Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Christopher Nelson as he considers whom we should hold as heroes, worthy of emulation. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
Imitation, like so many time-tested educational activities, took a big hit during the twentieth century. The history of the desire to create autonomously is long, but early in the last century, this desire became an out-and-out obsession. The mania for originality and novelty spread itself far and wide—and it hasn’t loosened its hold yet.
For education, the loss of imitation as a consistent and regular practice has been devastating. Its capacity to build discipline, to develop reserves of outstanding models, and to train up technique has debilitated students. In its place has spread a lifeless analytical approach, consisting of theoretical explanations supplemented by a few schematic examples. You know the kind of thing I’m thinking of: the five-paragraph essay, the hook-and-chorus model of popular song, the basic-shape approach to drawing. On the basis of this meager instruction, students—even children—are then expected to be original and creative!
This is tragic for education in any number of ways. First, because it teaches that analysis, and not experiential involvement, is the primary approach to mastering skills. Second, because it leads at best to mediocre results, and at worst to complete failure. Third, because mediocre results and failure persuade students that they have no ability. Fourth, because dispirited students in turn fail to follow through, thus being deprived, and depriving themselves, of what might have been a treasure trove of experience and enlightenment. And I could go on.
But the demise of imitation has been even more devastating for personal growth. It used to be a commonplace that successful people need to have extraordinary “heroes” whom they admire and try to emulate. But the historical disciplines in the twentieth century waged something of a war against the very idea of the hero. The old proverb “No man is a hero to his valet” became their inspiration, and they set about demolishing the mythos surrounding every previous historical hero, highlighting especially incidents in their lives that showed them to be self-contradictory, over-ambitious, unjust, and venal. In short, that showed them to be human, just like the rest of us unaccomplished, ordinary humans.
One consequence of this was to diminish respect for the virtues of the old heroes that permitted them to accomplish extraordinary feats. They were, after all, just like us—not exceptional in a way that stimulates emulation. Again, the storehouse of the mind and the spirit has been depleted. What remains of the hero is, for most young people, the celebrity, whose principal virtue is that of notoriety.
Now when I was a youngster, I first became acquainted with the well-known characters from the age of heroes in the myths and legends of ancient Greece through collections of stories recounted by Edith Hamilton, Rex Warner, and others—and even from a few illustrated Golden Books. I read about the adventures, battles, and family stories surrounding the rise and fall of the houses of Atreus and Thebes, the loves of gods and mortals, the glory of Achilles, the fall of Troy, and countless other stories. I suspect that my choice of college—my undergraduate alma mater was St. John’s, for those of you who don’t know—owed something to my early fascination with these larger-than-life figures. During my college years, however, I learned that these figures were not merely objects of entertaining fiction, but models for imitation.
The whole point of a hero is to mark out for us extraordinary human behavior, in such a way that we desire to grow into the sort of person who shows the same kind of excellence. By reliving and thinking through the lives of great heroes, we find ways to make and remake ourselves, in the ongoing quest all of us follow—to build our own life worth living.
Today, I thought I might retell partially the life of one of those ancient heroes. It is the first one told by Plutarch in his book called Great Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans: the life of Theseus. Then, I will pick up a thread from that story that leads to the final days of Socrates, several centuries later, as it is described by Plato in the Phaedo, the dialogue that ends with Socrates’s death. I will try to show that Socrates’s life was a sort of imitation of Theseus’s; that as Theseus was the founder of Athens, Socrates was its re-founder; and that Socrates’s mode of imitation is a valuable model for us, who are trying to build our own lives in our several communities, within a modern democratic context that is, in many ways, a successor to Socrates’s Athens.
Let me begin with Theseus.
It came to pass that Aegeus, the king of Athens, was having difficulty producing an heir. This brought him considerable jeering from the neighboring kings—a group of fifty brothers!—who despised Aegeus for his apparent lack of virility. While visiting the governor of a small city to the south, Aegeus was persuaded to lie with the governor’s daughter, Aethra. Suspecting her to be with child by him, Aegeus left a sword and a pair of shoes and hid them under a great stone. He commanded Aethra that if she were to give birth to a son, he should be sent to his father only once he had grown to manhood, and only if he developed the strength to lift the great stone and secure the sword and the shoes. The son was to show Aegeus these items as proof of his parentage.
