At the feet of Socrates

WHEN I was working in Greece on a United Nations assignment I lived in Plaka, the old city of Athens. From the rear balcony of my apartment I could look up to see the Parthenon, magnificently poised on the cliff side of the Acropolis. My office in the new city, about a mile from my apartment, provided an opportunity for a pleasant walk through the public park, once the Queen's garden, which extended from my Plaka entrance gate to the Parliament building, not far from my office. Near the entrance, in a secluded grove of olive trees, were two chairs carved from Pentelic marble. They were placed at the foot of a small hill, with a perfectly flat grassy area in front of them.

Tradition had it that this was where Socrates held many of his outdoor dialogues and one of the chairs was where Socrates sat. I imagined that the other chair had been used by one of his friends, perhaps Crito or Hippocrates, or even a visiting Sophist, perhaps Protagoras, while young students, most often his friends from the wrestling school, sat on the grass at the feet of the great teacher listening to his discourses and contributing their own ideas from time to time, or answering his questions as he gradually illustrated his method of arriving at the truth of the subject being discussed.

I was intrigued with the idea of being present at the spot where Socrates had taught, and I felt his presence as I lingered there and imagined that I was taking part in one of the old teacher's dialogues. In the grass area in front of the marble chairs was a very old olive tree, now little more than a decaying stump, which tradition held had once shaded Socrates and his students. It occurred to me that 2,300 years is a very long time for a tree, even an olive tree, to live, but the idea was so fascinating that I never tried to determine the truth of the story.

Not far from the Socrates classroom, and in a secluded area of the park, was a recently constructed fountain with semicircular marble benches on two sides - each bench large enough to accommodate 20 or 30 people - about 40 feet apart. I walked past the fountain in the morning and the benches were almost always empty, but when I returned from my office at about 3:30 in the afternoon I noted that almost always there were 15 or 20 men gathered on one bench, always discussing something in an orderly but intense manner.

I stopped to rest on the bench opposite them and noted that one man stood up and read from a book; and, following his reading there was discussion, almost always followed by more reading and more discussion. The young men always waited until the end of the discussion by the older men to offer their comments, but they were always listened to with interest by the elders.

Working hours in Greek offices and businesses are from 7 or 8 a.m. until noon or 1 p.m., followed by a long siesta or visits to coffee shops or elsewhere until 6 o'clock in the afternoon, when offices and businesses are open again until midnight. This, I reasoned, was the explanation for the gathering of the men each afternoon. I worked in a government office where hours were from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m., and fortunately I was walking past the fountain when the group had gathered for their discussions.

As I listened to the men each day I tried to determine the subject of their discussions. Politics seemed to me the natural subject, but they obviously did not discuss politics, because they never read from newspapers. My understanding of Greek was inadequate, so I asked my wife, who spoke Greek fluently, to meet me at the fountain with a picnic lunch so we could have an excuse for being there and for listening to the discussions.

We became more and more intrigued with the daily discussions, which were most often philosophical in nature. The books they read from were often written by Plato or Xenophon, but they also included books written by modern authors, almost always about Greek philosophers. Their method of discussion followed closely the question-and-answer method favored by Socrates. For a few weeks they read and discussed books by Kazantzakis, and their discussion was concerned with religious philosophy, the rejection by Kazantzakis of many of the Greek Orthodox religious beliefs, the monks and monasteries on Mt. Athos, and general religious philosophy.

I decided that the present discussion group was a logical, if modern, expression of the Greek desire, like that of Socrates, to arrive at the truth in everything they discussed. I pictured the discussion leaders as teachers who, like Socrates, were testing their ideas with those of their peers.

I never lost my fascination for the Socrates teaching area, and I lingered there a few minutes each time I walked past it. I must admit that I often had a desire to sit in the chair once occupied by the great teacher, but I weighed my qualifications often and carefully and, even though I had been a college professor for 20 years, I never felt worthy to sit in the great scholar's chair.

Once, when I thought no one was looking, I sat on the grass in front of the chairs and was content to sit at the feet of the old philosopher, and words formed in my mind as if they were coming from the lips of Socrates: ``I shall seek always to know the truth and to live in accord with it, and I urge all others - to the utmost extent of my power - to join me in this effort.''

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