At the centre of modern Athens is Omonia Square, a vast inferno of roaring, polluting traffic–at the time, in July 1996, under infrastructural redevelopment, so that ragged wooden hoardings and the pounding of pile drivers and jackhammers were added to its usual chaos. The square is surrounded on all four sides by shops, newspaper and cigarette kiosks, eateries, and slowly-moving glutinous crowds of people. But Thomas Marquard, my travelling companion, and I, who were staying at a cheap hotel behind Omonia, weren’t looking for modern Athens.
Perhaps some other time we would seek out present-day Athenians, look up its artists, or attempt to figure out the politics of this southernmost great metropolis of Europe, a city of some three million people. Instead, we were treating contemporary Athens, apart from casual contacts with waiters, taxi drivers, desk clerks and the like, as merely a translucent palimpsest through which to peer down its many historical strata to the polis that existed around the fifth century B.C.
Looking south along one of the narrow, traffic-clogged commercial streets–we were standing in front of a grocery where we’d stopped to buy plastic bottles of water to rehydrate ourselves in the July heat–we could see at the horizon the 90-metre-high gleaming Acropolis, a big stone plateau covered with the columned facades of the ruins of its temples. Thomas, a thorough and indefatigable traveler saved me from my usual lethargy upon arrival in a new city, and we set off immediately for the winding, circular trek up to the heights.
We paused at the Theatre of Dionysus, a stone amphitheatre carved into the back side of the rock, resting for a moment in the seats once occupied by theatre-going citizens who had seen the tragedies and comedies of Euripedes and Aristophanes on opening nights in the fifth century B.C.. Thomas, a drama teacher and theatre director at a Berlin high school, explained some of it to me.
We made it to the top, dutifully touring its most famous temple, the Parthenon, whose construction began in 447 B.C., when the city’s eventual greatest philosopher, Socrates, was a young man in his early twenties. But Socrates–who, as a stonemason, may have even worked on the project–though conventionally observant, was never really interested in the Greek gods nor, I suspect, the temples atop the Acropolis where they were worshipped. From the Areopagos, a nearby hill of slithery russet-coloured marble, it was possible to find a perch and look down over its rim to a patch of rubble far below.
That was our destination, the Agora or marketplace of ancient Athens, once the centre of the known world. Here, amid its streets and shops, baths, schools, gymnasia and public spaces, Socrates had entered into those teasing, probing conversations in which modern discourse has its roots. What’s striking about the dialogues preserved (and half-invented) by Plato are precisely how recognizable they are to us. That is, between the end of ancient Rome and, say, the Renaissance, a thousand years later, there is no talk so understandable to us, either in terms of subject matter–how to self-consciously live a good, or at least examined, life–or method, namely, secular arguments about definition, meaning, categories. So much of the intervening discourse really is phantasmal chatter about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
What’s more, the appearance of such talk is a surprise in human history. The warrior society talk of Troy or Sparta is of a piece with the kingdoms of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The ritual language about the gods atop the Acropolis has its equivalent everywhere. You can find great temples and palaces all over the world. Nor is the marvellous Greek theatre entirely unexpected. Its stories of the legendary heroes, the pity and terror of implacable fate, arise from the ritual search for right conduct in the relations between humans and the gods. And while the talk of human desire and commerce is trans-temporal, before Athens there was no talk like this, no semi-abstract argumentation that sought meaning. Some have argued that Socratic discourse arises as the enemy of poetry, or in opposition to the basic mode of story-telling that begins with Gilgamesh. (Charles Olson made that case, relying on Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato, Harvard, 1963.) Perhaps. And certainly, it is poetry that is in need of rescue in our time.
But while I’d feel as estranged from the Jews in dusty Jerusalem at the time of Jesus as I am from the ravings of contemporary born-again Christians, and as distant from medieval courts as we are from the ziggurats of our digitalized bankers, I have the sense of utterly knowing these Athenians, from their philosophic ponderings to their young adults who remain erotically alive for us in the suspended desire of their sculptures. I’m astonished that the talk of the Greeks is conversant with the latest postmodern bit of theory. Socrates would not be baffled by Richard Rorty.
Thomas and I ambled along the sun-baked streets of the Agora. All that remains are the stumps of the foundations of buildings. Here’s the rubble of the gym where naked youths stretched their bodies; here at the north end of the Agora is the prison where Socrates was executed; here’s the broad ramp leading to the procession road up to the Acropolis. Almost impossible to imagine it, even with Thomas reading the maps for us, were it not for the adjacent reconstructed Stoa, the colonnaded trading hall that now houses the Agora museum. In a dusty glass case, we find some eggcup-sized drinking thimbles, allegedly the kind used for administering the fatal hemlock that Socrates drank. Outside, in the blistering heat again, a tortoise emerges from the rubble of the foundations, like a figure from Zeno’s paradox.
And that is all that is left, this patch of ground in contemporary, debased Athens. That, and a few similar ruins scattered about the city. Outside of Athens, once we’re on the road, across the Corinthian isthmus into the Pelopponeses, there’ll be other places–Olympia, Mycenae, Arcady, seaside Navplion on the Bay of Argos. And most beautiful of all, north of the peninsula, up in the mountains, under a pure black sky with the constellation Scorpio just at the horizon, looking down the throat of a long valley to a small port, there’s magical Delphi, where the Athenians learned from the Delphic oracle that no one among them was wiser than Socrates, who alone knew how little he knew.
August 16, 2001