Sure enough, a son was born—Theseus, who grew to manhood with great strength, bravery, and force of understanding. When his mother told him about his true father and led him to the stone, Theseus easily lifted it, took with him the tokens left behind, and set out to find his father, Aegeus. Instead of traveling the safe route by sea, Theseus undertook the perilous path by land. In the course of his journey, he defeated and killed many infamous robbers and murderers, fired both by a desire to achieve the glory of Hercules, a few years his senior, and by the wish to mete out justice. The evildoers received from Theseus the same punishment they had inflicted upon others: justly suffering after the manner of their own injustice. Whoever had killed others by tossing them into the sea was himself tossed off a great cliff. Whoever killed by butting his head against others had his own head broken in pieces. (Note that the ancient stories are not outdone in the area of graphic detail by our modern movie producers!)
Theseus, his fame for acts of great bravery preceding him, at last arrived in Athens. At the time, the city was in great confusion, and divided into factions. As he entered the city, he was heckled by a group of laborers for his manner of dress, which he answered by unyoking a bull and tossing it over the roof of a temple under construction. Aegeus, not knowing that Theseus was his son, was persuaded that Theseus could be a threat to his rule. He plotted to poison him at a banquet. Just as Aegeus was about to pass the cup of poison, Theseus withdrew his sword to cut his meat. Aegeus recognized the sword at once, embraced his son, and owned him publicly before all the citizens.
The appearance of an heir aroused the enmity of Aegeus’s enemies, who had expected to recover the kingdom after his death. They plotted to ambush Theseus. But he reversed their attack, fell upon them, routed them, and dispersed them all. Soon thereafter, he capped this achievement with two even more astounding feats: the capture and sacrifice of the Great Bull at Marathon and a generous offer of self-sacrifice to the King of Crete.
It happened like this. Some twenty-seven years earlier, before Theseus was born, King Aegeus had played host to one Androgeus, the only son of Minos, the powerful king of Crete. Androgeus was treacherously murdered during his stay in Attica, and Aegeus declared war on Attica, the region that included Athens. The gods also devastated the country with famine, pestilence, and drought. The Athenians were told by an oracle that if they appeased King Minos and entered into negotiations with him, the gods would cease punishing them.
The agreement they reached was that once every nine years, a sacrificial tribute of seven young men and seven young women—fourteen in all—would be sent to Crete, without weapons, to wander in a great labyrinth from which there was no escape, ultimately to be killed by the lone inhabitant of the labyrinth, the terrible monster, the Minotaur. The Minotaur was half man and half bull, the offspring of a massive and handsome white bull and Minos’s own beautiful wife. The god Poseidon had given the bull to Minos with the intention that Minos would sacrifice the bull in Poseidon’s honor. Minos thought the bull too beautiful to sacrifice—as did Minos’s wife, who found it too beautiful to resist.
Fast forward twenty-seven years: A short time after arriving in Athens, Theseus made a small trip to Marathon, where he captured a gigantic and previously untamable bull called the Great Bull of Marathon. It turned out that this bull was none other than the father of the Minotaur. Theseus brought it back to his father Aegeus to sacrifice to Theseus’s favorite god, Apollo. This will turn out to have been a most unfortunate choice, a misplaced sacrifice to Apollo of what belonged by rights to Poseidon, and several people, including Theseus, will pay the price for this unwitting error.
Soon after Theseus had sacrificed the Great Bull, the third expedition of young victims from Athens to Crete was ready to set forth. Theseus volunteered to join thirteen other victims, chosen by lot, to make up the number of fourteen youths to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. He told his father, but no one else, that he intended to destroy the monster and return safely. Theseus was admired and loved by the citizens for offering to share in their sufferings. Aegeus pleaded with him not to undertake such a hopeless mission, but finally gave in and let his newfound son go. Theseus promised his father that as a sign of his victory over the Minotaur, he would change the returning ship’s sails from black to white.
