Aeshines – A Newly Discovered Socratic Dialogue

SOCRATES Hail to Thee, Aeschines! From where do you return to visit us now?

AESCHINES I have just returned from my father’s kitchen where I was assisting him in making his famed spiced meat delicacies.

S. Yes! Charinus makes the finest sausages in all Athens, that is beyond dispute.

A. Thank you, Socrates. Next to my father, I love you dearly. I hope I shall never leave you. Strike me with your staff, for you will find no wood hard enough to keep me away from you, so long as I think you’ve something to say.

S. Only the sausage-maker’s son knows how to honour me. 2 I wish all my friends were as loyal as you, Aeschines. In some ways, your respected profession has often appealed to me as most enviable. You assist your Father whom you love, earn an honest livelihood, exercise great care and attention keeping the restless mind in check, and what is more, create delicacies for the citizens of Athens to enjoy with wine and fill their bellies, which when digested, turns to thought and hopefully beneficial actions.

A. Thou speakest truth as always, Socrates. I have toiled to excel at this work, selecting the choicest herbs, learning to pound the cooked rare meats into a paste and blend them, pack them in an edible skin and make them look as appetising as possible.

S. I am persuaded of your eminent skill, Aeschincs. I trust you will not refuse me a sample of your labours.

A. Here is one of Father’s latest concoctions, a mixture of lamb and rabbit flavoured with honey, thyme and black pepper.

S. Thank you. I shall relish it more after our conversation but now ask me whatever you will.

A. You said earlier that my food after being digested, stimulates thought which leads to action.

S. I recall having said that.

A. Does this mean I am indirectly responsible for my clients’ thoughts and deeds?

S. After a fashion, partially, but not completely. Thoughts need food stuff to make them happen.

A. But surely Socrates, man is responsible for his own thoughts and actions, and has the freedom to decide his acts?

S. Dear boy, I hope you will not be shocked when I tell you that man has no freedom of will, and is not responsible for his actions.

A. But surely Socrates, this goes against the ‘consensus gentium’ of educated people and their commonsense. I feel and I know that I am responsible for my acts. When I think to do something, I carry it out.

S. Are you so sure, my dear fellow? Let us examine this matter more closely. Sit down a while. You say you think; where does the thought that you have, come from, in the first instance? Where does it arise?

A. From me, of course.

S. From Me. Tell me, who is this Me? Can you find him inside? Now watch closely. Where do thoughts actually come from? Be very honest.

A. Well, surprisingly they seem to arrive from nowhere, out of the blue. From the Gods, perhaps.

S. Now you see that you did not create the initial thought. It arrives from you know not where. Then what happens?

A. It commences the faculty of reasoning.

S. Yes. It touches your mind, and either the thought is rejected as unworthy or accepted as useful, according to needs, standards of upbringing and so forth; and it starts a process called thinking.

A. But surely I start the process of reasoning.

S. Are you sure? Look closely now. See what actually happens. A thought arrives from nowhere, touches the mind which reacts according to its patterns of education and what it believes to be the right response, and some more thought weighs the matter up.

A. But surely in the weighing I choose from the alternatives offered by commonsense and reason?

S. I mistrust your commonsense and conventional opinion, the so-called reason of the masses. Only the philosophers understand the nature of choice, and not too many of them, I suspect.

A. Do you mean I didn’t choose?

S. What happens if you watch, dear sausage maker, is that the mind or thoughts present alternatives, and according to your disposition you choose what you consider to be the most practical, pleasurable and in the best interest for you. But there is no daemon inside to choose. The choice happens mechanically, like an abacus, and then the mind foolishly ascribes it to itself as “a free agent”, boasting arrogantly “I CHOOSE.”

A. Please continue, Socrates. This is most illuminating.

S. Truly the choice was inevitable. The so-called act of choosing was part of the structure of predetermination. The choice was inevitable, because it appealed to your hidden tendencies of pleasure, and what you believe to be appropriate. In fact there was never any freedom to choose anything other than that which was chosen.

A. But surely if a man does good deeds, they are his own, just as the man who does evil deeds?

S. Again, Aeschines, let us examine very closely. Watch how everything happens. A train of inevitable events leads one man to the good, another to the so-called evil.

A. How is that?

S. One man is born into a noble womb, with refined educated parents, another into an uncaring home of ignorance. Patterns of behaviour are laid down like a mosaic, by example and imitation. What you call good and bad habits are largely mimicry.

A. But surely, Socrates, there are innate tendencies of good and evil that men are born with?

S. Yes. Souls are transmigrated with these tendencies laid down.

A. So what determines this behaviour of these souls?

S. Examples from parents, family, teachers, people you meet, heroes, reading, and so forth. You are determined all the time, by each new event.

A. Is this the way the Gods control our destiny?

S. Broadly, yes.

A. I see. So when I choose, I imagine I’m choosing, but really it’s all predetermined.

S. Exactly. You are beginning to see the point.

A. Then tell me, Socrates, the idea that I can do anything of my own free will, is that falsely imagined?

S. Yes.

A. Then how do I live?

S. Choose as if you have choice, knowing you really have none. This is a step towards freedom and the Good. It will remove guilt, and stop you from blaming others for their so called bad deeds, and stop you from flattering others for their so called good deeds, according to society’s approval or disapproval.

A. If this was generally understood, what would our tragedians have to write about?

S. Very little. But about good and bad, the Nubian, Libyan and Egyptian have quite different standards to we Greeks, neither better nor worse except according to our opinion. Moreover, each tragedy illustrates a chief characteristic which prevents the hero from coming to Self knowledge. Such was the blindness of Oedipus.

A. But how will I live, knowing all this?

S. Enjoy yourself, my boy. Be happy. Love your work, and study philosophy, but don’t attribute your actions to an imaginary ME who doesn’t actually exist which is the real slavery.

A. Thank you Socrates. But…

S. There are always ‘buts’ – listen! This idea that men can act independently of the Gods is at the root of their bondage, and enslaves master and boy alike. To be free, a man must know this clearly. This is my point. I hammer it home continuously.

A. How do I see this clearly?

S. Some time, reflect on major events of your day and examine how much they really happened through your free will? This will undermine your vanity and your pride.

A. Thank you.

S. The tyrant is the imaginary ME who has usurped the Good which is our birthright of freedom. Sacrifice him to the Gods, and all will be well, I promise.

A. Thank you again, Socrates.

S. Come, my dear friend, let us enjoy your sausage with some Cypriot wine; Ah! I can see Alciabides approaching.