You are here: > Korolenko, V.G. > The Shades, A Phantasy

The Shades, A Phantasy

by Vladimir G. Korolenko

Overview I II III IV V


A month and two days had elapsed since the judges, amid the loud
acclaim of the Athenian people, had pronounced the death sentence
against the philosopher Socrates because he had sought to destroy
faith in the gods. What the gadfly is to the horse Socrates was to
Athens. The gadfly stings the horse in order to prevent it from dozing
off and to keep it moving briskly on its course. The philosopher said
to the people of Athens:

"I am your gadfly. My sting pricks your conscience and arouses you
when you are caught napping. Sleep not, sleep not, people of Athens;
awake and seek the truth!"

The people arose in their exasperation and cruelly demanded to be rid
of their gadfly.

"Perchance both of his accusers, Meletus and Anytus, are wrong," said
the citizens, on leaving the court after sentence had been pronounced.

"But after all whither do his doctrines tend? What would he do? He has
wrought confusion, he overthrows, beliefs that have existed since the
beginning, he speaks of new virtues which must be recognised and
sought for, he speaks of a Divinity hitherto unknown to us. The
blasphemer, he deems himself wiser than the gods! No, 'twere better we
remain true to the old gods whom we know. They may not always be just,
sometimes they may flare up in unjust wrath, and they may also be
seized with a wanton lust for the wives of mortals; but did not our
ancestors live with them in the peace of their souls, did not our
forefathers accomplish their heroic deeds with the help of these very
gods? And now the faces of the Olympians have paled and the old virtue
is out of joint. What does it all lead to? Should not an end be put to
this impious wisdom once for all?"

Thus the citizens of Athens spoke to one another as they left the
place, and the blue twilight was falling. They had determined to kill
the restless gadfly in the hope that the countenances of the gods
would shine again. And yet—before their souls arose the mild figure
of the singular philosopher. There were some citizens who recalled how
courageously he had shared their troubles and dangers at Potidæa; how
he alone had prevented them from committing the sin of unjustly
executing the generals after the victory over the Arginusæe; how he
alone had dared to raise his voice against the tyrants who had had
fifteen hundred people put to death, speaking to the people on the
market-place concerning shepherds and their sheep.

"Is not he a good shepherd," he asked, "who guards his flock and
watches over its increase? Or is it the work of the good shepherd to
reduce the number of his sheep and disperse them, and of the good
ruler to do the same with his people? Men of Athens, let us
investigate this question!"

And at this question of the solitary, undefended philosopher, the
faces of the tyrants paled, while the eyes of the youths kindled with
the fire of just wrath and indignation.

Thus, when on dispersing after the sentence the Athenians recalled all
these things of Socrates, their hearts were oppressed with heavy

"Have we not done a cruel wrong to the son of Sophroniscus?"

But then the good Athenians looked upon the harbour and the sea, and
in the red glow of the dying day they saw the purple sails of the
sharp-keeled ship, sent to the Delian festival, shimmering in the
distance on the blue Pontus. The ship would not return until the
expiration of a month, and the Athenians recollected that during this
time no blood might be shed in Athens, whether the blood of the
innocent or the guilty. A month, moreover, has many days and still
more hours. Supposing the son of Sophroniscus had been unjustly
condemned, who would hinder his escaping from the prison, especially
since he had numerous friends to help him? Was it so difficult for the
rich Plato, for Æschines and others to bribe the guards? Then the
restless gadfly would flee from Athens to the barbarians in Thessaly,
or to the Peloponnesus, or, still farther, to Egypt; Athens would no
longer hear his blasphemous speeches; his death would not weigh upon
the conscience of the worthy citizens, and so everything would end for
the best of all.

Thus said many to themselves that evening, while aloud they praised
the wisdom of the demos and the heliasts. In secret, however, they
cherished the hope that the restless philosopher would leave Athens,
fly from the hemlock to the barbarians, and so free the Athenians of
his troublesome presence and of the pangs of consciences that smote
them for inflicting death upon an innocent man.

