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The Shades, A Phantasy

by Vladimir G. Korolenko

Overview I II III IV V


On a rocky slope sat a man in deep despair. He had thrown a cloak over
his head and was bowed to the ground. Another figure approached him
softly, cautiously climbing upward and carefully feeling every step.
The first man uncovered his face and exclaimed:

"Is that you I just now saw, my good Socrates? Is that you passing by
me in this cheerless place? I have already spent many hours here
without knowing when day will relieve the night. I have been waiting
in vain for the dawn."

"Yes, I am Socrates, my friend, and you, are you not Elpidias who died
three days before me?"

"Yes, I am Elpidias, formerly the richest tanner in Athens, now the
most miserable of slaves. For the first time I understand the words of
the poet: 'Better to be a slave in this world than a ruler in gloomy

"My friend, if it is disagreeable for you where you are, why don't you
move to another spot?"

"O Socrates, I marvel at you—how dare you wander about in this
cheerless gloom? I—I sit here overcome with grief and bemoan the joys
of a fleeting life."

"Friend Elpidias, like you, I, too, was plunged in this gloom when the
light of earthly life was removed from my eyes. But an inner voice
told me: 'Tread this new path without hesitation, and I went."

"But whither do you go, O son of Sophroniscus? Here there is no way,
no path, not even a ray of light; nothing but a chaos of rocks, mist,
and gloom."

"True. But, my Elpidias, since you are aware of this sad truth, have
you not asked yourself what is the most distressing thing in your
present situation?"

"Undoubtedly the dismal darkness."

"Then one should seek for light. Perchance you will find here the
great law—that mortals must in darkness seek the source of life. Do
you not think it is better so to seek than to remain sitting in one
spot? I think it is, therefore I keep walking. Farewell!"

"Oh, good Socrates, abandon me not! You go with sure steps through the
pathless chaos in Hades. Hold out to me but a fold of your mantle—"

"If you think it is better for you, too, then follow me, friend

And the two shades walked on, while the soul of Ctesippus, released by
sleep from its mortal envelop, flew after them, greedily absorbing the
tones of the clear Socratic speech.

"Are you here, good Socrates?" the voice of the Athenian again was
heard. "Why are you silent? Converse shortens the way, and I swear, by
Hercules, never did I have to traverse such a horrid way."

"Put questions, friend Elpidias! The question of one who seeks
knowledge brings forth answers and produces conversation."

Elpidias maintained silence for a moment, and then, after he had
collected his thoughts, asked:

"Yes, this is what I wanted to say—tell me, my poor Socrates, did
they at least give you a good burial?"

"I must confess, friend Elpidias, I cannot satisfy your curiosity."

"I understand, my poor Socrates, it doesn't help you cut a figure. Now
with me it was so different! Oh, how they buried me, how magnificently
they buried me, my poor fellow-Wanderer! I still think with great
pleasure of those lovely moments after my death. First they washed me
and sprinkled me with well-smelling balsam. Then my faithful Larissa
dressed me in garments of the finest weave. The best mourning-women of
the city tore their hair from their heads because they had been
promised good pay, and in the family vault they placed an amphora—a
crater with beautiful, decorated handles of bronze, and, besides, a

"Stay, friend Elpidias. I am convinced that: the faithful Larissa
converted her love into several minas. Yet—"

"Exactly ten minas and four drachmas, not counting the drinks for the
guests. I hardly think that the richest tanner can come before the
souls of his ancestors and boast of such respect on the part of the

"Friend Elpidias, don't you think that money would have been of more
use to the poor people who are still alive in Athens than to you at
this moment?"

"Admit, Socrates, you are speaking in envy," responded Elpidias,
pained. "I am sorry for you, unfortunate Socrates, although, between
ourselves, you really deserved your fate. I myself in the family
circle said more than once that an end ought to be put to your impious
doings, because—"

"Stay, friend, I thought you wanted to draw a conclusion, and I fear
you are straying from the straight path. Tell me, my good friend,
whither does your wavering thought tend?"

