Before the Deluge

Glaucon: So there you are, Socrates. I’ve been looking for you the whole day. I have to tell you I didn’t believe it when friends told me you’d come here to Delphi, and today of all days, to consult the oracle, just when the citizens are preparing to vote back in the city. And what a contest this year!

Socrates: Well, my young friend, just because one goes to Delphi does not mean one is consulting the prophetess. I haven’t decided about that just yet. I thought I should wait for a sign from the god. Perhaps you yourself are that sign.

Glaucon: But shouldn’t you be doing your civic duty on a day like today?

Socrates: If you mean voting, I’ve already seen to that. But what makes you think that, being in this holy place, I’m not carrying out my duty?

Glaucon: Because you are here, idling amidst these mountains and sacred shrines while the whole city is in turmoil.

Socrates: And you think the only way I would be doing my duty to the city would be if I joined in that turmoil?

Glaucon: You’re confusing me, the way you often do, Socrates. Everyone is saying this is the most important election in our lifetimes – and that we all have to be involved. You have to admit there is a lot at stake, in some respects even life and death.

Socrates: Yes, I have thought – and prayed – about that a lot, oh youthful Glaucon, how the city is now destroying itself by destroying its future members in the womb, and planning novel ways to eliminate the weak and the old. There’s never been a city that so disdains the past and the future.

Glaucon: Then why are you here and not in town doing what you do best, persuading other citizens?

Socrates: I’ve been doing that my whole life. But those questions have now turned into factional battles. And the souls of the citizens are set on one candidate or another, for the moment. So far as an old man such as I am can tell, dear Glaucon, politicians will tell the people anything to be elected. Some will even do anything to get or stay in power. There is much to ponder in what is being said – and what will be done.

Glaucon: But there’s a huge choice to be made.

Socrates: Of course, but the choice we most need to make is the one that’s always to be made: to honor the honorable gods, not the dishonorable ones; to cherish the life the gods have given us, by seeking the truth and the truly good, not what the many say is true and good. The choice is large, but perhaps for that very reason won’t be made.

Before the Deluge by Roelandt Savery, c. 1630 [Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, U.K.]
Before the Deluge by Roelandt Savery, c. 1630 [Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, U.K.]

Glaucon: I don’t follow.

Socrates: Let me ask you some questions. Only the prophetess, perhaps, really knows, but do not even the common soothsayers in the city say that the people are almost evenly split between the candidates?

Glaucon: Yes, and it’s got everyone very agitated.

Socrates: And is it not true that, whoever wins, at least half of our fellow citizens will remain deeply mistaken about what’s true and good?

Glaucon: I suppose so, Socrates.

Socrates: And so even though the ballots will finally be counted, there will continue to be widespread illusions, and strife – I fear, violent and deep clashes – between the main factions?

Glaucon: True enough.

Socrates: Wise founders and statesmen have always thought that factions are the undoing of popular regimes like ours. It’s happened often in history. They labored to keep factions from becoming large and starkly opposed, such as we now have to our great sorrow, precisely because they threaten the very foundations of our common life. Indeed, they cause the people to despise and mistrust one another and our public institutions, which become either tyrannical or incompetent when the people are so sharply divided.

Glaucon: What, then, are we to do, Socrates?

Socrates: First, O impetuous Glaucon, we must clearly understand our condition, which will not be solved by the vote because the disease is not, in the first place, political. To think that it is, is like the bad physician who prescribes a treatment for the stone when the real malady is gout. We are in a life-threatening state and cannot afford illusions about our health.

Glaucon: But what can we DO?

Socrates: We can do what good men must always do. Implore the god. Act well. Try to do good to our fellows, even when they do not do good to us. Make sacrifice for the city. Above all, the city that is divided will not become undivided unless the people undertake a serious time of conversing, face-to-face, among themselves, about the kind of city they wish to be. If the choice is a city that lives for the moment, that looks not to the past and the wisdom of the elders, or that cares not for those who must be allowed to be born for the city to survive – and for people to realize their own place in the generations – then the votes may hasten or slow the end. But the end will, in either case, be near.

Glaucon: Shouldn’t we consult the god then, if he will consent to speak to us? In the past, he’s often spoken of the fate of peoples and nations.

Socrates: It is usually easy to consult the god. You have only to ask and he will decide what to answer – or whether to answer at all. You only need to be patient and attentive. But in situations like ours, even to know the right question is difficult. Come my young friend. Before we approach the temple and the holy places, let us walk together quietly along the trees on the mountainside here. And let us humbly contemplate the beauty and majesty of the place, and see what questions the god himself may inspire us to ask.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.