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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
8.2 (Spring 2008)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Diogenes Laertius mentions the Cretan Epimenides as one of antiquity’s Seven Wise Men. Conservative estimates of his lifespan converge upon a figure of about 150 years. About a third of this time was supposedly consumed in a single somnolent trance—for Epimenides was the Rip van Winkle of the ancient world. Legend has it that, in compensation, he needed very little sleep throughout the rest of his days.
I have borrowed the name of this largely fictional figure in stitching together a few fables because I grow more and more impressed by age as I myself acquire it in greater abundance. I should not think it very easy to pull the wool over a 150-year-old pair of eyes about much of anything having to do with human nature. Though I have scarcely lived longer than the sage’s miraculous sleep, I already feel that I have discovered several secrets of the human heart which are scarcely to be endured by a mere mortal.
The Last Word
A writer was meditating upon a difficult passage when he felt a hand close upon his vitals—felt it reach right through his shoulder blades and lace its icy fingers around his spine, his heart, and his lungs. Though he had only read about this mute, irresistible emissary in metaphorically stale poems and preachy morality plays, he knew at once that he was dealing with Death.
“Come, now!” he tried to cajole the power. “Don’t be so tiresome as they make you out. Give me… give me only another day more. Or make it half a day… a couple of hours. Just a couple—I couldn’t possibly finish in less. Upon this passage depends the sense of my whole book, and I’m having enough trouble getting it right without being unduly rushed. Say just an hour, then. Out of an entire lifetime, what favor is a mere hour? My other books, you see… I could never quite get it right in them, either. This was to be the book that finally set it all straight. This is my keystone, and the present passage… it’s my keystone’s center of gravity.”
But even as he unfolded these delicate and appealing arguments in a single gasp, he sensed himself being lifted a great distance from his chair—where, exactly, he could not say, because the chill about his chest made his neck stiffen and forced his gaze straight into the ceiling (which had become a blurry blue-gray sky). All that he could register was the vertigo of a condemned prisoner under whose feet the trap has suddenly sprung, and who falls and falls upon too generous a noose until down seems up. The liquid in his bowels evaporated through his throat, as it were, though there was no discernible sign of such dissolution, either before his eyes or within as genuine pain. Indeed, the fulfilled experience turned out to be strangely pleasant, for his earthly weight did not re-descend upon him as he felt his feet come to rest upon something stable.
But now a new discomfort assaulted him: a wind burdened with millions and millions of sand grains, apparently—a terrific dust storm.
“These are all the words ever written or said by men before your time,” announced a voice at his back, “and all that you yourself and those of your time ever said or wrote, and all that will ever have been written or said after your time. Each grain is a word, and all the grains are the accumulated words of all human history.”
The writer had buried his face in his elbow, for his discomfort was fast becoming very real and near to suffocation.
“Please!” he cried. “I can neither breathe nor see! I cannot possibly endure this punishment for all eternity—please have mercy!”
“Be at peace,” soothed the voice, “and lower your arm. The storm is already past.”
A general was in a difficult, though far from hopeless, position. Pursued by a numerous but brash and artless enemy, he had every confidence in being able to draw the disordered troops some few miles at his heels into a trap. Having reached the border of a swift-running river, he hastily called a council of war and advised his subordinates of his intention to take 500 crack troops, work back around up the gorge of a tributary stream, and catch the enemy force in a pincer movement. He had only to determine which of his captains to leave in charge of the main body—a concern not openly voiced as he let the small group dispute tactics.
“If the flanking maneuver takes too long,” protested one burly commander, “our main body will be trapped against the river. We will either drown in the heavy current or be slaughtered from the fore.”
“I have seen the natives of this region construct pontoon bridges of animal skins,” volunteered a younger man. “We could empty our wine and rapidly construct a crossing.”
“Not rapidly enough,” scoffed another. “Besides, the river runs too fast, and the horses would balk upon such wobbly footing. I’ve seen it happen. No, the best course is to work farther up-river to where the shores are nearer.”
“And also higher,” said yet another. “Then our men will fall instead of splash to their death. Besides, a withdrawal up-river would thwart the general’s flanking maneuver.”
“Which, with respect, it were best to rethink,” said still another. “There must be better places to undertake such an operation. If the enemy’s line is careless and ragged now, how much more so will they be farther south, where the river widens but slows down and grows shallow. We need to slip out of this death-trap while there’s still time… with respect.”
“And open up the door for our men to run away rather than stand their ground?” smiled the council’s final member. “Besides, daylight is growing scarce, and we haven’t the supplies nor the leisure to feed our troops for fighting another day—the enemy has far more of both.”
