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Socrates by August Strindberg


Sparta had conquered Athens, and Athens lay in ruins. The government by the people was over, and the rule of the Thirty Tyrants had succeeded it. Socrates and Euripides walked with sad faces among the ruins on the Agora.

Socrates spoke: “We are on the ruins of Athens' walls! We have become Spartans. We would have no tyrants, and now thirty rule over us.”

“I go to the North,” said Euripides, “to Macedonia, whither I am invited.”

“In that you are right, for the Tyrants have forbidden the acting of your tragedies.”

“That is true.”

“And they have forbidden me to teach.”

“Have they forbidden Socrates to speak? No! Then he can teach, for he cannot speak without teaching. But they must have forbidden the oracles to speak, for they have ceased to prophesy. Everything has ceased! Hellas has ceased to be! And why?”

“You may well ask. Has Zeus begotten the son who is to overthrow him, as Aeschylus foretold?”

“Who knows? The people have introduced a new God called Adonai or Adonis. He is from the East, and his name signifies the Lord.”

“Who is the new god?”

“He teaches readiness for death, and the resurrection. And they have also got a new goddess. Have you heard of Cybele, the mother of the gods, a virgin, who is worshipped in Rome like Vesta by vestal priests.”

“There is so much that is new and obscure, like wine in fermentation. There comes Aristophanes. Farewell, my friend, for the last time here in life.”

“Wait! Aristophanes beckons! No, see! he weeps! Aristophanes weeps!”

Aristophanes approached. “Euripides,” he said, “don't go till I have spoken to you.”

“Can you speak?” answered Euripides.

“I weep.”

“Do not quit your role. Shall that represent tears?”

“Sympathise with a companion in distress, Euripides; the Tyrants have closed my theatre.”

“Socrates, shall I sympathise with my executioner?”

“I believe that the Temple of Nemesis has been opened again,” answered Socrates. “Aristophanes has never been ingenuous hitherto; now he is so with a vengeance. Very well, Aristophanes, I sympathise with you that you can no more scoff at me. I pardon you, but I cannot help you to stage your comedies. That is asking too much. Now I follow Euripides home.”

       * * * * *

Socrates sat by Aspasia, who had grown elderly. “Euripides has gone to Macedonia,” he said.

“From his wives.”

“You have become bitter.”

“I am tired of seeing ruins and all the rest. The Tyrants are murdering the citizens.”

“That is the occupation of tyrants.”

“Shall we soon have rest?”

“In the Ceramicus, in a cedar coffin.”

“I will not die; I will live, but quietly.”

“Life is not quiet.”

“Yes, if one is well off.”

“One never is.”

“No, not if one is unhappily married, like you, Socrates.”

“My wife is certainly the worst possible; if she had not had me for a husband, she would long ago have been murdered.”

“Xantippe betrays you with her gossiping; and when she does not understand what you say, she gives others distorted ideas of your opinions and your person.”

“Yes, I know that, but I cannot alter it.”

“Why do you continue in such a state of humiliation?”

“Why should I fly? One is only justified in flying from superior force, and Xantippe is not a superior force to me.”

“You are forbidden, on pain of death, to give instruction; that is her work and that of Anytos.”

“She may bring about my death, if she likes, for then she has only brought about my freedom.... Aspasia, I hear that our friendship is on the decline; you have found new friends, you have become another person. Let me say farewell before Lysicles comes.”

“Do you know him?”

“Yes, and the whole town speaks of your coming marriage.”

“With the cattle-dealer, Lysicles?”

“Yes, that is your affair; I don't talk about it.” “But you think I should have cherished Pericles' memory better?”

“I would fain have seen Aspasia's memory better preserved; but since I have seen Athenians adorn themselves with garlands to celebrate Athens' overthrow; since I have seen Phidias....”

“How, then, will Socrates end?” “Certainly not like Aspasia.”

“The gods jest with us. Beware! O Socrates!”

       * * * * *

Socrates was at last in prison, accused of having seduced the youth, and blasphemed or repudiated the gods of the State. Among the accusers were a young poetaster, Melitos, the tanner Anytos, and the orator Lykon.

Socrates made his Apology, and declared that he had always believed on God, and the voice of his conscience, which he called his “demon.” He was condemned to drink hemlock, and kept in prison, where, however, he was allowed to see his wife and his few remaining friends.

Just now his wife was with him, and wept.

“Weep not,” said Socrates; “it is not your fault.”

“Will you see the children?”

“Why should I lacerate their little souls with a useless leave-taking? Go to them and comfort them; divert their minds with an expedition to the woods.”

“Shall we rejoice while you are dying?”

“Rejoice that my sufferings come to an end! Rejoice that I die with honour.”

“Have you no last wish?”

“I wish for nothing, except peace and freedom from your foolish tears and sighs, and your disturbing lamentations. Go, woman, and say to yourself that Socrates wants to sleep for he is tired and out of humour; say to yourself that he will wake again, refreshed, rejuvenated, happy and amiable.”

“I wish you had taught me all this before; you had nothing to learn from me.”

“Yes! I have learnt from you patience and self-control.”

“Do you forgive me?”

“I cannot, for I have done it already. Say farewell now, as though I were going on a journey. Say 'We meet again,' as though I were soon returning!”

“Farewell, then, Socrates, and be not angry with me.”

“No, I am always well-disposed towards you.”

“Farewell, my husband, for ever.”

“Not for ever. You wish to see me again, don't you? Put on a cheerful face, and say, 'We meet again.'“

“We meet again.”

“Good! and when we meet again, we will go with the children together into the woods.”

“Socrates was not what I thought he was.”

“Go! I want to sleep.”

She went, but met in the doorway Plato and Crito.

“The hour approaches, friends,” said Socrates wearily, and with feverish eyes.

“Are you calm, Master?”

“To say the truth, I am quite calm. I will not assert that I am joyful, but my conscience does not trouble me.”

“When, Socrates, when—will it happen?”

“You mean, When is it to happen,—the last thing? Plato, my friend, my dearest ... it hastens.... I have just now enjoyed a sleep. I have been over the river on the other side; I have seen for a moment the original forms of imperishable Beauty, of which things on earth are only dim copies.... I have seen the future, the destinies of the human race; I have spoken to the mighty, the lofty, and the pure; I have learnt the wise Order which guides the apparent great disorder; I trembled at the unfathomable secret of the Universe of which I had a glimmering perception, and I felt the immensity of my ignorance. Plato, you shall write what I have seen. You shall teach the children of men to estimate things at their proper value, to look up to the Invisible with awe, to revere Beauty, to cultivate virtue, and to hope for final deliverance, as they work, through faithful performance of duty and self-renunciation.”

He went to the bed, and lay down.

Plato followed him, “Are you ill, Master?”

“No, I have been; but now I am getting well.”

“Have you already....”

“I have already emptied the cup!”

“Our Wisest leaves us.”

“No mortal is wise! But I thank the gods who gave me modesty and conscience.”

There was silence in the room.

“Socrates is dead!”


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