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Lydia's Recapitulation (6)

Socrates, Greece, 469 - 399 BCE


I, Lydia of Damascus, continue the ninefold recapitulation of previous lives. I will now recount the life of an historically known person, an exercise that calls for exceptional care.

Gnostics of the Mysteries applied extreme caution to the discussion of lives of historically known people. They observed a rule that no historical name was ever to be stated, even when the identity in question was clearly obvious. In the course of our activities in the Antioch cell, we often spoke of former lives in Egypt, India, Persia, and elsewhere. Crete was another favorite locale of our reminiscences. We discussed our former lives and events of distant times in a routine manner, as others might chat about relatives or notable personalities in the social scene of the day. There being a great deal known and written about the Egyptian dynasties, we often had occasion to refer to actual people known to have lived at that time, whose physical appearance, views, and actions were recorded—Hatshepsut, for instance, or the rebel pharaoh Ikhnaten. Doing so, we adhered to the strict rule of no literal disclosure. We knew who we were talking about and kept it among ourselves, without need to drop names and make claims.

We understood that the consequences of literal disclosure of historical identity could be extremely grave. To be explicit, this disclosure carried a lethal side-effect. It brought almost certain death in its wake. An incident from my present life confirms this seemingly bizarre admonition.

I have a long-time friend who practiced astrology for many years. He was an esoteric astrologist who specialized in investigations of past lives, which task he pursued with rigor and precision, and not without a wicked sense of humor. He developed unique tools for his investigations, tools that were not matched by anyone else in the field, then or now. He used his method to look into his own reincarnational sequence as well as that of others, of course. But he was also able to recall past lives spontaneously from the age of seventeen, due to enhanced memory acquired from a kundalini awakening. Over a decade of intensive work, he checked his spontaneous memories against the findings of his method, got down into fine details of past-life recall, cross-checked his memories against historical references, triple-checked against archaeological evidence and precessional timing, and developed an extensive overview of the sequence of his lives which he then applied to the cases he investigated.

The astrologist was well aware of the old rule of non-disclosure of historical identities, and considered it a serious matter. In his approach to past-life research, he did not claim to detect historical identities, though he used some historical cases for their comparative or illustrative value. He might say to a client, for instance, "In that life, you were someone like Giordano Bruno, or Lucretia Borgia, or Genghis Khan." He certainly would not have told anyone that they were Lucretia Borgia! He would not have said so, even if it were determined to be true—a near impossible task, working without the benefit of clear recall on the part of the client.

This astrologist had a pre-emptive caution for those who wished to have their previous lives recounted:

Do not take these lives literally, rather as imaginative fictions—but fictions that can truly be lived, and lived truly, truthfully.

He insisted rigorously on this caution.

On one occasion, he encountered an especially persistent woman who got under his skin and into his bed, as astrological clients will tend to do. She also got into his bathtub one fine summer evening in Santa Fe (as he recounted to me ruefully some twenty years ago over a margarita gold, on the rocks, no salt, at the bar in Tomasita's). To loosen his tongue, the woman induced a spell with a vial of herbal bubble bath and proceeded to tease him mercilessly and outrageously, splashing around like a drunken mermaid. The bubble cloud was a clever and engaging tactic of this enticing young witch. And it worked. She persuaded him— "in a moment of pure folly," he put it—to disclose the literal name of a Greek life of his in the 5th century BCE. He also told her own Greek name, and what she was to him in that time and setting. It was fine, heady amusement for that balmy evening, and they tittered over the story like a pair of Las Vegas showgirls gossiping behind the curtain between acts.

She playfully adopted the nickname Zan based on the astrologist's disclosure. The soft pronunciation of the Greek Xi was close to a Z. She used this letter for a signature in her journal, but she also called the astrologist by the code letter Z, a misdirecting twist on the Greek sigma, S. They were Z and Z. How charming and sophisticated they were in this arcane indulgence. How witty and wonderfully matched in this complicity, which they hid from the world at large. The past-life identities added a flair to their intimacy like nothing else could. They were celebrities in their own imagined world.

