The Nika Revolt

Edward Gibbon observed:

Constantinople adopted the follies, though not the virtues of ancient Rome; and the same factions which had agitated the circus raged with redoubled fury in the hippodrome.

The Hippodrome of Constantinople did not seat as many as the Roman Circus Maximus but they made up for this reduced capacity with their fervor for chariot-racing. Whether or not enthusiasm for chariot races should be counted as folly, much of what surrounded these races was foolish and destructive.

The two principal organizations fielding the teams that raced in the Hippodrome were the blues and the greens. Nearly every citizen aligned with one of these two factions and the two groups hated one another. In trying to understand such an inveterate enmity, later writers sought to couple their allegiance to racing teams with something more momentous. They claimed that the greens were Monophysites, who believed that Christ was of one nature that showed two aspects, while the blues were Dyophysites who held that Christ was of two natures united in one. Recent scholarship has concluded that the unifying passion for both factions was chariot racing alone. Disputes about the Trinity had split Christians into feuding camps of Nestorians, Catholics, Arians, and Monophysites. The rift between Catholic Dyophysites of the west and the Monophysites of the east kept the Western and Eastern Empires from reuniting. Emperors couldn’t repair the schism and theologians couldn’t resolve the issue, so perhaps it might have been for the best if the charioteers had been left to decide the question.

There was no underpinning issue, no loyalty to one emperor against a usurper, no tenet of theology, no division between classes, separating the blues and greens. The blues cheered for one chariot to come in first and the greens rooted for another. Yet that was enough to kill for.

There had been a long tradition of athletics in the ancient world but before, young men exercised and exhausted themselves running and wrestling. Quite contrary were Christians traditions that abased the body, and it was the anchorite who remained immobile until his limbs atrophied, the hermit who went years without bathing with filthy skin, matted hair, and long ragged fingernails who were celebrated.


The Olympic Games were discontinued and the gymnasiums and baths fell into disrepair until converted to other uses.  Yet the young men who would have themselves trained in earlier centuries didn’t find anchorites and stylites enough to rouse their enthusiasm. It was still feats of athletics not asceticism they craved. They found these feats in the Hippodrome. The object of these races was not to kill, but collisions were common and frequently fatal, and one exit, named the Deadman’s Gate, was used to drag out the corpses of unlucky charioteers. These young men, drunk on adrenaline if not on wine as well, sickened and entranced by the sight of the blood and the smashed bodies of the fallen, penned up in their sections until nearly frantic with stifled energy, were set spilling into the streets after the day’s races were run. Around any corner they may bump into their enemies, and whether exhilarated in victory or rankled in defeat, they will vent their feelings.

There was a gentler and more amiable side to these associations. A family of greens, homeless after a fire, will find shelter among their fellows. A family of blues going hungry will find food left on their doorstep contributed by the blue grocers of their neighborhood. The associations look after their own by the more questionable but still widespread practice of patronage. A young green just setting out in the world might find a place in the civil service as a shorthand writer because the head of the department is a green and has been alerted to his candidacy and assured of his character.

While his uncle Justin was emperor, Justinian was in line for the throne but as he well knew, these accessions are never a sure thing. Some men, aspiring to rule a state, will not hesitate to unsettle and even to harm it, if it suits their purposes. They will use the poorest, the most despised, and the most violent of the populace to strike at their rivals and enemies. Impatient to take control themselves, they will make the sitting government seem powerless and contemptible.

The young mother walking her toddler, the peddler manning his booth, the granny out buying bread, the young gallant ogling the young mother, all placidly about their business when a man streaks by running for his life. They look and rounding the corner a gang of blues armed with cudgels and knives. They know enough to look in the other direction and here come the greens. Those who’d just been enjoying their promenade or their shopping or tending their livelihood must now run for their lives. They flee for shelter as the two gangs collide. The peddler leaves his booth to save his skin and his booth is soon tipped and his wares scattered and stomped by the combatants. The young mother screeches and claps her hand over her child’s eyes as a young brawler stumbles by trying to hold his entrails in his belly. The young dandy backs away pleading that he doesn’t belong to either party while two men advance on him.

And where are the police in all this. Too timid to intervene or even show themselves. Whether Brownshirts against Reds, the mobs of Clodius against those of the boni, or blues against the greens, throwing cities into anarchy and turning streets into war zones has been one of the ploys of the ruthless and ambitious.

