Philosophers’ Brawl by Lex Chase

Genre: Historical (Ancient)

Rating: PG-13

Anaxagoras sat at the table and considered the droplets of water on his frosted mug. Water was still water, no matter how small the droplets of water were that collected on his mug. Some gathered into larger drips, others stayed miniscule, like a slick substance. Water was still water, and water would always be water. He took a sip, and pondered the sting of the bitter liquid on his tongue. The drink was a drink, and would always be a drink. But it bore the combination of hops, berries, and of course, water. It was still a drink, but it contained the elements of other things making it a drink.

It was like the world, he knew this well. The world was a combination of things. Earth, air, fire, water, and the list went ever onward. These elements combined made the world, there was no denying it. However, the problem remained how the world came to be. The world didn’t just come to be! he thought. Something doesn’t come from nothing. He had to tell someone. Anyone that would listen.

Scanning across the expanse of the pub, he found the barmaids throwing themselves wantonly upon the patrons. They wouldn’t do. The patrons were too far gone into their wants and desires of their perceptions of the world. They were too blind to see the truth of all things. How water was water, and the earth was the earth, and the drink was his drink.

He brightened when he caught Parmenides wandering about. Anaxagoras watched him as the older man studied the frescos on the walls. He’d shamble from one to another. Anaxagoras tilted his head as Parmenides ran his fingers over the stucco, sniffed it, and then tasted it. Anaxagoras knew Parmenides was onto something, but there was a piece of the puzzle he was missing.

“Parmenides!” Anaxagoras called over the dull rumble of the crowd. “Parmenides! Come join me, you seem in need of some thought as well as I do.”

Parmenides perked and Anaxagoras waved him over. He smiled, and Anaxagoras waited as Parmenides watched him stumble passed a wench in the throes of being compensated for her services. Anaxagoras chuckled, sensing Parmenides’ discomfort with the bawdy display. Finally, Parmenides sat and took a breath of what the other man understood to be relief.

“Why would you choose such a place, Anaxagoras?” Parmenides asked, wiping his hands with a grimace.

Anaxagoras smiled. “I’m studying,” he said.

“Why would you not study in the school? It’s a much quieter place,” Parmenides said and arched a questioning brow.

“It’s a place that Heraclitus can’t interrupt me,” Anaxagoras said and smirked. He sipped his drink with a sense of victory.

Parmenides seemed to understand his strategy. “The Dark One?” he asked in a hushed tone. “Why would you bring him here? He’ll put a curse on everyone for sure! Did you hear the news? There’s talk that he cursed Socrates!”

Anaxagoras’ mouth drew into a sickle grin. “Oh, really now?” he asked then added, “That’s positively reprehensible.”

“Indeed, indeed,” Parmenides said with a series of nods. He flagged down a barmaid, and she wordlessly scuttled closer. “A drink, please.” She nodded, and hurried into the crowd, vanishing from view. Parmenides turned back to Anaxagoras. “You plan to study with Heraclitus? How would you get to the bottom of anything? He speaks in such riddles!”

“I think I have a way to figure him out,” Anaxagoras said boldly.

It couldn’t be better planned as Heraclitus cleared the threshold of the pub and Anaxagoras watched the activity come to a halt. As if by magic of things that cannot be, the pub fell silent. Heraclitus moved like smoke. He was truly as dark as his Dark One title implied. He wore the clothes of a soothsayer. A cloak shrouded his face, and his sandals made a whisper of death as he shuffled his feet along the dusty tiles.

Anaxagoras stood, welcoming his strange friend. “Heraclitus, so good you could make it. Come, come, have a seat. I had some thoughts I must discuss with you,” Anaxagoras said.

Heraclitus regarded him with a grin that did not indicate friendliness. “Some thoughts? Not many? How do you have some but not many? How do you think of only some?”

As Heraclitus sat, Anaxagoras tried to let the insult roll off his back. “Gentlemen, I’m so glad to see you. As Heraclitus was so true to point out, I merely had some thoughts,” he said and shot a glance to Heraclitus. Heraclitus kept his hood drawn, but Anaxagoras knew he was chuckling under it. He would get assassinated in the streets someday, Anaxagoras thought. If he could condemn that Socrates, he would certainly do the same to Heraclitus.

