October 23, 2012
For my last day here, I decided to visit the Agora, which was the center of municipal life in Ancient Athens. Covering a few acres to the northwest of the Acropolis, the Agora was the home of the city council, courts, markets, temples and altars, and covered walkways. I was less interested in seeing the ruins themselves, and much more interested in catching a glimpse of the ghosts of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who would have spent quite a bit of time there. And so, when I stood on the ground that was once the Stoa Basileios, I did my best to look beyond the tumbled marble and instead see Socrates in long philosophical conversations with Plato. Or at the site of the Heliaia, the court building, where Socrates was tried and convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens, sentenced to death by poison hemlock. Or Plato and Aristotle walking along the Panathenaic Way, brows furrowed, engaged in a debate on ethics.
I’m sure the idea of people wondering at the meaning of life has been around since sentient thought. But philosophia (literally “love of wisdom”) originated with men like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who applied reason, critical thinking, and rational arguments to existential, mathematical, and scientific questions. The Ancient Greek thinkers birthed Western Philosophy.
Walking through the Museum of the Ancient Agora and seeing the jury selection machines, the ballots for trials, the time pieces for orators… all of this gave me the same epiphany I had in Rome… that people are people are people… that we are all seeking the same things, despite what millennium we live in. You might think that “epiphanies” would stick… that once I realized something, I might then know that thing. It doesn’t always work out that way, though. Sometimes I need to learn something, and then learn it again, and then learn it again. Especially the hard stuff.
(Side note: if true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing, as Socrates believed, I may be on the right path. While this trip has been full of learning, one thing I know for certain: the vast gulf between what I know and what I don’t know is staggering. Also, the number of questions I have about the world has increased exponentially. I think that maybe true wisdom is prizing the pursuit of understanding, and not a magical final end.)
In the afternoon, I climbed up to the base of Lykavittos Hill, and then took the cable car to the top. It seems that my last day of being in a city often finds me gazing over the top of it with a newfound ability to see the buildings and the people with a simultaneous proximity and distance.
The European autumn has followed me across the continent. Typically, the first eight days I am in a city it is brilliantly sunny and warm, and then, in the last day or two, the clouds roll in and a gentle rain starts up. Even though I was fairly certain it was going to rain at some point today, I didn’t bother bringing my umbrella. I’m not sure why. Regardless, it felt like Portland, walking through the rain, not even bothering to hunch my shoulders or squint my eyes when the drops rolled down my face.
I started thinking about Portland in Barcelona. I started missing it in Rome. And now, at the end of this journey in Athens, I feel an ache in my heart for it. And so I walked slowly back to Elena’s house and closer to my departure, scuffing through puddles, drinking in this city for the last time.