Three months after the bubble bath the woman nicknamed Zan was murdered, stabbed fifty-seven times. In her apartment the police found handwritten journals describing at length her recent breakup with a man designated only by the letter Z, who became the prime suspect in her murder.

There is an example of learning the hard way that the prohibition on literal disclosure of historical identities was no figment of esoteric fantasy. But that lesson is now passé. Between that event and today, the world has changed radically. With the advance into the last years of Kali Yuga, time undergoes a fractal compression, memory expands and contracts like a rubber band, old rules slip like gears in synchromesh, and time-honored restrictions blur and smear like stars receding at warp speed. There is no time to dissimulate, disguise, dither, dally, or be coy.

In Kali Yuga all previous interdictions will be suspended.

I, Lydia of Damascus, here forgo the ages-old prohibition on literal disclosure of historical identity in previous lives. I do so in full awareness of the risk entailed in the past. This disclosure will, however, no longer incur the risk of death. Rather, it allows the disposition for death to be included in those precarious orchestrations of fate that play along the seam of biographic contingencies and touch all those whose current lives are implicated in my recapitulation. In a later recapitulation, I will speak more of this curious notion, the disposition for death.

Early Blunders

Socrates was born in 469 BCE in the month of thargelion, the second month of the Attic calendar, on a day roughly equivalent to May first. His father Sophroniscus was a stone mason much in demand in and around Athens. His mother Phaenarete was an ordinary Greek housewife so dim-witted she could barely follow local gossip, although she was pretty good at midwifery. Young Soc was a hapless boy, often discontent for no apparent reason and prone to inexplicable fits of bitterness in which he ridiculed every living thing from an passing locust to the presiding archon of Athens. His violent and erratic temper tantrums shocked and irritated his mother, but his father saw in them the evidence of an exceptional capacity for rage that might turn to valiance, and would later serve his son well on the field of battle.

With a bulbous head and bulging eyes, Soc had the look of a cherub bloated on sweet wine and fruit candies. Despite his oversized cranium, his reasoning powers were oddly lax. Once, when he was keeping his dad company at a construction site—he was no more than five at the time, an ungainly urchin larded with baby fat, his blubbery mouth studded with an uneven row of teeth—the wall of new foundation caught his attention. He observed that a string had been carefully laid along the wall, and wondered at its purpose. A week or so later, at a different part of the site where work was just getting underway, he came upon a string with no stonework running along it. He puzzled over this sight so intently his father noticed and asked him what he was thinking. The boy was loathe to formulate his thoughts, but finally he asked, "There was a wall here once, wasn't there?" "No," his father replied. Soc pondered long and hard at this response. "But it had to be there, and someone left the line when it fell down." His father eyed him keenly, unsure of how to respond. The obvious response, "I put up the line to build the wall, so that the construction will be straight," felt inapt. Sophroniscus was not an unsubtle man.

Later—quite a bit later, attesting to the donkey-like velocity of his juvenile cogitation—Soc said offhandedly to his dad, "The line can be straight but it doesn't prove that the wall will be so." Give it to the boy, Sophroniscus thought, he caught the difference between skills required to model something and those required to construct what is modeled. The nuance was lost on some of the effete pals his gawky son was to draw around him later in life.

Young Soc loved the sea and often paced excitedly on the beach at Piraeus. He never stepped on a boat, however, due to an irrational lack of trust in the skills of a navigator or helmsman (cybernetes). Sitting on the pebble beach with his toes crunched into the sand, he considered how to get a pilot to prove his skill on land before taking him to sea. As there seemed to be no way this could be done, Soc became hugely exasperated. Then he saw two pilots consulting over a parchment map. Apparently, they relied on the map to navigate. In the logic peculiar to his nascent faculties, Soc concluded that a study of geography and map-making would ease his reservations about sea travel.

This course of inquiry led him first to Anaxagoras, who spoke too vaguely for anything to be drawn from what he said, and then to a lanky, scatter-brained "physicist" in the academy of Anaximenes. Socrates was about fourteen at the time. He was eager to ask the scientist about geography, but since he was shy about putting questions to people, he let the older man lead the conversation. Anaximenes told him that the air they were breathing was composed of fine threads that wove into a tissue as soft as a woven grass, but porous, a loose-weave tissue. Socrates was so staggered by this statement that he immediately forget about his interest in geography. He left the studio in a daze of mystification. For weeks afterward he had the impression that he was walking through a cobweb made of these threads, currents of air like spidery filaments brushing past his face, sliding invisibly over his arms and torso.