Anaxagoras noticed the barmaid bring Parmenides his drink without saying a word, and quickly spun on her heel before Heraclitus could stop her. He did unnerve everyone that beheld his presence.

“So, water is, and always will be, water,” Anaxagoras stated, wrapping his hand about his mug.

“Oh?” Parmenides asked. “But the mug is a mug—” he pointed to Anaxagoras’ mug “—the drink contained is not water, therefore the water in the mug does not exist.”

Anaxagoras gritted his teeth. “Water is indeed in the mug. Water is in the elements of all things,” he said tersely. “The mixture of the elements produces alcohol. There are only more alcohol elements in the drink that therefore makes it alcohol. But water is in it. The water exists.”

A chuckle from Heraclitus trickled out from under his copious hood, and Anaxagoras narrowed his eyes.

“Something amuses you, Heraclitus?” he asked.

Heraclitus tapped his spindly, bony fingers on the table. They were like claws made for grasping children in the night and training them into his school of thought. They were like brainwashed child soldiers allied to the madman Pythagoras. Anaxagoras shuddered with the thought.

“Indeed, indeed,” Heraclitus said. “To say the water exists in an alcoholic drink, is to say therefore a tree exists because there’s water in a tree.”

Parmenides nodded mutely and waited. Anaxagoras couldn’t tell if Heraclitus was once again being patronizing.

But,” Heraclitus continued, “There are supposedly more tree elements along with the water that make a tree a tree. Am I right?”

“Precisely,” Anaxagoras said. His shoulders remained tensed with the sense of Heraclitus’ patronizing tone.

“Preposterous,” Parmenides spat. He pointed to the mug again. “The alcohol is alcohol. It is not water. We do not know how it can be water. Therefore it is not water it is alcohol,” he insisted.

Heraclitus laced his fingers on the table. “But how do we know it is alcohol, and how do we know if it is water? How do we even know if there’s a mug? Or us for that matter?”

Anaxagoras ran his hand through his hair in frustration. “For the love of Zeus, not this logos nonsense.” He scowled at Heraclitus. “Keep your Pythagorean witchery out of this.”

Anaxagoras heard the rumble of Heraclitus’ distaste. “Let us continue,” he said, ignoring The Dark One. “Water,” he announced, and set his mug onto the table with a thunk. The droplets of dew trickled over the surface. “No matter how the water gathers and pools, no matter if it disburses into the air as vapor…Water will always be water.”

Parmenides leaned back in his seat. “That’s your big discovery, huh?” he asked, clearly unimpressed. He placed the sides of his palms and gestured to indicate. Anaxagoras bristled. He knew very well what was coming. More ramblings from an old fool.

“We can only speak of what is, not what is not,” Parmenides said. “On your mug there…” he trailed off as he gathered a droplet of water on his finger tip. “This is a drop of water. It is not the ocean. Therefore we cannot discuss what it isn’t. We can’t discuss what cannot be.”

“But I have the thought of the ocean in my mind. Therefore the ocean exists because my thought of the ocean exists,” Heraclitus interjected.

Anaxagoras couldn’t control his bark of laughter. Heraclitus had a point. Anaxagoras continued, “You, Heraclitus, believe the world comes from nothing. It just is.”

“Well, how else would you explain it?” Heraclitus said, and there was a sense of irritation in his voice.

“It doesn’t,” Anaxagoras said flatly.

Parmenides grinned. “So you agree with me. That it comes into being and goes out of being.”

“Not exactly,” Anaxagoras said in a dismissive tone.

Parmenides frowned. “If you call this game your studies, I grow tired of it.”

Anaxagoras sighed. “Gentlemen, please. Open your minds and listen carefully.”

