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Cobbler's Tales

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At first, the man seemed every bit the interested customer.

He walked into Simon’s shoe shop barefoot, so Simon solicitously reached for the tape measure and handed him a piece of new leather.  He urged his visitor to feel how soft it was, and how good it would feel on his tired feet.

“How did you tan this?” asked the man, stroking the leather with his calloused fingertips.  He brought it close to his bulging eyes.  “What a nice color!  What dyes did you use?”

When Simon gave him the answers, he only had more questions.  Did Simon know how to make laces that would last without breaking?  Where did the leather come from?  And what kind of cow had it been, and what did she eat? 

Simon half expected him to ask, “Was she happy?” 

Simon knew about Sokrates, of course—at least, he knew the name, and a vague idea of the face.  He had seen The Clouds as a child, like everyone else.  Until today, he had never met the man.  Sokrates certainly looked as though he’d just walked off a comic stage, but Simon found he didn’t want to laugh.

He answered Sokrates’ questions as best he could, taking care to use the sort of descriptions a layman could understand.  Sokrates, in his turn, listened respectfully and asked for more details in all the right places.  The man was a sophist, of course, but they were hardly philosophizing.  How could they be, when the wise man in the room, the one with the fancy education, was the one asking the questions?  But it didn’t feel quite like talking shop, either.

“Some friends and I were speaking about craftsmanship,” said Sokrates, “as part of our inquiry into the nature of Excellence, and whether or not it can be taught.  One of us—I forget who—brought up shoemaking, and I realized I had never learned what exactly a shoemaker does.”

“I see,” said Simon.  So all these questions were to settle an argument of some kind, and not about him at all.  He felt oddly disappointed.

“I thought,” continued Sokrates, obliviously, “that if we were going to throw that sort of metaphor around, that I had better find out.”

“Glad to help,” said Simon.

Sokrates was still looking at him, expectantly.

“Bring your friends, next time,” Simon offered, fishing for something to say.

“Oh, I could, I suppose,” said Sokrates.

The silence was starting to get really awkward when Sokrates flashed him a hopeful grin.  It showed all of his yellowed, crooked teeth.  It was terribly appealing.

“Of course we could always get a head start on them…”

Simon wanted to be more than a proven point in someone else’s conversation, so he took the bait.  Besides, he had heard enough rumors that at least he knew how to begin.

“We’d better define our terms, then, Sokrates.  What is excellence?”


Simon lived above the shop with his family.  Their house was near the edge of the Agora, far enough away from the hustling crowds that his wife, Argene, could go in and out the back door without being bothered by his customers. Argene had lived there her whole life: her father, a metic from Elis, had rented the house from his sponsor until his death.

When Simon told Argene about meeting Sokrates, she stepped over to their cabinet and took down a copy of the Clouds to show their daughter.

“It’s a pity no one has written anything nicer about him,” Argene sighed.  “My mother and her sisters sat near Xanthippe at the first performance, and they say the poor woman couldn’t seem to decide whether to laugh or cry.  Apparently she felt that no one should be allowed to criticize her husband but her.”

“That sounds familiar,” murmured Simon, watching their daughter unfurl the scroll and trace her finger under the words.  Mikka wasn’t a strong reader yet—Argene was a sensible woman, and refused to worry about her daughter’s schooling until the household chores were done.  But the girl was learning quickly enough.

“How can someone study the moon from indoors?” she asked, with a pretty frown.  She tapped her finger under the word.  “Is that right?”

Simon leaned over Mikka’s shoulder.

“That’s the joke, dear one.  But Aristophanes got it wrong.  If Sokrates ever wanted to study the moon, I expect he’d find a way to climb up to it.”

“Oh,” said Mikka.  She kept reading.  “Why would anyone listen to a person who called himself the ‘Weaker Argument?’”

Argene snorted.  “Why don’t you read past the punch line before you ask any more questions?”

At least she isn’t asking about some of the other words in that scene, thought Simon, but he didn’t say it.  Argene had a better sense of what was appropriate for teenage girls than he did, and he usually left such things to her good judgment.  Besides, when he thought about it, the Clouds was quite a bit cleaner than some of the other plays his daughter could be reading.

Perhaps he should take Phaedra off the shelf.

