Scene: A cloudless late afternoon. The sun is bright but quite low in the sky. Aristotle sits on a slab of rock by the shore of a sea lagoon, carefully examining a dead fish. In his left hand he holds a small, sharp dagger which he uses to raise the gill flap and look at the gills. By his side on a large flat rock is a rudimentary shrimp net and his large canvas bag, stuffed full of things.
Aristotle: A bearded, slightly balding man in his forties wearing a white linen himation
Nico: (pronounced Nicko rather than Neecko) A figure of indeterminate gender wearing long robes, and a sheesh acting as turban and veil, all of the most sumptuous light indigo blue. Though both colours are beautiful, the indigo clashes with the blue of the sky. When she appears her arms are folded so that her hands are hidden inside long, flowing sleeves.
Distracted from his study, Aristotle looks up and cocks an ear, listening… There is music intangibly on the air for a few moments (Tinarawen), hard to hear, and then fading out. Thrusting out his lower lip and shrugging to himself, Aristotle resumes his study of the fish. A minute passes and he looks up again, suddenly aware of a figure standing over him. When the two converse, Aristotle’s language is quite formal and correct, considered and rural, while Nico is relaxed, prone to slang, very urban...
ARISTOTLE: (Squints up at the figure and into the sun) You startled me.
NICO: You’re Aristotle, Aristotle from Macedonia?
ARISTOTLE: Do you have a message for me?
NICO: (Puzzled) A message? Perhaps.
ARISTOTLE: You are a slave?
NICO: (Considers for a second) I’m not free. I’ve never had the power to act as I would like.
ARISTOTLE: Ah, indeed, are any of us always free to think and speak exactly as we wish!
NICO: You can sit out in the afternoon sun, you’ve enough water, you can grow food on the land, there are fish in your seas…
ARISTOTLE: These are freedoms?
NICO: They are. Would be - would have been. For me.
ARISTOTLE: Are you from Africa, originally?
NICO: Maybe we’re all are from there, originally?
ARISTOTLE: (Wryly amused) I would hesitate to suggest that too loudly, not here on Lesbos, and certainly not in Athens!
NICO: I come from a very long way away, however you look at it.
ARISTOTLE: I thought I heard music a while ago, strange music to my ears. Not birdsong… That may be why I thought of Africa. Or perhaps it is your accent, which is also rather strange. I fail to place it. Your words too, your phrasing is not quite… How are you named?’
NICO: Call me Nico, if you wish.
ARISTOTLE: Are you a musician, Nico?
NICO: I sing. Sometimes, at night, in the dark and precious cool, I do sing.
ARISTOTLE: You did not make the music that I thought I heard, though?
NICO: Not unless… (Pauses, looks into the distance, unfocussed) ‘You‘ll return to Athens when you leave Lesbos?
ARISTOTLE: I am not sure.... I have a certain pupil here, very promising, Theophrastus, a young man about your age I would guess. We have much to do.
NICO: (Stating not asking) He’s the botanist.
ARISTOTLE: I am not familiar with the term. How…
NICO: You’re categorising the life forms from this sea lagoon, plants as well as animals?
ARISTOTLE: Indeed, yes. This small fish, for instance (He holds it up), is similar to the anchovy, but actually bigger and with a rounder belly. The gills have a deep red colour…
NICO: (Flinches a little, then responds in a voice that is a little higher pitched than before) I’m not much of a one for science, especially not the biology of water creatures.
ARISTOTLE: (Aghast) Are you… You are a woman?
NICO: Last time I touched.
ARISTOTLE: (Wide-eyed) Gods!
NICO: (Scornfully) A woman, maybe a slave… I don’t suppose I even exist for you in a way that is as significant as your fish species?
ARISTOTLE: (Splutters) I… I…
NICO: Don’t worry, every generation has its prejudices, its blind-spots. Those just prior to my own even failed to cherish your fish as a brother.
ARISTOTLE: (Frowning) You… I do not understand you.
NICO: (Voice tinkling with amusement) So, it’s not all Greek to you?
ARISTOTLE: And I do not comprehend your humour.
NICO: In my place-time women fully participate in political life. There are no slaves, your fish, if its species survived, would have a steward-carer on the spokes council…
NICO: We have none.
NICO: (Tilts her head, making a decision) I’ll sit. Just for a few moments.
ARISTOTLE: What do you want of me, woman?
Nico sits down to his right on the rock, keeping him at arm’s length. Sitting, she is noticeably shorter and slighter of build than Aristotle. She scoops up a handful of pebbles from the shore with her right hand and deposits them in her lap. Her right hand is as black and shiny as ebony.
