The Stoa, an original short story

1

Pomeroy College sat within the farmlands in north-east Pennsylvania. An old mansion served as offices for administration and faculty; newer buildings held a stage for the theater department, classrooms, more offices for faculty, dormitories, and fraternity houses.

On a Friday evening in June 1951, Professor Clyde Milvern, Professor of Classical Studies at Pomeroy – and a world-renowned expert in the field – prepared for the semi-annual dinner of the Stoa, the club of certain of his current and former students. He was careful about how he looked – soft grey hair in place, thinning at the top; moustache neatly trimmed and waxed, and a blue suit and grey bow tie. Pleased with how he looked, he went to the dinner, in the restaurant of the Hotel Percival in Scranton.

At six o’clock the members came. These were men of prestige in their communities and professions–business, law, politics, clergy, and military. Professor Milvern stood at the head of the table, which was the signal for the men to take their seats.

“Brothers,” intoned Milvern, “I welcome you to another symposium of the Stoa. As I have said before, the Stoic philosophy takes its name from the stoa, the Greek name for the portico of the temple where Zeno, the founder of this noble philosophy, held forth its truth.

“When I started this group,” continued Milvern, “twenty-one years ago, I worried about the vulgarization of the mind in this country, with jazz, illegal liquor, gangsters and movie actors the nation’s heroes, and Communism. I formed this group to study the teachings of the great Stoic philosophers, and see what they have to say to us in this era. But first–”

A young man who sat in a chair in the back – slender, thick blond hair, a look both intelligent and nervous – stood and stepped towards Milvern, who clasped him on the shoulder and said, “This is Peter Dancy, my most prized student. He has a grasp that no one else has on Greek Philosophy, History and Language.”

These words resonated with the men in the room. They were all praised in some form or another by Milvern, who they regarded as the wisest of men.

Milvern took a small metal pin from his coat pocket–a pair of Greek pillars with a roof over them – and pinned it on the lapel of Dancy’s jacket, saying, “I welcome you, Peter, into our brotherhood. You will be an asset to society just by practicing Stoic belief into our corrupted world.”

The men at the table applauded. Milvern said, “Peter, it is our custom for a new member to tell us how you apply Stoic teachings in your life.” He sat down.

Dancy inhaled, pressed his hands in front of him, and said, “I often have to pass by the Gamma Psi frat house, and the guys there make fun of me as I pass by, they call me ‘sissy boy’ because I won’t go chasing after girls, prostitutes, like they do.

“But I do my best,” he continued, “not to pay any attention to them, to endure their taunts, and let their words pass right by me. The Stoic teachers teach us to endure hardship with dignity, and to not fall into your lust and passions, to be the ideal man.”

The older men applauded. Milvern stood and said, “Thank you, Peter. Brothers, please greet the new brother.”

Dancy went around the table, shaking the hand of each man present. He ended shaking Milvern’s hand, and Milvern said, “Peter, you may take your place at the table.” The men ate, starting with red snapper soup, rolls, and Caesar salad, followed by steaks with brown gravy and rice, concluding with a variety of pies and coffee. As they ate, they spoke with one another.

Dancy sat and ate, awed to be with these distinguished men, a young kid among the grown-ups. He was one of them now, a member of the Stoa, the most exclusive club on campus.

“So, Peter,” smiled Walter Skyler, a prominent attorney in Philadelphia, “What year are you in?”

“I’m entering my senior year in September,” said Dancy.

“What do you plan t’do with this degree, what career?” said Skyler.

“I could be a professor, like Dr. Milvern. Greek History is so fascinating.”

“Anything special you like about it?” David Siller, a bank president, asked.

“I’m intrigued at the concept of an aristocratic class,” Dancy explained, “being in the service of the community. It’s in Plato’s Republic, how a class of people can be trained to run a society for the society’s benefit. To be quite honest–” He paused.

“Go on, Peter, you’re free to speak you mind here,” urged Milvern.

“I have trouble with Democracy in this country,” sighed Dancy. “I’m afraid that Democracy has led to the cheapening of all that’s good and noble in life. Like music – nobody listens to Bach or Beethoven anymore, but now we have this jazz and big band junk filling the minds of people, instead of serious classical music.”

“Yes, I’ve felt that way as well,” nodded Skyler.

