Vladimir Korolenko: The Shades, A Fantasy

A month and two days had elapsed since the judges, amid the loud acclaim of the Athenian people, had pronounced the death sentence against the philosopher Socrates because he had sought to destroy faith in the gods. What the gadfly is to the horse Socrates was to Athens. The gadfly stings the horse in order to prevent it from dozing off and to keep it moving briskly on its course. The philosopher said to the people of Athens:
“I am your gadfly. My sting pricks your conscience and arouses you when you are caught napping. Sleep not, sleep not, people of Athens; awake and seek the truth!”
The people arose in their exasperation and cruelly demanded to be rid of their gadfly.
“Perchance both of his accusers, Meletus and Anytus, are wrong,” said the citizens, on leaving the court after sentence had been pronounced.
“But after all whither do his doctrines tend? What would he do? He has wrought confusion, he overthrows, beliefs that have existed since the beginning, he speaks of new virtues which must be recognised and sought for, he speaks of a Divinity hitherto unknown to us. The blasphemer, he deems himself wiser than the gods! No, 'twere better we remain true to the old gods whom we know. They may not always be just, sometimes they may flare up in unjust wrath, and they may also be seized with a wanton lust for the wives of mortals; but did not our ancestors live with them in the peace of their souls, did not our forefathers accomplish their heroic deeds with the help of these very gods? And now the faces of the Olympians have paled and the old virtue is out of joint. What does it all lead to? Should not an end be put to this impious wisdom once for all?”
Thus the citizens of Athens spoke to one another as they left the place, and the blue twilight was falling. They had determined to kill the restless gadfly in the hope that the countenances of the gods would shine again. And yet – before their souls arose the mild figure of the singular philosopher. There were some citizens who recalled how courageously he had shared their troubles and dangers at Potidea; how he alone had prevented them from committing the sin of unjustly executing the generals after the victory over the Arginusee; how he alone had dared to raise his voice against the tyrants who had had fifteen hundred people put to death, speaking to the people on the market-place concerning shepherds and their sheep.
“Is not he a good shepherd,” he asked, “who guards his flock and watches over its increase? Or is it the work of the good shepherd to reduce the number of his sheep and disperse them, and of the good ruler to do the same with his people? Men of Athens, let us investigate this question!”
And at this question of the solitary, undefended philosopher, the faces of the tyrants paled, while the eyes of the youths kindled with the fire of just wrath and indignation.
Thus, when on dispersing after the sentence the Athenians recalled all these things of Socrates, their hearts were oppressed with heavy doubt.
“Have we not done a cruel wrong to the son of Sophroniscus?”
But then the good Athenians looked upon the harbour and the sea, and in the red glow of the dying day they saw the purple sails of the sharp-keeled ship, sent to the Delian festival, shimmering in the distance on the blue Pontus. The ship would not return until the expiration of a month, and the Athenians recollected that during this time no blood might be shed in Athens, whether the blood of the innocent or the guilty. A month, moreover, has many days and still more hours. Supposing the son of Sophroniscus had been unjustly condemned, who would hinder his escaping from the prison, especially since he had numerous friends to help him? Was it so difficult for the rich Plato, for Eschines and others to bribe the guards? Then the restless gadfly would flee from Athens to the barbarians in Thessaly, or to the Peloponnesus, or, still farther, to Egypt; Athens would no longer hear his blasphemous speeches; his death would not weigh upon the conscience of the worthy citizens, and so everything would end for the best of all.
Thus said many to themselves that evening, while aloud they praised the wisdom of the demos and the heliasts. In secret, however, they cherished the hope that the restless philosopher would leave Athens, fly from the hemlock to the barbarians, and so free the Athenians of his troublesome presence and of the pangs of consciences that smote them for inflicting death upon an innocent man. ...


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