NICO: I’d thought that I would not speak with you.
ARISTOTLE: (Staring at her hand, among the pebbles) But you are.
NICO: My curiosity has the best of me: How could I not take the chance to converse with the greatest philosopher of all place-time?!
ARISTOTLE: (Corrects her, wagging his limp dead fish almost under her nose) Scientist.
NICO: (Drawing away from him a little) A semantic spatial distinction. In my place-time-relation you’re known as both. I notice you didn’t contest the epiphet ‘greatest’?
ARISTOTLE: You do speak most oddly.
NICO: Did you kill the fish?
ARISTOTLE: I… Well yes, I suppose I did.
NICO: (Calmly) I’m here to kill you.
In the silence that follows this pronouncement, Nico takes a pebble from her lap with her right hand and throws it into the lagoon: Plop!
ARISTOTLE: I… What… Do you mean…
NICO: (Nods) Termination.
Aristotle fixes his startled gaze on Nico, tensing to rise. Nico restrains him, her darting left hand suddenly on his shoulder. He winces and slumps back down beside her. She releases him. Her left hand gleams titanium silver.
NICO: Chill out… I should explain, you surely deserve that.
ARISTOTLE: (Rubbing his shoulder) Your hand… How is that you are you so strong? How can it be?
NICO: (Distractedly) We got the idea from an ancient movie found in the archive: come here, kill you, change everything… The movie is pulp with a very bad lead actor, completely wooden. Apparently that was part of its charm. It seemed impossible, but then we developed the technology to collect abundant solar energy so efficiently and cheaply that it became feasible to power an Einstein-Rosen Bridge.
ARISTOTLE: (Brow furrowed, struggling to comprehend anything) Moo-vie? What in the Halls of Olympus are you talking about?
NICO: I’m sorry, this will all be difficult for you to follow. So much will be wholly unfamiliar to you…
ARISTOTLE: An assassin who wants to explain himself… Herself?!
NICO: We believe, that is the spokes council of my place-time believes, it’d be for the greater good, better for nature everywhere, for all future generations.
Nico lobs another pebble into the lagoon: Plop!
ARISTOTLE: (Sounding calm though a facial tic betrays his extreme unease) You believe this or you know it?
NICO: We don’t think it is possible for humans to fully understand, so some things – many things – can only be acted upon through belief, instinct or, of course intuition…
ARISTOTLE: You would murder me because of an intuition, a mere emotional suspicion?
NICO: (Offended) Of course not! But suspicions do have their own rationality.
ARISTOTLE: Assassinated on a whim, murdered senselessly!
NICO: (Irritated) Do you think we’re barbarians?
ARISTOTLE: Well, you are evidently not Athenians, not even Greeks…
NICO: (A little peevishly) We also have data, evidence such as your empiricism demands...
ARISTOTLE: My what?
NICO: It’s a name for the way you believe knowledge is formed: via sensory experience and evidence gathered from repeatable experiments?
ARISTOTLE: So, I am but an experiment to you?
NICO: (Apologetically, taking an intake of breathe through clenched teeth) Well, actually, sort of, yes, but non-repeatable, a one-off. You see it isn’t as you think it is. We can’t tell, not even with statistics, that your death will bring about the change we wish for, the change we would be.
NICO: When you have sufficient evidence about the occurrence of a particular phenomenon, lots of data, you can predict with some known degree of mathematical certainly for that phenomenon generally. You understand that, of course?
ARISTOTLE: If I examine one-hundred fish like this and they all have blood red gills, then I can say this type of fish has blood red gills.
NICO: You approach certainly, yes, though you can never be one-hundred percent sure. I think that’s the sort of thing. Again, not my specialist field.’
ARISTOTLE: And what would that be?
NICO: (Considers a moment) I think the closest term you’d have here would be soldier. We say – er – something like peace-bringer.
ARISTOTLE: (Nodding sagely, but then spitting out the word) Assassin!
NICO: I’ve never knowingly killed anything against its will, before its time or out of place. You’ll be a first.
She lobs a stone into the lagoon: Plop! Aristotle watches the ripples the pebble makes and shivers involuntarily.
ARISTOTLE: (Bitterly) Should I feel honoured, like a young boy taken as a lover?
NICO: (Shudders, deliberately melodramatic) We have such different cultures!
ARISTOTLE: You said you could not predict the effect my murder would have?
NICO: Correct. Or at least we can’t understand the relationship between your death here and now and runaway climate change and extreme weather in my own place-time: ever more intense heatwaves and firestorms, protracted droughts, hurricanes, deluges, sea-level rise and flooding. We no longer have seasons with any meaning.