“And politics,” added Dancy, “politicians act like vaudeville clowns going into town, and they promise the moon and stars, like Santa Claus handing out candy to kids. That’s no way to govern!”

“True,” nodded Milvern. “A man of the background of the late President Roosevelt has to cater to the mob. You remember it was the mob that had Socrates executed just for telling the truth.”

“Yes, and Jesus as well,” agreed Samuel Collier, a Methodist bishop. “The mob in Jerusalem howled and screamed for the Blood of Jesus, and for the release of the criminal Barabbas! That’s the people for you!”

“I’ve learned,” declared Ernest Toller, a radio executive, “that the masses of people can be moved one way or the other by their emotions. In the broadcasting industry, we know how to move their emotions. With the war in Korea, we can put it in the wider context of the Communist drive to dominate the world, but in a simple manner so that the masses could understand, not let it be too complicated. They wouldn’t comprehend.”

The men finished their dinner; Milvern rose and stated, “Brothers, it is our custom after we eat for us to stand and state how we apply the Stoic philosophy to our lives.”     Joseph Demming was the first to speak. He had a patch over his left eye and three fingers missing from his left hand.

“I fought,” said Demming, “in the late World War as a captain of an infantry company. As we were getting ready to enter Germany, a German mortar shell went off near me and sent me flying. During my stay in the hospital, I recalled the teachings of the Roman Stoic philosophers, such as Seneca and Marcus Arelius. They taught that so-called misfortunes – in my case, losing an eye and some fingers, and having some fractures – were not bad or good in themselves, because they had nothing to do with me as a man.

“I was also,” added Demming, “reminded of the Roman hero Scaevola, who stuck his hand into the fire to frighten the enemy. I would like also to praise the young men who served under me in the war. They served with great fortitude, discipline, and courage, enduring hardship and death for their country. We need more, many more men like that in our society.” He sat down, and the men applauded.

Samuel Collier, the Methodist bishop, rose and spoke:

“I was a poor kid with only one pair of shoes, and my father walked out on my mother and me when I was ten. But I felt a calling to serve the Lord on the pulpit, but I had no money for it. So the pastor of the church I went to took me to see Professor Milvern, who showed me how to apply for scholarships. I found there are good and decent rich men who’ll donate money to put a poor but honest young man through his schooling, so long as he keeps his grades up.

“Brothers,” Collier continued, “when you find a young man trying to better himself, give him a little help. I don’t mean smooth the road for him, for the rough road is always the road to glory, as Seneca teaches us. Give him guidance, give him the opportunity to prove himself, let him know when he’s about to make a mistake,  mentor him, just as Professor Milvern guided me, and guided all of us. If more rich and successful men did that, and recognized poor but talented young men, why, we wouldn’t have Communism.” He sat down, and the men applauded.

Stuart Hilliard rose and said, “I own the biggest anthracite coal-mining company in the state, and I’m eternally grateful for the men I have working under me. But I’ve had to be stern with them lately. They went on strike, and I refused, and still refuse, to deal with the union. I fear that if I give in to their demands, I would be indulging a spoiled child – I want this and I want that. Yes, coal-mining is a dangerous job, but that’s the way it is, and they could not accept that. They must, as Captain Demming said, be willing to face hardship, pain, injury, and death, for that is the sign of a noble man.” He sat down, and the men applauded.

Walter Skyler stepped over to Hilliard and whispered, “Stu, I know how we can get some niggers t’work f’you–“

”Okay, later,” said Hilliard quickly, and they shook hands.

Milvern rose and stated, “Brothers, we have seen in our lives the truth of Stoic teaching. We have seen the ordinary people on the street to be like a heard of sheep, that can scatter during a storm. We in this room, the leading figures in our various fields, have the great responsibility to be wise shepherds for the masses of people. They need and want to be led wisely, for they do not have the ability to govern themselves. Someday, and may it come soon, the world will acknowledge the truth, and accept the leadership of the men schooled in philosophy and government.”

Milvern lifted his hands, and the men rose from their seats.

“We go forth now,” said Milvern, “to lead, to guide, and to rule. May we make our decisions like steel, which when put to the fire is made stronger. Thank you for coming, and fare you well.”

