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truth and beauty

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The woman who sold amphorae at the edge of the agora was laughing as Apollodorus finished his story. He didn't seem to appreciate the disruption, but I was curious what she found so amusing, even if she was only an old woman selling pots, so I ignored his expression and asked her.

"Your friend's story has a few holes in it," she said. Apollodorus stiffened.

"And what would you know about it?" he demanded, forgetting, I suppose, that he was above caring what she thought of him.

"More than you, I think," she replied, still smiling, "since I was there." Apollodorus started to scoff, but she laughed again. She was stooped and wrinkled now, but it was possible to see that once she might have been lovely. "I doubt the one you heard the tale from would remember my face, and I'm sure you never heard my name, but even when you tell the story you say there was a flute girl who helped Alcibiades lurch in."

"Oh, the flute girl," Apollodorus said, immediately losing interest.

"Do you remember what happened after Aristodemus fell asleep?" I asked. Apollodorus clearly wasn't about to, and I wanted to know.

"Of course I do," she said. "Not very much, just more drinking and talking, but I was close to Socrates and Alcibiades the whole time, so I heard what they said. Would you like me to tell you?"

*

Alcibiades was very drunk to begin with, and then after he gave his speech about Socrates they all drank a great deal more. By the end everyone but Socrates was all but unable to walk. Most of them had staggered home already - not Agathon, of course, as it was his house, but he had gone to sit with Pausanias for a little while; perhaps he was weary of philosophy when he might have less vexing and conditional love - and Socrates and Alcibiades were left alone together on their couch.

Socrates was trying to speak to Alcibiades about love and stepladders, a confused enough metaphor for the soberest mind, and something of a lost cause for a man in Alcibiades' impaired state. But still he kept making the attempt, until Alcibiades rolled over and nearly fell off the couch. He just lay there, his legs half on the floor and his head half on Socrates, staring upwards. Socrates didn't try to move him; maybe he was too surprised. "What do you even know of love, old man," Alcibiades said. Socrates did not reply. "Love of the good, the beautiful. How would you know.

"I have always been very beautiful," Alcibiades went on. His words were very clear, as drunk as he must have been, although how they fit together in a speech was less so.

"Perhaps that sounds like vanity; probably it is. Certainly I am proud of my looks, just as I am proud of my cleverness and the way I know how to speak so that men will follow where I lead. But since we are being truthful - and I know how important the truth is to you - it would be rather foolish to deny what is obvious to anyone with eyes in his head.

"Things come more easily to beautiful men, of course, and to beautiful boys. Experience proves me right for the most part - even as a child, what I wanted was given to me, people I wanted liked to be with me. Some of that was because of my father, no doubt, but in the self-centeredness of youth I assumed it was because I was so much more beautiful than the other children. That isn't love, I suppose. It feels like love, to have whatever you want because other people want you, just as you are. But you would say that isn't real love.

"But what would you know about real love - have you ever loved anybody? Could you ever - I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm drunk, you must forgive me.

"You talk about truth and beauty as if they mean anything, anything at all when you can't love what's right in front of you. You - you're so high up there, who even knows what's in front of you. But I think you wouldn't care, anyway. It's all a means to you, and you can't understand, for all you're so wise and clever, you can't understand that real love is the end. That's it! That's all it is! It doesn't make you better, it doesn't make you smarter, it doesn't make you run faster or fight harder or anything. It's just love, and when you think you could be loved in return - oh, it's glorious.

"But you, you dangle that in front of our faces like a carrot under the nose of some poor overworked ass, so we'll think if only we - if only we did something, maybe you would love us. And you talk about purity and higher thoughts and you reason through it all until we're so dizzy following you that we'd agree with anything you said, but you don't - you don't understand what it's like. You don't understand we're not like you, we'll never be like you, or if we will it won't be because you taught us, it'll be the will of the gods or getting struck by lightning or who even knows.

"You can't teach us to be you. All you can teach us is to love you, and that - do you think we should be grateful? Grateful, when you hold something so beautiful just over our heads, and watch us jump and jump and never reach? When you could never -

"I thought you would. I thought you would be the one, who saw past my face and my father and my clever tongue, who would love me. And I would have given anything. Anything, if only you would - I should have known better. That's my own damned fault. But who knows. Maybe I could have changed. Maybe I could have been everything you wanted me to be, but not if you wouldn't love me back. And that, that is your fault."

Alcibiades paused and laughed. "But listen to me, going on and on. I don't think I've ever heard you silent for so long. Don't do me any favors, old man. Give a drunkard a kiss goodnight, and I'll be out of your hair." He tried to sit up, and only slid the rest of the way down to the floor. He didn't even bother after that, just closed his eyes and fell asleep.

Socrates sat there and looked at him for a while. Then Agathon called to him, to come join him and Aristophanes and settle an argument, and he got up and lifted Alcibiades back onto the couch - no mean feat; Alcibiades was not a small man. He laid him out very gently, and kissed his forehead. He looked sad, maybe, behind his beard, although it was hard to tell.

*

"Then he went to talk with Aristophanes and Agathon. I had to stay by Alcibiades, so of that conversation I know nothing, and at any rate you have heard the rest already from your friend."

I thanked the old amphora-seller for her time, and offered her a coin for her trouble as well, which she refused with a smile. She went back to her pots, and Apollodorus and I went our separate ways.

*

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