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On the Nature of King Cake: A Socratic Dialogue…

On the Nature of King Cake: A Socratic Dialogue…

Adeimantus: Tell us once more, Socrates, whether it was through investigations of your own or some undertaken in company that you divined at last the nature of king cake.

Socrates: And were you, Adeimantus, and Glaucon with you, not present at the festival of the gods when I described these discoveries once before? Or have you forgotten these matters already?

Adeimantus: You know, Socrates, that we are not as you are, retaining the knowledge of the gods without effort. We need constant reminding, and to hold the arguments you put forth ever in mind, repeating them as incantations.

Socrates: By the dog, my friend, let us speak truly. For if I had acquired knowledge of the gods, you can be certain that I would spend no speech on matters of mortal food. Nonetheless, the poets tell us that even the gods indulge in the best and sweetest of foods, and this I found king cake to be. I will tell you once more, then, and this time, hold these things in mind. It may be the will of the gods that I be with you but a little longer now.

Adeimantus: Apollo preserve us if you mean to leave us soon, Socrates.

Socrates: I mean only to pursue the truth for as long as I may. As for death, he has pursued me a long time now; he is a slow runner, though he catches all in the end. Wickedness, on the other hand, is swift, and few escape him. But these are heavy things. Shall I tell you the tale?

Adeimantus: Yes, certainly.

Socrates: I was returning from the Piraeus, where the feasts of Endymion were being held, when I stopped in the market of Argus. There I came upon my friend, the fool, looking about in his usual astonished way at heaps and heaps of cakes, standing there like an ass positioned between two bales of hay. Taking him by the elbow, I asked him what it was this time, whether he had taken final leave of his wits or simply found himself once more in thrall to the belly and its demands.

Jongleur: Ah, Socrates. The belly makes fools of us all, not excepting even you. Wasn’t it just the other day that you were complaining to me of the many hours and weeks you’ve lost in the company of wisdom on account of hunger, thirst, and weariness?

Socrates: True enough, my friend. And are you not likewise annoyed with the body’s demands, you who have so often reminded me of your own foolish wisdom?

Jongleur: I am, and yet the annoyance is more with myself. For I am the fool, and not God, the one who ordained for man a body, not simply as a tool or garment, as you call it, but as himself. Rather I must say that I am still becoming myself, and learning what it is to be a man.

Socrates: And here you are, O man, speechless in the midst of these cakes.

Jongleur: So I am, Socrates, and so are you, standing between the musings of a fool and the festivals of the gods.

Socrates: Indeed, I would rather return to the festivals. For we owe the gods this sacrifice of making merry, and forgetting the passage of time and the making of money and all the other things we do for the sake of one blessed day’s happiness. 

Jongleur: We agree on this point, then, that man is made to be merry.

Socrates: Certainly. So let us solve this dilemma of yours. Tell me: what is it that so confounds you in these cakes? What are they?

Jongleur: King cakes.

Socrates: And which king do they honor? One of the Spartan archagetai? Or one of still more distant lands?

Jongleur: The king of the land than which none is more distant. And that which nonetheless is nearer to us than ourselves.

Socrates: You amaze me as usual.

Jongleur: I mean the king of kings, master of the universe, the one who keeps the heavens for a footstool.

Socrates: The great god Zeus, then. 

Jongleur: He has been known by that name at times, yes. Were you to multiply the greatness of Zeus a thousand times and a thousand times again, however, you still would fall a thousand times short of the grandeur of the true king of kings and God beyond all gods. 

Socrates: By this God himself, then, you must teach me of him. But surely no real relation can obtain between this wondrous being and these lumps of dough.

Jongleur: True, except that he is no mere being, but rather the one upon whom all that is depends, and in this dependency even the least of things must bear the stamp of his beauty and his majesty. I have often overheard you talking of your forms, forms you spend your life seeking in conversation with those who are thought to know something. I tell you this, Socrates, if you wish to know not only forms but the Form of forms, you can do much worse than to begin with these lumps of dough.

Socrates: Lead on then, dear fool.

