Imagine you majored in philosophy in college, discovered the wonders of Plato and Aristotle in graduate school, and received your PhD in philosophy. You’ve been teaching for awhile, and one summer you, your spouse, and a good friend travel to Greece. As you might imagine, it’s actually more of a pilgrimage. Among the places you go to are Thermopylae, Delphi, Sounion, Corinth, Crete, Olympia (given my history as a competitive runner, that was also sacred ground), and of course Athens.
In Athens the philosophical counterpart to religion’s Parthenon is Plato’s Academy. And though I confess we did visit the Parthenon first, I like to think we were saving the best for last. The Parthenon is built on the “Acropolis”, which in Greek means city on the point, edge, or extremity, and towers above the rest of the city, truly superior. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that philosophy’s “temple” wasn’t towering above the city, majestically situated on a similarly grand piece of real estate. It was, as a matter of fact, nearly impossible to find.
I frankly couldn’t have imagined that our sacred destination would be so, well, inconspicuous. How could this glorious landmark of philosophy be so well concealed? It was not marked on the maps we had, though there were some tantalizingly suggestive street names. Starting from the base of the Acropolis, we walked in the direction of those streets. Before long we had to turn back and look for a better map. As I recall, we’d run into a Metro line that blocked our passage into the promised land. We also turned around because Athens is a big, sprawling, hectic city, and we wanted to be more confident we knew where we were going—even assuming we could get around the Metro line—lest we spend our precious day wandering aimlessly through ugly neighborhoods.
Around the Acropolis are many kiosks offering maps, stamps, postcards, the usual tourist fare. Our inquiries about the Academy’s whereabouts were mostly met by puzzled faces—as though no one had even heard of what we were looking for. On maps crowded with wonderful sites and sights to be seen around Athens, most didn’t even mention Plato’s Academy, and none located it with any authority. As one source put it, the precise location of philosophy’s temple had so far “eluded archaeologists.”
Long story short, we finally found a map with the probable location of Plato’s Academy. It was a long hot walk through an unpleasant part of Athens to get there. And where was there? It was a little neighborhood park, a block or more in size. There were no signs marking it, no tour buses, in fact nothing at all (except those tantalizing street names) to suggest we were on sacred ground. Entering the nearly deserted park, we passed by three teenage boys kicking a soccer ball around. There were some fine large trees hinting of the sacred grove of old, but the park itself was dingy and trashy. As we came to the place where we found a few supposed cornerstones of what had been Plato’s Academy, I noticed what are euphemistically called “paper daisies” “growing” around the nearby bushes (hint: they were made of toilet paper). Talk about abusing philosophy! First we can’t even find the school founded by Plato, the place where his greatest student, Aristotle, studied for 20 years. Then when we do find it, well, it’s a dump.
Isn’t it interesting that Plato’s Academy was basically lost from our cultural memory? It’s tempting to blame the city and culture generally for having neglected the landmark of so vital a part of western culture. But I suspect that ultimately the neglect reveals more about the nature of philosophy than it does about the vulgarity of our civilization. In that case, it may even be fitting that the Academy was forgotten and lost. (Now there’s a promisingly idle speculation! More about that some other time.)
For now I just wanted to pass along this amusing association that popped into my mind while reflecting on the tendency of science to abuse, or benignly neglect, philosophy. For in fact it’s not just science, it’s the city—the social-political order as a whole—that seems to have neglected her, and perhaps justly. In any event, first Athens sinned against her by putting Socrates to death. And then—helped along by Sulla, who razed the place, cut down the sacred grove and used the wood to make siege engines, but also with the aid of of philosophy herself—it forgot.
We spent a happy hour there, far from the tour buses and madding crowds, alone amongst those cornerstones, imagining what it was like in the sacred grove that once flourished there, or somewhere around there, once upon a time.