The blues rendered him good service and Justinian rose to become emperor. Having climbed onto the throne he began to see things from a new angle. What the blues destroyed and tore down in their rampages, he must now trouble to rebuild. The men they murder can no longer pay taxes to fund his great projects. He’s become the protector of these citizens and when these gangs terrorize them, it is he who looks puny and impotent. On the other hand, if he suppresses the violence he himself secretly fomented, his reign will shine in comparison to what’s come before.

Many centuries later, another who’d used gangs of thugs for a similar end will arrive at the same conclusion, and he will purge them swiftly and thoroughly. Justinian decides on a half measure. He will enforce law and order against both the blues and the greens. For the greens this was a continued persecution, for the blues a sudden betrayal.

All great fires begin with one spark and for the Nika Revolt it was a botched hanging. Two men, on a blues and the other a greens, were to be hanged but the scaffold broke and both tumbled to the ground, their necks unbroken. An execution had turned into a trial by ordeal and God had made his Will known. Several monks came from a nearby convent and conducted the two into the sanctuary of a church.

When Justinian presided over the races at the Hippodrome, spokesmen for the blues and for the greens pleaded for the lives of the two survivors. Justinians didn’t deign to answer. A crowd gathered at the palace of the prefect and they clamored for the two men to be spared. The servant was just as silent and arrogant as the master. Their words were ignored and so the crowd of supplicants acted. They attacked, killed the soldiers, burned the prefecture, and opened the jails.

The riot spread and grew in violence. The mob looted and burned, and most shocking of all, women left the seclusion of their quarters to rove the streets and join in. Justinian was willing to concede, to promise, to flatter, and he made another appearance at the Hippodrome. But it was too late for that. The crowd wanted to new Emperor and they’d found a candidate with the proper blood to replace him. They jeered at Justinian’s blandishments and he scuttled back into his palace.

Back inside his citadel, Justinian met with his advisers. Frightened and disheartened, he saw no choice but to flee the city, raise an army, and retake the capital. Abashed, his counselors had little to offer but the Empress spoke up. She’d been born among the lowest of the low, the daughter of a bear trainer at the Hippodrome. After her father’s death, her widowed mother had remarried the man who’d taken her husbands job. The widow and her daughters had come through and were safe, but suddenly the greens fired her new husband without cause or explanation, most likely for reasons of patronage. The mother took her small daughters and appeared on the floor of the hippodrome to beg for her husband’s job so that they might not starve. The greens ignored their appeal.

The blues saw how callous and mean the greens looked in refusing to take pity on a widow and her small children in front of an entire arena full of spectators. Their leader got to his feet, and he promised that if she would go over to the blues they would be provided for. Her mother defected then and there, and from that moment on, Theodora was loyal to the blues and hated the greens. When she’d been a child, the blues had saved her, but the child is now an Empress and she must save herself and her crown, even if that means destroying her former benefactors.

And so she spoke. They can run they will likely never return. The Emperor may flee if he had lost all hope, but for herself, she will conquer or die.

The men who ruled an Empire were shamed before a woman, a former dancer and actress, by many accounts a former whore as well. Recovering his courage, Justinian ordered Belisarius and a troop of Goths and Mundus with a contingent of Herulians to storm the Hippodrome and end the revolt. The soldiers made it through the streets and reached the Hippodrome. Belisarius and his men slipped through the western gate and Mundas and the Herulians entered through the Deadman’s Gate and both troops launched themselves against the rebels.

The crowd massed inside the arena was huge, vastly outnumbering their attackers, but these were trained soldiers, armed with sword, shield, and spear and wearing full armor. The rebels wore nor armor, and if they carried weapons, these were nothing more than knives or clubs. German barbarians had been chosen because they were foreigners from distant lands and felt no kinship for the citizens of the capital. The Goths and Herulians didn’t spare the rebels, not even when they begged to surrender and at least thirty thousand were slaughtered. The revolt was crushed and Justinian’s throne was saved.

Protagoras Part One

Protagoras, the celebrated sophist has come to Athens and Hippocrates is so excited by his arrival and the chance to hear him that he proceeds at once to Socrates and give him the great news. It is very early and sun has not yet risen. Plato would have posterity believe that Socrates can drink copious amounts of wine without getting drunk and go without sleep for days and while he doesn’t admit outright that Hippocrates catches our hero asleep, the fact that he doesn’t aver that Socrates was already awake and bustling about indicates that he did.

