Out of the wood, we took a new route, not back to the village, but round to a little outcrop of rocks on the shallow valley’s side, there beneath where the village lay.
“We need to talk to Socrates next,” said Tim. “Someone with an inborn and perpetual thirst to understand.”
I laughed. “What is this?” I asked, trying to keep up with Tim’s bold strides, as we skirted along the wood’s side and approached a gash in the rocky outcrop hard by.
“Just go with it,” Tim called back, smirking over his shoulder.
In the rocks was a cave, and in the cave sat a large, handsome, bearded, middle-aged man, who was wearing a simple, full length smock – obviously some kind of hermit, I thought. But surely this was indeed a bizarre little place, which Tim had brought me to.
The hermit glanced at us without surprise, a look of thoughtful compassion playing on his bold features. He was seated on the ground in the entrance to the cave. We joined him.
“So you wish to understand love,” the thinker began, smiling easily, acceptingly. “And you come to me to hear my report. Is that it? You’d rather not be questioned?”
Tim started to laugh. “We don’t expect anything definitive, but, no, please do not cross-examine us.”
Socrates bowed his head in a playful mime of modesty and looked up from under his heavy brow. “It is true that I was at the symposium, and did indeed hear some talk of these matters. And when it comes to love, it is true that I have known the divine madness that a handsome face, a young man’s ardour and athleticism, a pretty boy’s sweetness can arouse.”
“And what do you think of love between men? Is it natural? Proper? Permissible?” Tim asked, glancing at me as if checking something.
Socrates followed Tim’s glance and sized me up carefully. “Love itself, the thing itself, with an end itself which is love and nothing other, is only possible between same sex couples. All other kinds of attraction have a simple, functional purpose – to procreate – which is external, extra, extrinsic to the love itself. There are those who would hold this to be the case, are there not? What do you think?”
He was looking at me, but Tim answered, “No, we won’t be drawn like that, my friend. We want to hear what you know.”
“And you know that I will not pronounce; I am not so proud as to dare such an approach. But I will say that the view I just outlined has some merit. If love is paramount, then it must be in service of nothing other than its own ends. And love between two men can be said to be more likely to fit such a description than love between a man and a woman.”
“And you hold this view?” Tim pressed.
Socrates looked down at the little fire in the front of his cave. “What is piety?” he asked, at last.
“Discipline, self-discipline,” Tim replied.
“Am I a poet, a maker of gods, or just a leaking spout, pouring myself out to everyman?”
“Neither, would be my guess,” I said, suddenly keen to be a part of things.
“Does not every man love that which he deems noble and good?”
“Of course,” I said.
“Then what or who do you love?” Socrates said, suddenly beaming a broad smile in my direction.
“I don’t know …” I stammered.
“You think that I am perhaps greater than Dedalus? That I have cross-examined those who pretend to wisdom and emerged with fine answers …”
I laughed at this. “I don’t think anything,” I said. “Woo, hoo, I just do what I’m told.”
We all smiled at this diversion.
Socrates looked warmly at Tim, as if indicating his approval of the companion Tim had brought with him – me. “In my youth I continually dreamt the same dream. My dream, my recurring dream told me one thing: make and cultivate music … What music do you make, friend?”
“None,” I conceded, ashamed.
“Pleasure rivets the soul to the body, I hear,” Socrates said. “So perhaps you should turn to the male and delight in his properties; perhaps you should find a love that is good and harmonious; perhaps you could be one of those androgynous fellows who hangs upon a man’s embrace and lingers there.”
“Are you?” I asked, suddenly emboldened.
Socrates laughed lightly, looked into the fire as if looking for memories there and then said, “Alcibiades turned my head, my mind. I could hardly keep my hands off him. He had such fine features, such an easy flow of lovely, silken hair, such a rippling smile, such play in his dark eyes, such pale loveliness in his taut, ample cheeks. I was seriously enamoured of his beauty, and could only prevent myself from succumbing to him by indulging in sublimating bouts of wrestling – physical and mental. His words wounded me like arrows, but I practised my virtue by daring to sleep beside him on the same couch but refraining from touching him, his perfect flesh.”
“Why punish yourself like that?” Tim asked.
“In order to feel better, perhaps. So that I would not be unfaithful to my wife, perhaps.”
“But were you faithful to yourself?”
“If I loved Alcibiades, if I loved him, rather than merely desiring to conquer his body, then I was doing all that I needed to do. Being with him, pleasing him in general, making a loving friendship with him, that would be enough, that would be love.”
“And was Alcibiades perhaps your other half, the part you needed in order to be a complete self?” Tim asked, as if he had heard such talk before.
“I did consider this to be a possibility, I concede,” Socrates replied. “I certainly felt more alive, more joyous, more inspired in his presence. Speaking to him, joking with him, involving myself with him, was like music, so it may have been my destiny, our destinies …”
“Fate … I don’t think you really believe in that,” Tim said.
“I don’t rule anything out, unexplored …” Socrates replied mildly, reaching for a jar and some beakers in order to offer us a drink of wine.
“Must I sacrifice my happiness in order to be good?” I asked him, boldly.
“That does not sound like a good life to me. Sacrifice can be good, where necessary, but it is not always necessary.”
I looked away from the cave and saw a cloud that was caught obliquely in the sun’s strong rays and seemed like a diamond, like a thousand diamonds refracting light brilliantly.
“I doubt if there is an easy answer,” Socrates said, raising his glass to Tim and me, “but I wish you well on your journey.”
So we supped, then bid the hermit a warm farewell, before setting out across the fields at the end of the valley behind the village.
“Where now?” I asked.
Tim gave me one of his swoon-inducingly intense, warm, involving looks and said, “To the camp. And we will just watch there, I think. Watch the scene play itself out before us, as it may do many, many times in this place.”