When the sacrificial victims arrived in Crete, they were led to the labyrinth. On the way, Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, saw Theseus and fell instantly in love with him. She gave him a ball of thread, which Theseus tied to the back of the labyrinth’s door and unwound as he went in pursuit of the Minotaur, whom he slew with his bare hands—the third bull felled by Theseus. Retracing his steps with the help of the thread, Theseus escaped with the other Athenian youths and fled to their ship with his savior, Ariadne. The stories differ about Ariadne, but on the journey she seems to have been deserted by Theseus in some way, and Theseus, together with the other thirteen, found the way safely back to Athens without her.
Unfortunately, in the euphoria of the escape, Theseus failed to remember to change the color of the sails of the returning fleet, and Aegeus, despairing over what he took for a sign that Theseus had died in Crete, threw himself off a high rock and perished in the sea. Theseus returned to a mourning city, but now as the new King of Athens. He proceeded to gather all the inhabitants of Attica into one city to make them a single people, creating an Athenian Commonwealth. In order to persuade the more powerful tribes and nobles to join with him in shaping the new government, he promised them a democracy, or “peoples’ government” as Plutarch called it, in which all things would be shared equally. Theseus would lay aside his crown and abolish the monarchy, but he would remain their commander-in-chief, the protector of the laws. Hence, Theseus is, to this day, said to be the father of Athens, the founder of the world’s first democracy.
For centuries, the Athenians continued to honor the voyage of Theseus and the slaying of the Minotaur by sending to Crete an embassy of seven plus seven youths every year. It was a holy celebration, giving thanks to Apollo for saving Theseus. It was a settled custom that during the duration of the trip to Crete and back, the city of Athens would maintain its religious purity by not executing any condemned prisoners.
This is the story of Theseus. Now let me turn to Socrates.
We must move forward several hundred years to arrive at the time of Socrates’s last day on earth. I take my account of it from Plato’s Phaedo, which depicts Socrates’s activities on his last day in prison, awaiting the cup of hemlock that will bring an end to his life.
At issue in the Phaedo is whether Socrates can persuade his friends that his calm acceptance of death does not do an injustice to himself or to those who love him. For Socrates, the question is something like this: How do I, who am about to die, help my dearest friends accept this, and prove to them that I am rightly happy and prepared for the unknown journey I’m about to take? How do I help them avoid becoming cynics and haters of the laws that have decreed my death?
Now somewhat earlier, on the day before Socrates’s jury trial, it happened that the celebration of Theseus’s rescue voyage began with the sailing of an embassy of young men and women for Crete. Some long time elapsed before the embassy returned, delaying the execution of Socrates after he was sentenced to death.
The drama of Socrates’s final days thus takes place mostly in the religiously sanctified interlude before the ship returns. The Phaedo opens, however, with the announcement that the ship bearing the embassy of fourteen youths has returned from Crete. The city is now prepared to carry out its sentence of death, and Socrates is enjoying a final conversation with thirteen named friends—eight Athenians and five citizens of Thebes and Megara. There is one other named person present, young Phaedo, the dialogue’s narrator, and the witness to the ritual drama being enacted by the other fourteen.
This is not a coincidence. As Theseus was one of the fourteen, so is Socrates. This is where we begin to see Socrates’s imitation of Athens’s greatest hero. Theseus conquered the Minotaur, must Socrates do the same? If so, what is his Minotaur? Theseus found his way back, must Socrates manage to find his way back from his deathbed? The loving and beautiful Ariadne makes Theseus’s return possible and begins the trip back to Athens together with the fourteen victims, what loving and beautiful youth can do the same for Socrates? Let us continue to see how the drama unfolds.
Socrates opens his conversation with his companions in good cheer: According to Phaedo, he seemed “to be happy,” but his friends weep from grief and anger. Socrates engages them in conversation, attempting to persuade them that the concerns of the soul are superior to the concerns of the body, and that death is but the final separation of the soul from the body, a parting that allows the soul the ultimate freedom to pursue its greatest desire: Truth. He concludes his first argument saying his soul will soon dwell with the gods and with good comrades.