2

In the sixties, Pomeroy College had become a state university, and could no longer exclude anybody for any reason, except bad grades. The state’s student grant program made it easier for less affluent students and women to enter Pomeroy.

Professor Clyde Milvern regularly walked down the Avenue-the main street of the campus- on his way to the commons for lunch. He frowned at the Black Student Union and their insistence on more learning about the history of Africa; Milvern, as an authority, stated, “Young man, Africa has no history, except during European colonization.” From this, he wrote in quarterly journals about how students’ political agendas are dictating curricula.

The campus feminist group, because they insisted on more studies on the role of women in society, drove him to give lectures about the Amazons and how they symbolized barbarism, while the Athenians symbolized civilization. He was amused at the happy zealousness of the young men from the local churches preaching on top of the Mound, the pile of earth used for public speaking.

Milvern regularly sat with Peter Dancy, who remained in Pomeroy as an associate professor of Greek and Roman History, making his own reputation of scholarship in the field. Once or twice a week, Dancy visited Milvern at his bungalow on the edge of the campus. They sat in the dimly-lit living room drinking coffee – it was all that Milvern could make for himself – and discussed Greek and Roman history and philosophy, and the decadence of the current era.

“Oh, Peter,” moaned Milvern, “what’s going on in the world? What’s happening to everything we’ve stood for?” Milvern showed Dancy an editorial in the student newspaper, The Pomeroy Press,  that said, “The Stoa is nothing but a fancier version of a kid’s tree fort, where no girls are allowed and they can do things that their parents can’t see.”

“On top of that,” griped Milvern, “the woman’s libbers on campus are calling themselves the Amazon Club, just to taunt us!”

“Ah, Doctor,” pleaded Dancy, “Don’t let those chicks get you down. Don’t worry, it’ll all turn out right in the end.”

“Well, we can at least hope,” worried Milvern.

Often, at close to nine AM, Milvern looked sunken, hollowed-out; he would ask Dancy, “Peter, I’m tired, please help me to the bedroom.”

“Sure, no problem, Doctor,” said Dancy, and he lifted Milvern to his feet and guided him to the bedroom and on the bed, took off his shoes, and laid him down.

“Thank you, Peter,” said Milvern, “oh, and from now on, please, call me Clyde. So very few people have done so.”

“Oh, uh, okay, Clyde.” smiled Dancy.

3

On June 1971, Milvern presided at the Stoa’s biannual dinner. The men of the club dined on roast beef and au gratin potatoes, string beans, Caesar salad and varieties of pie and coffee. After dinner, Dancy gave the opening address:

“Our club has come under attack from various quarters, as being an elitist club. What people fail to understand is that there will always be an elite to run society. The question is, how will it run society? Will it govern by moderation, wisdom, and prudence? Or, will it be pushed and pulled by every whim of the mob, every fad that comes along?

“Still, the Stoa continues to gain new members, men, exclusively men, who value Classical education as a guide to living the good life in society. We don’t seek a mass following; we seek quality, not quantity, in men.”

His voice softening, Dancy said, “And now, for our main address, I give you our founder and leader, Professor Emeritus Clyde Milvern.”

Slowly, Milvern pulled himself to his feet – his legs and feet hurt him lately – as Dancy helped him up, to the applause of the men in the room.

“My friends, my brothers,” Milvern said, “I feel all my years coming up to meet me –” He smiled and the men laughed lightly.

“I have taught the truth of Greek and Roman classical thought, about how a man should conduct himself in society, in his public affairs, and in his private life. The men who founded this country, the United States of America, were well-versed in the Classics, and they lived their teachings.

“One of the things the Classics teach us is to be active in the affairs of society. If the wise man stays away from civil affairs, public life then, as Plato teaches us, would be handed over to being run by inferiors! Yes, I’ve said it, inferiors! Men who would promise anything to the mob, who succumb to the whim of the moment, as Professor Dancy said.”

(Milvern never voted in an election, and seldom left the campus, except to visit the doctor twice a year.)

“Democracy has debased everything in this country!” continued Milvern. “It has turned our political life to hordes of cheap lawyers bargaining for position! It has legislatures turned into places where goods are exchanged, like a flea market! Education has become exercises in teachers repeating information to puny minds who could not begin to comprehend the knowledge! It has reduced the arts to nothing more that pretty pictures and pretty sounds, nothing to intrigue the mind or stir the spirit of Man! We have mass communications for the mass of people!

