Callisto Versus The Featherless Bipeds

By: Farah Masud

Part I

She followed them with caution, avoiding the dry leaves strewn on the path. They were sprinting now, her brother, Adonis and his friend, worried about missing the day’s lesson. Adonis would never tell on her, but his friend might. She needed to be careful so she could continue sneaking into the lectures.

They were at the entrance of Plato’s Academy now. It was just a small garden with a clearing in the center. She hid behind one of the olive trees as the boys joined the rows of pupils already seated on the grass.

Plato walked to the front of the class and addressed the pupils. He was going to continue his lecture on The Republic, when a pupil raised his hand and asked, “Teacher, what is a man?”

To that Plato answered, “According to the Great Socrates, animals are classified into quadrupeds and bipeds, and therefore, man is a featherless biped”. The students looked puzzled for a moment, and then nodded their heads in unison. It did not make any sense to them. But they would not dare to argue with the master.

Callisto thought about it. It did not make any sense to her either. But then she thought she was only fourteen; she must learn more before she can fully grasp lessons taught in these classes. The thought upset her. She only knew how to read and write a little bit. Adonis used to teach her after coming home from the Academy. But he rarely had time these days. He had been busy with lessons and farm work.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a peculiar noise. It came from the tree beside hers. There was a man clad in rags and he seemed to be holding a dead animal. She stealthily got up, crouched behind a bush and watched the strange man pluck the feathers of a dead chicken. He was chuckling and murmuring inaudible words to himself.

What is he up to, she wondered.

The man plucked the remaining feathers from the chicken and stood up, looking satisfied with his accomplishment. Callisto quickly ducked her head as he held the chicken behind his back and strode past her.

Heads turned and noses crinkled as he entered the Academy. He looked directly at Plato who was glaring back at him with utter disgust.

“Diogenes, to what do we owe this pleasure?” Plato asked, clenching his jaws tightly.

All eyes were now on the eccentric man. Diogenes waited, as if for a dramatic pause, then held out the chicken in his hand, saying, “Behold! Plato’s man!”

The whole class fell silent.

Plato’s face looked as though he was struck by Zeus’ thunderbolt. As realization dawned upon him, his face had flushed as brightly as a drunken man’s after a feast. Before his pupils could decipher the words of Diogenes, Plato asked some of them to get rid of “the madman who had no reverence for education”.

Diogenes didn’t wait for anyone to come throw him out. Instead, he showed Plato an obscene gesture and nonchalantly walked away.

Plato then cleared his throat and said to the class, “As I was saying, man is a featherless biped… with broad nails.”

The pupils nodded their heads again, this time, applauding the master.

Callisto burst into giggles, trying her best to do so as quietly as possible. Well, that madman just humiliated the wisest man in all of Athens! She thought.

She didn’t wait for Plato’s lesson to finish. Scampering home, she chanted “Behold! Plato’s man” and giggled by herself.

She kept chanting it while washing her tunic in the bath, while chopping figs for supper and when Adonis came home, she held up an imaginary chicken in her hand and said, “Behold! Plato’s man.”

It took a moment for her brother to realize what she had said, and then, all at once, both the siblings erupted into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.

“Well, he is one of a kind,” Adonis said.

Callisto nodded, her eyes gleaming in excitement.

“Brother, I want to learn, I want to be wise, I want to be like him!” she said.

“Like whom?” Mother called out from the kitchen.

“Diog-” Adonis covered Callisto’s mouth before she could finish.

“Shhhh… Don’t! He’s an outcast,” he whispered.

“whabb an ouuca?” She managed to say.

“An outcast is someone who is shunned by the society,” he said, removing his hand from over her mouth. “He was exiled from his own city, Sinope, so he fled to Athens.”

“Why was he exiled?”

“Diogenes is known for his notoriety, Callisto,” Adonis replied, tousling her hair affectionately. “He defaced thousands of coins and caused huge loss for the city”.

“But why would he do that?”

“He has a unique philosophy. He believes that money is corrupting us. Did you not notice his clothing? The way he eats at the marketplace and begs for a living?”

Callisto shook her head.

“Well then, keep an eye out for him the next time you’re outside. You’ll understand what I’m talking about.”

