There yet remained that appointment with a digestivo. Something fruity and alcoholic, a final accented chord to conclude lunchtime’s culinary concerto. But the girl had gone. And so had the moment. An unresolved cadence: frustration. He was not even good at being lower case-s stoic it seemed. A little too thin-skinned, a little too easily slighted, a little too needy. Not admirable traits, he knew, and of course inimical to all that Epicurus had taught: be content with necessities, do not become attached to luxuries; frustration and impatience signs of unnecessary attachment, a failure to understand the right priorities, a barrier to tranquillity. Egoism – he acknowledged the fault from time to time; from time to time he even made efforts to focus a little less on himself. Try to put others first, try to understand you are not the centre of the universe. But it’s hard for someone so used to getting their own way, someone surrounded by a staff of slaves whose only function on this earth is to do their every bidding. Unnecessary desires, unnecessary attachments. Epicurus would not be impressed.
And solitude didn’t help. Too much time alone, too much time to think, too much time inside his own head. All very laudable from a purely poetical-philosophical point of view, of course, all this luxurious contemplation of the great revelations of the Master; but not helpful for his social skills or his temperament. His daughters and wife knew from hard experience never to interrupt him in his study, as he scrutinised Ennius or Empedocles, as he scratched the rare flowers of that labour laboriously onto papyrus. The shame of it struck him now: what right had he to lash his dearest children, his patient wife, with a tongue loosed by selfish wrath? So what if his work was momentarily interrupted, he was a grown man wasn’t he? He could cope with minor irritations, couldn’t he? Especially if those irritations presented themselves in the smiling, giggling form of two girls begging presents or simply attention from their beloved father? What punishment does Hades contrive for the selfish, egotistical writer of epic didactic verse? Ever to be on the point of putting pen to paper, only to have it plucked from your grasp by a cackling ape; ever on the point of forming a brilliant idea, only to have it driven from your head by the sudden din of rampaging elephants? The horror.
The punishments of Hades, childish fantasies of course. Sisyphus and Tantalus and all the rest, ridiculous fables. And yet there had been a time when he believed them, was even terrified by them. What kind of religion terrifies its followers? Religion – superstition – mankind’s greatest curse: fear of the afterlife, fear of divine punishment, fear of wearing the wrong clothes, of eating the wrong food, of saying the wrong thing – base, unworthy fears that kept men cowering in abject submission. They disgusted him – not those who hung their heads afraid, for they were simply unenlightened and pitiably ignorant, but those who promulgated such cowardly, mindless superstitions, those who encouraged others to believe: to believe that it is easy to offend the gods, that we are all slaves to invisible masters, that we had better not think for ourselves. Conform or be cast out was their hateful mantra.
It made him angry, angry with a righteous anger ironically enough, this deliberate obfuscation, this wilful keeping of others in ignorance, this craven servility in the face of the unknown. The great mysteries of Nature a wonder to be explored with hearts and minds open to myriad possibilities, not something to shrink from, certainly not something to fear. So much fear everywhere. Death the greatest fear. Not so much death, as what might come after. Childish fables focusing men’s thoughts on imagined rewards and punishments when they ought to be focusing on the world around them. If only everyone could know what he knew, that this malady had a cure, that knowledge disperses ignorance, truth crushes fear. It was the great work of his life to spread the good news: the gods are remote and uninterested, death is nothing to us, there is no mystery in the final dissolution of our bodies into their constituent atoms; happiness is easy to obtain, in the here and now, on earth not in the heavens.
Happiness even when denied one’s digestivo; happiness in the sunshine and the birdsong and the breeze; happiness in letting go of lust and peace-disturbing desires; happiness in abandoning priestly superstitions, the imagined terrors of the afterlife; happiness instead in knowledge of the natural world, the unravelling of the universe’s secrets by investigation and observation. The possibility of contentment, of longed-for tranquillity here and now. Perhaps.
But he was restless still. His mouth dry, his stomach not quite sated. Something sweet and alcoholic, now that really would hit the spot. And his wine glass irritatingly empty. Now where had that damned girl gone?
* * *
[Go to Chapter 4, Part 1]