Daimonic Duo

Socrates in adolescence was a raw, awkward fellow, and remained so well into his twenties. He didn't have a clue how to engage or direct his mind, but when he talked to people, rambling spontaneously, he completely forget this was a problem. He noticed that people listening to him, if they did not flee, assumed a strange expression, becoming slack-jawed and glassy-eyed. When there was no one around, he practiced slacking his jaw to get a feel for their reaction. To no avail, however. Yet he did discover that by moving his jaw and forehead and notching up his ears, he could induce curious states of mind. It was as if his head and face, with only minor contortions, could be adjusted to different trains of thought and then actually bring forth those thoughts. At times he pouted and made faces at people, convinced they would know what he was considering to say to them.

When he was not making faces at total strangers, Socrates resorted to solitude. He left town and mused alone in the woods, but not in a melancholic way. He often gazed at the moon for hours on end, fascinated by how it snakes through the stars, once passing a zodiac animal at a high angle, later at a low angle. Pondering what Anaximenes had told him, he fantasized about a filament connecting the earth to the moon: as if the threads of the air formed a thick cable stretching from that pearl-white orb to the ground where he sat. He found this notion so bizarre that he dared not mention it to anyone, lest they think he was demented. Nothing he did could expel it from his mind.

Fortunately, the places Socrates would frequent in the hills and groves around Athens were also known to another young man of his age, Phaedrus. They ran into each other on the narrow goat paths and before too long they struck up a lively friendship. Phaedrus was tall and elegant and light-hearted, a vivacious lad with a broad, smiling countenance. He became Socrates' closest and most trusted friend outside the town crowd. Their great pleasure was to stroll along the banks of the Illisos together.

Socrates admitted to Phaedrus his tormenting notion about a cable connecting the moon and the earth. His new (and, at that time, only) friend laughed, immediately putting him at ease. Phaedrus said that he had studied a little astronomy in the school of Meton, a well-known engineer who had been engaged by the archons to construct the Attic calendar for planning civic events. "Meton says there is such a line. It's like a huge docking braid you see in the port for the big cargo ships," he told the astonished Socrates. He explained that the braid has two ends, called daimones. One end is the upper daimon, the agathodaimon, and the other end is the lower demon, the kakodaimon. "They are like the head and tail of a snake," Phaedrus said, "but it's a snake that keeps the moon on track, weaving its sinuous trail across the sky." Socrates gaped at him for a long moment, then laughed uproariously. "I would like to ride that snake," he told Phaedrus. "I wonder how one could do that?"

In his late twenties, Socrates had still not adapted well to social life in Athens. Although he was seen around and about, in the agora, the fora, at the market-place and the gymnasia, he kept to himself for the most part. He had an air of arrogance that put people off, combined with unusual modesty that kept him at a distance from casual contact, suggesting further arrogance. Conversing with others did not come easily to him, due to the compelling strength of his inner voices. He worked off and on at stonemasonry, but his needs were so minimal that he required little money to survive. He could withstand intense cold, go without eating, and drink without getting drunk—qualities that do not lend well to social adaptation.

Thanks to long talks with Phaedrus, Socrates was able to sort out the workings of his own mind, leading him to understand that he had two daimones. Both advised him but in quite different ways. In an inner voice as clear as the sound of rain pelleting the surface of a still pond, the agathodaimon told him all kinds of fascinating things about trees, rivers, and clouds, predicted events, and alerted him with signs and omens. The kakodaimon by contrast was mute, without voice, but it communicated to him by a warm shudder that flushed through his entire body from time to time. He called this shudder entrope, "shame." Whenever he felt entrope, it was as if the mute daimon was declaring in a stern voice, "No—stop—not that—don't do that." Thus, the lower daimon always communicated to him in the negative, setting a boundary.

