Lila opened the door of the study. The room was dark; it was midday but the shutters hadn’t yet been opened. She went to the window to let light and air in to the musty room. The study appeared to be empty, but Lila checked under the desk and in the large cupboard, just to be sure. Socrates must be lurking somewhere else. On the table was some orange peel, a bit of cheese rind and a glass with some stale dregs of liquid. Lila threw away the food and picked up the glass. On second thoughts, let him do his own washing up.
Where was he? Lila had already looked in his bedroom and, given the freak rainstorm, she was unlikely to find him in the citrus grove. Socrates was meant to be chairing a meeting of the Management Committee, but he was rarely where he was supposed to be. Especially when being in the right place meant taking part in a discussion of ‘Points For Action’. Lila had been sent to search for Socrates out of courtesy, even though the other Committee members preferred it when he couldn’t be found. His persistent interrogation irritated them. Last week he’d caused a forty-five-minute delay in the debate on whether it would be a good idea to grant Epicurus a licence for a new restaurant, by demonstrating that none of the Committee had a firm grasp of the meaning of ‘good’. And how could they possibly decide whether it was a good idea or not, if they couldn’t properly define a “good idea”?
Despite his bureaucratic ineptitude, Socrates was President of the World of Ideas, having held the post for a record 2,109 years. He’d arrived a few hundred years earlier and it had taken him a while to work his way up to the top, albeit the competition was less fierce in those days. Once in charge, Socrates had clung on firmly. He’d been allocated the post until such time as he chose to resign it – primarily to avoid the hassle of elections. Socrates’ age hadn’t stopped him campaigning enthusiastically, which tired everyone else out far sooner than him. Thomas Hobbes had been his ruthless campaign manager: all political messages, he said, should be distinct, nasty, brutish and short. Friendships were regularly ruined at election time by vicious disagreements over the ideal model of democracy, the social contract and such like.
Lila Frost was much younger than Socrates. She’d been in her early twenties when she’d arrived in the World of Ideas. Her philosophy PhD remained incomplete; or so her inconsolable parents had assumed. Lila was Socrates’ secretary. Being special assistant to the President was a good way for ambitious recent arrivals to get somewhere. She was very good at her job, although not as good as she would have been if she had believed that anyone noticed. She was attractive – slim with glossy dark hair, big brown eyes and a nose which was only just too small. More importantly for her present position, she had a razor sharp philosophical mind. She chewed the skin around a perfectly manicured nail and wondered whether it would be appropriate to tell off Socrates for not being at the meeting.
The World of Ideas was full of philosophers, of sorts, who didn’t see why being dead should get in the way of a good debate. It is fairly obvious that no-one with an interest in philosophy would miss out on discovering the truth behind the great mystery of what happens after death. At last! Frustratingly, the World of Ideas, although a pleasant surprise for those who were convinced there was nothing more (and for those who were secretly terrified of hell), didn’t provide the whole answer. It turned out there was also death (or possibly life) after the World of Ideas. Certainly it wasn’t the end; and equally certainly no one had ever reported back from the beyond. Sometimes thinkers were simply not heard of anymore and people assumed they’d ‘gone to the other side’. Occasionally, people got fed up with the World of Ideas and committed an implausible post-mortem suicide in order to be rid of the place. Life here was always comfortable – the weather and food were usually excellent, the company exclusive – but some people grew to feel that, whatever it was, it wasn’t exactly living and they’d rather try some proper dying.
Lila suddenly guessed where Socrates might be, and she set off up the grand wooden stairs. As she approached the library, she heard Socrates’ voice coming from inside. Bingo.
‘Ben, isn’t it? Take a seat.’ Tony Swan pushed aside a stack of What Car? magazines to create a small gap. Ben sank down on to the uneven foam sofa; Tony placed himself opposite on an old office chair with one arm missing.
‘Let’s begin,’ said Tony, holding a pad which had printed across the top: Barclays Business Banking: taking your business to new heights. ‘Name?’ he demanded.
‘You already know.’
‘Just answer, please. I’m filling in the form.’
‘I’ve bought fish and chips here.’ Ben had spent years walking past his local take away – buying chips with his pocket money – so it seemed the obvious place for his first proper summer job.
‘Anything else?’ Tony asked.
‘I had a weekend paper round last year.’
‘Good. Steal any papers? My little joke. Can you drive?’
‘Yes,’ Ben said, proudly.
‘Excellent. The guy before used to pick me up from the pub after a few pints.’
‘Actually, I’m too young to drive properly.’
‘Bloody mini cabs.’ Tony put his instant coffee down on a mug-stained SupaSun holiday brochure from the previous year. ‘How old are you anyway?’
‘Fifteen and a half.’
‘Let’s say 16. Remember that if the man in the shiny suit from the council comes round. When’s your birthday?’
‘21st January 1991.’
‘1990. Correct.’ Tony wrote it down. ‘Now, shall we discuss your duties?’
‘So, shop floor,’ said Tony. ‘First and foremost: service. Keep smiling. A happy server means a happy customer. That’s almost a mission statement here at Cod Almighty.’