“Perhaps,” he decided, his head down, “it’s best that way. For the masses of people, there is the mass media, fitted for their small minds and limited visions. But for us, the men who aspire to the Platonic ideal of Man, there is something different, something higher and nobler, and that is what we must hold on to for ourselves.

“The commonest excuse is ‘Times have changed.’ Yes, times have changed, but that is all that has changed. Principles have not changed, nor will they ever. We must and shall stand with the Truth and our principles, no matter what happens in the world.

“One principle is the obligation of a citizen to his polis, his community, his state. It is, was, and will always be the obligation of the citizen to obey the laws of the state, and to fulfill other obligations, such as military service. But I’ve had the misfortune to see young men refuse to take up arms for their country, in the war in Viet Nam. It is proper for a country to demand its young men enter military service, and it’s the mark of a great and noble man to be ready to go through the hardships that military service entails!”

(As a young man in the 1910s, Milvern was eligible for the draft for World War One, but he did not go in – he wasn’t called, and he didn’t ask questions.)

“I have seen Negroes rise up and demand their rights as a group of people, and the men in charge of the democratic state give in to them. Let me remind you, gentlemen, that even the democratic regime in Athens had a vast slave class, and Sparta had their helot class. Individuals of the inferior classes were able to rise out of their subordinate status, based on their merit, and they or their sons could hope to be full citizens. But the class they emerged from remained. A subordinate class is and will always be needed to carry out the manual labor of society, but they cannot, must not, make decisions for society. Communism is the present example of what happens to a society turned over to its workers, its mechanics, and its hobos.”

(Milvern then remembered his father, a farmer, beating him whenever he felt like it, and calling young Clyde “my little girl” when his friends came by.)

“We must also reject,” Milvern went on, “the false idea of universal, equal rights, the belief that simply due to residency, you have the rights of a citizen. In ancient Rome, citizenship was a privilege conferred by the proper authority, as a reward for service! Citizenship is not a gift, and not every person is capable of earning this honor! We must return to the idea that citizenship is a privilege belonging to those who have proven worthy, its finest, most productive people, and all others must be excluded for the good of the nation!”

The men in the room-wealthy, influential men, men taught thus by Professor Milvern-rose and applauded for fifteen seconds, then sat down.

Milvern added, “I must speak this time about religion. This club as a group, and I in particular, have been accused of atheism, of not believing in God. I shall speak for myself and say that I do believe is a form of Supreme Divinity. But it’s not the religion performed by the masses of people! That religion is mainly the same mass-produced painting and music I’ve talked about, but suitable to whichever commonplace image of God is available at the time! Such a mass religion, like the mass media, is suitable only for the minds of the mass of people! We who are the heirs to Greek Philosophy know the true nature of the Divine!”

Milvern sighed, and intoned, “I speak of God this time, because I shall meet Him presently. I’m dying of cancer, and I only have at least three months to live.”

There was a moan from the men, with mouths gaping, and a few jumped to their feet.

Milvern continued, “During this time, I have been putting my affairs in order, which is simple due to the fact that I’m not married, and never have been. I have never need or wanted the company of women. The study of Classical wisdom has always been my passion. You, the men of the Stoa, have been my brothers, my real family. It is therefore fitting that I leave you my true legacy, my life’s work.”

He turned to Dancy and said, “Peter, please stand.”

Dancy rose; he knew that Milvern was ill, but he didn’t know how ill. What was going to happen?

“Peter,” said Milvern, “”I have found you to be one of the finest minds in the nation on Greek and Roman studies. You have produced a wonderful newsletter for the club, so that I could communicate with the brothers on a regular basis. Plus you have raised funds from our members to keep our projects flourishing. At this time, before I die, I hereby name you my successor as Leader of the Stoa.”

The men rose and applauded as Dancy hugged Milvern, who kissed Dancy’s forehead. Both men wept.

The applause faded; Dancy inhaled and said, “Let us remain standing and hold our glasses high.” Lifting his champagne glass–the other men followed suit–Dancy announced, “Let us drink a toast, to Clyde Milvern, the wisest man this nation has ever had!” and he and all the others drank.

Milvern wept, but he smiled. His life’s work was not in vain; it would go on.

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