May 27, Athens

Walking in the footsteps of Socrates

After an uneventful but interminable flight from SFO, I didn’t see much of Athens last night. Now it’s almost midnight, it’s 75 degrees out, and I’m barely awake enough to write. Outside my hotel balcony, people are just finishing up dinner.

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Athens has had a dozen lives: dusty small town, glorious city-state, Roman province, Byzantine province, Slav backwater, 17th century battlefield, Ottoman province, war-torn capital of an emerging nation, administrator of a military dictatorship. Today it’s part of an endless bad marriage with the EU.

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I spent the day soaking up the merciless heat surrounded by 2500 year-old-stone. The highlight of anyone’s trip to Athens is the Parthenon atop the Acropolis, and it did not disappoint. The steep, slightly hollowed out hill in southern Athens looks like a pair of cupped stone hands holding up an enormous, precious jewel. Four separate buildings adorn the monumental site, all built between 400-450 BCE. The honey-colored blocks, columns, pediments, and stones wear the scaffolding and cranes of the latest decades-long restoration like so much jewelry, and they soon faded into the background.

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I don’t know if it would be easier in Greek, but English is a poor vehicle to describe the magnificent structures. Although one sees only what remains of the originals, I can’t quite call them “ruins.” While obviously not alive, they all seemed quite, well, animated, the Greek sunlight playing on the many architectural feats: the perfectly straight-edged enormous marble blocks that fit together with no cement. Hundred-foot high columns on the “parallel” east and west sides of the Parthenon that are so subtly (and invisibly) tilted that if extended upward, they would meet several miles into the sky. Why? To look more graceful. The 300-foot-long temple floor isn’t simply flat, but invisibly bowed just an inch in the middle third. Why? To look more elegant.

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The Parthenon was a place to worship the goddess Athena. They said she protected the city. They said she wrestled with Poseidon and any other gods who would mess with Athens. They built temples that dwarfed humans, and yet somehow the temples made them feel grander, not smaller.

After sharing the hilltop with thousands of other tourists, I reluctantly descended the steep slope and its lovely breeze.

Down below was the agora, a large open civic space that’s been continuously excavated by the American School since FDR. There was no breeze, but virtually no other tourists, a tradeoff I gladly accepted. In function and layout it’s similar to the spectacular Roman Forum, except that here one sees mostly foundation stones rather than semi-complete buildings. As in Rome, the agora was where everyday Athenians gathered to do business, gossip, see new recently-passed laws (carved in stone, thank you very much), and to vote. I saw the place where the legislature met. I saw the foundation wall of Simon’s cobbler shop where Socrates hung out. I gulped.

After returning to the hotel, I rested, showered, dressed, and went to the fancy New Hotel, where I gave a talk to the Stanford Club in Athens. Entitled “Keeping it up when times are down,” it was a combination of dealing with depression, keeping relationships strong despite external pressures, and a bit of Sexual Intelligence thrown in. Some 40 people attended, laughed at the right times, nodded when they were supposed to, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy it.

After a day of walking in the footsteps of Socrates, Solon, and even the goddess Athena, being in the midst of the worst Greek civic crisis since the civil war made what I had to say seem rather small. But I did what I could, comforting a few people and empowering others. As for the goddess, well, I left the Parthenon as I found it—at the top of the world, and somehow quite state-of-the-art.

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