“I am glad you encourage her,” said Argene, quietly.  “She is so restless, lately.  It will do her good to have something engage her mind.”

She looked at her husband appraisingly.

“It does you good, too.  I hope he comes back, even if he doesn’t buy any shoes.”


In the next week, business boomed.  Young Xenophon dropped by, needing new tackle for his horse, and his even younger friend Euythedemus wanted a satchel to carry his books.  Kriton’s son, Kritobulos, breezed in and asked to have his sandals mended on the spot, plus a pair of new boots as a gift for his sweetheart, Kleinias.

With Kritobulos and Kleinias was a young man whom Simon thought looked too hungry to be much of a customer.  His hair was as pale as the moon, and his eyes dark as night.  Simon could see that his shoes had been mended neatly many times.

“A friend of mine told me about you,” said the young man, leaning over the counter as Simon stitched away at Kritobulos’ sandal.  Simon couldn’t quite place his accent.  “He said you delivered the most elegant apology for shoemaking he’d ever heard.”

“He can’t have heard very many of those, surely.  And if it’s Sokrates you’re talking about, I’m afraid it was a one-time thing.  He drew it out of me, like a—well, like a cobbler drawing thread, if you like.  I felt quite pulled out of myself.” 

What a silly thing to say.  Simon opened his mouth to admit as much, but the young man was already nodding in friendly agreement.

“I felt just the same, at the beginning.  In fact I didn’t dare speak to him at all, for a long time.”

 “He didn’t make you answer his questions?”

“Not until I was ready.”

Simon picked up his awl, and poked a new hole through the leather.  If this fellow wanted to talk about Sokrates, then Simon had some questions of his own.

“Is it true he was Prodikos’ student?”  Since rereading the Clouds, Simon had been thinking about the rumors he knew, wondering what was fact and what was fiction.

The young man smiled crookedly at the question.

“He likes to say so.  The truth is, he once paid two obols to go to a talk Prodikos gave, and—well, he likes that silly Herakles story.”

“‘That silly Herakles story?’”

“Don’t you know it?  The one about Virtue and Vice?”

“Tell me.”

“The short version is that Virtue and Vice are two tall, lovely girls who both go courting Herakles.”

“Let me guess: Vice is a strumpet, and Virtue is a sweet little virgin.”

“Obviously.  Only Virtue forgets herself long enough to give quite an ardent speech to Herakles, whom she believes must have ‘a true account of the facts.’”

Silly had been something of an understatement.  After a few rhetorical flourishes, Virtue won her argument and sent Vice packing.  The true facts, to Simon’s utter lack of surprise, were that hard work and modest living brought the greatest rewards.

Certain moments were phrased in a way that made Simon feel he had permission to laugh—and so he did.  Yet the moral thread was genuine, and easy enough to follow.

“That was well told,” said Simon, when the story came to its neat but predictable end.  “You ought to write it down and sell it.”

“Thank you, but of course it isn’t mine.  What do you think of the content?”

“It’s a nice story as far as it goes but—didn’t Prodikos know it isn’t always like that?  That people sometimes make bad choices for good reasons, or good choices for bad ones?”

“Sokrates says that no one chooses bad intentionally, but only through ignorance.”

Simon concentrated on fitting the sandal strap against the sole, thinking through his reply before he spoke.

“I don’t think I have had very many clear choices in my life,” he said finally.  “I do my work as best I can, but I am not sure I could say what is good and what is bad.  Perhaps that makes me ignorant.”

“There is no shame in that.  Ignorance is only the beginning of knowledge.  You said earlier that you felt pulled out of yourself when you talked with him—but you know, he can’t bring out of one what isn’t there to begin with.”

“Phaedo,” said Kritobulos suddenly, “Kleinias wants to go to Euphronios’ shop.  Are you coming?”

Simon had half forgotten his paying customer, but the work was as good as done.  He snipped off the last bit of thread and handed over the sandals.

“Think about what I’ve said,” said Phaedo, lingering at the door to the shop.  “You ought to join us, when you can.”

“Some people have jobs, you know.  Tell young Kleinias he can fetch his boots next week.”

Phaedo laughed.


At bedtime, Simon told Mikka the Herakles story.

“I don’t see why Vice is so bad,” she said, indignantly.  “Just because she wears paint and speaks boldly!  Mama does both of those things.”