But one friend claims that this argument is not worth much unless Socrates can prove that the soul will survive the death of the body. And so Socrates turns to a series of difficult arguments for the immortality of the soul. As we approach the heart of this labyrinthine argument, we hear objections to it from Socrates’s friends. Indeed, one of them delivers an extended demonstration that casts doubt upon everything Socrates had said up to that point. If this doubt cannot be set aside, this friend says, “the confidence that characterizes anybody who is confident in the face of death is a mindless confidence,” making it “necessary that a man about to die always should fear for his soul.” An ominous silence falls over the group, now downcast, dismayed, and distrusting that there will be a successful outcome for Socrates’s argument.
What does Socrates do? He pauses, sensing the distrust and discouragement in the room, and lays his hand upon Phaedo’s head, caressing it and gathering up his hair, saying: “Tomorrow, Phaedo, perhaps you’ll cut off these beautiful locks of yours;” for this was the custom in Athens when one’s friend died.
‘That’s likely, Socrates,’ said Phaedo.
‘Not if you’re persuaded by me,’ replied Socrates.
‘Then what?’ said Phaedo.
“This very day,” Socrates said, “I’ll cut mine, and you’ll cut these locks of yours, if our argument meets its end and we can’t bring it back to life.” Socrates is using Phaedo’s locks of hair like Ariadne’s ball of thread, as the means of egress from the deadly labyrinth of misology, the technical philosophical term for “hatred of argument.” “And as for me,” Socrates continues, “if I were you and the argument were to get away from me, I’d make an oath…not to cut my hair before I should be victorious in the renewed battle against the argument [that denies the soul’s survival after death].”
Socrates is worried that his friends will become haters of argument, misologists. The Minotaur that Socrates must conquer in the heart of this labyrinth of an argument is not, it turns out, the fear of death, but the hatred of argument. Socrates began the dialogue wanting to conquer his young friends’ fear of death, but now he sees something worse than that—that they may come to hate argument, distrusting it by being drawn in too easily and put out too easily. And he knows that this hatred of argument would mean the death of the soul, a far greater evil than the death of the body. He uses Phaedo’s lovely locks as Theseus used Ariadne’s thread—to save himself and his companions from what seems to be a terrible fate.
Socrates now plunges back into the argument about the survival of the soul with vigor, and, by the end, his friends cast aside their distrust of the earlier arguments. But some doubt still remains and Socrates acknowledges that the hypotheses underlying these questions “must be looked into more clearly.” This, Socrates seems to be saying, is the task of the philosopher, the lover of wisdom: to weave the argument to its completion and then to unweave it, to separate the various strands of argument and reweave each argument again. Philosophical discourse will always be incomplete. Although it never seems to reach an end, Socrates seems to be saying that the pursuit of an end is not an unworthy aim—it is a feat befitting a hero.
In the event that a few of his young friends are not moved by argument, Socrates then paints a picture of the whole of earth and the place of the soul in the context of the whole. He tells a myth about reincarnation, a story designed to remind us of the importance of the proper care of the soul, which at the end of each incarnation must submit itself to justice. The bad will suffer; the good will be rewarded. It is worth the “noble risk” to believe in the deathless soul and to strive to adorn the soul properly, with “moderation and justice and courage and freedom and truth,” so that it may be well prepared when it sets out on its journey to Hades.
And now we come to the end. After making preparations, Socrates is ready to take the potion and follow the jail keeper’s instructions for the quickest way out. Crito, who a few days earlier had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Socrates to escape from jail and flee to some other city, now seeks to hold onto Socrates just a bit longer, trying to convince him that others have delayed the final moment much longer.
But Socrates replies that he would be a laughing-stock in his own eyes if he saw himself clinging to life when there’s nothing more left, and Crito now accepts this. Socrates takes the cup and composes his expression into that of a bull, an expression familiar to those who knew Socrates well, and a face familiar to the old hero, Theseus. Socrates appears to become at once both conqueror and conquered, both Theseus and Minotaur. It is no wonder then that, in the drama, Socrates becomes the active agent of his own death, in administering the hemlock to himself.
Socrates asks whether he might pour a portion of the drink as a libation. Hearing that there is insufficient poison for that purpose, he prays to the gods that his “emigration from here to there may turn out to be a fortunate one.” With that, he drinks and his friends burst into tears. Socrates commands them gently to be still and to control themselves, and, feeling shame, they hold back their weeping. He walks around until his legs become heavy, and he then lies down on his back, waiting for the stiffness and cold to travel up his body to his chest. Socrates covers himself all over with a sheet, presumably so that he may pass away unseen. But before the heaviness reaches his heart, he pulls the sheet away from his face to utter his final words: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. So pay the debt and don’t be careless.” Then he covers his face one last time.