"I wanted to say that in my goodness I am sorry for you. A month ago I
myself spoke against you in the assembly, but truly none of us who
shouted so loud wanted such a great ill to befall you. Believe me, now
I am all the sorrier for you, unhappy philosopher!"

"I thank you. But tell me, my friend, do you perceive a brightness
before your eyes?"

"No, on the contrary such darkness lies before me that I must ask
myself whether this is not the misty region of Orcus."

"This way, therefore, is just as dark for you as for me?"

"Quite right."

"If I am not mistaken, you are even holding on to the folds of my

"Also true."

"Then we are in the same position? You see your ancestors are not
hastening to rejoice in the tale of your pompous burial. Where is the
difference between us, my good friend?"

"But, Socrates, have the gods enveloped your reason in such obscurity
that the difference is not clear to you?"

"Friend, if your situation is clearer to you, then give me your hand
and lead me, for I swear, by the dog, you let me go ahead in this

"Cease your scoffing, Socrates! Do not make sport, and do not compare
yourself, your godless self, with a man who died in his own bed——".

"Ah, I believe I am beginning to understand you. But tell me,
Elpidias, do you hope ever again to rejoice in your bed?"

"Oh, I think not."

"And was there ever a time when you did not sleep in it?"

"Yes. That was before I bought goods from Agesilaus at half their
value. You see, that Agesilaus is really a deep-dyed rogue——"

"Ah, never mind about Agesilaus! Perhaps he is getting them back, from
your widow at a quarter their value. Then wasn't I right when I said
that you were in possession of your bed only part of the time?"

"Yes, you were right."

"Well, and I, too, was in possession of the bed in which I died part
of the time. Proteus, the good guard of the prison, lent it to me for
a period."

"Oh, if I had known what you were aiming at with your talk, I wouldn't
have answered your wily questions. By Hercules, such profanation is
unheard of—he compares himself with me! Why, I could put an end to
you with two words, if it came to it——"

"Say them, Elpidias, without fear. Words can scarcely be more
destructive to me than the hemlock."

"Well, then, that is just what I wanted to say. You unfortunate man,
you died by the sentence of the court and had to drink hemlock!"

"But I have known that since the day of my death, even long before.
And you, unfortunate Elpidias, tell me what caused your death?"

"Oh, with me, it was different, entirely different! You see I got the
dropsy in my abdomen. An expensive physician from Corinth was called
who promised to cure me for two minas, and he was given half that
amount in advance. I am afraid that Larissa in her lack of experience
in such things gave him the other half, too——"

"Then the physician did not keep his promise?"

"That's it."

"And you died from dropsy?"

"Ah, Socrates, believe me, three times it wanted to, vanquish me, and
finally it quenched the flame of my life!"

"Then tell me—did death by dropsy give you great pleasure?"

"Oh, wicked Socrates, don't make sport of me. I told you it wanted to
vanquish me three times. I bellowed like a steer under the knife of
the slaughterer, and begged the Parc to cut the thread of my life as
quickly as possible."

"That doesn't surprise me. But from what do you conclude that the
dropsy was pleasanter to you than the hemlock to me? The hemlock made
an end of me in a moment."

"I see, I fell into your snare again, you crafty sinner! I won't
enrage the gods still more by speaking with you, you destroyer of
sacred customs."

Both were silent, and quiet reigned. But in a short while Elpidias was
again the first to begin a conversation.

"Why are you silent, good Socrates?"

"My friend; didn't you yourself ask for silence?"

"I am not proud, and I can treat men who are worse than I am
considerately. Don't let us quarrel."

"I did not quarrel with you, friend Elpidias, and did not wish to say
anything to insult you. I am merely accustomed to get at the truth of
things by comparisons. My situation is not clear to me. You consider
your situation better, and I should be glad to learn why. On the other
hand, it would not hurt you to learn the truth, whatever shape it may

"Well, no more of this."

"Tell me, are you afraid? I don't think that the feeling I now have
can be called fear."

"I am afraid, although I have less cause than you to be at odds with
the gods. But don't you think that the gods, in abandoning us to
ourselves here in this chaos, have cheated us of our hopes?"