Now she was even more fascinated by this individual than she had been before.

*

The next morning, Callisto found Diogenes at the marketplace. She was appalled by the sight. Brother was right! He is actually chewing on a loaf of bread in the marketplace!

Passersby threw scornful glances at him; some even called him a ‘dog’. One elderly man went up to him and admonished, “Do you not know that food must not be eaten in the Agora? You are an abomination to all Athenians!”

Diogenes replied without any hint of guilt in his voice, “But it is in the marketplace that I feel the hungriest and it is here I feel most content eating,” he then flashed a toothy grin at the man and asked, “Do you have any Drachma to spare?”

The old man’s face transformed into a red plum. His nostrils flared as he cursed, “May the Gods pour their wrath upon you, kyôn!”

Diogenes scrunched up his eyebrows and spoke through gritted teeth, “I fawn on those who give me anything, I yelp at those who refuse, and I set my teeth in rascals.”

This made the elderly man take a few steps back, and with a final reproachful glance, he left.

Callisto found this to be extremely amusing. But her smile wiped away when she heard screams from a shop nearby.

A man clad in a tunic of rich green and silver embroidery stood next to a vegetable stall, his face frozen in a scowl, spewing profanity at his young slave because the boy had accidentally dropped the groceries from the sack that he was carrying. As the sickly boy stooped down to pick up the tomatoes, the man kicked him from behind, making the boy fall face-first on the ground. Callisto rushed to the boy’s aid and helped him to his feet. This infuriated the owner of the slave.

“And what, if I may ask, is your business in the marketplace?” the man sneered. “Do you not have dishes to wash or meals to cook? Get out of my sight, little girl!” he bellowed.

“It was an accident. You did not have to kick the boy,” Callisto said with a calm voice.

“I may do whatever I please with my slave,” sneered the man. “Now get out of my sight before I sell you off to a merchant!”

Callisto hesitated for a second, and then she walked away with her head hung over her shoulders.

People like him should be dumped in the river styx, she thought.

*

That afternoon when Adonis came home, Callisto told him all about the incident in the marketplace. Adonis listened to the story patiently and although he was concerned, he did not let his expressions reveal so.

When she finished, he finally said, “My little Callisto, I want you to listen to me carefully now. I know you are very passionate about learning and you want to do good for Athenians. But please promise me that you will not do anything that is dangerous for you.”

Callisto wanted to argue but knew better than to worry her brother. So she simply nodded her head.

“Tomorrow, I will head to Corinth for trade. Take care of yourself and mother, okay?” He added, poking her little nose.

“I will!” Callisto said, hugging her brother tightly.

“Callisto, fetch me some water.” Mother called out from the kitchen.

“Okay, run along now,” Adonis said.

Callisto grabbed a pot and sped off to the stream nearby.

The evening sky was dazzling in the hues of orange and pink. There were only a few other girls at the stream, mostly slave girls washing dishes. Callisto was humming to herself as she filled her pot. She stopped when she heard voices.

Two men were talking and chuckling in hushed voices. They were sitting on the narrow path by the stream. She sneaked up to a spot from where she wouldn’t be noticed. She was surprised to find Diogenes talking to a man in a cloak. There were two other men, standing on either side of the cloaked figure, seemingly guarding him.

Callisto strained her ears to listen to their conversation.

“So I took a featherless chicken to his class to give a practical example to the pupils,” said one of them.

The man in the cloak threw his head back and laughed, “Bless Hera! You did that to Plato? Truly, you are a genius!” The hood over his head fell back to reveal his face.

Callisto stretched her neck out of the shadow to see the man.

It’s…It’s the king of Macedonia...the one they call Alexander! Oh Goddess Tyche, you have blessed me with all the luck today! Never did I expect to see Alexander the Great with my own eyes.

“It is an honour to make your acquaintance. Is there anything I could do for you? Alexander asked Diogenes. “Wealth, power, women… I can give you anything you desire.”

“Yes. Would you mind standing aside? You are standing in my sunlight,” Diogenes replied.

Alexander chuckled again and took a moment before he said, “If I were not Alexander, then I would wish to be Diogenes.”

*

PART II

The next day, Callisto bid her brother farewell on his journey. And while mother was busy cleaning the house, Callisto packed her little bag with some bread, figs and a set of clothes.