Crito replies, “It shall be done.” After a short wait, the jail keeper uncovers the dead body of Socrates, who has, before passing on, recomposed his countenance. His eyes and mouth are both wide open. Crito closes them and covers the body once more.
Now I have already mentioned a few ways in which Socrates imitates Theseus. He is one of fourteen who must enter a deadly labyrinth. He must face the terrible Minotaur of misology. And he is provided with the means to escape by a fifteenth person—Phaedo standing in for Ariadne. But there is more to consider here. Beyond simply imitating Theseus, Socrates actually surpasses his model-hero in a number of ways. Moreover, there is at least one way in which Socrates surpasses Theseus by choosing deliberately not to imitate him.
One way in which Socrates surpasses Theseus is that he does not desert his Ariadne. Phaedo inspires in Socrates, as Ariadne does in Theseus, the hope of a successful escape from the labyrinth, but Socrates liberates Phaedo, together with the other fourteen, from the jaws of misology, carrying all fifteen of them all the way back to the rebirth of dialogue. Socrates’s delight in Phaedo’s handsome locks and his affection for Phaedo himself teach us that it is human friendship and the care for our loved ones that keep the argument going, that make life worth living, that give us a reason to live a life worth passing on to the generations that follow. In this way, not only the fourteen-plus-one, but also their heirs and descendants—including all of us—inherit a pattern for finding our way to a life well-examined, and therefore worth living. Socrates not only dies happily, but he does so without deserting his Ariadne: The physical Socrates may be gone, but the immortal Socrates stays with Phaedo, with his friends, and with all of us who take up a life devoted to self-examination and loving dialogue.
Another way in which Socrates surpasses Theseus is in his attention to making the proper sacrifice. Theseus’s mistake in sacrificing the Great Bull at Marathon to Apollo instead of Poseidon led to much suffering for him, including the death of his father, his son, and ultimately himself. Socrates, on the other hand, speaks about sacrificing a cock to Asclepius, the god of medicine. But he does so in a peculiar way. “Crito,” he says, translating quite literally now, “We owe a cock to Asclepius; now you all pay it and don’t be careless.” To me, this means that everyone—the fourteen-plus-one and all of us who become present through Plato’s writing—owe thanksgiving to the god of medicine if we are healed from the fatal malady of misology. Socrates includes himself in the group as a sign of his love for and his common humanity with the others, but he does not actually owe the god anything: He was healed long before and is now engaged in making his final sacrifice. He is telling the rest of us, however, that we need to make our own sacrifices, and for our own good. He is telling us that we need to continue asking those damnably difficult questions that caused Socrates to be thought of as a gadfly to the conscience of Athens, a sting-ray to the pride of his interlocutors, and a hero undertaking labors worthy of a strong and well-balanced soul. He is telling us that we need to keep examining and re-examining who we are and what is our proper place in the world. He is telling us that we must keep pressing the questions that can most help us to make a life worth living for ourselves and our fellows. And finally, he is telling us that we need to keep philosophy alive: “You all pay the debt and don’t be careless”—that is Socrates’s message to his friends and to Plato’s readers.
And finally, here is one way in which Socrates surpasses Theseus by choosing deliberately not to imitate him: Socrates dies happily. Plutarch says that Theseus left Athens in disgust, cursing its citizens for letting themselves be taken in by demagoguery, factionalism, and self-interested ambition. Departing the great city he had founded and built, he went to visit a neighboring king, who, he believed, was a friend. But he was no friend. Luring Theseus to a mountaintop, the neighboring king betrayed Theseus and pushed him to his death.