‘Mushy peas on earth and friendchips between men,’ said Ben.
‘Never forget,’ Tony continued, ‘an unhappy customer is like a straight boomerang. It never comes back! Get the order right; give the correct change; keep wiping the counter top; and above all smile.’ Tony demonstrated his instant grin. ‘Let’s keep those boomerangs curvy and the chips will fly out of the shop.’
‘As long as the chips are straight,’ said Ben. ‘Wouldn’t want them to boomerang back.’
‘As for behind the scenes – or “back office” – ‘you need to unload the deliveries and help me with the stock take. Our policy is FIFO on fish.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means, my son, First In, First Out. When you go to the cool room to get more fish for the fryer, you take the bits that have been there longest and save the new stuff for later. Leave the management initiatives to me and you’ll fit well with the team.’
Ben looked around the tiny office. ‘Who’s the team?’
‘How many others are you interviewing?’
Tony consulted his pad.
None. I am, however, impressed with your go-getting attitude. An entrepreneur like you understands that only losers who need state protection believe in the minimum wage.’ Tony stood up and re-tucked his red polo shirt into his trousers. ‘You start tomorrow lunchtime.’
‘I’ve still got another week of school.’
‘The self-made man appreciates the value of on-the-job learning. Can you start at the weekend, then?’
Lila had no trouble spotting Socrates as soon as she entered the library. He was holding court as usual. ‘Picture the scene,’ he was saying – not for the first time – ‘I am alone in the witness box. I stand in front of the whole courtroom and the five hundred jurymen.’ He paused for effect.
He stood with his back to a roaring fire, his audience small but rapt.
‘And I told the jury, humble as ever’ – Socrates bowed gently – ‘”If the Oracle at Delphi says I am the wisest, it cannot be a lie! It must be because I have the wit to know what I do not know.’”
This triggered a murmur of approval. All wisdom starts with an acceptance of ignorance. There was hope for everyone!
‘After the verdict I told them,’ Socrates said, thrusting his stubby chin upwards, ‘”I may leave this court condemned to death. But you, my accusers, will go forth convicted by Truth herself of the greatest wickedness and injustice.”’
Socrates acknowledged it with a little wave. ‘I saw myself as a stinging fly; the city of Athens as a self-satisfied thoroughbred horse. It was my duty to provoke them out of complacency; make them think properly. All day long I never settled, buzzing everywhere; rousing, reproaching, reproving.’
‘One might hope,’ a man interrupted, suitably provoked out of complacency, ‘that you would be bored of telling this story after two and a half thousand years.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein was lying across a padded armchair with his head on a cushion and legs over the side, making notes in the margin of his book with a short pencil. He found the philosophising fly business unbearably annoying; all the more so since one of Socrates’ fans had taken his favourite chair by the fire.
‘I was put to death for teaching philosophy,’ replied Socrates. ‘It’s hardly trivial to be executed. They swatted me away without compassion. Our colleagues need to realise how lucky they are to be in this place where philosophy is encouraged.’
The group nodded vigorously.
‘I’d go as far as to say adored.’
Wittgenstein choked and struggled to sit up. ‘I’ve suffered for philosophy. It almost drove me mad.’
‘Almost,’ said Socrates, suppressing a smile.
Ludwig Wittgenstein suffered still. Those admirers gathered round Socrates. Wittgenstein remembered his own followers. He’d persuaded them that studying philosophy would ruin their lives. His natural magnetism had ensured that they’d obeyed every word. On his suggestion his greatest student had gone to work in a canning factory. Wittgenstein didn’t regret it exactly, but he did miss them.
‘Don’t be so hard on yourself, Ludwig.’ Socrates crossed the room, trailing acolytes.
‘Don’t be so soft on yourself,’ Ludwig Wittgenstein said. ‘Your philosophy is old fashioned and pointless. Accosting people on the street to ask what is “justice” or “goodness”; pretending to be ignorant yourself so that you can expose their foolish views through your inane questions … what a waste of time.’
‘Do you refer to the process of critical thinking universally known as the Socratic method?’.
‘Fact is, eating three cream crackers in a minute is easier than reading your philosophy.’
‘Grown ups prefer food with texture to sloppy semolina. Admit it, you don’t understand a single word I’ve written.’
Socrates wouldn’t admit anything of the sort, especially if it might be true. ‘Whose fault is that?’
‘I have produced a work of genius,’ Wittgenstein said. ‘Am I also required to produce sufficient intelligence for you to understand it?’
‘Revealing my ideas to you is like casting pearls before swine.’
‘Well, really! Anyway’ – Socrates was aware of the danger of losing the crowd – ‘my philosophy is not old-fashioned. Nor new-fashioned. These are questions for the past and the future; central to people’s lives. Not only can they still be considered, they cannot not be considered.’
‘Everyone thinks about them,’ said a voice.