ARISTOTLE: I believe that I am beginning to comprehend what you meant about the connection between growing food and freedom.
NICO: Statistics don’t really cover it. We have so much data we can’t even hypothesise the relation between your existence or non-existence and future well-being.
ARISTOTLE: So killing me would be just a shot in the dark?
NICO: (Amused) Quaint phrasing!
She dips into her cache and lobs another pebble into the water: Plop!
NICO: A shot in the dark, I’ll remember that. But no, it’s not quite random chance. Our algorithms…
NICO: (Exhales audibly) Oh man, now you’re asking… An algorithm… Well, it’s a set of steps – maybe calculations or analytical operations. It’s used to process data, solve a problem, or even automate reasoning. Let me see… You could, I suppose, use it to categorise your fish: Record the colour, length, weight, some coded description of its gills, etcetera, repeatedly compare it to data for other fish until we can reason that it’s a certain species.’
ARISTOTLE: It sounds a lot like your statistics?
NICO: (With a theatrical sickly grin) You got me! I guess statistics uses algorithms, or maybe vice versa… The thing is our data is so vast and our computing algorithms so many and complex that no-one – no human analyst or any number of analysts working together - can predict the result…
ARISTOTLE: You cannot understand or predict the reasoning?
ARISTOTLE: So, you not only know about my fish and about all fish, you also know that about fish which I cannot know…
NICO: (Interrupts) Yeah, right, and about everything else too. Not just fish.
ARISTOTLE: (Presses on) Because I do not know how to even phrase the questions that your algorithms can already answer…
NICO: You’re getting it! I think.
ARISTOTLE: But do you know the form ‘fish’, Plato’s quintessence: What make a fish fish?
NICO: Algorithm’s don’t work like that. They don’t do metaphysics, nor ethics for that matter. But you were right, we have so much data and so much power to analyse it, that the result is separated from rational analysis, or anyway it seems that way to us.
ARISOTLE: If you cannot understand them, cannot check them, then these algorithms are surely dangerous?
NICO: They could be.
She throw another pebble into the lagoon.
ARISTOTLE: (Reflects for a moment, focussed on the ripples in the water) If I follow at all, you believe that my death will prevent a natural disaster in future?
NICO: A future as natural disaster.’
ARISTOTLE: You are certain of the reasoning of your algorithms even though you do not understand that reasoning and admit it is amoral?
NICO: (Chuckles) I can tell you’ll soon be way ahead of me!
ARISTOTLE: Except that I will be dead.
NICO: (Grits her teeth and sucks in air) There is that.
ARISTOTLE: And you have no notion of why me?
NICO: Processing all the data we have accumulated on climate change over centuries, our algorithms suggests that your life, or rather your knowledge, is a major causal factor. At least that’s one way of reading it. It’s like we feed in global temperature rises across the earth for a hundred years and it spits out a complete unpredictable like: ‘Put on your dancing shoes’, not even snow-shoes, gum-boots or sandals, which might seem to have some rational relation to the data, but ‘dancing shoes’, you get me?
ARISTOTLE: (Looking away from Nico to mug an appalled face, mouth open in a silent scream) Dancing shoes?
Plop! Nico casts a stone into the water.
NICO: Only this time around we feed in more: carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, emissions history, economic growth… Every factor we can think of, and it spits out: ‘Terminate Aristotle’.
Nico, spreads her arms in front of her, palms up, shrugs to indicate ‘what can you do’?
ARISTOTLE: I am completely lost. You feed something, some mythical beast, and it spits out footwear or me?
NICO: It’s a computer, a calculating machine: like an automatic, three dimensional abacus or something. Only we’ve got a vast global network of three dimensional abacuses, all performing at high speed and…
ARISTOTLE: It does not add up.
NICO: (Grins, a little amazed) Was that a joke?
ARISTOTLE: You do not think scientists have humour, assassin-soldier?
NICO: Call me Nico, I really don’t like the sound of that.
She throws another pebble: Plop!
ARISTOTLE: We have a saying: call a hoe a hoe.
NICO: Wow, we still have that too! Sort of. Only, we say ‘call a hose a hose’. It’s an old-fashioned saying that doesn’t signify literally since water is so scarce, but we all understand what it means.
ARISTOTLE: Is it because of my science, something to do with this fish? Is that why your senseless algorithms want me dead?
Again Aristotle waves the fish in front of Nico, holding it in the hand nearest her, his right.