The Gadfly

Once Socrates got familiar with his two advisory daimones, he was able to turn outwards toward others and be comfortable in social contact. Well, relatively comfortable. He acquired close and loyal friends such as Crito, Meno, Chaerephon, Euripides, Aristophanes, and half a dozen others —indeed, he was rich in friendship. But he could only get along with people in general by irritating them. His rule of social intercourse was, "Whoever allows himself to be offended deserves to be." He found that he could best engage people in conversation by antagonism, otherwise he would either lose his train of thought or lose interest in what the other person was saying. He also found that if he concealed what he intended to say, not wholly but partially, the conversation got a lot more interesting on both sides. This tactic was so new and distinctive that Socrates became widely and uniquely known for it—notorious, in fact. The sophists, ever jealous of anyone introducing a new technique of rhetoric, called this neat little trick ironia. There were extremely irritated at the casual way Socrates baited and antagonized people, and compared him to a nasty, niggling insect, a gadfly. The effect of ironia was so disarming that Socrates had the edge in every conversation. He gained quite a few enemies among the sophists, but other people flocked to him for a breath of fresh air, and, if they dared, to have their pretences challenged.

Socrates lived almost an ascetic life, not because he harbored any tendencies of denial or religious self-abnegation—certainly not. He loved all the pleasures of the senses but found it senseless to go about earning their enjoyment. He took them if they were provided for free, and otherwise happily went without.

Diotima and Phryne

Into his early thirties, Socrates did occasional stonework and sculpting, using skills he picked up from his father. His most ambitious project was a statue of the Three Graces for a decorative pediment on the path leading from the agora up to the Parthenon. Sculpting the Graces proved to be a decisive experience for him, opening to a course of mystical enlightenment that was, until that moment, totally unforeseen. On a hot evening after a long day laboriously smoothing the lines of the sleek robes of the Graces, Socrates fell asleep at the pediment. In a dream, his upper daimon called him in a deep, melodious voice he had not heard before. It showed him a rose-colored cloud with a woman floating in it, as if in a gelatinous solution. Then the woman turned into a wild mare that leaped into the sky, lightning flashing from its hooves. The sound of dream thunder woke him. In his mind he retained a name: Diotima.

Inquiring among local diviners, Socrates learned that Diotima was a well-known seer living in the wilds of the Peloponessus. He, Phaedrus, and another friend went off to see her. When they arrived at Mantinea, they had the shock of their lives, for Diotima was performing a ritual that put the entire village under a trance. No one could move except her and her neophytes, three vigorous young woman from Thrace and a pale boy from Dodona. She told Socrates that she had caused his dream to call him into her presence. She said that she knew about his lower daimon, and how it caused him to stand stock-still for long moments, captured in entrope. She explained that the immobility of the people under her trance was of a different kind: they could not move because they had no desire to move. She had suspended their Eros. Her trance did not effect their muscles or their will power, but it removed the mediating force, Eros, that makes any movement or action pleasant, desirable to perform. They were immobilized because they lacked the motivating pleasure of their own movement.

So began Diotima's initiation of Socrates, demonstrated in a spell. She taught him that the name of his higher daimon was Eros, the power that mediates between human and divine worlds. In his long stay with her, Socrates learned that Eros generates and directs a vast company of daimones, like an animal tamer orchestrating a menagerie of beasts, birds, and reptiles, all at once. Upon his return to Athens, when he became widely known for his dialectic art, it was not understood that Eros the mantic power inspired his use of language. Over time Socrates spoke openly of Diotima's teaching about the daimones directed by Eros. This led to his condemnation to death for introducing "new divinities,"; hence the charge of impiety (asebia) directed at him by the local authorities.

His initiation into the arts of Eros filled Socrates with an aching thirst to know women, both carnally and intellectually. Being poor in means and goonishin looks, he had not had much luck with the fair sex, and the pedagogic trade in boys was not at all to his liking. But Phaedrus had affluent friends who frequented the hetaerae of Athens, including the most celebrated courtesan of the city, Phryne. Her complexion had an odd tint like the yellow of a quince, hence her unflattering name, "toad." When Socrates met her for the first time at a dinner-party, he was immediately overcome with lust which he did not attempt to hide because his lower demon did not compel him to do so. Phryne remarked that he was excessively shy, surely due to his physiognomy, the ugliness of his prominent forehead, snub nose, thick lips, and bug-eyes, but she sensed from his looks that he must be descended from the satyrs and sileni, ancient companions of the goat god Pan. "That old trunk," she said, referring to the lineage of Pappo-Silenus, "has the deepest, darkest roots of lust. And where would I be without lust?" Besides, she added, apart from his facial features, Socrates looked to be physically quite a fine specimen of manhood. Fine enough for Phryne to offer her favors for free, as she was known to do on occasion.