In another refreshing change from some of the other dialogues, Socrates isn’t agog at Protagoras wisdom.
He concedes that the sophist may possess great learning and ability but he remains doubtful that he can teach Hippocrates to be wise and he is worried that the young man is placing himself so heedlessly in the hands of a teacher he’s never met. As soon as the sun is up, he and Hippocrates head over to see Protagoras for themselves.

Plato has brought himself to admit that Socrates does sleep, but in compensation he makes some of the sophists very sedentary indeed. One of them, Prodicus, is still abed, bundled in sheepskins and blankets, but holding forth from that supine posture. Protagoras himself is on his feet, walking back and forth, his listeners trailing him, parting when he turns around so not to get in his way and falling in behind him again like a school of fish.

Plato is poking fun of the sophists but his ridicule is straightforward, without the disguise of feigned veneration, and the picture he’s drawn is amusing without being spiteful. Socrates himself doesn’t believe excellence can be taught but he defers to Protagoras learning and experience and will change his mind if Protagoras can prove that he can instill virtue in his pupils. He doesn’t flatter Protagoras and beg him to share his wisdom, but admitting his own reservations, he asks how this course of study will benefit Hippocrates.

Upon this invitation, Protagoras holds forth at length but in a manner selected by his listeners. He asks whether they prefer that he tell a story or expound an argument. Men, women, and children alike relish stories, and the ominous phrase ‘expound an argument’ forebodes that this argument will be abstruse and soporofic. It is somewhat surprising that his audience leaves the choice up to Protagoras.

Protagoras picks the story and that story turns out to be the one of Prometheus and Epimetheus. The myth is well known and we can dispense with a full retelling. Yet in this version, fire was not enough and despite being able to huddle around bonfires and brandish torches, they were still at the mercy of wild beasts. They were helpless because they were solitary and they could not band together for their common protection. When they banded together, they injured one another and so that they might gather themselves into groups, Zeus was forced to give them the supplementary gift of citycraft.

This citycraft is a skill originally dispensed by Zeus but as a skill it is teachable. Unlike every other skill it must be learned by every citizen. No citizen is faulted for not knowing how to play the lyre or sculpt statues but those who are unjust and persist in their injustice are either cast out or killed. Because justice is teachable and injustice can be corrected, the unjust are deemed worthy of blame. There are defects of the body which are the result of birth or chance, and those who are blind or crippled are not blamed for their condition. The unjust are blamed because they can learn to be better but don’t bother to reform themselves.

The unjust are reviled, shunned, and severely punished and so all parents do their utmost to bring their children up to be just. The Prisoner’s Dilemna and Game Theory teach that the optimal course for a group is tit for tat. But the best thing for any one individual is to betray the rest and benefit over and over. To protect the interests of the group, betrayal is marked and remembered and it is repaid. Thieving and aggression cannot be tolerated. The individual is forced to cooperate and sacrifice, and those who are unwilling to do so are killed or driven away.

For our ancestors on the savanna, no single member of the band can long survive alone among the ferocious predators and hardships of the wilderness, and exile means a quick and ugly death. The band itself is only barely surviving, always hungry and close to starvation, menaced by predators much bigger, faster, and deadlier than the weak, slow, naked, ungainly bipeds who must resort to tools and weapons to fend them off. The stakes are life and death and they are all so close to the edge that they can’t put up with any nonsense.

The band makes some provision for the sick and the injured but all must pull their own weight. Those who feign illness and injury to get out of work will be found out. Only those who do their share of the work get their share of the reward. He who will not work, will not eat. The rest of the mothers will watch the young of one of their number while she sleeps, and she in turn will take on these babysitting duties when it is her turn. The sick and the injured will be fed and nursed to recovery and he will do the same for his fellows when they are struck down. The hunters share their meat with the gatherers, and the gatherers turn over their roots, tubers, and berries to the hunters.

The society is ruled by fairness and equity and the penalties for harming the group or shirking are dire. The members of the band make it very plain when they are dissatisfied with one of their own. They gossip incessantly discussing the faults and failings of those not present. Every member is hungry and every member is tired. They’ve all loafed at their work, snatched the choicest cut of meat, pleaded off sick when they may have taken part. It is crucial to their survival that they monitor how widely these acts of selfishness have been marked and how bitterly they’re resented. A large part of our brain is devoted to reading facial expressions and bodily demeanor. When our fellows scowl at us, when they glance at us and huddle in conference but fall silent when we come near, then we know that we should work harder than anybody else, give a portion of our food away to somebody needy, assume the position of greatest danger during the hunt. We must outdo ourselves to win back the grace and favor of the group. If we don’t we may be expelled, doomed to wander the grasslands alone until thirst, hunger, or some huge predator put an end to our exile.