NICO: (Recoiling) Please don’t do that! It’s disrespectful and – well – just weird. Imagine me killing a baby and waving it under your nose during a conversation.
ARISTOTLE: It is the science.
NICO: Actually… No one knows for sure, of course, but I intuit that the link is your philosophy!
ARISTOTLE: (Hastily) Then, why not kill Plato?
NICO: Indeed, why not Kant, Nietzsche, Foucault…’
NICO: The algorithm coming up with you was completely unexpected: why not Newton, Darwin, Einstein…
NICO: Even Jesus, Muhammad or maybe the Buddha… (Looking hard at Aristotle and wagging an admonishing finger) Don’t – do not - say who again! You sound like an owl, it’s undignified.
She tosses another pebble into the lagoon: Plop! Nico does not have many pebbles left in her lap; Aristotle visibly notices this.
ARISTOTLE: (Gently) My dear… Um, Nico, I think that you may be mad, suffering delusions. Perhaps you should return to your home, to your husband and your children, and get some rest. The heat of the sun may have addled your brain.
NICO: Unfortunately for you, the hysterical woman has no husband. Actually, she’s a sister of Sappho, formerly of this very island, and I will have no children, not now. And you call this heat? Man, you have such low concentrations of greenhouse gases in your atmosphere that the sun feels to me like a single candle on a baby’s birthday cake. I’m actually chilled!’
ARISTOTLE: (Nodding sagely) I think I am beginning to understand…
NICO: And I can never go home. This is a one way trip.
Disconsolate, nevertheless she casts a pebble into the lagoon: Plop!
ARISTOTLE: They do say that Sapphic love drives women mad.
NICO: Maybe I should kill just for being an old homophobe.
ARISTOTLE: (Hastily) Personally, I very much admire the clarity of language in Sappho’s work. The melody in her retelling of Homer’s epics is sublime.
NICO: Now you’ve lost me. I don’t think Sappho’s poetry survived and the only Homer I’ve heard of is Homer Simpson.
ARISTOTLE: (Interested) Ah?
NICO: He was an incredibly stupid, lazy and violent male character in old-old cartoons, a glutton and an alcoholic. We’re taught that he personified the politically absent citizen in an ecocidal age.
ARISTOTLE: (Rubbing his chin) Mm, it may not be the same Homer.
NICO: Before I – er – left home I was tutored by an expert on your work and she was of the opinion that it was your ethics that damned you.
ARISTOTLE: My ethics?
NICO: Counter intuitive, I’ll grant you, but…
ARISTOTLE: But I do not have an ethics!
NICO: Not yet, obviously. That’s why the time is now. Before. Otherwise…
She cast a pebble: Plop! The slow but rhythmic beat of pebbles hitting the water played badly on Aristotle’s nerves: his cheek tics with each ‘plop’.
ARISTOTLE: (Irascibly) So, what, pray tell, are my ethics to be?
NICO: Now you’re really putting me on the spot…
ARISTOTLE: Let me guess, not your best subject?
They pause their dialogue as, in the distance, a gargle of Whooper swans takes to the air accompanied by a loud chorus of squawking honks. Nico and Aristotle look to the sky as the swans rise and pass overhead, casting a dark shadow across their faces.
NICO: Someone is coming.
ARISTOTLE: It may be Theophrastus.
NICO: I must hurry…
ARISTOTLE: You were telling me about my ethics?
NICO: There’s no time…
Nico casts a pebble into the lagoon with more force: Plop!
ARISTOTLE: If it is someone coming, they are a mile away. If it is Theophrastus, it will take him at least one half of an hour to get here – he is constantly distracted, spotting a new plant and being compelled to examine it, to press a sample. We have time. Tell me, I’m fascinated, what my thoughts on morals will be.
NICO: You’re not stalling?
She pauses, poised to throw her penultimate pebble. Only one remains in her lap. Aristotle notices.
ARISTOTLE: You said I deserved an explanation.
There is a pregnant pause: Nico inhales deeply, considering, her right hand frozen in mid-air, the left tensed. Finally, she lowers both hands into her lap.
NICO: According to my tutor, and I probably won’t be able to do her let alone you justice when I try to explain, it’s your virtue ethics that could be the problem. Remember this is all speculation, we can’t know.
ARISTOTLE: Pray, continue.
NICO: I understand you believed that all living things had a soul, or at least a purpose, and that this means all living things may have a good of their own, that is intrinsic value and moral standing.
Distractedly, Nico lobs her penultimate stone into the lagoon: Plop! Aristotle tics.
ARISTOTLE: You know why stones fall?
NICO: Gravity. Duh!
