Absent friends, those who have gone ahead of us in death, make doing alone what they used to do with us painful. Tasks, especially ones where the absent friend was most excellent appear impossibly difficult. Yet the discussion must continue while we are live. A man must answer the questions that threaten to drown him like a great wave sweeping over an island.
When Socrates died, his followers had to decide what to do. The teacher was gone. How could they go on? He had guided them and now he was no longer there. A man can only mourn so long before life intrudes. Fortunately, Socrates had been a mentor and not a guru. A mentor creates peers ready and able to go on, while a guru makes dependents. Plato, one of the greatest students in history, moved on by reflecting for decades on what Socrates had said in dialogues.
As an old man, Plato was still recollecting Socrates. In one of Plato’s last works (Timaeus), he pictures Socrates and some friends, especially the cosmologist Timaeus, getting ready to continue a conversation similar to the one in Republic. Right away Socrates discovers that someone is missing:
Socrates: One, two, three. . . Where’s the number four*, Timaeus? The four of you were my guests yesterday and today I am to be yours.
Timaeus: He came down with something or other, Socrates. He would have missed our meeting willingly.
Socrates: Well then, isn’t it for you and your companions to fill in for your absent friend?
Timaeus: You are quite right. Anyhow, we’ll do our best not to come up short.
Who was missing? There are many good guesses (justice, Plato, Glaucon), but nobody knows for sure. This is perfect, because the “missing” conversationalist can stand for every person who comes down with “something or other.” He or she would not miss willingly, but they are not here.
Plato presents a few suggestions of how to fill in for an absent friend.
Recollect what you have done up to that point.
Firmly fix what has been in your mind. Great good has been done and building on that foundation will honor the absent friend and allow for moving forward without him.
If the friend was most excellent, look to a community of friends or to some gifted outsider.
There is no “replacing” the absent friend.
You cannot accumulate enough people and magically replace Socrates. One hundred mediocrities are not a single genius, after all.Yet a community can do good work that a singular genius cannot. The community can take the inherited insights from the absent friend and test them from multiple perspectives quickly.
There is another possibility. Sometimes, thank God, the group finds something unexpected: a great genius in their midst either from the group or from outside. Timaeus came from abroad, but the group was ready to receive him.
They know that any wisdom received is a “good gift.” (20c). The wise community never chases off the possible teacher, because he is a stranger.
Recall that he would be with you, if he could.
The absent friend is not malicious, not letting you down. This charity enables the group to honor the absent friend and go forward with some sense of cheer. This is what the missing friend would wish. If he is merely temporarily absent (sick), then he will come when he is well and the forward progress of the group will be a gift. If he is gone ahead in death, then (as Plato speculated and Scriptures revealed) we can report our findings when we meet on the other side!
Most of all Socrates and company seek wisdom in this tough place, echoing the good pathway of King Solomon.
Solomon’s father, King David died and Solomon found himself in tough times. He had wanted the job badly, but his confidence faltered a bit when he had the crown. God comes to ask what he wished and Solomon chose wisely:
7 And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8 And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”
Solomon, for all his gifts and all that his father had prepared for him, was humble. He knew he was not his father and that he needed divine help.** He asked for an understanding mind and God gave him his desire.
Where is the fourth?
We know he would be here if he could, will be with us when he can, but for now we go forward into the great waves of life.
*Plato, Timaeus. 17. Zeyl. This would be better translated “Where is the fourth?”to show the distinction between the numbers “1,2,3” and the use of “fourth” instead of four. There is personal nature to this missing fourth. He or she is not just a number.
**This was a lesson Socrates also recognized . . .