These skills allow us to work together in groups and for almost all of us they are innate. There are some who, by birth or chance, are born unable to read faces or understand the feelings and intentions of those around us. Yet almost all of us know when we’re being thoughtless, lazy, or greedy and we are perfectly aware that when we’re caught out our fellows are angry and disgusted with us.

Pericles has been mentioned several times before as an individual who was remarkable for his citycraft. Yet his citycraft was a very different thing. He wasn’t accepted, he was preeminent. He wasn’t a member of the band, he was the leader. He was above the rest of the Athenians and he had correspondingly exalted dreams for his city. He didn’t aim for Athenians to have enough to eat and live in safety. He wanted them to dominate the other states of Greece, to build astounding monuments at their expense, to take more than their share and to live at ease while the rest labored to support them.

He distinguished himself from the rest of the Athenians with a curious deportment. On the savannah, the disruptive must be met with snarls and cowed instantly. Athens was so rich and secure that this was no longer necessary. As Pericles was heading home, a stranger who had a grudge against him began following him screaming threats and obscenities, tottering after him and abusing him all the way to his door. Pericles showed not the least discomposure at any of this, and when he was under his own roof he sent one of his servants out to see the man home and light his way, since it was growing dark and the streets were soon to become unsafe.

Pericles deliberately departed from the behavior necessary to survive in one of the primate bands of the savanna. He didn’t try to fit in; he did the very opposite. In his comportment, he was haughty and oblivious to the expressions and feelings of those around him. He was too lofty and noble to lower himself to tit for tat. He acted superior to the other Athenians and believing him to be superior, they chose him to lead them again and again. This superiority will raise feelings of jealousy. Aristides was acknowledged to be the justest man in Athens and he was so respected for his virtue that he came to be resented for it and he was exiled. Men who try to rise above their fellows risk ostracism for this preeminence.

Men who eschew this primitive citycraft believe they’ve attained a second and higher citycraft, one that nowadays is usually called statecraft. Pericles was convinced that he alone saw the true destiny of Athens, and that destiny was grasping and shirking on a scale that no single malcontent could ever aspire to. The rest of Greece was to pay and labor to support Athens so that the Athenians could be set free to achieve something far greater than mere survival. There was one great obstacle to this dream, Athens one rival, Sparta.

The two cities must go to war and Pericles planned this war far in advance. He knew how much money there was in the treasury and he plotted how much they will have to spend per year if they restrict themselves to a purely defensive strategy. He plotted how long the Spartans will batter against the Long Walls before they grow weary of their fruitless assault and agree to peace. He tried to guess how much food they’d need to store and how likely their enforced allies were to revolt. In the end he was wrong. The Spartans were more tenacious, the Athenians more impulsive, the allies more aggrieved than he planned. And he never counted on the plague that ended up killing him and so many of the citizens who followed him.

Yet this kind of statecraft does seem like something teachable, if not by Protagoras, then by someone else. It’s a compound of economics, statistics, probability, political science, and military strategy, but it is a science of some kind. Could Pericles’ calculations be improved upon, and if so, how? Can experience fix the numbers so the outcome is predicted correctly? Is the problem beyond the calculating capacity of a human brain but tractable to a supercomputer? If RAND had been on hand to counsel Pericles, could he have beaten the Spartans?

Whatever the answer, these sort of war games are far from what Protagoras or Socrates had in mind when they spoke of virtue. They will go on to consider what virtue is and how it relates to its components but that will have to wait til later.