ARISTOTLE: To get back to the Earth, to where they belong. You should go home, before the sun sets, walk back across your bridge.
NICO: I wish!
ARISTOTLE: What you have said only mystifies me further. It seems to me that, if I suggested that all of nature has value, then that would serve to preserve it? This virtue ethics actually seems consistent with what you reported earlier about your government employing advocates for fish, no?
NICO: Steward-carers. I’m impressed, you grasped that very quickly for someone who hasn’t even thought it yet!
ARISTOTLE: If the purpose of a man is to live a good life, as it must surely be, then that good life must involve community… It seems to me such thinking could be extended in some measure to the biological community, perhaps even to the mineral community: this rock we are sitting on, even your pebbles!
NICO: Pebble (She rolls the final pebble between her fingers). Singular. I think you’re getting ahead of yourself. But you’re not wrong, your virtue ethics could suggest that leading a good life as a human demands taking care of a wider nature. The virtuous person would not destroy another person, a people, an animal or plant species, a habitat or landscape, for the sake of wealth or power.
ARISTOTLE: Though he – this person – might have to make such a decision based on a wider rationality: destroy something to protect something else that he…
NICO: Or she.
ARISTOTLE: Or – er - she, judged to be more important – more morally significant.
NICO: You are one smart cookie, there’s no denying it.
NICO: Think pancakes, tagenites.
ARISTOTLE: I am getting a little peckish. I have some bread in my bag if…
He makes to reach for the bag but Nico shakes her head.
NICO: No time.
ARISTOTLE: (Visibly gathers himself) But I still don’t see the problem, the negative relation between this virtue ethics and –what did you call it – running climate change?’
NICO: Runaway climate change.
She throws her last pebble… Up in the air a little and catches it. Aristotle blinks convulsively.
NICO: Here’s the problem, as I understand it. Thinking like yours can be used to formulate a unified and over-arching environmental philosophy.
Aristotle waits but she does not continue.
ARISTOTLE: (Prompts) And that is a bad thing?
NICO: (Brow furrowing) There’s an expression I recall from somewhere, something I read or heard of: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
ARISTOTLE: This Buddha again?
NICO: It doesn’t work with Zeus, I guess? Your gods are a bit shallow and capricious to serve in this instance. And Zeus is a rapist: Bad example, sorry.
ARISTOTLE: I am now completely lost.
NICO: I’ve got it!
She throws her pebble up and catches it again. Aristotle tracks it with an anxious gaze.
NICO: If someone offered to reveal to you all scientific knowledge with no further effort on your behalf what would you do?
NICO: The thing is, if you had all the answers, you’d have no reason to keep asking questions. Think about this in terms of ethics and politics too. If you thought you knew how to live the good life and you thought society was working perfectly, then you’d stop thinking, stop trying…
NICO: (Muses, brow furrowed) But that’s still not quite it…
Nico raises her titanium left palm in front of Aristotle’s face to forestall his interruption.
ARISTOTLE: (Grumbles) I will not talk to the hand.
NICO: It’s not that your thinking could lead someone to be perfectly knowledgeable, perfectly good or perfectly politically engaged, it’s…
ARISTOTLE: The very idea that such perfect states are possible?!
NICO: Like Sisyphus, you know, we have to roll that immense boulder to the top of the hill every day in the full knowledge that it’ll roll back down, that there’s no hope of finding meaning, and then we must do it again, and again and again. And we must be happy in that endeavour…
ARISTOTLE: That is absurd!
NICO: Exactly! But you get it, yes, to search for meaning we must stop making sense?
ARISTOTLE: You’re going to kill me because I was right, because my thinking could be extrapolated to offer…
NICO: A unified and over-arching environmental philosophy. Yes, precisely.
Nico lobs her last stone into the water: Plop! She flexes her titanium hand. In his own left hand, out of her sight, Aristotle grips his dagger. They face each other, gazes unwavering, holding that for an uncomfortably long moment.)
NICO: Your pupil Theophrastus will be here directly, I sense him.
ARISTOTLE: You should go home, please.
NICO: I am unable to comply.
ARISTOTLE: Embrace me, then.
The two lean into each other, Nico’s titanium hand sliding around the back of Aristotle’s neck, his own hand gripping the dagger going about her waist. They freeze in that position.
The sound of an incongruous rhythmic music rises across the waters of the lagoon, a call and response ‘Ahimana’ (‘Oh my soul’, Tinariwen from Aman Iman). The darkening sky slowly takes on the colour of Nico’s indigo robes while the red light of the dying sun reflects off the still waters of the lagoon.