Socrates and Semites

Don't you think that art can be dangerous?

Art (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
I WENT down yesterday to the Piraeus, in mind to attend the new drama by Adamschylus at the Zeatropolitan, of which everyone in the Agora is speaking.
In truth, at our age, the wife and I seldom attend performances at the Zeatropolitan, preferring rather to watch the simulcast at the Stoa of Attalos, but Abefoxmachus, president of the tribe of Semitikropis, had objected and, holding his breath until his face turned blue, had persuaded Gelbus, director of the Zeatropolitan, to replace the broadcast of the new production with a screening of “Exodus,” which I have seen all too many times.
I had just reached the half-price ticket booth by the customs house when Taruskinus chanced to catch sight of me from a distance, and told his servant to run and bid me wait for him. The boy ran up to me and grabbed my cloak from behind, and said, “Socrates, Taruskinus is approaching and desires you to wait.”
“I certainly will,” I said.
“I perceive,” Taruskinus said to me when he arrived, “that the wisest man in Athens in - tends to attend the theater this evening.”
“I know not what the wisest man in Athens may be doing,” I said, “but as for me, yes, I have in mind to attend a performance of Adamschylus’s new drama.”
“I believe,” Taruskinus replied, “that you mean that anti-Semitikropic work ‘Davidipus Rex.’” “I mean,” I said, pointing to the latest issue of “The New Athener,” which I had been perusing while waiting in line, “the critically acclaimed work in which Adamschylus sen - sitively uses minimalist music to tell the story of King Davidipus, the founding father of the tribe of Semitikropis.”
“Sensitively uses minimalist music to por - tray Philistines as oppressed victims who have good reasons to kill Semitikrops,” Taruskinus scoffed. “But perhaps you will join me at the kyfé across the road for a kylix of kykeon so that we may discuss this matter further.”
“With pleasure,” I said and, risking Xantippe’s wrath, I told her to hold our place in line and try to get seats set well back, if possible on the vomitorium. At the kyfé we saw Paulbermon, Rudigiulianus, and Abefoxmachus himself quaffing kykeon . They hailed us and asked us to join them.
“It seems,” said Taruskinus, “that many have come from all over Attica today to join the demonstration against the performance of ‘Davidipus Rex.’” “Demonstration?” I asked. “What premise is it that you wish to demonstrate?” “Why,” said Taruskinus, “that the play should be banned.”
“Wherefore?” I asked.
“Why can’t you say ‘why’ like a normal person?” Abefoxmachus shot back curtly. “The reason is that this play is a screed that slanders the Semitikropis tribe and encourages its murderous enemies. It recalls the most vile anti-Semitikropic rants of the Spartans.”
“It is my understanding,” I said, “that the play tells of King Davidipus’s glorious victory over Goliathus the Philistine.”
“Yet,” noted Paulbermon, “Davidipus is portrayed as a callow youth who seeks military glory without regard for human life.”
“Furthermore,” said Rudigiulianus, “there is a chorus of Philistines who sing of how they have been displaced from their homes by the Semitikropis conquest of their lands.”
“These terrorists, who regularly raid Semitikrop villages to pillage and who slaughter every man, woman, and child they can find, are portrayed as human beings,” Abefoxmachus grimaced, as if he had just seen Cronus swallow one of his babes.
“That is a pregnant statement you make, Abefoxmachus,” I said.
Abefoxmachus puffed up his chest. “My public relations consultant indeed says that I have the talent of impregnating every state - ment I issue with seminal meaning.”
“I mean that it contains much that does not meet the eye,” I said. “For if the Philistines are not human beings, what are they? Are they birds? Frogs? Clouds?” “They are vermin,” Taruskinus offered.
“Vermin,” I said. “You mean akin to rats, or snakes, or cockroaches.”
“Those are all indeed vermin,” agreed Rudigiulianus.
“Well, then, suppose Adamschylus were to write a play about an army of rats that invaded a Semitikrop village and scared many women and bit many children,” I said. “And suppose the first act included a chorus of rats singing about how humans are constantly trying to kill them. Would you demand that such a play be banned?” “Of course not,” said Taruskinus.
“Why not?” “Why,” said Taruskinus, “clearly rats are animals and it is their destiny to infest human villages and scare women and bite children.
They cannot be blamed because that is their nature.”
“In other words,” I suggested, “vermin are not moral agents who can be held responsible for their actions.”
“Precisely, Socrates,” Taruskinus agreed.
“Why then,” I said, “then neither can Philistines be held responsible for killing Semitikrops.”
“Of course they can!” Abefoxmachus roared. “Are you suggesting that they are not criminals?” “But we have just agreed that Philistines are vermin,” I pointed out.
“SOCRATES, YOU are deliberately confusing matters,” protested Rudigiulianus as he took a swig of kykeon . “Clearly, when Abe - foxmachus called them vermin, that was just a metaphor. No one claims that Philistines are not human beings.”
“Abefoxmachus, please forgive me for misunderstanding you,” I said, addressing the tribal president with all due respect. “I am just an ignorant old man and find it difficult to understand just what is gestating within your pronouncements.”
