It was time to get out of his own head. Unwisely he had allowed himself to become discombobulated, a shame on such a gorgeously mellow afternoon. That’s what thinking too much does for your precious Equilibrium. He needed some perspective, some distance from his own thoughts. Not quite Voyager 1 distance, mind, but a bit of head space nonetheless. Beneath the avenue of pungent pine-scented cypresses, as his sandals beat out a sedate march time on the gravel path and the lazy bees circled curiously in search of more lavender, his sense of isolation softened, incipient anger dissipated in the warm air. ‘We are star stuff’ for sure, but so are the smiling flowers and the swaying leaves and the unseen chirruping insects and the querulous black-headed gulls swooping in from the coast. Atoms infinitely recycled into infinite varieties of stuff, from stars to stones, all expressions of the one infinite cosmos. He took comfort in that.
Just breathe. That was the trick. Bring attention to the gentle rising and falling of the breath. (Inhale-exhale, a hint of sea salt on the palate). The rhythm of his chest drifting into step with his crunching feet, the cadence of the waves on the beach far below, the pulse of the wind in the branches above, a polyrhythmic dance. Being in the moment. Distracting thoughts begone. Eyes half-lidded, not quite closed but not quite open either, the familiar path heading straight, nose leading him on towards chamomile and mint in the walled garden ahead. (Inhale-exhale.) Another bench with inviting cushions, another canopy of white flowering vines, an invitation to relax.
All these marvels, all of Nature present to his tingling senses. (Inhale-exhale). Take it in, drink it, smell it, taste it. He was one of the very few people then living who was able to appreciate it all without invoking the name of a god. Still now, as I write these words some two thousand and more years later, he remains in the minority. (Inhale-exhale.) The message he is labouring so hard to convey will be lost for centuries, will fall on ears of stone when at last it is rediscovered, will infuriate the great majority for the rest of time. (Inhale-exhale.) The natural world is natural, not supernatural, and so are you and so is everything else. We are not set apart from the world, not divinely favoured to be different. Our precious consciousness an expression of it, the cosmos contemplating itself through our eyes. And just breathe. Distracting thoughts begone; be in the moment. Relax. Inhale. Exhale.
Eyes fully closed now, an invitation to bat-like memories flitting in and out of conscious awareness. Memories – of home, of childhood, of simple delight in an iced drink on a summer’s day, of beachcombing for iridescent shells with his mother, of swimming in the bay, waving to his parents on the beach, of his parents at home, in the courtyard garden, reclining in the dining room with its gold and silver trompe l’oeil décor, in the light-filled atrium with its inscrutable statues, of blood and shrieks and death, of the stolid stomping of the soldiers’ hobnailed feet on the tessellated floor. Memories of violent death everywhere, and everywhere the mad ambition of demagogues. Terrible times, doomed to be repeated. Even now the overweening conceit of Pompey and Caesar, poor Cicero harried from pillar to post inbetween – no decent role for a philosopher – the threat of war and the spilling of innocent blood ever-present. To such lengths were men driven by their fear of death. Epicurus had understood it, seen it in his own day: the restless quest for power and conquest a proxy for the futile longing to conquer death itself. Even he, lofty philosopher and poet, busy, busy, busy on his own epic memorial; scribble, scribble, scribble line after line in the vain hope of immortality. Was that all it amounted to, this great labour of his? A desperate plea to posterity – remember me. Was he so afraid to die?
Breathe. Come back to the present moment. Focus on the breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Relax. ‘Death is nothing to us.’ That’s the mantra, repeat and retain. ‘Death is nothing to us.’ Where I am, death is not; where death is, I am not. Yet still I write. In striving to forget the past I focus on the future. Admit it, man, I write that I may live forever.
Two squabbling gulls, herring gulls this time, circled overhead, arguing as usual about everything wrong with their day: not enough food, unfair that some have more to eat than others (mentioning no names), food scarce, not enough rain, sick to death of salt, too windy, lack of provisions, rudeness of other birds (especially pigeons), scarcity of eatables, selfishness of other gulls who steal food from humans but don’t share, stupidity of humans for allowing gulls to steal their fish, not enough fish today or ever, fish too salty, sun too bright, too many clouds, what are you eating, is that a fish, give me some now, I want some, not fair, not fair, et cetera et cetera. Their angry debate cut through his reverie. Not all birds floated serenely above the troubles of this world it seemed. Sometimes the view from above was just as disturbing as the view from down here on the ground.
If only – and now he really was daydreaming – if only everyone could agree. Why was it so hard? We all have the same senses, the same faculties of intellect. Do we not see the same things, do we not all reason as human beings? What is it that hinders us from understanding each other? The greatest mystery of all. To him it was all so obvious. Epicurus had shown the way, and now it was his appointed task to spread the good news. His poem, his message to the world. Rejoice all ye believers.
But it just wasn’t that simple. He knew it, here in this secret garden he could admit it, this most vigilantly guarded of secrets: he was never going to persuade that upper-class idiot Memmius; nor, for that matter, any of his other hunting-fishing-plundering-blundering aristocratic friends. Oh they liked the idea of the pursuit of pleasure alright, but they weren’t so enamoured of the fine print, the stuff about less-is-more and abandoning frivolities. Still less did they care for physics or cosmology or epistemology. Thousands upon thousands of carefully argued lines of verse expounding axiom, theory and application. All of it wasted on the all-powerful Roman elite. Even his literary friends (so-called friends, a little thought added sotto voce) made appropriate noises of appreciation but he could tell they weren’t really interested. Too wrapped up in their own projects, too concerned with showing off their own accomplishments, too busy being seen at the right sort of dinner parties. It was all very disheartening.
All that effort, all that hard labour chipping away at the great edifice, crafting, sculpting, refining; poring over endless books, turning abstruse philosophic theories into high-minded verse, systematically presenting the case line by tortured line. Arguing, persuading, cajoling: it can’t be the case that … if you think otherwise you’re far from the truth … other views must be mistaken … reason makes it clear that… All for nothing?
An acidic belch gurgled bitterly up his throat, overwhelmed his epiglottis, stung his soft palate, spattered unpleasantly across his tongue, finally exited through unyielding teeth gritted in defiance. Not exactly pain, but certainly not a pleasure. His stomach lurched, belated protest against lunchtime overindulgence. Above his head the gulls bickered raucously. A green-grayish-white missile exploded on the pristine cushion beside him. The stink of the sea, digested fish guts, but scarcely as appetising as garum. His stomach rolled. Just breathe (inhale-exhale). Relax …
… Damn the lot of them, damn them to Hades and back. He got up and stomped off – crash, crunch, crack – further along the gravel path, heading nowhere.
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[Go to Chapter 6]