Legend has it that shortly before his trial Socrates uncharacteristically left his students and followers and walked into some nearby woods on the outskirts of Athens. He wandered awhile before finding a place where the sun trickled through the trees and created a swathe of dappled light around a fallen, mossy log. He sat upon the log, closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
Completely isolated from human contact, he searched deep within himself with the intention of finding the true wisdom that had eluded him for so long. At a point of almost losing complete consciousness of his surroundings, he became acutely aware that he was not alone. He glanced up to see that a fox was nearby, watching him. The filtered sun bathed the fox in an incandescent light, its fiery red coat seeming to shimmer and its white underbelly looking rich and silvery. Its amber eyes were fixed upon Socrates. It displayed no fear. The fox was clearly unperturbed by his presence; in fact it seemed more intrigued than worried. It slowly cocked its head to one side and stared intently at the quiet man before it.
Socrates' inquiring eye examined the creature in return. It was lean and hardy, its athletic form forged from a life of continual quest. Yet it also commanded the grace and poise of pampered nobility. Its angular features had been honed through constant searching and foraging. It had a cold and piercing hunter's eye, and yet its soft fur gave it a gentle and caring demeanour.
For a while they both looked at each other, each seeking a reason for the other's presence. Socrates sensed that the fox was asking him something. Was it possible, Socrates asked himself. He slowly shifted his weight, leaned slightly forward, extended both his open hands and in a polite but firm whisper, asked, "does my presence concern you?"
"Perhaps I should ask", retorted the fox, "does my presence concern you?" The fox seemed to smile.
Socrates smiled back, gently shook his head and said, "not at all". Indeed, he felt a deep and fulfilled calm wash over him in the presence of an intellect that obviously matched his. "I have been continually questioning anything and everything, hoping to find answers, and that's what finds me here", he added.
"I, too, search continually, and sometimes, in the process of meeting paradoxes and contradictions along the way, I find what I am looking for."
"Then", said Socrates, "knowing your reputation for quick-witted and agile thinking, you may be the one finally to help me".
As Socrates looked at the fox to confirm the seriousness of his intent to engage him, the creature slowly cocked its head once more and met his gaze. At that moment they both realized that just as they had stumbled across each other, so had they found themselves. There was much to talk about.
And so started a dialogue between Socrates and the fox.
Fox: Most philosophers start by asking what is the meaning of existence. Socrates: I don't. For whatever species you are, how can you define the meaning or purpose of your existence unless you fully understand the context in which you exist? Fox: You mean in my case understanding how the forest works. For instance, the relationships between the various animals inhabiting it and the impact they individually and collectively have on the environment. Socrates: Yes, but also the impact that the environment has on them. For example my present surroundings have created a deep sense of tranquility in me. However, when I'm in the busy streets of Athens, the hustle and bustle excites me. A rule of existence is that wherever you go, and whatever people you encounter, you leave something behind and take something away with you. We are all elements of a system in a continual state of interaction and mutual influence, like our minds are with our bodies. Fox: So I'm leaving a lasting impression on you with this conversation, as I know you are now doing on me? Socrates: Correct. But to get back to your original comment, my first question is always "why are you what you presently are?" What mixture of natural-born qualities and experiences since birth has made you into the animal, or in my case the person, you are today? It's a question of fact because we are dealing with the past. I am asking you to trace the single unique line between the moment you came into being till now. Think about all the influences on your life so far - positive, negative, neutral - which have conspired to get you to this location at this point in time. Fox: That question would take longer to answer than I have time for, given the necessity for me to be constantly on the move in daylight hours. But, yes, I was born a fox with all the strengths and weaknesses that go with the species. My choice of parents was beyond my control, as was my date of birth. But what has been within my control since then has been to use my strengths instinctively to cover for my weaknesses. I am small and therefore vulnerable, but I am agile and have keen senses. I know my limitations, I know the risks, but I also grab opportunities as they arise. I can adapt to the changes in the environment, and, man, have there been some big changes recently! As far as I know, you're the first person to have ventured into this grove. You have to accept change, and change with it. Call it foxiness that keeps me alive, call it cunning intelligence, but here I am and my wife has kids on the way. Socrates: I wish I could echo your upbeat approach. My destiny line has been different to yours. I was born into a fairly well-to-do family and had a conventional upbringing in Athens. As you rightly say, I had no choice but to be an Athenian which, to begin with, was the most marvelous thing to be, since Athens used to be the leading city on Earth. I got married and had three children but then my world was turned upside down when my nation went to war with its neighbour, Sparta. I joined the army as an infantryman, or 'hoplite' as we call it, and served in several campaigns. Basically I went with the flow until I realised how futile the war was and how corrupt our society had become. Then I started asking questions and gathered a set of young followers around me with whom to debate these questions. I've never written anything, but the questions I ask have got to the ears of the ruling authorities and have made them very angry. I am about to be put on trial and I feel a sense of impending doom. But then it was my choice. I was in control. Fox: So is there anything you would change about yourself now? In that respect, you have wider choices than me because my occupation in the animal kingdom will forever remain the same. All I can do is move to another place. Socrates: Don't be so humble, because that was going to be my second question: No, I would never contemplate moving out of the field of philosophy or change where I live. But it is the question that logically follows the first one. Having traced your destiny line from