Jongleur: This great God and king is the cause of all things. You yourself have said that the things of this realm depend for their causes on the forms. Yet these forms astonish me, as you claim to be astonished, for attending to nothing, they nonetheless account for everything. Further, it remains to me uncertain how these forms can be found to establish unity among the things they cause. For what indeed unifies the forms? Between the form of one and the form of two, is there some form of number itself which informs the others? Or beyond and above the form of the beautiful and the form of the good, is there a form which informs both? What I mean is, your forms exist in a kind of heavenly solitude, and yet they are said to inform the things of our world. Certainly we can agree that things are in-formed. Yet I say that this informing happens only through the love of a person who looks and sees and gives form as it pleases him. 

Socrates: What you say, then, is that there is a god, or not merely a god but the great God himself, who creates all and gives all form for the love of what is good.

Jongleur: Yes, and more, I say that he not only creates but also enters into his creation, that this God on high, himself beyond all being, became man, conceived in the womb of a virgin and born to offer himself as sacrifice for the redemption of the world conceived through him. And when this highest king was born he lay in a manger, warmed by straw and by the breath of an ox and an ass, and three earthly kings, who had read this wonder in the stars, came by night to pay him homage. These cakes, recalling those three and the infant King they came to honor, recall also the Three in One whom we call God.

Socrates: Which we do you mean? Surely not you and I, for this Three in One seems to me to reside in impenetrable darkness. If he is as you say, then the loftiest slopes of Olympus and the heavens themselves are unfit thrones for him. And yet you claim that he became a child. Who, then, is this we?

Jongleur: Those who go beneath the sign of the cross and who live in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and who seek the narrow way to eternal life. But listen, Socrates, I am hungry. Let us take up these mysteries later if you will, but for now, help me decide. How can we see which among these is best?

Socrates: May we not put the matter to taste alone, allowing that, whatever evidence we might adduce, we can never quite dispute preference?

Jongleur: Some say there can be no dispute in such things, yet in all classes of things we admit that only one can be best. Thus among poets Homer is most admired. And of musicians we give the crown to Orpheus. And we call Milo the greatest of wrestlers and Socrates, as Apollo himself says, is the wisest of all living men. And so I am not content, even in matters of taste, to let taste itself be sole arbiter. But let us say that taste, like our other powers, is subject to the development of habit and so of virtue. Thus we say that the one who judges well in matters of the senses and imagination has taste, while the one who judges ill, even if he should hold with the majority, has no taste, or at best that his taste is poor.

Socrates: I see that, despite your hunger, you are not content with allowing the belly its unreasoning way, but rather you intend to conduct a full inquiry. And I admit that you have whet my appetite for the question, so to speak, for it is often observed that the many judge grossly in matters of food and poetry and argument, preferring the pleasant to the nourishing, Aristophanes to Homer, and sophistry to wisdom. And to set such folly down to taste is to excuse it. Yet you and I will never do so.

Jongleur: I pray not.

Socrates: Then let us ask ourselves in the first place what it is that we mean by the best. What makes a thing the best of its kind?

Jongleur: Why, that is simple enough in the abstract. The best is that which most fulfills its end.

Socrates: That is indeed simple, as simple as saying that the best lyre player is the one who plays the lyre best.

Jongleur: Let us say more then. Whom do we name the lord among poets?

Socrates: Homer, who for his blindness saw the world more clearly than anyone since.

Jongleur: Indeed, and it may well be said that even they who know little of poetry acknowledge Homer’s supremacy. What, then, has secured him this reputation? In what does the excellence of a poet consist?

Socrates: A poet is one whose words reveal to us the truth of gods and men, who sings the world into being before our eyes and does so in words of such beauty that we say to ourselves, “You must change your life.”

Jongleur: Indeed, you have said this well, Socrates. Your poet, using words, resembles the one we call the Word, the God who made the world and became an infant and who calls us every hour to change and follow him. 

Socrates: You must teach me this Word one day, friend.

Jongleur: There will be time, Socrates. And every true word speaks something of him. Tell me, then, what are all those things which cause a poet to be? We say, do we not, that each thing exists according to four causes, and that when we wish to describe a thing rightly, to answer the question, “What is it?”, we must give an account of these causes.

