Finding wisdom in the footsteps of philosophers in Athens, Greece

by Thom Brown

Amidst the grime and graffiti of present-day Athens, our ”On the Edges of Europe” columnist dusts off his philosophy degree and takes a walk to the Acropolis alongside Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates.

Raindrops smashed like tiny asteroids onto the surface of my smartphone, making it all but impossible to type in the hotel address. The four of us huddled together beneath the porous wooden overhang of a long closed-down DIY store, surrounded by a pile of sodden suitcases and backpacks.

A philosophy major, I’d dragged my friends along to Athens to explore its deep philosophical heritage as the cradle of democracy. It was instilled in me on day one of my degree that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato. These were the same streets that Plato walked 2,500 years ago and that resonated with me deeply. Or at least, it would, if I wasn’t freezing and soaked to my skin.

“I’m sure it’s just up here,” I said loudly over the symphony of traffic and pelting rain. The regret of coronating myself as chief navigator rose as the others responded with glares.

Reaching into my bag, I yanked out the sleeve of a dry sweater, used it to wipe the screen, and then hunched over once more waiting for the map to load. Focusing hard, I did my best to commit the directions to memory and set off up the noisy road towards our hotel.

It’s fair to say that our initial impression of Athens was a combination of annoyance and trepidation. The crumbling sidewalk was a minefield of slippery manhole covers, jagged potholes, and parked cars narrowing the walkway to mere inches. Between the admittedly enticing whiff of Greek food was a sickening concoction of piss and tobacco. Armies of street-hardened cats with battle-scarred faces sheltered beneath vehicles, watching us as if they knew we were lost foreigners, ripe to be preyed on. The neglected walls were scrawled with amateurish, politically offensive graffiti, one of which simply said, in large menacing letters, TOURISTS GO HOME.

On the final stretch to the hotel, we reached perhaps the most deprived area of the journey so far. In a dark corner, two fragile figures embraced each other on the step of an abandoned shop doorway. The young female of the pair plunged a needle into her upper thigh, before handing it to the man beside. Aghast but helpless, we continued to the relative safety of our hotel room.

The next morning, I drew back the heavy yellow curtain to peek out at where we’d found ourselves. The ground was dry, the clouds above breaking up to allow glimpses of blue sky and sunshine. This was good news because this was to be a busy day, exploring the history of Athens which played such an important role not just in Greek culture but in the thoughts, ethics, and politics of the entire western world.

The streets felt a little friendlier in the mid-morning light. The cats stretched out in sunny patches, presumably drying off the last of the night’s downpour. Garbage trucks cleared away some of the trash. Shops were open for business and it began to feel like we were finally exploring one of Europe’s top cities for visitors seeking a lively combination of city life and culture.

The first stop on our philosophy tour was the ruins of the Lyceum: a school founded by Aristotle in 334 BC. If we weren’t looking for it, we’d probably have missed it. A flat, angular slab of concrete laid out like a dusty, abandoned rug on a large disc of grass, marking the floorplan of what was Aristotle’s Lyceum.

“What’s this again?” my travel buddy asked, rubbing his eyes and nursing a cardboard cup of coffee.

Rather than explain, I watched this great temple of education being rebuilt in my mind’s eye. In the center, Aristotle stood in his famous blue and yellow tunic, brown scruffy hair and overgrown beard on full show. He was backlit with the sun piercing through a window, giving him an aura of transcendent wisdom. Dozens of adults and children sat on the floor, silent and awe-struck by the great philosopher.

Education is bitter, but its fruit is sweet. – Aristotle.

Aristotle took the lofty idealism of Plato and grounded it in empiricism, providing a pair of shoulders for 2,000 years’ worth of scientists to stand on. At the same time, his ideas formed the basis of Christian theology while his code of ethics – based on cultivating good habits – remains a blueprint for us all to follow. The man is among the greatest minds to have ever lived and to have stood where he stood was a profound privilege.

Not all of Athenian philosophy was so bright and inspirational, though. A 30-minute walk from the Lyceum, in the shadow of the Acropolis – the hill on which the Parthenon stands – was a prison cell that is said to have housed Socrates, Plato’s teacher. His story is a reminder that thinking freely and critically is a dangerous act. Yet it was an ideal he was prepared not just to preach, but to die for.

Departing from the main road, a smaller track led down to an expansive park. By this point, the sun was coming out in full force so my three fellow travelers were happy to tag along, despite once more questioning why we weren’t going straight to the Parthenon. There was a network of hills and caves that could provide hours of fun and exploration, but I was only interested in one thing.

The prison was a cliff face with three openings, two rectangular ones and a more crooked circular one in the middle, which marked the entrances of a hollow interior. Heavy, rusted iron bars prevented anyone from walking into the cave itself, but made it clear that this was indeed a prison. When – and indeed, why – these bars were added is unclear. In fact, I’m not sure what evidence there is that this is where Socrates was housed at all. However, this was largely irrelevant. For an event that happened thousands of years ago, the symbolism is all that’s needed to transport a visitor back to that place in time.

This time, my mind’s eye painted an image of a frail and disheveled Socrates, curled up in the corner, his last days evidently imminent. Socrates, by challenging conventional wisdom, was charged with corrupting the minds of the youth. Ultimately, he didn’t stand a chance against his accusers. However, he was given a choice between exile and death. He chose death over living a life devoid of philosophy. His devotees even arrived in the night and offered Socrates a chance to escape, but he declined, such was the strength of his belief in the integrity of the justice system.

The unexamined life is not worth living – Socrates.

We left the park and found ourselves on the wrong side of the Acropolis, unsure where to enter and buy our tickets. As we walked down a narrow residential street, an old man poked his head out of a window. He wore an unwashed, loose-fitting white shirt and had dark tanned skin, wrinkles beneath his eyes, and untamed, curly gray hair.

“Acropolis?” he yelled, “That way, up the stairs, and on the left!”

I knew he was just a friendly Athenian resident, but something about his aura and aesthetic reminded me of a bust of a Greek philosopher. There was an air of wisdom in his eyes that made me think that if I did believe in reincarnation, then maybe this was one of those whose footsteps I’d spent the day tracing.

We joined the mass of tourists as they shuffled their way toward the top of the Acropolis. The Parthenon is one of Europe’s most iconic sites, with its slightly crumbled but formidable pillars standing straight and proud, contrasting beautifully against the now clear blue sky. I took a seat on a rock and looked out across Athens, this time seeing the city in a new light from that rainy day when we arrived. Among the patchwork of countless white block buildings, I realized that this was the cradle not just of democracy, but of all the world’s wisdom that held humanity together, even when it felt like things were falling apart.

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