whatever piety there was in him.
The poet dropped his arms and glanced inquiringly at his young companion.
“You had no prayer to make?”
They walked in silence. Finally Meletus said, “I was at the booksellers’ this morning.”
He was wondering if the young man had yet heard the story about Socrates and Lycon. It must be a town topic by now. Of course, Lycon behaved stupidly, he was drunk as usual, but it was no affair of Socrates’. Theodotus said nothing, and the poet proceeded in the amiable, if patronizing tone of an older man who wishes to be attentive to his junior:
“There seem to be a number of new books on physics and philosophy. I suppose you’ve read most of them?”
“Books are expensive,” replied the young man with a meagre smile.
“There must be book-buyers among your friends surely. They’ve all the latest theory down pat, eh?”
“Oh, my friends …” murmured Theodotus deprecatingly. He felt that he was not actually of the inner circle of the elect: he was too young, and soon he would have abandoned them all, and there was no speaking freely with Meletus, who belonged to the tanner’s set. “I haven’t seen the scrolls you speak of.”
“I thought you were a student of these things.”
“Oh, I know a little about the atomic theory of course,” he admitted, disarmed in a moment. “But I’ve never been properly taught. I haven’t heard any of the really important men.”
“You go to hear Socrates a good deal, don’t you?” asked Meletus.
“But Socrates isn’t like a regular lecturer. He never takes fees.”
“So I’ve heard. Do you think it’s right? Do you think it’s fair to the men who have to earn their living by teaching?”
“Oh, he’s the soul of fairness!” cried Theodotus, his dark face flushing. “But he thinks if you do anything well you must not do it for money. You can no more sell wisdom than you can sell love. It’s prostitution. That’s why he wants a limited franchise: he says that if a man is rich enough to serve the City without pay he won’t think of his salary, but of justice only.”
“Ah, that’s interesting. That’s very interesting!” Meletus rubbed his long nose. “Let us sit here a moment, and you shall instruct me as Socrates has instructed you.”
They were close to a shrine of Apollo, and the poet dropped onto a bench which stood beneath the bay-tree set there in honor of the god. Theodotus, excited by the turn of the talk, and troubled too, a little, sat down beside him. Meletus spoke more genially than his father ever had. And it was easier to talk to this stranger than to his father, between whom and himself the very intimacies of family life had erected invisible barriers. Nobody who truly knew Socrates could resist the man. If he could make Meletus know him as he was, the boy thought he could leave Athens, yes, and rob Anytus too, with a clean conscience.
“And do you agree with Socrates?” asked the poet. “Come, you have an opinion. You’re a clever lad.”
“I think he may be right.”
“But have you considered that if we listened to him and you were born a poor man’s son, you would have no vote, no matter how sharp your brains were?” Meletus threw the young man a triumphant glance.
“I don’t think the property qualification matters so much. When it comes to voting,” Theodotus gave a short embarrassed laugh, “you might as well vote asses to be horses: the men we make generals weren’t born rulers, they were only voted such.”
“Is that what Socrates says?”
“No, Antisthenes said that. But Socrates didn’t deny it.”
“Well, there’s no fear of asses being called horses under a dictatorship: then it’s the other way about. What does the old man say to that?”
“He was against the dictatorship of course!”
“Of course,” said Meletus. “I was thinking of his young friend Plato. If I’m not mistaken, two of his uncles were among the Thirty.”
“Is a man responsible for his uncles? At any rate, Socrates has no uncles.” The young man laughed, and was silent, somewhat abashed at his own heat. Ashamed too of his inability to bring the figure of his master in all its living warmth and radiance before the eyes of his companion.
“He is no man’s slave,” he said after a little. “He obeys no one but his daemon.”
Meletus put up his hand to touch his amulet, but remembered sadly that he had left it at home. The air was alive with presences, how many of them hostile! This Socrates could evidently talk blasphemy as fluently as he could talk sedition.
“Just how does he describe it?” asked the poet, reminding himself of the good omen he had had on the sacred hill.
“You’d never learn about this daemon from Socrates,” said Theodotus. “You’d never learn anything about him from himself. It’s as though he were ashamed to speak of himself when …” When there were so many more weighty things to speak of, he would have added, but he did not finish, for there was something in the look of the man beside him that hushed the words on his lips.
“As though he were ashamed?” Meletus repeated.
Theodotus rose, and moved restlessly about, stopping once to breathe the fragrance of the bay, wishing he might inspire courage and eloquence from Apollo’s tree.