“Then you would do nothing?” sneered the previous speaker. “You would sit here and wait?”
“Wait and fight, yes,” said the humble captain. “Perhaps something else would occur to me… but those are the main things.”
“So they are,” proclaimed the general. “Obey this soldier, for I make him my adjutant. If he does nothing at all, it will be better done than all your somethings.”
The lion had grown old, and the animals all about him who had once cringed in fear whenever he lifted his shaggy head became bold. A huge gathering with an evil air about it converged upon him one morning—a gathering in which every animal of the forest and the plain was represented.
“Look at him!” called a voice from among the buffalo. “He can hardly rise upon his legs, and his teeth are falling out. If we were to stampede in his direction, we would leave his old hide and fractured bones behind us ground into the dust.”
“Do it,” growled the leopard. “I recall the day he crushed my father’s spine in his jaws. Today he could neither catch a hare nor devour her if she were handed to him. Let us put an end to this tyranny that has continued far too many years!”
“A fine spokesman!” mused the lion from between his great paws, his eyes narrowing, his voice commanding silence even in its frailty. “How many sons of the forest have you assassinated—and never as fairly as I killed your sire.”
“That’s true, that’s true,” nodded the apes. “The leopards have slaughtered more of our children than we have fingers and toes.”
“And yet you multiply still,” sneered the leopard. “I must feed my young, who are not so numerous as yours. And I have seen you, from my high-set shadows, gnawing on carrion, or even eating mice.”
“The whole world eats us,” said a small voice from somewhere underfoot. “We receive mercy from no one, though we also harm no one.”
“No one except all of us who graze,” objected a buck. “One year you so fattened yourselves upon sweet seeds and roots that the herd had to wander deep into lion country—and even then, most of our young who were not eaten starved.”
“As if your starving offspring were a more pitiable sight than ours!” piped a gazelle. “It is not one year out of many that your grinding jaws force us into the forest for food, but every year, year in and year out.”
“A retreat you so devastate with your prying muzzles,” peeped a thrush, “that we have scarcely either material to make our nests or peace to lay our eggs.”
“Very tasty eggs, they are!” smiled the lizard. “I only wish your cousin, the hoopoe, would behave less cruelly with that bill of his.”
“If the water and the air had voice to complain,” sighed the lion, “they, too, would have sad tales of unjust capture and devouring. You see that it is the way of all things. Finish me, then—he who has the courage for it. Only beware of him who comes after me. For he will fall like a bolt of lightning upon you all, as I did in my prime.”
A sanguinary tyrant had ruled for years before the nagging cares of constant suspicion brought him to his grave. The oppressed people of his state were not slow to storm his palace and apprehend his chief henchmen. Some of these were slain outright by the crazed mob, but the worst of them was preserved for a hasty trial. Accuser after accuser filed before the judges to indict his arbitrary slaughters over the years. Most episodes had a repellently staged quality, as if the victims had been lured to their death like mindless insects into a trap merely for the deceased king’s amusement. Conspirators had been tricked into executing each other one by one, a son had been seduced into betraying his father, a brother had butchered his sleeping brother in a fatal error engineered with the help of night’s shadows, and two cabinet ministers had drunk publicly from a poisoned cup lest their having doctored it be proved by their reluctance.
So infuriated did the judges grow after hearing these accounts that they could scarcely be persuaded to allow the plaintiff a few words in his own behalf; and indeed, their curiosity over what he might possibly say after a day of such damning testimony was clearly all that had won their indulgence.
Much to their surprise, the wretch did not attempt any denial. He confessed freely to everything. “And you would have done it, too,” he cried with an arresting note of certainty in his quavering voice. “Every one of you! Like me, you are ordinary men, not heroes. The madman would have his subjects dying daily around him, and those of us who served him could not refuse his whim—or even mitigate it—without offering ourselves up to the block. We hated him every bit as much as the rest of you. Our lives were a perpetual misery of fear. But what could we do? The pitiable victims you have named would all have died, in any case, whether snared by me or by some other. It was my idea, in fact, to render their deaths amusing through the element of surprise—for the king’s taste inclined more to torture and anguishing cruelty. In my hands, their doom came suddenly, with but little wait between the discovery of a sword above their heads and the sword’s descent. You should thank me, if anything, for securing them a relatively painless end.”
At this, the mute stupor which had seized the judges dissolved into enraged shouts. The accused quickly shifted his argument to a different footing.