"That depends upon what sort of hopes they were. What did you expect
from the gods, Elpidias?"

"Well, well, what did I expect from the gods! What curious questions
you ask, Socrates! If a man throughout life brings offerings, and at
his death passes away with a pious heart and with all that custom
demands, the gods might at least send some one to meet him, at least
one of the inferior gods, to show a man the way. ... But that reminds
me. Many a time when I begged for good luck in traffic in hides, I
promised Hermes calves——"

"And you didn't have luck?"

"Oh, yes, I had luck, good Socrates, but——".

"I understand, you had no calf."

"Bah! Socrates, a rich tanner and not have calves?"

"Now I understand. You had luck, had calves, but you kept them for
yourself, and Hermes received nothing."

"You're a clever man. I've often said so. I kept only three of my ten
oaths, and I didn't deal differently with the other gods. If the same
is the case with you, isn't that the reason, possibly, why we are now
abandoned by the gods? To be sure, I ordered Larissa to sacrifice a
whole hecatomb after my death."

"But that is Larissa's affair, whereas it was you, friend Elpidias,
who made the promises."

"That's true, that's true. But you, good Socrates, could you, godless
as you are, deal better with the gods than I who was a god-fearing

"My friend, I know not whether I dealt better or worse. At first I
brought offerings without having made vows. Later I offered neither
calves nor vows."

"What, not a single calf, you unfortunate man?"

"Yes, friend, if Hermes had had to live by my gifts, I am afraid he
would have grown very thin."

"I understand. You did not traffic in cattle, so you offered articles
of some other trade—probably a mina or so of what the pupils paid

"You know, my friend, I didn't ask pay of my pupils, and my trade
scarcely sufficed to support me. If the gods reckoned on the sorry
remnants of my meals they miscalculated."

"Oh, blasphemer, in comparison with you I can be proud of my piety. Ye
gods, look upon this man! I did deceive you at times, but now and then
I shared with you the surplus of some fortunate deal. He who gives at
all gives much in comparison with a blasphemer who gives nothing.
Socrates, I think you had better go on alone! I fear that your
company, godless one, damages me in the eyes of the gods."

"As you will, good Elpidias. I swear by the dog no one shall force his
company on another. Unhand the fold of my mantle, and farewell. I will
go on alone."

And Socrates walked forward with a sure tread, feeling the ground,
however, at every step.

But Elpidias behind him instantly cried out:

"Wait, wait, my good fellow-citizen, do not leave an Athenian alone in
this horrible place! I was only making fun. Take what I said as a
joke, and don't go so quickly. I marvel how you can see a thing in
this hellish darkness."

"Friend, I have accustomed my eyes to it."

"That's good. Still I, can't approve of your not having brought
sacrifices to the gods. No, I can't, poor Socrates, I can't. The
honourable Sophroniscus certainly taught you better in your youth, and
you yourself used to take part in the prayers. I saw you.

"Yes. But I am accustomed to examine all our motives and to accept
only those that after investigation prove to be reasonable. And so a
day came on which I said to myself: 'Socrates, here you are praying to
the Olympians. Why are you praying to them?'"

Elpidias laughed.

"Really you philosophers sometimes don't know how to answer the
simplest questions. I'm a plain tanner who never in my life studied
sophistry, yet I know why I must honour the Olympians."

"Tell me quickly, so that I. too, may know why."

"Why? Ha! Ha! It's too simple, you wise Socrates."

"So much the better if it's simple. But don't keep your wisdom from,
me. Tell me—why must one honour the gods?"

"Why. Because everybody does it."

"Friend, you know very well that not every one honours the gods.
Wouldn't it be more correct to say 'many'?"

"Very well, many."

"But tell me, don't more men deal wickedly than righteously?"

"I think so. You find more wicked people than good people."

"Therefore, if you follow the majority, you ought to deal wickedly and
not righteously?"

"What are you saying?"

"I'm not saying it, you are. But I think the reason that men
reverence the Olympians is not because the majority worship them. We
must find another, more rational ground. Perhaps you mean they deserve

"Yes, very right."