“His daemon is nothing so strange,” he murmured. “I have heard Plato speak of it as something like the power which moves a poet—a secret Voice that only he can hear and must obey. But you should know more about that than I,” the young man broke off.
“But Plato writes prose,” said Meletus, “and very little of that.”
“Oh, but don’t you find his prose the purest poetry?”
“No,” said Meletus, his vanity touched, “I don’t.” He rose and put a lean hand on Theodotus’ shoulder, looking at him with a fanatic fire in his sacred eyes. “Oh, my dear boy, when I listen to you I am afraid. By Zeus, I am carried back to the days of my own youth, when I too fell under the influence of impious and dangerous men. But I escaped, I repented my folly.” No one should ever learn how much he knew about the desecration of the Hermes. But no one could ever question his devoutness now. He cleared his throat. “I suffered Theodotus, as I pray the gods you may never suffer. I learned my lesson before it was too late.”
Theodotus did not meet his eyes.
“Evil companions corrupt the best of our young men. Be careful, my boy. You yourself do not know where you may be led.”
Theodotus had no answer to this. He would not look at Meletus, he detested the tall bony figure, the lean beaked face, the anxious voice. He looked at the sky, which had lost its bright intensity of color, though sunset was not yet. The dullness of the air, like breath clouding a mirror, befogged his spirits. He longed for a cup of unmixed wine, for strong talk and quick laughter, to dispel these silly solemnities.
“Are you rested?” he asked briefly.
“My legs are rested,” answered Meletus, combing his thin beard with nervous fingers. “But if I must be honest with you, my mind is not easy.”
“Don’t let me trouble it,” said the young man hastily, his tone gentler than either his words or his mood.
Meletus shook his head and sighed. The talk had wakened black memories and forebodings. So this was young Athens. It has been different in his own youth. Oh, they had questioned, they had insulted sacred things then, but in mere boyish bravado, not in dangerous earnest. The tanner’s son was a sample of what was going on. They were listening to the siren voices of sophists like the old stone-cutter and they would be dashed to pieces on the rocks, yes, and the City with them.
“Well, my lad,” he said at last, gloomily, “I shall see you when your father sacrifices.”
You will see me in Hades first, said the boy to himself fiercely, but he merely tossed the black hair off his forehead and stared at Meletus with a mixture of anger and despair.
“What is the matter?” asked the poet in amazement.
“Why, nothing, nothing is the matter. Good-bye.” And Theodotus swung round and was striding away almost at a run before he could speak again.
He shut Meletus from his mind with anticipations of the banquet.
Would the wine make him more alive? It might leave him drowsy, and then he would be sure to do something stupid. Oh, if he had Socrates’ powers! The old man used his body as clever bankers used their money, saving his energy or spending it so as to draw interest on it, as he pleased. And his mind shining secretly like all the silver mines of Laureion together. Ah, if one could plunder the glory hidden under that knobby skull, that cap of grey curls! If one could break open his soul, and snatch his wisdom, posses it utterly, as one possessed a woman! Theodotus, who has known only slaves, flute-girls, laughed at himself for a fool. Yes, and what a fool! Babbling away to Meletus, who would be sure to repeat everything to his father, and that whole crowd of swollen-headed patriots. Well, he would soon be out of it all, it would hurt him no longer. And as for Socrates being injured by it, that was absurd. He had come out safe in spite of defying the Thirty. He could hold his own against the men who had taken their place.
Theodotus, freeing himself from this tangle of fears and wonders, observed that he was passing the house of Lais, the courtesan. And approaching her door was, yes, no other than Critobolus. The two caught sight of each other at the same moment, and the younger shrank back, blushing furiously. Critobolus smiled at him without embarrassment.
“I shall see you tomorrow night?” he called.
Theodotus recovered himself, threw back his head, and summoned a great voice to shout back:
“By Hermes, but you shall!”
Critobolus nodded and knocked at Lais’ door. Theodotus passed on, in a dream. The promise of the banquet exalted him, he was ashamed of his blush, and he was afraid. O God, he thought, and they praise youth, and lament its passing. Can old age be bitterer than this? The sky was splendid with sunset but the evening wind blew coldly through his light tunic. What was it Meletus has said: “You yourself do not know where you may be led.” He shivered and hurried on.
From Babette Deutsch’s Mask of Silenus: A Novel About Socrates(1933), Copyright © Benjamin Yarmolinsky. Reprinted with permission from Modern Times Publishing.
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