There was a time, more than two decades ago now, that my interests were limited to only two things: ideas and having a good time. To quench my thirst for the first, I enrolled at a university. To pursue the second, I took up employment in a popular bar.
Soon, the divide between the two spaces began to dissolve, and a small fast-food joint became the portal through which I relocated from one into the other.
The number of samoosas I’d bought on any given day was positively correlated with the number of days till the next fresh paycheck. The volumes of beer and cheap wine, however, represented the constant in this linear relationship.
It was during one of the many do-or-die evenings that I met him.
With a rather long beard, off-white toga and dusty sandals, he looked distinctly out of place among the collection of immoral patrons and part-time drunks that frequented our esteemed establishment. Was he perhaps a most senior student that absconded from one of those illegal toga parties organized by the utmost immature and pretentious wannabe members of the legal fraternity? Or was he just a weary traveller travelling between costume parties? Or maybe I’d overdone it with the samoosas?
I just had to meet him.
I waited until he got up for a visit to the bathroom and ever so innocently took his seat. Upon returning he extended his hand: “Yahsu! I am Plato and you’re sitting on my seat”. Now, would you ever! It must be the samoosas!
I cleared my throat with a slight smile to pave the way for a sarcastic reply: “Ja bra, and I am Karl Marx. Let uz have a zinking contest!”
That was the wine, not the samoosas.
He just smiled, and ordered another glass of wine. “You are not enough beard to be Karl Marx”, he suggested with a painful prod of his forefinger on my chest.
‘You old bugger, you’, I thought, ‘I’ll get you’.
“So, Plato, tell me, who was your wrestling coach?” I had the imposter. “Toe, toe, toe pappie, nou moet jy mooi dink!”
I leaned back against the bar counter looking much more like a half-filled, self-righteous, pompous sack of wheat propped up against an empty wine barrel than the triumphant philosopher I was pretending to be.
“Ariston of Argos” he winked, “the man who dubbed me Platon”.
Oookay! All my wisdom teeth agreed. It was the great man indeed.
“Socrates is dead”, he mumbled.
“I know” I replied. “That is so sad. I.F. Stone wrote a book about his trial just last year.”
I wanted to tell him that due to the academic sanctions against South Africa none of us had read the book yet; but we were waiting for friends to bring a few photocopied versions when they returned from a visit to an aunt in the United Kingdom … but that would have spoiled the great man’s mood.
“What happened?” I asked. “You were there, right?”
“Naturally” he replied.
“You see, he was never a very popular man. Walking around barefoot without as much as a 100 minas to his name, challenging all to show that he is the world’s greatest mind, and teaching the young – that was his downfall.”
I was confused. “How does a society that enjoyed the greatest amount of freedom, kill a man for his teachings? And why wait until he is an old man to deem his teachings dangerous?”
He scratched his head.
“His notion that ordinary folk have no capacity to govern themselves, that they need a philosopher king, was never very popular in Athens. These anti-democracy tendencies belonged with our close enemies, Sparta. Although the old man had been reminded of this with closed fists a few times, it was not until two of his students, Alcibiades and Critias, were successful in temporarily suspending the democratic government, that his ideas were seen as subversive”. He paused to take a sip.
“It was the very Critias that established the oligarchy of the ‘Thirty Tyrants’. Times were tough during those years, and many Athenian democrats fled into exile to start a resistance movement. They blamed Socrates for the Tyrants and for creating a Socratified youth. Finally, Athenian democrats had enough of the piss-poor, pompous old windbag”.
I had to visit the bathroom, but hell, I was not going to do it. Not right away, anyway. The conversation was getting interesting.
Two more sips and then he leaned over toward me. I imitated his action and for a split second the collision of two clouds of wine-fumed breath left both of us blinking and speechless.
“I think it is all bullshit”. His breath stung my eyes. I blinked and blinked again. “What do you mean?” I breathed right back. It was his turn to blink.
“I think the charges of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state and for introducing new divinities; and for corrupting the youth – that’s all nonsense. Dreamed-up by Metelus, Anytus and Lycon to get rid of Socrates for once and for all.”
“Ok, but I still do not understand – and my friends with the photocopies are not due to arrive for another fortnight – why the urgency? Why not let an old man of seventy philosophize himself to a barefoot-death? Surely it would only take a year or two?”
He put both hands on my shoulders and squeezed. “Ah, my beardless Mr. Marx! You have indeed touched upon the essence of the matter. They had to kill him or else their wish for revenge would have been unfulfilled. It is as simple as that!”
It was as if someone secretly removed my wisdom teeth during the conversation for try as I may, I could not find one convincing explanation for his revenge hypothesis.
The contents of my skull had turned to mold, strong and pervasive enough to remove any recollection of my last cardamom-filled samoosa.
He must have noticed I was staring into the dark abyss for he ordered more wine with the profoundly confident demeanor of a man who knows he holds all the cards.
“They sought his death for he slept with Anytus’s son!”
And with that revelation, he burst into a belly-splitting fit of laughter that rose over the droning voices of regular patrons and half-drunks to fill the entire establishment.
“Oh man!” He gave me a painful slap on the shoulder.
With the tears of laughter filling his eyes he continued: “Old Socrates told me that during his brief encounter with Anytus’s son, he found the young man not lacking in spirit!” More belly-splitting laughter. His laughter now sounded like a thousand togas being torn.
“You are just kidding? Right?” I managed these words with a chin still hanging on my chest.
“No, I am afraid not. You see, us Greeks, we invented many things. Sex … we invented sex too. But it was the Italians who introduced women to it”.
In that moment, I abandoned the common practice of drinking wine by the glass. For the truth dissolves a little every time it gets poured into a new container. It is only pure when swallowed straight from the bottle.
The sun was about to rise as I watched him walking down Dorp street, turning left at the intersection to go Somerset West way. Disappearing into the morning mist of my tired mind.
It was time to reflect with a samoosa or two.
And in a few hours I had to take that philosophy test. I was confident. How else? I had drunk from the bottle of truth.