"Good. But then arises a new question: Why do they deserve reverence?"

"Because of their greatness."

"Ah, that's more like it. Perhaps I will soon be agreeing with you. It
only remains for you to tell me wherein their greatness consists.
That's a difficult question, isn't it? Let us seek the answer
together. Homer says that the impetuous Ares, when stretched flat on
the ground by a stone thrown by Pallas Athene, covered with his body
the space that can be travelled in seven mornings. You see what an
enormous space."

"Is that wherein greatness consists?"

"There you have me, my friend. That raises another question. Do you
remember the athlete Theophantes? He towered over the people a whole
head's length, whereas Pericles was no larger than you. But whom do we
call great, Pericles or Theophantes?"

"I see that greatness does not consist in size of body. In that you're
right. I am glad we agree. Perhaps greatness consists in virtue?"


"I think so, too."

"Well, then, who must bow to whom? The small before the large, or
those who are great in virtues before the wicked?"

"The answer is clear."

"I think so, too. Now we will look further into this matter. Tell me
truly, did you ever kill other people's children with arrows?"

"It goes without saying, never! Do you think so ill of me?"

"Nor have you, I trust, ever seduced the wives of other men?"

"I was an upright tanner and a good husband. Don't forget that,
Socrates, I beg of you!"

"You never became a brute, nor by your lustfulness gave your faithful
Larissa occasion to revenge herself on women whom you had ruined and
on their innocent children?"

"You anger me, really, Socrates."

"But perhaps you snatched your inheritance from your father and threw
him into prison?"

"Never! Why these insulting questions?"

"Wait, my friend. Perhaps we will both reach a conclusion. Tell me,
would you have considered a man great who had done all these things of
which I have spoken?"

"No, no, no! I should have called such a man a scoundrel, and lodged
public complaint against him with the judges in the market-place."

"Well, Elpidias, why did you not complain in the market-place against
Zeus and the Olympians? The son of Cronos carried on war with his own
father, and was seized with brutal lust for the daughters of men,
while Hera took vengeance upon innocent virgins. Did not both of them
convert the unhappy daughter of Inachos into a common cow? Did not
Apollo kill all the children of Niobe with his arrows? Did not
Callenius steal bulls? Well, then, Elpidias, if it is true that he who
has less virtue must do honour to him who has more, then you should
not build altars to the Olympians, but they to you."

"Blaspheme not, impious Socrates! Keep quiet! How dare you judge the
acts of the gods?"

"Friend, a higher power has judged them. Let us investigate the
question. What is the mark of divinity? I think you said, Greatness,
which consists in virtue. Now is not this greatness the one divine
spark in man? But if we test the greatness of the gods by our small
human virtues, and it turns out that that which measures is greater
than that which is measured, then it follows that the divine principle
itself condemns the Olympians. But, then—"

"What, then?"

"Then, friend Elpidias, they; are no gods, but deceptive phantoms,
creations of a dream. Is it not so?"

"Ah, that's whither your talk leads, you bare-footed philosopher! Now
I see what they said of you is true. You are like that fish that takes
men captive with its look. So you took me captive in order to confound
my believing soul and awaken doubt in it. It was already beginning to
waver in its reverence for Zeus. Speak alone. I won't answer any

"Be not wrathful, Elpidias! I don't wish to inflict any evil upon you.
But if you are tired of following my arguments to their logical
conclusions, permit me to relate to you an allegory of a Milesian
youth. Allegories rest the mind, and the relaxation is not

"Speak, if your story is not too long and its purpose is good."

"Its purpose is truth, friend Elpidias, and I will be brief. Once, you
know, in ancient times, Miletus was exposed to the attacks of the
barbarians. Among the youth who were seized was a son of the wisest
and best of all the citizens in the land. His precious child was
overtaken by a severe illness and became unconscious. He was abandoned
and allowed to lie like worthless booty. In the dead of night he came
to his senses. High above him glimmered the stars. Round about
stretched the desert; and in the distance he heard the howl of beasts
of prey. He was alone.