Federalist Eight

Having treated of the likelihood and the causes of wars between the States, Hamilton treats of the effects these wars will have on the condition and constitution of the disunited States. Before enumerating the dangers disciplined professional armies pose to liberty, Hamilton feels it only fair to concede some of the benefits they confer to the general peace:

The disciplined armies always kept on foot on the continent of Europe, though they bear a malignant aspect to libertyt and oeconomy, have notwithstanding been productive of the signal advantage, of rendering sudden conquests impracticable, and of preventing that rapid desolation, which used to mark the progress of war, prior to their introduction. The art of fortification has contributed to the same ends. The nations of Europe are incircled with chains of fortified places, which mutually obstruct invasion. Campaigns are wasted in reducing two or three frontier garrisons, to obtain admittance into an enemy’s country. Similar impediments occur at every step, to exhaust the strength and delay the progress of an invader. Formerly an invading army would penetrate into the very heart of a neighbouring country, almost as soon as intelligence of its approach could be received; but now a comparatively small force of disciplined troops, acting on the defensive with the aid of posts, is able to impede and finally to frustrate the enterprises of one far more considerable. The history of war, in that quarter of the globe, is no longer a history of nations subdued and empires overturned, but of towns taken and retaken, of battles that decide nothing, of retreats more beneficial than victories, of much effort and little acquisition.

The description Hamilton gives of European warfare in the late eighteenth century is quite accurate. The states of Europe had made their wars smaller in scope, limited in objective, and far less costly in loss of life and damage to property. Hamilton believes these conditions came about because these nations fight with tightly disciplined and superbly trained professional armies, rather than mercenaries, irregulars, or volunteer militias. The inefficiencies and eccentricities of the firearms available to those armies encouraged the use of drilled full-time soldiers.

How and why the continental powers managed to leash the hounds of war will be taken up elsewhere. But these limitations were the result of convention, ultimately achieved and precariously maintained by the common agreement of these same powers. These powers regarded one another as neighbors, equals, and in that they were similarly constituted and governed, nearly as kin. Their alliances and enmities were passing things, and none of them ever imagined themselves as fundamentally different from the rest. This self-imposed restraint was soon to be shook off. In the wars to come nations will be subdued and empires overturned. The battles to come will come with much effort, much acquisition and even more carnage.

Hamilton never imagined Jena, Friedland, Leipzig, or any of the other ghastly battles that lay in the future. If he was too sanguine in assuming that European warfare had been tamed, he made up for this with dire forebodings of the likely savagery of North American warfare. He laments the lack of fortresses and assumes that inroads will be easily made, but Edward Braddock, could he be summoned from the grave as Saul summoned Samuel, might point out that the vast, primeval forests could prove as impassible as the fortress lines of the Low Countries. Hamilton predicts that conquest will be easy to be made but difficult to be retained but the redcoats tramped up and down the wilderness, if this can be construed as ‘conquest’, and were little disposed to retain these lonely stretches of bog and wood.

Ultimately State fought State in a civil war, yet despite Sherman’s exaggerated and dangerously inflammatory pronouncements, it was not pure hell, at least not to civilians. Sherman’s marches wrought destruction on crops, livestock, barns, and railroad ties, but the persons and lives of the civilian population were almost universally respected. By contrast, in the pacification Vendee, the Peninsular War, the 1812 and 1941 invasions of Russia, standing European armies, not bloodthirsty fanatics handed weapons, not predatory mecenaries, but clerks, gardeners, seminary students, and young men called out of every one of the gentle callings of peace, raped women, slaughtered prisoners, and perpetrated atrocities Europe hadn’t witnessed since the Wars of Religion.

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex, UK

Yet all this lay in the future and not even a gaze as perspicacious and insightful as Hamilton’s can see what lies ahead. It is easy to mistake a temporary state of affairs for a necessary and permanent one, and it is just as easy to mistake a local condition, grown and nurtured exclusively in its native soil, for a universal one. Having made the first sort of error, Hamilton now makes the second. Continental powers sharing long borders with powerful, irascible, greedy neighbors, needed to maintain large standing armies to defend themselves. The kings of the European continent held a direct and personal control over large bodies of men, unlike their ancestors who relied on inconstant and dangerous feudal intermediaries. It was the cannon that allowed kings to break the independent power of counts, barons, and dukes. Cannon could batter down the high, thick walls of their fastnesses and the King of France need no longer suffer the Duke of Burgundy as his equal. The king retains the services of these nobles but they now grace his court rather than curb his power or trouble his rule. They yet command armies, but as the king’s marshals, entrusted with the king’s troops. Because of these armies and their artillery, the great lords were still exalted but no longer mighty. The condition of the smallfolk changed little. They were no freer nor more servile than they had been before, but the lives of those fortunate enough to live away from contested borders or channels of invasion may have been rendered far more peaceful. No more were they to be swept away or crushed when caught in the path of what Will Durant called ‘lordly strife’.