Simon made his face solemn.  “Ignorance is only the beginning of knowledge,” he quoted.  “Your mother learned how to be virtuous a long time ago.”

“When I have ‘learned how to be virtuous,’ I want to go downstairs and meet your friends,” said Mikka.  “Especially the ugly man who worries about cows.”

“Perhaps you shall,” lied Simon.  She was young, and he hated to disappoint her.

Mikka shook her head.  She was hard to fool.

“I am not playing, Father—I want to meet your friends,” she insisted again.  “I want to hear what they have to say for myself.  When you and Mama showed me that play, I thought that maybe I could study the moon.  Only for a second.  But I thought, if philosophers can talk about such things, can teach about them, without even going outside, then perhaps I could, too.  I wouldn’t have to be a man, walking about the Agora and learning things that way.

“But it was only a joke.  And you said that all the philosophy in the play was all made up, anyway, so I didn’t even learn anything from reading it.”

“It made you ask questions,” said Simon.  “You can do that from anywhere.”

“You can go up to anybody you like and ask questions, Father.  I can only ask questions of you.”

“And your mother, and your mother’s friends—”

Mikka threw up her hands.

“None of them are philosophers!  None of them do anything that isn’t carding wool or sweeping the house, or—”

“And all I do is make shoes,” said Simon.  “There is no shame in ordinary work, Mikka.”

“It isn’t the same,” Mikka said.  She looked close to tears.

Simon wondered if Sokrates had daughters, and if so, what he said to them.

“You should talk about this with your mother,” he said at last.

He hoped Argene would know what to say.


“Tell me, Euthydemos, is it true what I hear, that you have collected a large number of books by reputed experts?”

The boy blushed, and Simon stole a glance at Phaedo, who was trying to hide a smile.  Euthydemos was always blushing about something.

“Indeed it is, Sokrates,” he stammered, “and I’m still adding to the collection, until I’ve got as many as I can!”

“I admire you for preferring to stockpile wisdom rather than silver and gold,” said Sokrates solemnly.  “Silver and gold make people no better, whereas the maxims of the wise enrich their possessors with moral goodness.”

“I can tell this is going somewhere else,” murmured Simon.  “But surely no one can argue with that.”

“Maxims are useful,” replied Phaedo.  “But you can memorize books of them and still not understand what they mean.”

Euthydemos and Sokrates were sitting by the window.  It was the first time Simon had seen them walk in together, without anyone else.  Euthydemos was positively glowing with happiness.

Phaedo had arrived separately—and instead of joining Sokrates, he had brought his work over to Simon’s bench.  Simon appreciated the company.

“What are you copying today?”

“Agathon’s last play,” said Phaedo, rolling his eyes.  “It’s too bad they haven’t come up with a way to write down the music—it was much better in performance, when I wasn’t paying attention to the words.”

“Is it the one with the man-devouring mares?”

Phaedo groaned.  “You remember it, too?”

“Mikka—my daughter loved it.  It took weeks before she stopped singing the song at the end, where they all turn into flowers.”

“That must have been a pleasant month.”

“At least she wasn’t singing Orestes.”

Suddenly, Sokrates’ friendly voice came booming out from the corner.

“Can either of you lend me something to write on?  Euthydemos and I are going to try an experiment.”

Phaedo produced a blank scrap of paper and handed Sokrates his pen.  Sokrates held it awkwardly, like a child, and scratched the letters “R” and “W” at the top of the page.

“Right and Wrong,” said Euthydemos, proudly.  He took the pen from Sokrates.  “We are going to make lists.”

Simon paid attention long enough to hear “telling lies,” “deception,” and “enslaving” get categorized as “W,” but he didn’t find such revelations particularly interesting.  Phaedo listened longer.

“He is meeting Euthydemos at his own level,” said Phaedo, eventually.  “They aren’t coming up with anything terribly profound, but I don’t think that was the point.”

“It’s funny to see Sokrates helping someone to write things down.”

Phaedo shrugged.  “Their list will be meaningless out of context.  Even if Euthydemos managed to copy down every word Sokrates said, he wouldn’t be able to capture the spirit of it.”