Yellow Sprout

So it was that Socrates passed between Phryne's legs into the hedonistic social milieu of Athens, the last place in the world he ever expected to find himself. They became tight friends, and she offered him access to every party in town. Athens in those days was, if nothing else, a party town. There he met the leading lights of the theatre scene such as the comic playwright Aristophanes and the tragic playwright Euripides, who were to become intimate friends until the end of his life, over more than thirty years. He also met the charming young rake Alcibiades whose life he was later to save at battle where they were engaged as hoplites, foot-soldiers.

Into his late forties, Socrates found female companionship, in and out of sex, more or less haphazardly in his social encounters around the city. Over a few years, he had an affair with a couple of Agathon's flute-players, Alcmene and Aurea, both at the same time. It never occurred to him to get married, and in any case he had no means for such an arrangement.

Then one day a woman appeared at the market near his house and caught his attention with a jarring gesture. She had buck teeth of a distinctly yellow tint, which he found oddly attractive. The yellowness reminded him of Phryne and he took this for an omen. The woman, who introduced herself as Xanthippe, was in her late twenties, he guessed, and in quite good shape, small, supple, and buxom. Her skin was nut-brown and she had a habit of wriggling her torso when she talked. She was unusually saucy in her manner of speaking. Socrates was immediately struck by the exotic flair of her name (pronounced ex-ANN-thee-PAY), meaning "yellow sprout."

One day, Xanthippe took him aside and confided her disgust at the pederastic pandering of the gymnasia. "Erastes and eromonos, between the thighs or up the back entrance, it's all the same sordid pastime," she said. "Men ruin boys, and those boys become men who ruin boys." Socrates stared at her and grinned, relishing the sharp taste of her candor. They chomped on a bunch of radishes he had bought at the market. "Agreed," he said, "but what do you expect me to do about it?" Socrates wondered if she might be including him with the usual crowd of pederasts, even though she obviously regarded him as the exception. "Give me a son, or maybe two or three," she replied boldly, "and I'll raise them to be true men. But no one must know what we're doing."

At the first meeting, over a bunch of radishes, Socrates and Xanthippe made a kind of pact. They agreed to disguise what they were doing, and mislead the entire city about the nature of their marriage. Xanthippe insisted on this tactic, otherwise she would not be able to raise her sons free of the influence of the homosexual Athenian elite. For his part, Socrates was supposed to show a total lack of interest in his offspring. If he mentioned them at all, he would comment off-handedly on their utter worthlessness. The charade was to be elaborate. People in his neighborhood would be led to believe that Xanthippe had no respect for him and haughtily disregarded his reputation as a celebrity intellectual, the dialectician without equal. They conspired elaborately to their own huge amusement. They staged scenes to dissimulate their complicity: when Socrates returned home in the morning after a night of carousing with Phryne and her guests, Xanthippe dowsed him with a bucket of washwater and pelted him with verbal abuse, loud enough for everyone to hear.

She hid his sandals so that everyone in town would know what a tyrannical shrew she was. She did not pretend to hide his sandals, but really did so, forcing him to tromp barefoot to his highbrow haunts under the Acropolis.

They had practically no domestic life together, but their sexual life was gay and lively. Xanthippe was eager, tender, and mischievous in love-making. Her devotion to Socrates endeared her deeply to him, and he was glad that their bizarre agreement protected her, in a way. After sex, they would lay in the dark and talk for hours, planning their next outrageous act of dissimulation. Some nights they laughed so loud they woke the neighbors.