Socrates, however, chooses not to curse Athens, its laws, or its inhabitants, and he chooses not to abandon the city to its fate. Instead, he demonstrates the highest patriotism of all: To love one’s country and its people so much that one will die for it even when it has seemingly turned its back on its own ideals. As Aristotle and the Greek dramatists tell us, no man should be considered happy until after he has died, since the manner of his death must be included in the estimation of his life. By this standard, Socrates excels Theseus by far, for he died as he had lived—happily secure in the knowledge that he did his utmost for himself, for his fellow human beings, and for the gods. That is why Phaedo adds a postscript to the drama in his own voice: “Such was the end of our friend,” he says, “concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.”
Now, let me add one more way in which Socrates surpasses Theseus, a way that has nothing to do with similarities between the stories of the two men. Socrates surpasses Theseus as a model-hero by showing us what it means to imitate heroes. Theseus’s existence is marked by his heroic actions: He is a character with some extraordinary virtues who does spectacular feats worth emulating. If we try to imitate him, we may pick up some of his virtues. He does not, however, show us what we most need to know, which is how we should go about imitating him. Socrates, on the other hand, teaches us precisely how to imitate heroes, namely, with intelligent self-appraisal, ironic self-reflection, and deliberate selection of which traits to emulate, which to surpass, and which to reject.
Indeed, Socrates does this so well that, for me, he replaces Theseus as the great hero of Athens and the model to all who would follow. To those still imprisoned in their own cells of certainty about the world around them and their place within it, Socrates is at best a pest, and at worst a mortal enemy to the status quo. To those, however, who want freedom from their own ignorance and from the tyranny of others’ opinions, Socrates is the paradigm of the free individual, one who wonders—even marvels—at the glorious world he has yet to understand. Such people will never become mere cynics tilting at the existing totems of society; nor will they become haters of argument. They will instead desire, and be willing, to embrace and learn about everything true, beautiful, and good. This is why Socrates is the supreme model-hero for the liberal arts: because he inspires us to start with wonder—a humble and open-minded response to a world that we know we have not yet understood—rather than with distrust—a willfully negative stance toward a world that we imagine we know all too well.
Having come this far in my encomium of Socrates, I have to face the sort of question that students often ask when we put forward anyone as a model-hero: Was Socrates really imitating Theseus, or are we just talking about Plato’s literary devices? To which I usually respond with further questions such as: Do you think that Plato could see more deeply into Socrates’s life than Socrates himself, the most self-examined person who ever lived? or Do you think that you learn less about yourself from fiction than from history? or Do you think that literary devices are just sophisticated ways of lying? or some other question that may help students open up their imaginations to embrace fictional truth, and escape from the trap of literal-minded interpretation. There was a time when very few people did not understand the use of fiction in self-development, but the long arm of historicism, assisted by the artificial separation between sciences and humanities, has depleted their numbers. Instead, we find more and more students who demand literal reality as a security before they will condescend to study something seriously. This sort of skepticism is clearly a form of distrust, and those who are infected with it find it very difficult to trade it for wonder.
But it is precisely such students who are most in need of Socrates as a model-hero. They need to advance from literal thinking to metaphorical thinking, from sensation to imagination, from contemplating what they are to contemplating what they might be. This self-development is the service that heroes do for us, if we know how to let them, and it is the very heart of higher education. While higher education can do many other things for students—remedy earlier educational failures, provide an intellectual specialty, introduce them to research, or prepare them for a job, for instance—if it fails to open up the field of self-development, then all its other activities fall short; for self-development is the master art, the key to building a life worth living, the governing discipline under which all lesser arts and sciences take their duly assigned places. And it is also the key to leaving behind forever the disease of distrust; for the art of self-development teaches by experience that each of us can remake ourselves, and in that discovery we become objects of wonder for ourselves, carrying the antidote to distrust everywhere we go.
So, as I said at the beginning, the loss of imitation as a consistent and regular practice has been devastating in any number of ways. It is long past time that educators began to revive it in every way that can restore to our posterity the sense of discipline, the mastery of technique, and the reserves of outstanding models that earlier generations took for granted. And higher education, in particular, should expend all its efforts to place self-development at the center of its activities, relegating other activities to the ancillary roles for which they are suited. In doing so, it can find no better model than Socrates, the master of intelligent imitation, and the most imitation-worthy practitioner of the Imitation of Heroes.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in July 2014. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This lecture was delivered at the CiRCE Conference, 17 July 2014.