By D. R. Khashaba

Socrates’ Prison Journal (2006) was my first venture into fiction. My two earlier books, Let Us Philosophize (1998, out of print but freely downloadable in full from my website: ) and Plato: An Interpretation (2005) as well as all of my published articles, were all theoretical. In Socrates’ Prison Journal I made use of the fact that Socrates spent a month in prison before being executed in 399 B.C. Around that fact I weaved the fiction of his keeping a journal throughout that month. In one of the daily entries I made him give an account of a conversation with Aspasia, the beautiful and intelligent wife of Pericles. I reproduce that entry here and hope you will find it of interest.


One midsummer morning I woke up to a harsh voice calling, "Socrates!" I recognized the voice of one of Pericles' boys attending on the beautiful Aspasia. "Well, friend." I said, "what brings you at this unlikely hour?" "My lady Aspasia wants to see you," he said. "But it is yet too early." "My lady said I must catch you before you went out on your customary wanderings."

As soon as the sun was up I went to see Aspasia at her residence. I was taken to her room. Upon entering I greeted her with, "Joy, divine Aspasia!" "Why do you call me divine, Socrates?" "You are beautiful, you are good, you are wise; therefore you are a goddess." She laughed and said, "You are a big liar, Socrates. But I will return your compliment and say you are truly prophetic, for the divine is just what I want to talk to you about." Saying this, she held out a book she had in her hands. "What book is that?", I asked. "A book of the wise man of Abdera," she replied, and immediately began reading out the following words: "In respect to the gods, I am unable to know either that they are or that they are not, for there are many obstacles to such knowledge, above all the obscurity of the matter, and the life of man, in that it is so short." She paused for a while, then said, "Well, Socrates, what do you think of what Protagoras says here?"

"The words of a wise man", I said, "must never be passed over lightly. It seems to me that the wise Protagoras has truly spoken wisely. But then other wise persons, poets and poetesses, priests and priestesses, have told us many wonderful things about the gods."

Aspasia was deep in thought. Then softly she spoke inspired words. "Of what the poets and the priests tell us about the gods, some things are wonderful and beautiful, but many of the things they tell are opposed to the beauty and the goodness a pure soul aspires to."

"Have I not said that you are wise and truly divine, Aspasia? The good poets, the genuine poets, speak to us in parables. They tell us that there is something divine and holy and beautiful and good. Of this we may be sure. For myself, nothing can make me doubt that goodness and intelligence and beauty are real and are all reality. This is all we know and all we can say with assurance."

Aspasia said, "You have given voice to what was in my mind, Socrates. But if I ask myself: where is the divine to be found?, then, as I feel sure that the divine is real, I also feel sure that the divine is within the human soul. But where else?"

"It is in this regard that Protagoras speaks most wisely when he says: 'In respect to the gods, I am unable to know either that they are or that they are not.' You know, dear Aspasia, that I have for long given up looking for knowledge outside the mind. It is only in the things proper to the mind and in the operations of the mind that the idea of knowledge and the idea of certainty have meaning."

Aspasia, trying not to laugh, said, "You mischievous Socrates! As is your habit, you have not given me a clear answer to my question. Like a miser you keep your wisdom to yourself and refuse to teach me."

"My dear Aspasia, it is you who have been teaching me on this occasion as on every other occasion. To fend off the charge of being a miser, however, I will give you a bit of advice. If you ask me what you are to make of the stories told of the gods by poets and priests, I will say, enjoy them as fables and judge them good or bad on their merit as fables. You will then have done honour to the poets and to your intelligence. If anyone asks you whether those stories are true or not true, answer him with the wise words of Protagoras, or better still, answer him with the wise words of Aspasia when she said that some of those tales are beautiful but many are opposed to the beauty and the goodness a pure soul aspires to."

Then I was delightfully amazed when Aspasia, after seeming for a while lost in thought, spoke in a wonderful manner as if inspired, as if to confirm my naming her goddess. Indeed the words she spoke were not of this world. These were her words:

"Truly, in vain do the wise seek to prove the existence of God or the non-existence of God.

"Those who try to find in the investigation of nature evidence of an intelligence governing the world are wrong in demanding too much and expecting too little of science. Science cannot explain anything but science can and eventually will give account of much that at present we find baffling.

"It would be nothing remarkable if the investigation of nature could give a satisfactory account of the ultimate origins of life, a description of the step-by-step process by which the supposedly lifeless original stuff of nature develops into a living organism. That possibility may not even be far off in time. Would they then have 'explained' life? I think much muddled thinking is due to our failure to distinguish between giving an account or description and giving an explanation. The reality of life will remain a mystery even after we have given a full description of how it has come about, just as the delight in the fragrance of a rose will remain a mystery even after we have given a full account of all that goes on in the body, which sometime will be named chemical and neural processes.

"If we are concerned to affirm the reality and the value of things spiritual, we go about it in the wrong way both when we try to enlist science and when we try to confute science. Science has its domain which knows nothing of value. Value is in the dream world we create for ourselves."

As I write these words, a sneaking doubt invades my mind. Were these actually the words I heard from Aspasia or has some god inspired them in me as I was writing? Perhaps to sweep away the atrocious things told in Holy Books?

I now have to go to sleep.

          [From Socrates’ Prison Journal, pp.113-118.]

D. R. Khashaba

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