When Socrates was in his mid-sixties, news reached Athens that Diotima had averted a plague that was approaching the city. It came in the form of a soundless winged insect whose bite caused the explosion of blood. Many people were grateful for this act of grace, but Socrates himself viewed it with a sense of foreboding. Not long after his death, Diotima was to reverse her magic: in revenge for what was done to him (some said), she visited a plague on Athens that spread to the entire region and annihilated the glories of the Golden Age in half a generation. The Greeks never recovered from that blow. Never.

In 404 BCE the Thirty Tyrants who seized control of the city-state tried to force Socrates and others to comply with a hostage-taking game calculated to extend Athenian power. He refused and made a scene of open contempt for the tyrants, throwing a spectacular tantrum in the agora. When they passed a law forbidding anyone to teach the art of dialectic argument, he was again contemptuous, but also flippant, claiming that without argument "it would be just too damned boring to live in Athens." At that time, some outraged archons threatened to put him to death.

At the end of the Terror, archons who had made a backroom deal with the deposed tyrants went on the offensive against Socrates, taking him to trial for impiety and corrupting the minds of young men. Condemned to death, Socrates was given the chance to pay off the offences and save his neck for a few mina. But he insisted that the archons pay him for the services he'd rendered to the city: "Without my harassment the mentality of Athens would be a complete wasteland," he told them in his defence at the trial. This is how he countered the charge of corrupting the minds of young men.

It was decreed that Socrates' death was to be self-administered by drinking a lethal potion. Normally, the sentence of death was carried out immediately, but there was a long-standing rule in Athens that no one could be executed until the boat sent to Delos to honor Apollo had returned safely to Piraeus. This circumstance caused of delay of nearly a month, during which time Socrates lived in fetters in a cramped hillside cave facing the Acropolis. It was a beautiful, balmy spring and many close friends came to visit him, often staying all night. Consistent with their agreed dissimulation, Xanthippe stayed away, and kept his sons from visiting. One of Socrates' self-declared pupils, an effete dandy named Plato, also kept his distance, pleading histrionically that the death of his master was the death of philosophy, and he could not bear to witness a tragedy of such magnitude. Plato himself, it turned out, was the death of philosophy in the sense that Socrates understood it: namely, as the examination of what makes life worth living.

Socrates was gay and detached about his ending. He expressed gratitude to the gods that he was to die in fine health, fit in mind and body, rather than sickly and decrepit. He took a few flute lessons from the girls who came to play and sing for him, daughters of members of the old troupe who entertained at Agathon's house. In conversations with Crito and others, he declined to speculate about what happens in the afterlife, if there is one. "It doesn't matter what happens after life ends," he insisted. "What matters is just how it ends."

Crito in particular fussed over him like a ditzy aunt, scarfing their favorite pita sandwiches from the wall-eyed Syrian on the Hermou, and making sure he even got a bowl of warm stew now and then. He was so shaken by his master's immanent departure that Socrates had to get him out of the scene for a few days to spare the nerves of his other friends. He prescribed that Crito conduct a rite for him to thank Aesclepius, the patron deity of healing. "I owe a cock to that deity," he told Crito, with a sidelong glance to the others, "because death is the greatest healing of all."

Crito returned with news that the Delos bark was in sight. He had run into the doctor assigned by the archons to prepare a lethal drink from hemlock, a potion supposed to permit a sleepy, painless demise. Typically, Crito was anxious that the physician was not competent and the potion might be bad, causing physical anguish to Socrates. The day arrived and the potion, too, quite early in the morning, as it was to be taken on an empty stomach. The jailor released Socrates from his fetters, leaving purple circlets on his ankles. "There's my last pleasure, and not the least, I can tell you that," Socrates told the small circle around him as he rubbed the bruises.

He took the wooden cup and sipped the contents lightly to see what it was like: a frothy mousse with the taste of rancid carrots and an odd metallic tang that lingered on his tongue. He wondered if the doctor had left an iron spoon sitting in the mix overnight. Hunched on the ground at his feet, Crito cringed to see that his master was about to drink the dubious elixir in one long gulp. But Socrates paused, cup to his lips, and patted him gingerly on the shoulder. "Don't fuss over the formula, old friend," he said. "The taste alone will kill me."

31 july 2008


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.