Abontides of Samothrace

One of the lesser figures -- a mere asterism, one might say, rather than a constellation -- in the sprawling zodiac of the Ancient Greek's Golden Age of Philosophy, Abontides is one of the most putative and least veritable contributors to humanity's collective body of knowledge.

He was born in the late 5th Century BCE, or even possibly in the very early 4th Century, on the Aegean island of Samothrace. His early training was in metal-working, and his profession, if not his avocation, was that of silversmith, goldsmith, and jeweler. Like all Greeks, he trained under arms, and was said to be "heroically dangerous" with short knives, darts, blow-guns, and the short-spear, which was thrown, rather that wielded in formations like the long-spear or sarissa.

Only four brief fragments of his writings exist today; three are copies, or copies of copies, but one is a palimpsest. This was found in Damascus and identified by x-ray micrography by Blanding and White of Columbia. In this, the author's hand can be seen: prim, precise, almost mechanical, the formal printing of a practiced artisan. There are references to him to be found in Epicurus, Democritus, and Zeno, although the dominating figures of the philosophical firmament -- Plato, Aristotle, or Diogenes -- are silent.

His philosophy is stoic, lacking in the miserliness, despair, or cynicism that so often mar those at the mystic end of the way, nor yet succumbing to the militarism, aristocracy, or frank racism so often tainting the materialist extreme. Without doubt he was a materialist -- and he was, himself, a man without doubts: the single most striking characteristic of his teachings was their unchallengeable certainty. Were Abontides a man to whom a cognomen might be attached, "The Sure" would be a strong contender.

His world-view anticipates John Calvin's ideas of predestination and the doctrine of the "visible elect," and yet without the use of an absolute step-ladder of morality. Rather, Abontides measures man against man, and hypothesizes a system of calculations by which the strong can be discerned from the weak. In mathematical terms, Calvin undertakes to place mankind into a system that is "well-ordered," whereas Abontides is content with a similar system, which is only "partially-ordered."

The key to comprehending Abontides is, for many, the allegory of the letter, or, in a modern updating, the allegory of the telephone call. In the simplest possible terms, the claim is this: the person receiving a letter -- or a telephone call -- is in absolute control of the conversation.

In the case of the letter, this seems intuitively obvious at first, until objections begin to intrude. What if the writer is so superlatively evocative as to compel the reader to unwanted emotions -- anger, fear, doubt, shame, lust, or despair? But Abontides responds with a key observation, which, in its way, unifies both the objectivist and the solipsist rebuttal. Any power that a letter may have to wring emotions from the reader must come from within the reader.

So, then, with the telephone call: the caller has no physical power whatever; the recipient is as omnipotent as he chooses to be. The caller has no more power than the recipient himself bestows upon the caller.

The first domino falls; the chain leading from mere volition to Free Will is imperiled.

Abontides makes it clear, in a statement as fantastic, and as absolute, as it is unanswerable: You, as an individual, are in complete control of all that happens to you in this life. Nothing can come to you, neither harm nor benefit, except by your own consent.

The victim of assault could have fought harder; the wounded soldier could have trained more; the drunkard hoisted his own jack; the gambler could have worked out the odds. Abontides is the drill-sergeant announcing, "There is no such thing as the word 'can't,' only the word 'won't.'" Abontides is the self-help guru explaining, "Only you have the power to give up on yourself."

Appended are the Steiger translations of the extant fragments.

You owe your failure to yourself. No man fails except by his own inability. No man succeeds except by the inability of others, and by his mastering of his own inabilities. Victory goes not to the strongest but to the least weak. Motto: succeed by not failing. Overcome adversity by outlasting it. Every man who is strong may yet be tested by a man who is stronger, and every man who is weak may yet master a man who is weaker. Motto: every man has his measure. Weak men gather together in riots, but strong men gather together in cadres.

If a man would know his measure, he should not contest every other man. Motto: a stone will break a bowl and a bowl will break a plat of wood. A wise man will look at other men and know which are plats of wood and which are stones. If he is a stone among men, he will know it. If he is a fool and a plat of wood among men, then he will be broken soon. Contests demonstrate only what can be known otherwise. A wise man breaks only the bowls and plats of wood that need breaking.

Lesser men may direct greater ones, but never command them. If the greater man permits it, he may follow the directions of even a child. Motto: Did not Achilles, as a youth, play with pups? By giving his permission, the greater man is not lessening himself. He is always the greater. He knows that he is, and the lesser man commanding him knows it as well. Thus a man may be bound by his duty, even though it may be less than he is. If a man who is building a wall is constrained to make the wall straight and level, he is not obeying the wall. It is his duty, which he chooses to obey, to make the wall straight and level, and he complies out of a desire for order. Motto: a man may accept his duty, yet in a contest the duty is the weaker and the man's will is stronger.

It may seem to my reader that my views have been too simple. Is a great general a stronger man than the army that he commands? Is a councilor stronger than his city? Motto: Strength is individual, and not to be put together. One man may break a wall of marble by first splitting it in two. So an army is commanded, for the general must be stronger than his lieutenants, who must be stronger than their corporals, who must be stronger than their spearmen. So a city is ruled, for the councilor is stronger than his deputies, who are stronger than the wardens, who are stronger than the citizens. Rule by any other means than the hierarchy of the strong is only mob rule, with no man measured against any other save by the strength of his fists.

This is still truly seen: five men may lift a block of stone that one man could not, and fifty men may lift a house.

To my reader my views may be taken as proud. But pride is not good for a man. The earth is stronger than any man, and the sky is stronger than the earth. Pride is weakness when it cannot be proven by measurement. Motto: The greatest swimmer cannot swim across the sea.

This is still truly seen: a man can build a boat.

My reader may complain that my views are degrading. All men are born from nothing and die to nothing: why should they lose this fine equality during their lives and be sorted out into strong and weak? Why should not every man be exactly the same as his brother, and every city the equal of every other? Motto: No man is very much different from any other. All crawl as infants, all learn what they know from the abyss of total ignorance, all make errors, all make triumphs, all totter and fall and die.

This is still truly seen: my reader has come to me for knowledge, and I have not come to him.