I wonder if Adonis would be upset about this. It isn’t dangerous, to be precise. I’m sure he would be happy to find out that I am finally going to learn from a teacher.

She quietly slipped out of the house and set out to search for Diogenes.

She had decided she would do so the previous night, after her return from the rather eventful trip to the stream. She couldn’t stop thinking about what she had heard. Callisto was now full of admiration for Diogenes. Even the great conqueror Alexander, who could acquire anything he desired, held Diogenes to such a high regard.

She knew what she had to do.

After searching for a while, Callisto found Diogenes seated in a broken old barrel, right outside the marketplace. She hid near a big sack of wheat and watched him.

Diogenes didn’t seem to have any intention of getting out of the barrel, so Callisto took a deep breath and approached him.

“Ahem, excuse me, Mr. Diogenes, sir, my name is Callisto, and I want to be your student.”

Diogenes didn’t respond.

“Will you please teach me?” She asked.

A pause. The man finally turned to face her. The look on his face suggested that she was as insignificant to him as the flies circling his dirty barrel.

“A little girl like you has no place here. I will not teach you.” Diogenes barked.

“I will work very hard, sir, I swear upon Athena,” Callisto pleaded. “I learn reading and writing from my brother. He says I’m very sharp.”

“I do not care. Now, let me rest.”

Callisto continued talking.

“So do you live close by?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Where?”

Here, you fool,” Diogenes pointed at the barrel.

“In a barrel?” Callisto asked in surprise.

“Yes, and it is very comfortable,” he said, picking his nose. “Foolish girls like you are ensnared by the meaninglessness of civilization. You are always weighed down by too many desires. Do you not see the problem in that?”

“Yes, I do!” Callisto said. “That is why I have come to learn from you.”

“I will not teach you anything,” Diogenes said, turning away from her.

Callisto stood still, hands folded across her chest.

“You are still here. Did you not hear me? Get out before I –“

Diogenes jumped out of his barrel with a stick in his hand and chased her away.

*

When she returned home, Callisto received the beating of her life from her mother. “How dare you sneak out of the house like that? Just because you get more freedom than the other girls, you think you can do whatever you please? Where did you go? Where were you all this time?”

“Mother, I just wanted to… visit my friend who lives on the other side of the lake,” Callisto lied.

That brought about another round of beating.

At least she doesn’t know about Diogenes, Callisto thought.

*

The following weeks, Callisto found excuses to leave the house and meet Diogenes. Every day she would plead him to be her teacher, and every day he would chase her away. But each day, she would learn something new from the encounter – about life, people, and Diogenes’ view of the world.

One day, she saw him carrying a lamp in his hand in broad daylight. Callisto found it extremely amusing. So she carried a lamp herself, and quietly followed Diogenes. When some men on the street asked him what he was doing, Diogenes replied, “I am looking for an honest man.” And the men walked away scratching their heads.

This made Callisto burst into laughter.

“Why are you following me, little girl?” Diogenes asked, not looking behind to see her.

“It is very hard to find an honest man with one lamp. So I’m helping you,” Callisto replied cheekily.

*

Part III

“I told you so many times. I will not teach you!” Diogenes barked at Callisto. “Do you not understand that? I cannot teach you! Don’t you see that is the whole point I am trying to make; the whole problem with all these so-called philosophers. They impose their own beliefs onto other men. Why shouldn’t one be allowed to speak and act the way he wants? Why shouldn’t we allow a man to think for himself and find his way in life?”

“Please,” the girl insisted. “I understand the point you are trying to make. But I have no one else to turn to, no one else to help me. No other way to learn about the world and the – ”

“Stupid girl, the only thing you must know is that no one can teach you how to breathe, how to live and to think for yourself.”

“But you are the great Diogenes! Surely you could – ”

“They call me Diogenes the Dog!” he replied, his voice trembling in contempt. “They mock me! They loathe me because I refuse to follow the conventions of their perfect society!”

Diogenes was bellowing in rage now. “They worry that I urinate in public and eat in the Agora, but turn a blind eye to the injustice all around them. And you... you are no different!”

“That’s not true! I-I’m not like them,” Callisto whimpered.