“What I meant is that terrorism is irratio - nal,” said Abefoxmachus. “Adamschylus portrays the Philistines as having reasons for  killing Jews. That means he wants us to un - derstand them. We cannot allow such lies to be presented to the public at a time when the Philistines seek to destroy our great culture and exterminate our ancient tribe.”
“Abefoxmachus, I admit that I am still hav - ing difficulty discerning the embryo of your idea,” I said. “But perhaps doing so requires more than the meager faculty of reason that I have available to me. No doubt a man with an ultrasound machine would do better. Still, is there not a contradiction in what you say? For you assert that the Philistines are criminals, but also that they are irrational.”
Abefoxmachus stood up and declared loudly, so that all in the kyfé could hear, “The Philistines are irrational criminal terrorists!” Rudigiulianus and Taruskinus applauded.
“Abefoxmachus,” they cheered, “you have hit the καρφί on the κεφάλι!” “Indeed I have, indeed I have,” Abefoxmachus beamed, ordering another round for our table.
“Excuse me, Abefoxmachus,” I said, “but is not a criminal a person who deliberately does evil?” “Indeed,” said Abefoxmachus. “Willfully, and with malice aforethought.”
“And is not the very nature of rationality the ability to make choices?” “It is,” said Taruskinus. “No one would dispute that.”
“And therefore a man who lacks the capability to think rationally cannot make deliberate choices?” “Socrates,” Rudigiulianus groaned, “again you are making the worse appear the better cause. It will get you in trouble.”
I pushed away the kylix of brew Taruskinus pushed in my direction. “It therefore seems to me that an irrational person cannot be a criminal.”
Abefoxmachus, who seemed confused, turned to Paulbermon. “Why is this man turning everything I say inside out?” he complained.
“Socrates is certainly annoying,” Paulber - mon said. “But he is worth attending to.”
“Therefore, the Philistines cannot be both irrational and criminals,” I concluded.
“Which are they?” “Why, they are criminals!” Abefoxma - chus said. “That’s what I’ve been saying all along! That is why this production of ‘Davidipus Rex’ must be stopped!” “But certainly “Davidipus Rex” is not the first play to portray criminals. Indeed, as we learned at the Lyceum as youths, who is the evildoer in a drama but a hero with a fatal flaw?” “But this play will bring the audience to sympathize with the criminals rather than to condemn them!” Taruskinus objected.
“But as we have discussed here,” I pointed out, “for us to see them as criminals we must see that they were rational beings who could make choices, and chose evil. Therefore, the drama must show us how and why they made these choices.”
“THEY CHOSE evil because they are criminals and anti-Semitikrops!” exclaimed Abefoxmachus, who was so red of face that it seems as if he might need a Caesarean to extract from his bowels the malformed thought that had formed there.
“But this is a contradiction,” I said. “Because if their being criminals is the reason they chose evil, then they were criminals before they chose evil. Yet you have already agreed that a criminal is a person who chooses evil. In other words, he becomes a criminal only after he makes the evil choice. Also, if he chooses evil because he is a criminal, because that is his nature, then he is not in fact making a choice because he is compelled by his nature to do so.”
“Socrates speaks truthfully,” said Paulbermon. “Yet, Socrates, I have seen the play and there is much in it that disturbs me. It indeed portrays Semitikrops as unthinking and ma - terialistic and violent. In a world in which Semitikrops have so often been victims, is it right for the Zeatropolitan to be producing this work?” “I too caught today’s matinee,” said Rudigiulianus, “and I must say that the music is subtle and moving. Yet I, too, am troubled and plan to join the demonstration.”
“My fellow Athenians,” I said. “Is it not free debate, like the discussion we have just been having, that is one of the fundamental principles of our democracy? Is it not because of our democracy that our city has become wealthy and powerful, and produced great athletes, thinkers and artists?” “Indeed,” Paulbermon nodded.
“And did I not in this discussion make arguments and claims that disturbed and upset you?” “You certainly did,” said Rudigiulianus.
“Would you then ban me from arguing with you? Or would I have the right to ban you from discussion, since I have shown that your claims are false?” “That part about banning him,” Abefoxmachus whispered to Taruskinus. “Maybe we should look into that.”
“But where are you going?” Paulbermon called to me as I rose from my place. “Have another kylix of kykeon with us!” I gazed out the window. Xantippe had nearly reached the ticket window and was waving frantically in my direction. In a moment, I was sure, she would have a fit. “I had better get going,” I apologized.
“So you are going to see the play rather than demonstrate with us?” Abefoxmachus glowered.
“I believe I have demonstrated all that needs to be demonstrated,” I said. “Now I will see the play. Perhaps, as Paulbermon says, I will find it disturbing. Perhaps it will anger me even as the music moves me, as Rudigiulianus says. If so, I will debate Adamschylus in the Agora before all of Athens, just as I have debated you. But if we suppress ‘Davidipus Rex,’ what then will we argue about?” Taruskinus shook his head. “Are you not naïve, Socrates? Don’t you think that art can be dangerous?” “One of the youths who follows me around has made that claim,” I said. “But I say, as dangers go, it is a sweet one.”
Haim Watzman is the author of ‘Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel’ and ‘A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley.’ He blogs at South-