Inside the Akademy there stood, for a while, a very strange head. Burnished bronze and shining, it was dedicated to a recently executed man. The nose was snubbed and thick, the beard disheveled, light “V”s etched in the brow in a sort of quizzical scowl. His massive forehead and deep-set eyes gave the impression of some kind of stretched-out skull—endless cranial space with which to hold the invention of philosophy, fat cheeks and all.
Back in the Akademy, at least, the ugly head happened to be connected to an ugly body, too. Ugly not because it was disfigured but precisely the opposite: ugly because it was natural, ugly because it was a likeness of reality. Who would want to stare at it for too long, lest it should occur that this so-called genius was in fact singularly plagued with hideousness?
“Still, he’d had a good life, hadn’t he?”—except for being forced to drink hemlock for “corrupting the youth,” as if he were some kind of sexed-up rock ‘n’ roll god, and of course that he annoyed everyone with his questions. Wrote no books of his own. Penniless, homeless; an unpopular figure in dirty, unrespectable clothes, with a face that’s perfectly hateable.
Then his killers softened a little, and their grandchildren turned him into something easier to look at. They were not in the least concerned about whether more than a hundred people in the world understood his philosophy—to hell with the books, what are we going to do about his goddamn face!—and they turned him upward, looking away from the viewer, as if happy, with a thick, noodly beard and now fully bald (it was better than a receding hair line). Even the nose began to shrink into a reasonable proportion. After a century in purgatory, now Sokrates was improving his appearance. And yet they plopped his paunchy, lumpy body in the youth of Athens’s athletic fields, a last ironic jab from the people who like to spit on anyone below them.
But then the Romans didn’t want paunchy, lumpy bodies in their villas (aside from their own), so they decapitated Sokrates, already green and moldy from the hemlock, and shoved his face alone in their alcoves, dressing him up in pure white marble. Now they felt themselves surrounded with the glories of Greek intellectual achievement; if not twenty of them had actually read and understood the Socratic dialogues, well, the rest knew that he was at least influential. “And anyways, Livia, he’s in the darker alcove, hardly gets any sun anyway, you won’t have to see his features too clearly.”
At some point in time, a professor and his pal in the art department purchased a large bust of Socrates (as they were spelling it now) for their school. He looks even better now. His cheeks are closer together, and his beard seems better combed; his lips have shrunk a little and his receding hairline, though appearing once again, is less drastic. Still, he remains ugly. He has to. It’s his signature; it’s what he’s known for, more or less. And they put the bust in the ground floor of the philosophy building, where only about four of the professors were classical specialists and had read Plato anyway. A number of the grad students thought it was supposed to be the department chair’s face. He, irritated by all the rumors, claimed that as a philosopher of aesthetics he’d like to suggest they please put something else there, like a naked woman, or flowers, or even fucking Guernica for Christ’s sake, so they carted Socrates off to the art building. But exhibits change with the seasons and now we’re doing southeast Japanese ceramics and he simply doesn’t fit, so they found a nice patch of grass in the backwaters of the town, right next to a long freshman dorm building. And every day drunk boys with shirts untucked and wide, senseless smirks meet their teammates under the bust, without ever having really looked it, and who knows what sorts of really excellent jokes they might make if they did. Bitchy, unsmiling girls in dark sundresses and heaps of makeup saunter around the statue, going out of their way to avoid it; for their lives are built around—let’s not call it beauty—but a certain purely physical existence, and it is beyond them why anyone would make a statue of a man like that. Only the gardener who cuts the grass around the base of the bust goes near it, and he looks up and wonders who he was and when he died, but assumes he must have been a very wealthy benefactor if he could convince the school put his face on the lawn.
And then there was a minor protest a little while later over something vague and ill-defined, and Socrates was carted off again to make room for more “modern” concerns, whatever that meant, and so a good number of Dead White Men were dumped in a room together in the basement of the art building. Socrates, with his “easy” privileged life of asceticism, military service, public execution, friendlessness, and quest for truth, which turned every interlocutor against him, was out.
“But he wasn’t even white, was he? Really, I mean? The Greeks, I don’t know—”
“Of course he was. He’s in marble, isn’t he? Now, why else would they do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, well, I’m an expert in these things,” she said. One of the protesters, her twitter bio said “Love Yourself” followed by a smiley face, and wrote long, sappy comments for anyone who posted anything obviously fishing for compliments, and her face was contorted into something like a parody of concern even when she wrote, impassively, behind a computer screen.
“People need to know,” she often said to her circle of friends, “that their natural appearance is ok, no, perfect, that they look gorgeous and perfect, no matter what they look like. Everyone is beautiful. Everyone is beautiful.”
Not one of them had read the Republic, no, not even skimmed it.