Socrates, Don Quixote and Jesus
‘You’ve got some interesting things in your room’, said our 9 year-old grandson, Sebastian, when he wandered into my study upstairs recently.
‘Who is that?’ he asked pointing to a cheap six-inch model of an elderly, thoughtful man I bought in a street market in Athens.
‘That's Socrates’, I said.
‘What is he famous for?’
‘He was a philosopher’.
‘The word means that he loved wisdom, that it is important to try to be wise. The most famous thing he ever said was ’the unexamined life is not worth living’. In other words it’s important to keep asking questions’.
‘Hmm, he mused approvingly’. Seb has never had a problem with that!
‘Well, who is that?’ he asked pointing to a slightly weird, long, thin wooden version of a knight of some sort, bought in Mexico.
‘That is Don Quixote’.
‘Never heard of him. What is he famous for?’
‘He thought it was important to have your ideals and to fight for them, even if you lose’, I said sorting quickly through the many versions of the Spanish epic.
‘I like him’, our boy responded.
‘That is Jesus, right? Only it isn’t Jesus’, he pointed to a small wooden cross – an empty cross - from Bavaria on my desk.
How to sum up what Jesus is famous for in one understandable sentence?
‘Jesus said that there is only one way to stop people being nasty to each other and that is to surprise them by forgiving them’.
‘What? even Hitler?’
At that point a call came from downstairs for lunch. Seb was hungry and quickly gone. The interrogation was over.
I thought over what had just happened. I had summarised the stories of three men from the past whose stories are still very much alive in me and many other people. Actually, we all live by stories. They may revolve around universally known figures like these or they may be known only to ourselves. Whichever is the case, these stories have the power to motivate, inspire, encourage.
I learned to admire Don Quixote de la Mancha while studying Spanish literature at school. A work of fiction, he is an idealist, sometimes seen as comic or even tragic figure. He was disenchanted with the way his society worked. He made random and mostly ineffectual efforts to change some things. He famously ‘tilted at windmills’, at enemies real or imagined. Sometimes it was not clear whose side he was really on.
I discovered Socrates and Plato at university. My little statue is of an elderly Socrates, probably shortly before he was obliged to drink deadly poison as a punishment for encouraging the young men of Athens to question the received wisdom of the Athenian elders. I remember the precise moment when I grasped what Socrates was saying about the importance of asking questions. It changed everything.
Jesus has always been around. He has always been my lead story though the other two – or my versions of them – come a close second. All three are subversive characters. But the Jesus story about the subversive power of love has been for me the most deeply persuasive.
Whatever you may be turning over in your mind these days, these three men still have something important to offer, even now. The pandemic, the climate crisis, the war in Ukraine, the abrupt rise in the cost of living, the development of endless technological wonders, vast migratory refugee movements, our recognition of the sheer immensity of the universe - all of these raise profound questions about what it is to be human in 2022. To respond to them we all need our stories.
I wonder what yours are....