"He was entirely alone, and, besides that, the gods had taken from him
the recollection of his former life. In vain he racked his brain—it
was as dark and empty as the inhospitable desert in which he found
himself. But somewhere, far away, behind the misty and obscure figures
conjured up by his reason, loomed the thought of his lost home, and a
vague realisation of the figure of the best of all men; and in his
heart resounded the word 'father.' Doesn't it seem to you that the
fate of this youth resembles the fate of all humanity?"

"How so?"

"Do we not all awake to life on earth with a hazy recollection of
another home? And does not the figure of the great unknown hover
before our souls?"

"Continue, Socrates, I am listening."

"The youth revived, arose, and walked cautiously, seeking to avoid all
dangers. When after long wanderings his strength was nearly gone, he
discerned a fire in the misty distance which illumined the darkness
and banished the cold. A faint hope crept into his weary soul, and the
recollections of his father's house again awoke within him. The youth
walked toward the light, and cried: 'It is you, my father, it is you!'

"And was it his father's house?"

"No, it was merely a night lodging of wild nomads. So for many years
he led the miserable life of a captive slave, and only in his dreams
saw the distant home and rested on his father's bosom. Sometimes with
weak hand he endeavoured to lure from dead clay or wood or stone the
face and form that ever hovered before him. There even came moments
when he grew weary and embraced his own handiwork and prayed to it and
wet it with his tears. But the stone remained cold stone. And as he
waxed in years the youth destroyed his creations, which already seemed
to him a vile defamation of his ever-present dreams. At last fate
brought him to a good barbarian, who asked him for the cause of his
constant mourning. When the youth, confided to him the hopes and
longings of his soul, the barbarian, a wise man, said:

"'The world would be better did such a man and such a country exist as
that of which you speak. But by what mark would you recognise your

"'In my country,' answered the youth, 'they reverenced wisdom and
virtue and looked up to my father as to the master.'

"'Well and good,' answered the barbarian. 'I must assume that a kernel
of your father's teaching resides in you. Therefore take up the
wanderer's staff, and proceed on your way. Seek perfect wisdom and
truth, and when you have found them, cast aside your staff—there will
be your home and your father.'

"And the youth went on his way at break of day—"

"Did he find the one whom he sought?"

"He is still seeking. Many countries, cities and men has he seen. He
has come to know all the ways by land; he has traversed the stormy
seas; he has searched the courses of the stars in heaven by which a
pilgrim can direct his course in the limitless deserts. And each time
that on his wearisome way an inviting fire lighted up the darkness
before his eyes, his heart beat faster and hope crept into his soul.
'That is my father's hospitable house,' he thought.

"And when a hospitable host would greet the tired traveller and offer
him the peace and blessing of his hearth, the youth would fall at his
feet and say with emotion: 'I thank you, my father! Do you not
recognise your son?'

"And many were prepared to take him as their son, for at that time
children were frequently kidnapped. But after the first glow of
enthusiasm, the youth would detect traces of imperfection, sometimes
even of wickedness. Then he would begin to investigate and to test his
host with questions concerning justice and injustice. And soon he
would be driven forth again upon the cold wearisome way. More than
once he said to himself: 'I will remain at this last hearth, I will
preserve my last belief. It shall be the home of my father.'"

"Do you know, Socrates, perhaps that would have been the most sensible
thing to do."

"So he thought sometimes. But the habit of investigating, the confused
dream of a father, gave him no peace. Again and again he shook the
dust from his feet; again and again he grasped his staff. Not a few
stormy nights found him shelterless. Doesn't it seem to you that the
fate of this youth resembles the fate of mankind?"


"Does not the race of man make trial of its childish belief and doubt
it while seeking the unknown? Doesn't it fashion the form of its
father in wood, stone, custom, and tradition? And then man finds the
form imperfect, destroys it, and again goes on his wanderings in the
desert of doubt. Always for the purpose of seeking something better—"

"Oh, you cunning sage, now I understand the purpose of your allegory!
And I will tell you to your face that if only a ray of light were to
penetrate this gloom, I would not put the Lord on trial with
unnecessary questions—"

"Friend, the light is already shining," answered Socrates.