Socrates: Yes, we speak of the final cause and the formal, the material and the efficient. The efficient cause is the one we see most commonly in nature, operating, that is, most obviously. The parents cause the child to be, and the sculptor, with his art, causes the sculpture, and the teacher causes knowledge. The material is that out of which a thing is made, and this may prove critical to your inquiry. For very often things are limited according to their matter. A ship fashioned of stone, for instance, though it take the form of a ship with great exactness, is not a ship in any true sense. Likewise a shield made of paper will hardly serve in battle. And this material cause, that out of which a thing must be made, is ordered to its purpose or end. A ship is made to sail, and so its construction demands the use of wood and other materials both light and strong. And, similarly, this end of sailing governs the form or pattern according to which the ship is built. It would little do, that is, to build a ship in the shape of a cube. 

Jongleur: Very good. Considering these four causes, then, we might find a means for establishing which is best among a certain class of things.

Socrates: Certainly we might. Though I suggest that we limit ourselves to the products of craft. For it is much easier to say of things made by man what they are for than it is in the case of natural things. And so, to return to our question of poetry, let us take up not Homer himself but instead his poetry and, asking what it is, establish why it is best. 

Jongleur: Agreed. To begin then, it is clear enough as to the efficient cause of Homer’s poetry.

Socrates: Yes, it is Homer himself and the knowledge of the poetic art he has mastered.

Jongleur: And the matter?

Socrates: Words.

Jongleur: And as to the end or goal of his poetry, may we not revert to what we said before and say that Homer’s poetry, so keenly presenting the lives of both gods and men, serves to reveal man to himself, not only as he is in the moment of reading but as he ought to be?

Socrates: We may.

Jongleur: What of the formal cause?

Socrates: It is a difficult matter to state simply, other than to say that the poems themselves, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are their own forms, incorporating the tales Homer had inherited and the epic form with its hexameter and the poet’s several artifices, simile and the like, all of which are operative in all epic poetry but which on Homer’s tongue become the stuff of an undying laurel crown.

Jongleur: It seems to me you’ve done justice to the king of poets, and that you esteem him—indeed, love him—as much as you dismiss the efforts of the lesser versifiers. More importantly, for our purposes, you have made clear certain elements of these causes which we must hold clearly in mind as we proceed to the matter at hand. 

Socrates: And what are those?

Jongleur: In the first place, that to make anything is to take a share in the divine craft. The poet and the shipbuilder exist between the things of the world and the things of heaven, gazing devoutly to the mind of God to guide the hands that work with the elements of earth.

Socrates: Quite so. The poet and the shipbuilder and even the baker, each in his way, functions as a kind of demiurge.

Jongleur: Yes, and the second thing is that the mind of the maker and the matter to be formed and the form itself must all, as it were, come to exist as one, in harmony, if the work is to be carried off.

Socrates: You speak truly. The maker cannot reach tentatively for the matter and try haltingly to apply to it the form. Rather matter and form must become one in his mind and in his hand.

Jongleur: We seem to be prepared to conduct our inquiry then. There are several king cakes at hand here, Socrates. Which one shall we say is best?

Socrates: Let us establish, then, the final cause first. For what purpose does king cake exist?

Jongleur: To recall the three kings of the orient, to embody in its limited manner the life of the Three in One, and to delight lowly man in tasting such ambrosial things and remembering that the true King has become one with him that he might live forever. And there, in the heavenly realm, we will spend eternity enjoying such delights as to make those we feel most keenly here on earth seem as dim as a dying embers in the light of noon.

Socrates: A noble end for a lump of dough. 

Jongleur: Truly. And so we will call that king cake best which most achieves this end.

Socrates: We will. Turning to our efficient cause, then, we may say that it is the baker’s art, though in this case, it seems, our baker must be also something of a theologian.

Jongleur: This is well said, Socrates. And it makes clear the point that this art requires not simply adherence to a formula but the touch of human hands and the attention of the human mind. That is, we may pass quickly over many of these cakes, which are made not by hand but by machine.

Socrates: For my part I am inclined to agree. But what would we say if one should argue that it is the baker’s art which informs the movements of a machine?

Jongleur: We would recall, Socrates, that all art requires virtue, and that virtue is a matter of habit, the putting on of a second nature which directs us to the unchanging good amid the endless flux of this realm. And a machine, having no habits, can have no art.

