I had this callus on the bottom of my foot, so I went to this foot doctor. Right away, I notice two things: The foot doctor’s waiting room is freezing. Also, every time I’ve had an appointment, I’ve always been the only patient there. He’s a good foot doctor, but I’m not sure he’s doing well. Either that, or his other patients died of pneumonia from the waiting room.
My foot problem reminded me of this play I studied when, after graduating from college, I attended the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA. I don’t remember the title of the play, or who wrote it – it wasn’t Brecht – but the class I was taking focused on German Expressionism, so it might be in that area. Maybe you can help me with this.
Don’t guess yet. I haven’t told you what the play is about.
The reason I love this play is because of its theme: “Things aren’t always what they seem.” That stuff’s interesting to me. I’m curious about the whole idea of what we know and how we know it. The message of the play is that the real explanation for something may be completely different from the explanation we’ve come to believe.
The play’s story is about Socrates. Its “payoff” has a greater impact if you’re familiar with Socrates’ philosophical M.O, but hopefully, you’ll enjoy the ride regardless.
Okay, so here’s the story:
Socrates, an Athenian, is a soldier, fighting in a war against Athens’ archenemy, Sparta. In this particular battle, Sparta is badly kicking Athens’ butt. The signal is given:
“Athenians – retreat!”
The Athenian army begins to fall back, Socrates along with the rest. Suddenly, Socrates steps on a giant thorn. He’s in agony. He falls to the ground on the spot, as the Athenian army continues to retreat.
The Spartans are advancing. Socrates is just sitting there. He can’t get up, ‘cause there’s a giant thorn stuck in his foot. It would kill him to walk on it.
The Spartan army reaches his position. Facing certain death, the seated Socrates starts hacking at the enemy with his sword, flailing away for all he’s worth.
The Athenians, now safely in retreat, look back onto the battlefield…and there’s Socrates. Fighting like a lunatic from a seated position. And he’s doing pretty well. Facing imminent annihilation, Socrates has become a wild man fighting machine, taking out Spartans left and right.
The Athenian army goes, “Look at that!”
And then goes…
“We can’t let Socrates sit there and take on the entire Spartan army by himself. Let’s go!”
The Athenians charge back onto the field, and with Socrates as their inspiration, they turn the tide of the battle, rout the Spartan army, and send them back where they came from, which, I imagine, was Sparta. Unexpectedly victorious, the Athenians lift Socrates off the ground and carry him away on their shoulders.
The Next Day.
Speeches and celebration. Athens has vanquished its enemy, it’s time to recognize its heroes. The biggest hero of them all?
The Boss Man Athenian speechifies:
“Socrates – hail, and way to go. For meritorious service to our beloved city-state of Athens, we wish to bestow upon you an honor. Please come onstage and receive your well-deserved medal for courage.”
Socrates is sitting in the first row, the giant thorn still embedded in his foot. Since the battle ended, he’s done no walking. People keep carrying him around on their shoulders.
He now faces a dilemma. To expose his condition would reveal his battlefield heroics to have been less a matter of bravery than of necessity, which is not as good. Some might feel he’d accepted the praise and recognition heaped upon him under false pretenses, and they might not be happy about it.
He couldn’t move and he couldn’t let on why. With this in mind, Socrates, remaining seated, addressed the assemblage.
“Fellow Athenians. I am honored to have been awarded this medal for courage, and am happy to come onstage to receive it. But before I do, allow me to ask you one question:
“What is courage?”
Thus began the technique known as the “Socratic Method”, devised less as a method of philosophic inquiry than to avoid walking on a foot that had a giant thorn stuck in it.