Two and thirty times since that evening had the sun risen from the
ocean and dipped down into it again. The ship had returned from Delos
and lay in the harbour with sadly drooping sails, as if ashamed of its
native city. The moon did not shine in the heavens, the sea heaved
under a heavy fog, and, on the, hills lights peered through the
obscurity like the eyes of men gripped by a sense of guilt.

The stubborn Socrates did, not spare the conscience of the good

"We part! You go home and I go to death," he said, to the judges after
the sentence had been pronounced. "I know not, my friends, which of us
chooses the better lot!"

As the time had approached for the return of the ship, many of the
citizens had begun to feel uneasy. Must that obstinate fellow really
die? And they began to appeal to the consciences of Æschines, Phædo,
and other pupils of Socrates, trying to urge them on to further
efforts for their master.

"Will you permit your teacher to die?" they asked reproachfully in
biting tones. "Or do you grudge the few coins it would take to bribe
the guard?"

In vain Crito besought Socrates to take to flight, and complained that
the public, was upbraiding his disciples with lack of friendship and
with avarice. The self-willed philosopher refused to gratify his
pupils or the good people of Athens.

"Let us investigate." he said. "If it turns out that I must flee, I
will flee; but if I must die, I will die. Let us remember what we once
said—the wise man need not fear death, he need fear nothing but
falsehood. Is it right to abide by the laws we ourselves have made so
long as they are agreeable to us, and refuse to obey those which are
disagreeable? If my memory does not deceive me I believe we once spoke
of these things, did we not?"

"Yes, we did," answered his pupil.

"And I think all were agreed as to the answer?"


"But perhaps what is true for others is not true for us?"

"No, truth is alike for all, including ourselves."

"But perhaps when we must die and not some one else, truth becomes

"No, Socrates, truth remains the truth under all circumstances."

After his pupil had thus agreed to each premise of Socrates in turn,
he smiled and drew his conclusion.

"If that is so, my friend, mustn't I die? Or has my head already
become so weak that I am no longer in a condition to draw a logical
conclusion? Then correct me, my friend and show my erring brain the
right way."

His pupil covered, his face with his mantle and turned aside.

"Yes," he said, "now I see you must die."

And on that evening when the sea tossed hither, and thither and roared
dully under the load of fog, and the whimsical wind in mournful
astonishment gently stirred the sails of the ships; when the citizens
meeting on the streets asked, one another: "Is, he dead?" and their
voices timidly betrayed the hope that he was not dead; when the first
breath of awakened conscience, touched the hearts of the Athenians
like the first messenger of the storm; and when, it seemed the very
faces of the gods were darkened with shame—on that evening at the
sinking of the sun the self-willed man drank the cup of death!

The wind increased in violence and shrouded the city more closely in
the veil of mist, angrily tugging at the sails of the vessels delayed
in the harbour. And the Erinyes sang their gloomy songs to the hearts
of the citizens and whipped up in their breasts that tempest which was
later, to overwhelm the denouncers of Socrates.

But in that hour the first stirrings of regret were still uncertain
and confused. The citizens found more fault with Socrates than ever
because he had not given them the satisfaction of fleeing to Thessaly;
they were annoyed with his pupils because in the last days they had
walked about in sombre mourning attire, a living reproach to the
Athenians; they were vexed with the judges because they had not had
the sense and the courage to resist the blind rage of the excited
people; they bore even the gods resentment.

"To you, ye gods, have we brought this sacrifice," spoke many.
"Rejoice, ye unsatiable!"

"I know not which of us chooses the better lot!"

Those words of Socrates came back to their memory, those his last
words to the judges and to the people gathered in the court. Now he
lay in the prison quiet and motionless under his cloak, while over the
city hovered mourning, horror, and shame.

Again he became the tormentor of the city, he who was himself no
longer accessible to torment. The gadfly had been killed, but it stung
the people more sharply than ever—sleep not, sleep not this night, O
men of Athens! Sleep not! You have committed an injustice, a cruel
injustice, which can never be erased!