(Story begins here) “Pete, I would like you to meet my good friend Hypatia. She heard that you’d be dropping in and wanted to meet you.” Both Mani and Hypatia turned to look at the rather flummoxed Pete, sharing the indulgent smiles a family gives to a new puppy, not fully house trained.
“Um, is that a toga?” faltered Pete, trying to think of anything to say to cover his embarrassment.
“It’s a Tribon, Mr Goodshaw,” said Hypatia, in the brisk tones of a school teacher. She patted the white flowing garment down. “What we philosophers from the good old days tend to wear.” She came and sat elegantly next to Mani, carefully adjusting her Tribon for modesty as she did so and politely declining Mani’s Hookah with a slender outstretched hand. “I get the feeling Mr Goodshaw, you were distracted when I was talking about the nature of evil?” Hypatia beamed gently.
“Yes, um, sorry it was a bit of a surprise to suddenly see you,” said Pete stiffly. Mani and Hypatia exchanged smiles which formed an agreement that they would not embarrass Pete further.
Hypatia continued “So, is evil the absence of good or the opposite of good? Always a good question. Let’s go on a little ride to find out, do you mind if we leave your beautiful hanging gardens for a few seconds Mani?”
“Whatever would give you pleasure, Hypatia.” The philosopher rolled her eyes at this misplaced gallantry and waved her hand. Pete grimaced as he felt intense acceleration up into the sky. A Boeing 747 materialised around him and he looked across to see Hypatia and Mani sat across from him in cramped airline seats.
“We are now travelling at thirty thousand feet. Rather a fine invention, I should have come up with one myself really, we Alexandrians had all the maths. But I was more interested in making Astrolabes and such back then,” said Hypatia conversationally. “Anyway, the atmosphere is very thin, in fact relative to the air pressure in the cabin, it is virtually a vacuum.”
“Agreed,” said Pete “So you know all about Maths and Physics too?”
“Yes Mr Goodshaw, in Alexandria I was well renowned as a Mathematician as well as a Neoplatonic philosopher and a few other disciplines, but I was primarily a teacher. Speaking of which, what do you know of a vacuum?”
“Well, it’s basically nothing isn’t it? An absence of everything, even air.” Hypatia smiled to herself.
“Close enough Mr Goodshaw. So let’s suppose that a vacuum is nothing. If it’s nothing, or merely an absence of something else, it can’t really do much harm can it? Nothing can’t really do anything.”
“Um, well I suppose not.” Hypatia unfastened her safety belt and arose. “Would you mind letting me out please Pete?”
“Oh, of course.” Hypatia slid out from the bank of seats and walked past several empty rows to the emergency door. Pete looked uneasy. “You’re not going to?”
“Indeed Pete, I am,” said Hypatia. She tucked the folds of her Tribon between her legs, raised her eyebrows grandly and wrenched open the emergency door. Pete’s world exploded. His hair felt like it would be torn from his head by a screaming typhoon of air. He was pulled almost headlong over the seat in front as the air was ripped from the cabin. Saving himself with an arm, he swung out from the seats and landed on the isle. Clawing hopelessly at the carpet as he was swept towards the open door, with Mani not far behind. Out of the corner of his watering eye, he saw a tumble of fine white cloth and even finer Greek hair as Hypatia was swept from the plane ahead of him. Then a freezing temperature and more acceleration as he started to plummet.
“So evil can be a powerful force and be nothing but the absence of something at the same time? Just like a vacuum?”
He could see Hypatia below him raise a hand, as she did so the air warmed, the plummeting ceased and the lush, fragrant hanging gardens of Babylon reformed around him. Within seconds it was like nothing had happened, apart from Pete’s racing heart and flushed cheeks. “W-why did you do that?” he managed at last. Hypatia smiled demurely.
“There’s no reason why an aircraft’s fuselage can’t be a classroom,” she said brightly.
“But what did it teach me?” asked Pete, baffled.
“Have a think for me Mr Goodshaw, what were we talking about?” Pete stared out across the gardens, he supposed it was Babylon itself that he could see in the distance.
“We were talking about whether evil exists as an active force in reality or a passive force.” Hypatia raised her shapely eyebrows encouragingly, Pete felt those exquisitely bright eyes almost burning the answers into him. It came to him. “So evil can be a powerful force and be nothing but the absence of something at the same time? Just like a vacuum?” Hypatia beamed, she turned to share it with Mani, who was still trying to restyle his hair and beard following his impromptu sky dive.
“Well done Pete. Whether it’s air pressure, or good and evil, the principal is the same. As above, so below,” he said before turning to his colleague. “Might I be excused from lessons of that type in future, Hypatia? I don’t really think you need a classroom assistant. Also, why do you not have a hair out of place?” Hypatia smiled to herself. “You’ll find out how in as few as sixty lifetimes Mani and yes I will not take you to be sucked out of an aircraft if it is not to your liking.” Mani looked relieved, then turned to Pete.
“So you see, I wasn’t far off in my life time. I talked about a realm of inherent evil, as an active force opposing good. After my death I learned that it was really just an absence of good radiating from, well, you know Who,” smiled Mani, pointing upwards. “I portrayed a world where primeval man was sent by God, who I rather poetically referred to as ‘the Father of Greatness’ to prevent dark armies from invading heaven. I gave him five shields, to use, being reflections of mind, intelligence, thought, reason and understanding. Our minds are our shields in this world.”
“Primeval man? Is that real? How come none of the bigger religions mention it?” Mani looked affronted.
“Bigger religions Rafiqam? Why Manichaeism was one of the biggest religions on the planet for hundreds of years. It is little known now because of the brutal suppression of my followers all over the world. Diocletian had them burned alive in the Roman Empire, in China where Manichaeism was seen as a threat to the more native Buddhism, my followers were all dressed up by the authorities to look like Buddhists.”
“So they were allowed to live?” said Pete, hopefully.
“No, they were then immediately slaughtered,” replied Mani thoughtfully, taking another inhalation from his Hookah.
“Ah,” said Pete dejectedly. (continue)