But Diogenes would not hear any of it. He growled back a rude retort and simply stalked away.

Callisto lowered her gaze as tears started to well up in her eyes. She thought that she wasn’t a good student after all. That no one would ever want to teach her.

The thought made her chest even heavier than before.

*

Just as she began to walk away, a commotion in the marketplace snagged her attention. A tight circle of crowd started to form around the spot. Callisto pushed through to get to front.

There he was – the same arrogant man in the green tunic. He was beating his slave with a metal chain while the little boy shrieked in pain.

“STOP!” Callisto pleaded, as she ran to stand in between the slave and his master.

“You again!” the man said scornfully.

“Stop it please! He is bleeding so badly. Please stop.”

“Would you rather have me beat you with this chain?”

The crowd continued to gawk at the scene, making no attempt to stop him.

Callisto hesitated at the pure arrogance in that threat. “You – I mean – ” she blurted out.

“Don’t test my temper, you stupid little girl!” the man bellowed as he shoved her aside.

As the man began to raise the metal chain once more to hit the boy, Callisto yelled out loud, “Yes! If it means you will stop hurting him, then yes! I will take his place.” The girl began to sob as the last word left her mouth.

That seemed to have struck a chord with the crowd and as though an angry beast had finally been awoken from its slumber, the crowd began to shout out, “Leave the girl alone!”

A man in the back piped in, “You cannot hurt whoever you wish to! The girl does not belong to you!” The rest of the crowd then, chimed in, voicing their own disgust at the man’s attitude.

The man in the green tunic looked towards the crowd in disbelief. Callisto’s selfless act had turned the tide against him. Not wanting his reputation to be further tarnished, the man cursed Callisto under his breath and dragged his slave away.

Someone from the crowd kneeled down and asked for her name.

“Callisto,” she said, barely moving her lips as someone else offered her a hand and she stood up.

“Do you need help finding your way back home?”

With all those eyes staring at her expectantly, she understood what Diogenes had meant. She could not be taught how to stand up for herself. She could not be taught compassion or love for others. Nothing except her own will-force had helped her make that decision to stand in the way of the metal chain. She would have to learn to do so on her own.

People like Diogenes were important because they make people question set beliefs. They challenge people over and over again until they are forced to see the truth. They make us realize that nothing is as perfect as Plato’s ideal Republic. They open our eyes to all the cruelty and ugliness of the world.

I finally understand what you have been trying to tell me all along. Knowledge and wisdom are not to be taught, but rather, to be pursued by each and every one of us.

And so she squared her shoulders and lifted her chin and replied to no one in particular, “I can find my own way”.

-The end-

Synopsis

Callisto is a fourteen year old girl, living in Athens with her mother and older brother, Adonis. Always inquisitive and hungry for knowledge, she learns to read and write from her brother and sneaks into Plato’s Academy whenever she can to learn from the master himself. On one such occasion, she encounter’s Diogenes the Cynic, another well-known but widely despised philosopher of the time. Diogenes interrupts Plato’s class and proves his theory wrong, baffling Plato and all his students. Callisto is fascinated by the man’s wisdom and decides to find out more about him. One day, she overhears a conversation between Diogenes and Alexander the Great. The great conqueror praises Diogenes’s philosophy and even says that if he was not Alexander, he would wish to be Diogenes. All of this inspires Callisto to become a student of Diogenes and learn his philosophy about life, people and the world in general. When she requests him to teach her, he refuses right away. But Callisto’s unwavering determination helps her to find different ways to learn from him. In spite of being chased away every time, she follows him and observes him as much as she can. And with every encounter, she learns something new and it impacts her way of looking at the world. One day, Diogenes decides that he has had enough of her pestering and asks her to leave for good. While leaving she notices a man ruthlessly beating his young slave while the crowd is watching silently. She tries to stop the violence and asks the man to beat her in his place. Callisto’s selfless act awakens the passive crowd and they all retaliate against the man. The man not wanting his reputation to be further tarnished leaves the place. In the end, Callisto realizes that cynics like Diogenes are important because they question people’s set beliefs and norms and compel them to strive for truth and justice. She also realizes that knowledge and wisdom are not to be taught but rather, to be pursued by each and everyone.