“…just the opposite,” said Euthydemos’s excited voice from the corner.  “Those kinds of people, the ones who understand crafts like metalworking and cobbling, are like slavesthat is, they don’t know what is honorable or good.”

Phaedo winced.

“Like your copy of Agathon’s tragedy,” said Simon, carefully.  “Without the music, the sense is lost.  And by themselves, certain verses would seem…less inspired than others.”

“Indeed they would,” said Phaedo softly.  “Euthydemos sometimes says idiotic things.  But Sokrates will set him straight.”

“How do you stand it?” asked Simon.  He was more curious than offended.  “Sokrates doesn’t say things like that, unless he is about to poke holes in his own argument, but so many of his rich friends…”

“I’ve put up with worse,” said Phaedo, with an odd smile.  “I sometimes question Sokrates’ ability to suffer fools—but without his patience, how will they become better?”

“It’s not fair,” said Simon, without really thinking what he was saying.  “Sweet, dull Euthydemos is given hours of Sokrates’ time, when others—”

Phaedo looked at him questioningly.

“Others are not,” finished Simon, lamely.  He hesitated.  “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to make a second copy of the end of that play?  Just the last song, with the flowers.”

“For your daughter?  Of course.”

“Yes,” said Simon.  “For my daughter.”


Simon closed up shop later and later these days.

Argene was the opposite of a shrewish wife, and she had never complained, but as he began to put away his tools, Simon wondered if she minded.  Perhaps he should buy her something to make it up to her—a dress, or a perhaps a new jar of white lead for her face. 

There was no one in the sitting room when he went upstairs, and he wondered if Argene had gone visiting and forgotten the time.  Someone had left a copy of Tennes lying open on the couch.  Simon had just put the book back on the shelf when he heard his wife’s voice, carrying sharply through the closed door of her room.

“You know perfectly well what the consequences would be, and there is no point—”

Simon froze, and someone—Mikka—mumbled something, too faint to hear.

“I know, my darling.” Argene’s voice was more gentle now.  “But getting angry about it won’t gain you any favors.  Perhaps if we were wealthy, or if we had any kind of a family name to fall back on—”

“How can you be so complacent?” cried Mikka, suddenly shrill.  “We are kept shut up in here like slaves, and all you can say is that people would talk if we did things differently.  I don’t care what people think, and neither should you.”

“It isn’t complacent of me to be happy, Mikka.”

Simon let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.  It was one thing to listen in on Sokrates’ conversations, but he did not want to spy on his wife. 

The shop downstairs still needed to be swept, anyway.

He was careful to walk loudly when he came back up, and Argene met him at the door.  Mikka was nowhere to be seen.

“I don’t suppose you’ve seen my book,” Argene said, pointedly, and he retrieved it for her with a guilty smile.

“Is Mikka all right?” he asked.

Argene shrugged.  She looked tired.

“If she were a boy, she’d be down in that shop with you, pestering your philosopher friends.  She wishes things were different—and for her sake, so do I.”

“Should I—”

“She’ll be all right,” said Argene.  “She’ll grow up, and get over it.”


It would be a waste to buy blank paper, so Simon started saving the scraps of leather he couldn’t use.  He stretched them as thin as he could, and soaked them carefully so that the marks he scratched with his thinnest knife would show up clearly.  When Phaedo noticed that Simon no longer worked on shoes when Sokrates held forth in his shop, he watched with interest—but since Simon didn’t choose to explain himself yet, his friend didn’t ask.

Mikka, older and more sophisticated than she had been just a few short months ago, was unimpressed by the flower song.  (“I tired of that ages ago, Father—why do you think I stopped singing it in the first place?”)  But she smiled when Simon brought her his newest gift.

“It’s not poetry,” he said.  “Well, except for when the characters quote Simonides.  And there’s no music, obviously.  But it’s like a play.  It’s a conversation.”

“You wrote all this down for me?”

“Who else?” said Simon.  “It’s not like being there, but I thought you might like to see it anyway.”

“‘I am considering whether it may be best to keep my mouth shut,’” she read aloud.  “‘It looks as though I know absolutely nothing.’  Father, this is funny.”

“Yes, but it’s not a joke,” he said.

“I can see that,” said Mikka.

Something in her tone made Simon think she was about to start arguing with him again, but instead she only thanked him, and retreated to her mother’s room to read.

That was enough for him.