The most fragmented of all these potent kingdoms in geography, and the scantiest in territory was Prussia, and to counter these disabilities she fielded the proudest, most brutally disciplined, and overweening of all the standing armies. England was free of these porous Continental borders; she barely fielded an army at all, and the English neither loved nor feared the soldiery. She did maintain the world’s greatest navy but a navy, no matter how fearsome, must keep to deep water and is of no use in subduing a contumacious populace. The English were certain of two great truths: they were much freer than the abject nations of the Continent, and their King had a much smaller army than any of the Continental monarchs. These two truths were indissolubly and forever linked in their minds. They could not rightly say if the power of the Louis of the hour reigning across the Channel was absolute because he commanded a mighty host, or whether he commanded a mighty host by dint of his absolute power, but to bother considering the question was as fruitless as pondering the priority of the chicken and the egg. The freedom of the English people and a puny and despised standing army went hand in hand.

Hamilton was born and bred in this assumption, and he asserts that war increases the executive authority at the expense of the legislative. More recent history has offered the instructive examples of states that have maintained considerable standing armies and yet retained their constitutional balance and held on to their freedoms. Moreover, some executives have taken on powers traditionally and constitutionally reserved to the legislature during times of peace. It is perhaps not war but the apprehension of danger and the fear and uncertainty that follow, which allow the executive to grow more powerful than it has been or should be. We must remember that war is only one of the Horsemen, and that in the face of famine, pestilence, poverty, revolution, natural disasters, or any of the innumerable calamities that afflict this world, people will give up their liberties for their lives. It would be wise to accept and provide against these inevitable executive encroachments and perhaps come up with some periodic and regular mechanism to roll them back.


When Socrates was found guilty of refusing to recognize the gods and corrupting the youth and condemned to death, he was guarded but loosely, and his judges had hoped that he’d escape and flee Athens forever. His friends wondered that he seemed resolved to die when he might yet live by slipping away quietly. Socrates knew that his flight would make it seem that the charges against him were just, and in the Phaedo he explains why he was prepared to die. He begins by asking whether a philosopher should concern himself with the pleasures of the body: food, drink, fine clothes, or sex. His interlocutors almost invariably share his premises and supply him with the answers he’s seeking, and in this case, they don’t disappoint. They agree that he should gratify the body only as far as it’s unavoidable. Socrates then asks if the body is a help or a hindrance in the acquisition of wisdom, reminding his listeners of the fallibility of the senses and the distraction of the appetites. In chorus, it’s agreed that the body is a hindrance to the acquisition of wisdom. In the end, it’s borne out that the soul comes to wisdom when it is freed from the body, and it apprehends truth clearly and fully only when discarnate.

In the supposition that the highest endeavor of the human soul is intellectual and in the denigration of matter, this is the epitome of Plato’s thought. The one point that’s curious and seems out of place is the qualification that the philosopher should gratify the body only when, out of necessity, he must concern himself with the corporeal. Why should the philosopher bother with the corporeal at all? Imagine a scholar who works in a dingy chamber, studying all day long in the search for wisdom. This sage wishes to study deep into the night, snatching only such sleep as he cannot do without. Yet he is given only one hour of illumination. He has very powerful electric light at his disposal, and he may read in perfect ease, but for only one hour every evening before he’s plunged into darkness. When will he turn on this light? Since he wants to study without interruption, he’ll wait to avail himself of this short period of illumination for as long as possible. As the afternoon wears into night, the light dims as the sun sets, he’ll pick up his books from off the table and carry them over to the window, and here he’ll stand on tiptoe, holding his nose right up to the pages, angling the volume this way and that to catch the last rays. Yet the sun will sink below the horizon and all sunlight will be lost to him. Then and only then will he carry his books back to his table, flick the switch, and bathe his chamber in the short brilliance allotted to him. Once this precious allowance is used up, he’s swallowed up in darkness, and no more study is possible, will he resign himself to sleep.


What will happen if the restriction is lifted, and he’s given as much electricity as he wants? The bulbs will never burn out, and he may keep his chamber continuously flooded with the brightest light. Will he bother to huddle at the window and try to peer at the pages under a dim crepuscular glow? No, of course not. He’ll stay at the table, overhead lights blazing, and he’ll study until he’s so tired that he falls asleep and his forehead lands on the pages. In his all-consuming, unquenchable thirst for truth, this scholar is much like Plato’s philosopher. As he tries to make out the truth under the dying orange rays of dusk, he’s like the sage in his prison of flesh. Fooled by illusion and perspective, torn by lust, hunger, and thirst, he’s hampered in his search. As he flicks the switch and turns the dusk to noon, he’s like the soul freed of the body and bathing under the radiance of the forms in themselves.