start to present, where should you go to now? But then the third question has to be who is for you, who is against you and who is neutral? In seeking to clarify the direction you wish to take, you have to return to the principle of being part of an interconnected system. Fox: So you have to weigh up your friends and enemies and those who can go either way before deciding on your next move? I like that because in the animal kingdom you very quickly learn who is out to kill you and who isn't. You avoid the places where the former may be and stick to potentially friendly territory. Socrates: With human beings it's more difficult to judge for we have the quality of deceit. But nothing really happens unless you have a few or many people on your side and you find ways around those whom you have identified as obstructing you. This makes the fourth question easy to ask: what are the rules of the animal kingdom and how do they differ from those governing human society? Fox: Well, I can only speak for my world. The rule is simple and all encompassing: you do lunch, or be lunch. Straight competition. Survival of the fittest. Socrates: In our world, that rule exists too in commerce and war. Nonetheless I have spent all my philosophical hours on enquiring about another set of rules that should co-exist with the rule of competition. These relate to morality and goodness, but everybody has a different idea about what they are. I doubt whether we will ever reach agreement, but the quest must continue. Fox: Having acknowledged that each of us in our own way is an element of a complex system and we should have knowledge of the other participants and the rules that apply to all of us, there is one more thing. Life can surprise you and it is better to be aware of the surprises in advance or have a very fast reaction time if they really do come out of the blue. Don't you agree? Socrates: Of course; and that leads me to my fifth question - what are the uncertainties that can radically change your destiny line? Because, make no mistake, the majority of factors making up the future environment around you are uncertain and beyond your control. What you are does not determine what you will be. In my case, I have no power over the court that is going to sit in judgment on my future and I have to be prepared for all eventualities. On a broader front, the defeat by Sparta came as a big surprise to most Athenian citizens since they believed they were the most advanced society in the world with the greatest military might. They have reacted badly because defeat was unthinkable. But there again, they might bounce back if defeat has taught them to be more 'foxy' about the future. Which naturally leads on to my next question, which is one of the hardest to answer: where is your destiny line going to lead you? What are the possibilities? What are the consequences? Fox: My possibilities are to take my wife and travel north, south, east or west after this conversation. Each path will contain its own string of events and consequences, which will become part of my destiny line. And you? Socrates: That depends on the outcome of the trial. I could be found not guilty of any crime and continue to debate the issues that intrigue me. I could spend the rest of my life in prison. I could be put to death. Three scenarios for which there will be one outcome, but I must be prepared for all three. Now in light of the fact that you ought to move on soon, we need to get to the crux of the matter. What are we going to take away from our conversation and do? For as we both know, actions speak more loudly than words. Fox: Ah! You are rushing ahead in the conversation. As I said earlier, my whole destiny line to date has involved a growing understanding of my strengths and weaknesses. So the seventh question should be: what are your strengths and weaknesses and where are your immediate opportunities and threats? Unless you tackle this question, talk of possible action is academic, with due apology to you as a philosopher. Yes, I agree that what you are does not automatically determine what you will be or what you can be, but it sure as hell has an influence over your next move. Socrates: I told you at the outset that I thought you were smart. You are! Well, my strength is that I have an enquiring mind, and I guess my weakness is that I do not suffer fools gladly. My opportunity is to leave a legacy of the importance of not accepting things at face value; and the threat is imminent death. Fox: Well put. Which neatly dovetails into my next - and if I've counted correctly, the eighth - question: "what options do you have?" I've outlined mine, which are pretty simple and relate to the part of the forest I want to sleep in tonight. Socrates: Hmm, I could escape before the trial starts and come along with you. But that would damage my legacy. I could reconsider my public stand on the war and the way Athens is governed, but that would also damage my legacy. I can stand trial and stick to my principles, in which event I've already laid out the future possibilities. Fox: So now we come to your question: which option are you going to exercise and turn into action? Personally I've decided to head north and take my chances there. Socrates: This dialogue has been delightful because it has clarified my mind. Of course, I will exercise the last option and take my chances in court. Fox: Well, dear friend, best of luck. It is time to part. Socrates: Not before the final and tenth question. Remember, at the very beginning you thought I was going to ask about the meaning of existence. Now we have discussed the past, the present and the future, we must return to this issue with the extra knowledge we have gained. What for you is the meaning of life? Fox: I suppose it has to do with the reproduction of my species. That is my legacy. I have to protect my wife and children so that someday in some far distant country my several times great grandchild will carry on the foxy tradition. Socrates: Yes, that is the meaning of life for me too. But I also want my idea of enquiry to persist in the minds of future generations. Fox: In all probability, that will happen if you suffer the worst of all possible fates. Premature death will ensure eternal life for your idea. Socrates: Your final remark, my dear friend, is - whether you intended it or not - a Socratic outcome. You are a seer in the true meaning of the word. Not only do you see things more quickly than other animals because of your peripheral vision, you see into the future. My life's work has been trying to give people a fraction of your talent by asking questions that reveal the truth behind the mask of appearances. Goodbye and good luck.
With that they parted company, never to meet again, but never to forget the wisdom and experience they had shared with one another. Both had given and taken something away from the encounter. Both their destiny lines had intertwined and changed.