Socrates: Very well, then. We will bar as unsuited to being the best any cakes not made by human hands.

Jongleur: Away with these then. 

Socrates: What of the matter? We have noted that for which these cakes exist and by whom they exist, but we must give an account of that of which they are made.

Jongleur: That is simple enough: flour, milk, sugar, salt, and egg, with brown sugar and cinnamon worked in and an icing of milk and sugar and a glaze of purple, green, and golden sprinkles.

Socrates: A pleasant list. Yet I don’t believe I heard you mention jellies or cream cheese or any other of those delights which seem to fill many of these cakes.

Jongleur: Indeed, all such fillings, toppings, and ornaments are foreign to king cake, accretions admitted in the service of profit and variety. 

Socrates: Many other cakes have been stricken from the list, then.

Jongleur: Yes, and it’s a pity, Socrates, because this one in particular, with the cream cheese frosting, is the cake which most ensnares my senses, and it was largely on account of its delights that you found me here, lingering in indecision. We have lingered long enough, though, in uncertainty. Let us press on to the question of form.

Socrates: What, then, is the form of king cake, the pattern called for by the end you’ve outlined for us?

Jongleur: The pattern is established for us by the three kings and by the Holy Trinity. Above all, a king cake must consist of three lengths of dough braided by hand. The jointures of these braids must be coated in cinnamon. And let the cake be crowned with a light icing and sprinkles, all somewhat unevenly applied so that no two bites of cake are the same but demonstrate the infinite variety of delights to which man is called. And it goes without saying that the right balance of elements must be struck so that the cake is sufficiently moist. 

Socrates: This narrows down our search considerably. For I see here a cake of unbraided dough. And here is one coated uniformly in thick icing.

Jongleur: Yes, and these here are too often dry, and the sprinkles on these are coarse and gritty.

Socrates: Our decision has nearly been made for us then, my friend, for in examining these four things—what king cakes are for, and what they are made of, and who makes them, and what pattern their making must follow—we have found that almost all so-called king cakes fall as far short of the real thing as Patroclus falls short of godlike Achilles.

Jongleur: And now only two remain. How shall we decide the matter finally?

Socrates: Ah, fool, are you forgetting that it is Carnival, and that not far from where we now stand the revelers are at their holy festivity? Let us take one of each, along with some of the best wine, and join them. Having come this far in our inquiry, we will let taste have the last word after all.

Jongleur: So be it, my friend. And there is still more to discuss. I must tell you how all the myths of creation and of gods becoming men have come about at last. Still more, I must tell you how men may now become gods.

Socrates: Lead on, friend, and tell me all you know of becoming like God.

Adeimantus: Well, Socrates? What happened then? And which king cake proved the better of the two and the best of all?

Socrates: We took our cakes and our wine and joined the festival, and as that day drew down to dusk we made our way to the great River, where old men leaned and looked out over the mud-dark water and children sang in the grass and where the good Jongleur and I spoke of mysteries I can hardly recall. 

Adeimantus: Can you tell us nothing of these mysteries?

Socrates: Only that for a moment of our discourse, the Jongleur said a word which burnt in my mind like the spark of all truth. It was as though I drank briefly of the font of all being and goodness, and the experience proved too much for me. I fell as a corpse falls, into a deep sleep, and when I awoke, my friend was gone, and with him the grain of truth I had briefly grasped. And so my search continues, now, however, in sadness. It was this sadness which prompted my comment earlier, when I wondered whether I would long continue in this realm. 

Adeimantus: Where is this Jongleur, that we might question him again, Socrates? For this is no small matter, but rather the most important of all things.

Socrates: I have hoped every day to find him again. But in fact there is no one I have found in Greece who knows anything of him, and it may be that the man I knew was a messenger from the divine realm, a gift sent once and not to be dispensed again.

Adeimantus: Is there nothing we can do, then, Socrates?

Socrates: Indeed, my friend, there is. We may be festive, as men are ordained by the gods to be, and we may drink our wine and eat our king cake and rest assured that the great God wishes us well. 

Follow Le Jongleur de Notre Dame in the Joie de Vivre print journal as he reviews the people, places, and festivities of South Louisiana.

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