Parmenides sipped his drink. Heraclitus rapped his fingers on the table. When he had their attention Anaxagoras explained. “All things are part of a whole. All things, elements if you will, are in everything to make up something. A tree—” he hooked a thumb to the window and the trees outside. “—There are elements in a tree that make it a tree.  A seed. A seed is made of water, or moistness, wood, or dryness, air, and fire. There are less of some, and more of others. That is how a tree becomes a tree. That is how it is not a book. Or a table,” he said and knocked on the tabletop.

“Ah!” Parmenides interjected. “But that is where you are wrong!”

Heraclitus’ hooded head turned toward Parmenides. “Fascinating,” he said softly.

Anaxagoras frowned. “Where am I wrong? Go on.”

Parmenides knocked on the table. “This,” he said. “This is where you are wrong.”

Anaxagoras shook his head slightly, he didn’t understand.

Parmenides chuckled. “How can you be so dense! The table, Anaxagoras. The damned table. The table is made of wood. The wood is from the tree. The tree is made of the seed. The seed is made of water, air, wood, and fire.”

Anaxagoras crowed his victory and clapped his hands. “Yes! Yes, you get it! That way, the tree will always be a tree.”

“Save when it’s a table,” Heraclitus said, his tone indicating a joke.

Parmenides snorted on his drink. Anaxagoras palmed his face.

Heraclitus turned his bony palms up in a half shrug. “Well. You know I’m right.”

Parmenides coughed and Anaxagoras patted him on the back to help him recover.

“You still haven’t explained how things come in and out of being,” Heraclitus said.

Confidence surged through Anaxagoras, at least he had Heraclitus himself intrigued. He nodded to him. “Follow along, gentlemen,” he began. “We established water will always be water, and water is in everything. As is all the elements, water, air, earth, and fire, come together to form something. There is no pure, distilled element of something. Gold cannot be gold without the fire that it took to forge it. But!” He pointed his finger thusly, indicating his point. “You can take gold, and even file it down to the shavings, but it will always be gold. And it will be the combination of the elements that it took to create it.”

“Oh. Kay,” Parmenides interjected with a dubious frown.

Heraclitus waved a hand. “No, no, let him go on.”

Anaxagoras grinned. The old Pythagorean was eating out of his hand like a bird pecking for nourishment.

“But the gold cannot cease to be,” Anaxagoras said, watching Heraclitus. “Even if you file it into the smallest of shavings, grind those shavings into finest dust, it will still be gold. It will still exist. And then once you stoke the fires to reconstitute the gold into a bar, the gold already exists to make it into a bar. It never didn’t exist. The elements always existed and were predetermined to make the gold bar. Just as the elements existed to make your bones, muscle, blood, and make you and I, and all men, women, and children. When we die…” Anaxagoras trailed off, and he watched the pub patrons drink with abandon. Their world of ignorance spun ever onward as he passed his legacy to Heraclitus and Parmenides. But the thorn in his side would be rotting in a cell soon enough. That damned Socrates. That damned ignorant old man. If only, if only, he could do the same to the two men before him.

Instead? He would eviscerate their feeble theories. The perfect logical revenge in an illogical world.

“When we die,” Anaxagoras said, noting Heraclitus and Parmenides both leaned in eagerly. “When we die we become ash. The ash becomes earth, the water nourishes the earth, then becomes a seed, the seed becomes a tree. Then the tree can become a table, can become paper, can become fire, can become gold.”

The three men remained silent as a drunken sophist failed miserably at dazzling a barmaid with his rapier wit.

Parmenides thumbed his chin, his mug remained only one quarter empty. Heraclitus remained as still as the specter of death he resembled.

Finally, Heraclitus spoke, quietly, submissive, clearly uncertain. “But how do the elements come together to make a tree, gold, or mankind?”

The question cut Anaxagoras to the quick of his being. He shoved himself from the table, frustrated that Heraclitus, of all men, would destroy his theory in one felled swoop. His stool clattered to the tile floor, and the drunk sophist at the bar cackled. Anaxagoras rushed into the dirty streets of Athens, and vanished into the ebb and flow of merchants, slaves, and prostitutes.

His only comfort was Socrates would soon beg his accusers for mercy.

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