Walking in the Footsteps of the Philosophers in Athens
If you are wandering the ancient agora in Athens, at the junction of the SW corner near the Boundary Stone that marked the sacred precinct of the square, you will find a row of dwellings or shops. A cache of hobnails and a black glazed cup bearing the name “Simon” was discovered here and the site is marked “The Shop of the Cobbler Simon.” This is apparently where the philosopher Socrates spent much of his time.
I was spurred into tracing the philosopher’s footsteps after attending an inspiring performance of “Socrates Now” at the old Plaka University last summer. This prompted me to delve into the lives of Athens’ famous teachers: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
Socrates (ca 470-399 BC) was the son of an Athenian sculptor. He became popular for his peculiar style of philosophy, often practiced in the streets of Athens where he would openly question self-serving Athenians to the point of embarrassing them before his crowd of youthful supporters. This “Socratic” method ended up with him being charged with corrupting the youth and he was sentenced to death by hemlock.
There are a couple of places marked as the ‘prison’ where he spent his final hours. One of them is a short walk out of the Agora at the foot of the Filopappou Hill, known back then as the Hill of the Muses. Here there are cells carved into the rock and a sign that calls the place “Socrates’ Prison”. Nobody knows for sure if this is the exact spot. On another occasion I was directed to the remains of a villa just outside the agora off of Apostolou Pavlou that was supposedly the house where he spent his final hours. Some vials of the type that may have contained hemlock were unearthed there. In Socrates time there was no real ‘prison’ because convicted persons were either sentenced to death, exiled or set free.
One of Socrates’ students was Plato (c 427-347 BC). As a youth, Plato painted, composed music and wrote a tragedy. He had planned a career in politics, but after Socrates’ execution, he set out to exalt his teacher and founded the Academy where he followed the Socratic question-and-answer method as a means of instruction.
I caught a bus to the site of the Academy which was, in Plato’s time, outside the city of Athens near Colonus. The site has been excavated and it’s free to visit. Imagine strolling the tree-shaded paths or sitting in the theatre participating in the fabled philosopher’s discussions. The Academy was not open to the public but during Plato’s time didn’t charge fees for membership. And it wasn’t exclusive to men. At least two women were known to have studied there, Axiothea of Phlius and Lasthenia of Mantinea.
During Plato’s time at the Academy a young student from Macedonia attended. This was Aristotle (c 384-322 BC). His father was the king’s physician and Aristotle was a boyhood friend of Philip II. As a youth he was sent to study at Plato’s Academy and remained there as a student, then teacher. Later, he became the tutor of Philips son, the young Alexander the Great. After Alexander left on his campaigns, Aristotle returned to Athens and founded the Lyceum, a school of philosophers known as the Peripatetics because they discoursed while walking with their teachers.
I was delighted to finally discover the newly excavated remains of Aristotle’s Lyceum just a few blocks behind the National Gardens. The excavation site is located at the junction of Rigillis and Vasilissis Sofias Streets next to the Athens War Museum and National Conservatory. Excavations revealed a gymnasium and wrestling area and buildings of the original Lyceum. It was located on the banks of what was the Ilissos River. The perimeter of the site has been planted with herbs and indigenous trees giving visitors a picture of what the landscape would have looked like during antiquity. The Lyceum was in an ancient suburb named after the Sanctuary of Lycian Apollo. It was here, in the gymnasium, that the young men of Athens trained to become citizens and learned the art of war.
The site wasn’t open the day I was there, but visitors are encouraged to lounge around the pleasant grassy areas or along the walkways, the way the Peripatetics would have done. The temporary shelters over the antiquities will be removed and glass casing will cover water features that represent the river and hot baths. The aim is to provide an aesthetic and spiritual quality to the site.
Aristotle was head of his school until 323 BC when the Athenians revolted against the Macedonian occupation of their city. Fearing he would meet the same end as Socrates, he fled the city and returned to his family’s estate in Chalcis. “Athens must not be allowed to sin twice against philosophy,” he said. His successor was Theophrastus. The school was eventually sacked by Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 86 BC and lay undiscovered until 1996.
Written by and photos by W. Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com