In Athens, Thinking of Socrates

May 19, 2010

I’m in Athens, with my wife Ellen  and 7-year old son Robbie.  I’m also with Steve Heiny and Susan Wise, two Earlham professors, and 17 Earlham students.  They are here for an Earlham May term in Greece.

The course is a three-and-a-half week intensive course in Greece, ancient to modern.  My family and I can only be with them for the first few days, but oh what days these have been.

On Monday, before the students arrived, Steve and his wife, Pat, took us out to Delphi, a huge and remarkable archeological site a few hours from Athens.  I found myself thinking of Socrates.  This is where the oracle told him “No one is wiser than Socrates,” and he began a quest to understand what the oracle meant, looking for someone wiser than him to show the oracle was wrong, but failing.  He came to think the oracle’s meaning was this: “he is wise who, like Socrates, knows that human wisdom consists in very little.”

It is very much on my mind that reading Plato’s three dialogues on the trial and death of Socrates (Euthyphro, Apology and Crito) was the beginning of a deep intellectual awakening for me more than 40 years ago.  Being in Athens, for me, means re-tracing the steps of that awakening.

Today (the students having arrived) we spent the afternoon on the Acropolis.  I found myself thinking about the gods in which Athens believed, and in which Socrates was accused of not believing.  Tomorrow we visit the Agora, the public heart of the Athens of his time, where Socrates argued about piety and knowing and much else, and where Socrates was tried and condemned to die.  I hadn’t realized how close it stood to the Acropolis.

The Athens of Socrates’ time (the hundred years before his death) was a city devoted to creativity, excellence and accomplishment.  Nevertheless, his thinking, his truth-seeking, were still considered subversive and dangerous.  I’m remembering this, experiencing it in a very fresh way, and finding it a source of both awe and dismay.

Athens was a rare flowering of human possibility, but it was also a place with aspirations to empire, and a place that felt the tug to convention and tradition.  Its citizens found Socrates and his questioning too much to bear.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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