“Because if you really believe that what I did was unpardonable, it can only be because you also believe that I had a choice. It can only be that you think I might have eased away from the tyrant’s mad slaughters and kept my own life. And the best way to show that would be to let me live. Prove to me that mercy is possible, or at least forgetfulness! For if an august body like this one can deal out death to all who cross its will, what hope would I have had against a crazed despot? Prove to me that I was wrong! By killing me you will prove the contrary. You will warn posterity to behave just as I did. You will say to the world that it had better not resist the brutality of whoever tyrannizes at the moment—whether a king or a people’s assembly.”
The judges would have none of it: their shouts were merely punctuated now with derisive cat-calls. The verdict was a universal thumbs-down. As the condemned man was hustled harshly away to execution, a guard overheard him to mumble, “Right all along! I stole thousands of days for myself and robbed not an hour from anyone who might otherwise have lived. What idiots!”
Epimenides was once asked by a disciple, “What should I do to get ahead in the world?”
“In truth and knowledge, or in the world?”
“Why… both, I suppose. Is there a different way in the two cases?”
“Opposite ways, one may fairly say. Do you wish to know how to advance in understanding of nature’s cycles and man’s solemn duties, or do you wish to achieve a higher rank and a greater salary?”
“The latter, Epimenides. I shall perhaps do the former once I retire from public life as a wealthy and successful…”
“Yes, yes. As I supposed. Then I shall tell you exactly how to succeed. Strive for mediocrity. Do not lift your head above the great plain of the masses around you, neither sink far below their level where you may be downtrodden.”
“But Epimenides… excuse me. But what you say seems just the reverse of what must surely be true. That is, surely the way to achieve fame and prosperity is to excel.”
“A disastrous miscalculation, made by many. Consider the following situation. Say that a kingdom is under attack from a formidable foe. The king is faced with the chore of selecting the best general to lead his army against the enemy. Whom should he choose?”
“Why… the best general, of course.”
“Certainly not. No true king would make such an error. Sending the best general would result in one of two equally ruinous conditions. The general might be defeated, in which case another general might just as well have been sent in his place—for it doesn’t take a great general to lose a war. Or else the general might prevail; and in that case, he would pass from being already great to being a very formidable rival to the king. It doesn’t take an alien enemy to make a king uneasy—those he grows on his own soil are quite sufficient.”
“So the king’s choice…”
“Would logically fall upon a mediocre general. This leader would neither be outstandingly brilliant nor outstandingly inept. If the critical battle were to be won by any reasonable means, he could be depended on not to stand in the way of victory. Yet being mediocre, he would suggest to discontented factions back home no likely figurehead for an uprising, and his self-love would be entirely satisfied by whatever little honors the king might choose to heap upon him.”
“Yet I perceive a flaw in your formula, Epimenides. If the blandest of choices were also the best, how could this dull general—or how could any particular cast made from his well-worn mold—hope to be specially remarked for his unremarkableness? Your advice seems to me to be little more than to return to my house and await a rain of gold coins from the sky.”
“Patience, my friend, patience! It turns out that few men can actually endure a protracted test of ordinariness. Invariably, many will lose heart and fall away, while others will grow contumacious and rear their dull heads higher than the moment warrants. In less time than you think, I assure you, you will remain among the elite few of the truly ordinary ordinaries.”
A Life Lesson
A Cretan disciple of Epimenides was having difficulties with his beloved only son, who was neither any longer a boy nor yet a man. The youth would obey only reluctantly and show little respect when doing so, convinced that his elders were dull, timid, money-grubbing fools whose zest for life had dried up.
It happened that one day along the docks of Gnossos (for the man owned half a dozen seafaring craft), the sky darkened as the wind drove waves ashore in sizzling sheets. The youth was laboring at his father’s side to try to secure the yet-unshipped cargo of a certain vessel. The lad straightened up from hefting a bulky load and found his worried gaze attracted to a quarter of the horizon where an eerie brightness filtered through the clouds. The waves also fell unnaturally quiet at about this moment. Shortly thereafter, the incredibly lean needle of a waterspout could be seen in sinuous ascent from the harbor’s mouth all the way to vaults of heaven.
Terrified, the young man ran to his father and grabbed his shoulder. The man reared back from his work and admired the storm’s stunning masterpiece as if studying the magnificent columns of a marble temple. As he did so, he draped an arm around his trembling son.
“What a grand sight!” he smiled. “You may never see another such as long as you live.”
“But we may not outlive the sight of this one,” quaked the boy in a brave attempt at wit.
“But if we live, we will live the better for it,” answered the man confidently. “And if it spin our souls right out of our bodies, then who can say that we will not truly begin to live, and a life with no end in sight?”
After that day, the young man’s treatment of his father changed entirely for the better.
Dr. Peter Singleton enjoys semi-retirement in the North Texas area, where he teaches and writes in various venues. He has been a frequent contributor to Praesidium from the journal’s early days.