The mind isn’t always a beautiful place. Leontius, for example, couldn’t restrain himself from looking at the naked corpses lying at the executioner’s feet. At first, he covered his eyes, turning away from the grisly scene. Eventually, his prurient interest won out. His eyes popped open and his legs propelled him forward for a closer look. Embarrassed to find himself standing over the bodies, Leontius cried out, “Look, you damned wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.”
A modern reader might diagnose Leontius as psychotic. His contemporary Athenians, however, had a different vocabulary. According to Socrates, the great doctor of cities and psyches, Leontius was a man whose inner desires were in revolt against the authority of reason. The “damned wretches” were not the bodies before him but his own unruly passions. The cure for this uncomfortable condition was not medication but dialectical philosophy. Once Leontius reasserted the rational part of his soul – through reason, argument, and experience – his mind would achieve its natural beauty.
Socrates was impressed with Leontius’s anger, a spirit that usually aligns itself with reason. Leontius’s strange public outburst, he explained, shamed the appetitive aspect of the soul into submission. If Leontius’s ruling function could then show the “damned wretches” some love and kindness, his soul would get back on track. While not providing us with the rest of the conversation, Socrates gives us enough information to chart the course. Begin with a terrible embarrassment and then call out the wretches. Next, lovingly guide them in a healthier direction.
I am most impressed Leontius’s public performance. His recovery not only requires humility and courage, it also demands a wild sense of humor. He is training his inner demons like dogs to a whistle. “Leave it!” he shouts as they rush towards the pornographic. “Come!” he commands, bringing their crazed unruliness back home. No longer ashamed of their puppy ways, the man with the beautiful mind can channel their exuberance to his own delight and to the comic relief of any spectators. How lovely that we humans can improve and still be entertaining!
Political Theory Professor