‘Do they?’ Wittgenstein asked. ‘Certainly not properly. But do you really think people need this kind of philosophy in their lives? Do you think normal people worry about the metaphysical problem of free will? No, they worry about how to pay off their debt. How to live the good life? No, they care about their sex life. The true nature of reality? No, they just want a promotion. How does the mind work? Absolutely not! At most, they ponder what car to buy. It’s all they’re good for.’
‘Then the world needs another Socrates to shake them up,’ said a pert young fan gushingly.
Socrates gave her one of his special smiles. The effect was ambiguous: he was, it must be admitted, spectacularly ugly.
Wittgenstein scowled. ‘That’s the last thing the world needs. An analysis of the logic of language, for example, that’s philosophy. A woolly discussion about the meaning of life, by contrast, is simply not a valid subject for discussion. That’s why philosophy – proper philosophy – is a pursuit for specialists. Only maybe three people have ever been any good at it,’ he said.
Socrates raised his eyebrows. Wittgenstein wasn’t usually that generous about the other two.
‘True philosophy isn’t supposed to be popular,’ Wittgenstein said.
Philosophy could never be popular enough for Socrates. ‘I bet I could take any “normal person”, as you say, and get them to think about these questions. Not only that, but they’d love it.’
‘You bet? You’re on. Take any one of them and make him love philosophy.’
‘Easy peasy,’ said Socrates, feeling quite the philosophical hero. Hadn’t he inspired generations of students? I can make anyone love philosophy, he thought, except for you.
‘If you can do it,’ said Wittgenstein, ‘I’ll…’ he paused, wondering how far to go.
‘Yes! A bet, a bet.’ Maggie, a woman of a certain age jumped up from her chair, shivering with excitement. ‘I do love a gamble. If Socrates wins, then you have to admit he’s right. That philosophy does play a part in ordinary people’s lives.’
Wittgenstein nodded gravely. It might seem like low stakes but, as everyone knew, admitting he was wrong was as bad as it got for him. ‘Wait, though,’ he said, deconstructing the matter. ‘There are two parts to this bet. I say that proper philosophy is too difficult for your how-you-say Joseph Blogg.’
‘Which I deny,’ said Socrates. ‘Anyone can be taught to think.’
‘That part is trivial, since you won’t be showing him the difficult bits anyway. I do not include your fluffy ideas in “proper philosophy”. My central claim is that your non-analytic, taxi driver philosophy is no good to anyone. “Make him love philosophy,” you said.’
‘Yes,’ said Socrates, wondering where this was going.
‘So, teach him your philosophy and see if it makes his life better.’
‘No problem.’ If the unexamined life was not worth living, which was obviously true, then a life with philosophy was unambiguously better than one without it. But how to make someone realise this?
‘If I lose the bet,’ said Wittgenstein, ‘then I’ll admit I’m wrong.’ His voice caught on the words. ‘That your philosophy indeed is valuable as my work.’
‘And if you lose? Socrates has not yet indicated his price of defeat.’
The whole group turned to look at Socrates. He took a deep breath. ‘If I lose then I shall step down gracefully. I’ll resign my post as President and you, Ludwig Wittgenstein, can run this place from now on.’
People gasped. None of them had ever known another President in the World of Ideas. Passing on the reins was shocking enough, but – to Wittgenstein! It didn’t bear thinking about.
‘It’s a deal,’ agreed Wittgenstein, prematurely savouring the taste of power. He stuck a marshmallow on a long handled fork and toasted it over the fire.
The group was excited. At last there was some political action – the first in hundreds of years. Maggie was already organising side bets. No one knew exactly when she’d arrived in the World of Ideas, nor whether she was actually interested in philosophy; but she was fun to have around so no one ever bothered to ask. There was a rumour that she used to write romantic novels.
Lila watched the progress of the betting. Socrates was the odds-on favourite. Lila guessed that this was more out of hope than conviction. Philosophy making your life better – who ever heard of such a thing? Wittgenstein had certainly set up the bet cleverly. Perhaps he was as gifted as he claimed after all.
‘Lila! Come here a minute.’
She broke away from the group. ‘Yes, Mr S?’
‘We – that is, you – need to find a suitable person from Over There. I assume, Ludwig, that you will grant me the privilege of selecting the best possible candidate.’
‘I have equally little faith in any of them. You are free to choose your victim. But play by the rules – you have to get one who doesn’t know anything about philosophy.’
‘Quite so,’ agreed Socrates. ‘One thing we don’t need is another “expert”. A blank slate, you might say.’
‘Actually,’ said a mole-like man with bushy hair, ‘there’s no such thing as a blank slate. Not really. Everyone is born with innate -’
‘Indeed,’ said Socrates. ‘It should be someone young. Catch them in the curious stage, before life batters all original thought out of them.’
‘Not too young,’ Wittgenstein said. ‘We’re not running a crèche.’
‘No indeed. OK, Lila, hope that’s clear. Someone about fifteen is probably best. Strong enough to cope with the experience, but open to the unexpected. You know the type.
‘Someone whose life will be made better by philosophy,’ said Lila.
‘Quite,’ said Socrates.