The philosopher will want to leave the body as quickly as possible, and released he may apprehend the truth in all its purity. What will stop him? Why will he stay alive? Why will he feed, clothe, and look after the body which is an affliction, a bondage, a durance? Hamlet furnishes a reason:

To be, or not to be,-that is the question:-whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?-To die,-to sleep,-no more; and by a sleep say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,-‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die,-to sleep;-to sleep! Perchance to dream;-ay there’s the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause: there’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life; for who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes, when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin? Who would pains and fardels bear to grunt and seat under an weary life, but that the dread of something after death,-the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns,-puzzles the will and makes us bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

We all dread death. Plato may lecture on the soul, and wring an agreement that it is invariable and indissoluble, yet these eristics do nothing to allay our dread. Montaigne recommends a study of death, its causes and circumstances. We may familiarize ourselves with death, yet the viewing of corpses, an inquest into mortal accidents, the study of the physiology of the body and its innumerable frailties, will seem to confirm and redouble our terror rather than dispel it. When we look into that gray, ashen, unmoving face, we’d ask of it mysteries it can never tell. Those lips will never part again and their secrets will be carried into the beyond. Socrates may quiz and tease Simmias and Cebes until the hemlock carries him off, but in our heart of hearts we remain unconvinced. To study philosophy is to learn to live. This seems poor stuff; an obvious antithesis. How very trite; a platitude fit for a greeting card or bumper sticker.

We cling to life no matter how miserable it may be. A few, in the grip of a terrible depression, afflicted with a mortal, incurable, and agonizing disease, engulfed in scandal, shame, and ruin, do end their own lives but those left behind feel somehow abandoned. They should not have borne their misery silently and alone. They should have taken counsel, and almost all may have been swayed from such an awful and final step. Those hopelessly and mortally ill may do well to die on their own terms, and save themselves these last pains, losses, and degradations. Yet even in these cases we are deeply torn. Why are we so tenacious of life? Few of us seriously fear the torments of an afterlife. We may regret our sins and petty cruelties but we don’t anticipate being sunk in some malebolge. Only those of us in the worst extremity will seek death to flee the fears and pains of life. Hamlet listed many pains and fardels, and from our own bitter history we may supply thousands more, yet we bear them. We don’t balance our pains against our pleasures, like numbers in red and black, written down and added up in a ledger. Our hearts don’t beat, our lungs don’t draw in breath, simply because our joys in this life outbalance our miseries. There is no list of pros and cons and we carry on because we’re stubborn in our habit of living.

We all know that we’re all going to die. Writers may describe the young as thinking they’ll live forever, but even in our youth we don’t really believe that. Young or old, we’re aware of our mortality but knowledge comes in many weights and shades. We all know that we won’t live forever, but we live like we will all the same.

Some philosophers grow very cross with this careless frivolity. Men and women feast, and drink, and laugh, and fuck like they have not a care in the world. They do this to distract them from their own death. Their end is coming. They will soon be no more. They cannot bear up under this horrible certainty and so they try to lose themselves in heedless mirth and debauchery. This is wrong. Men and women don’t make merry to hide their own oncoming death. They know they’re doomed and nothing could ever hide this from their gaze or distract them from their terror if they couldn’t master themselves by their own strength. They know full well but they live with the knowledge. They can gaze into the darkness but they summon their will and they look away. They don’t forget. They know and the knowledge never leaves them, but they are the knower, they are the holders and the masters of this truth. They eat and drink and make merry because it’s fun, and though their joy is short, it is yet theirs, and nothing, not even death, will take it from them.

Some of these indignant philosophers aren’t content to scorn these buoyant souls as fools but will also attaint them as cowards. Anybody who loves his own life makes himself a hostage to fortune. Only somebody who can quit this world without regret can be considered truly free. Most of us cling to this life and when we are dragged from this world, our nails will dig furrows in the ground. Yet for the sake of children, loved ones, friends, family or country, some of us are still perfectly willing to lay down all their joys in this life. It isn’t a sacrifice to throw off what is sordid and worthless, especially when we gain something of inestimable value in return. It is a sacrifice, the greatest of sacrifices, to give up all that is precious, every hope and bliss, so that those we love may continue in their enjoyment.