Trip Reports

Socrates in the Agora (13-Jul-2002-17-40):
5:40 PM local time, Saturday, July 13 (1440 July 13 UTC) 37 57 N 023 32 E. Temp. 96, Humidity 30%, Cloud Cover 5%. On the hard at Theo Bekris and Co. shipyard, island of Salamis, Greece.

Warm greetings from the crew of Maverick.

Since the last time I was in Athens I obtained a small book called "Socrates In the Agora," published by the American School of Classical Studies that has something to do with restoration projects and, I believe, runs the museum and bookstore at the ruins. In this book an archaeological excavation in the agora is described that exactly fits the description that Socrates' friend Phaedo gives, in the Platonic dialogue of the same name, of the prison in which Socrates was kept and spent his last days. Somehow, this had escaped my attention on previous visits to Athens. The prison doesn't show up on the map of the agora in the book, nor in other maps I've seen, but I meant to find it. Besides Delos and Ithaca, it was the only place in our voyage around the world I felt I absolutely must see.

On a second visit after the first one was aborted by an unusual thunderstorm, I went into the small bookstore in the museum where there was an information booth. There was a young lady behind the counter and I asked her where the site of the prison was, where Socrates drank the hemlock the day the boat returned from Delos. (Hemlock grows wild in Marin for all you kids who want to check out the high.)She shrugged and rolled her eyes, tossing her head back just a little, and said, "Nobody knows." To which I returned, "Miss, your skepticism gives you away. I see you have the natural reserve that follows on, and is the fruit of, years of careful study, and the caution of the born and bred scholar. Of course I realize that you and I are not CERTAIN," giving her a knowing wink, "where the prison is. We have neither fingerprints nor DNA samples, no videotape, no graffiti Socrates may have carved in the stone which could well be a later forgery. Nothing that would withstand two minutes of cross examination by even the least qualified of legal minds, among whom I count some of my oldest acquaintances. After all, it is tradition and not science that, for example, locates St. Peter's remains in the Vatican, and many sites of historical and cultural significance are accepted without the sort of rigor that I so admire in your approach. I applaud your honest forthrightness, miss, and beg your pardon, as I did not have the honor of appreciating the subtlety of the intellect to which I addressed myself. What I should have asked, but didn't in my haste, was the location of the ruins that SOME scholars have proposed MAY have been the location of the state prison where Socrates was held."

As the line behind me grew, there was some mumbling but it was in a language I did not comprehend so it could be ignored. More to the point, the young lady's response to this restated inquiry was another and now helpless shrug, more rolling of the eyes, a tossing of the head that seemed amplified from the first time, and she repeated, with a little of what I should have thought was unwarranted impatience, "Nobody knows!"

At this, I drew her attention to a copy of the book I mentioned above, for sale less than an arm's length away, which, I repeat, was published by the institute of which she was an employee. I opened it to a page on which there was a photograph of the ruins in question taken, according to the authors, at the very agora where she and I currently conversed much as did the philosophers of old. I mentioned that the photograph is also displayed, along with some artifacts found at the site, in the same museum where she was a provider of information.

"Now miss," I said, "perhaps we have misunderstood one another. How are we to account for the fact of the existence of a photograph of the ruins I wish to view and the baffling mystery of the location where the photograph was taken, which according to the authors is within easy sight of the place where we now stand? It's a puzzle, is it not? There's a very famous place within two hundred yards of here that we have a photograph of, yet no one on earth knows where it is. Why, it almost has the quality of being a miracle. Perhaps it's an enchantment, one that the Knight of the Doleful Countenance would understand. And in fact if either a miracle or an enchantment has occurred here, miss, it is an occasion that would make an impression on my memory even more significant than that which was the original object of my visit."

Another helpless and exasperated shrug. "Nobody knows." More grumbling. I depart to the satisfaction of all those assembled.

At another area of the agora I found a distinguished and official-looking gentleman with a guide's badge, whom I approached.

"Sir," I said, still a little steamed, "I have just been speaking with the flibbertigibbet in your information booth and she cannot tell me the location, on the grounds here, of Socrates' imprisonment. Perhaps you could be of assistance. I've traveled a long way to see it."

And, with a helpless shrug of the shoulders and a roll of the eyes, he said, "Nobody knows." Yet another scholar. They work for peanuts.

Not relenting, I said, "Well, sir, where do some people say it is?"

"Over there, about 30 yards. You'll see the iron bars on the cell where it is said the jail was."

Oh, for sure. Oh, yes indeedy. There are some 2400 year-old iron bars left from Socrates' cell, still nice and square. Aside from their philosophical, dramatic, mathematical, and political skills, the ancient Greeks were regular masters of rustproofing.

I found no fewer than three more employees who gave me more or less the same answer, and the enchantment idea had begun to be my prime hypothesis. Undeterred, I wandered past the iron bars that didn't look more than about fifty years old, and do people really buy that, and kept looking at my book and kept walking and looking at ruins which are at the agora like I've said before not so impressive as the ones in Ephesus but that's really not the point and after awhile I saw something that looked like it might be the very thing. There was no marble sign like you'll find on the Eponymous Heroes and it looked a little different from the photograph. But the dig occurred more than twenty-five years ago and perhaps it had filled in over that period of time. It wasn't, like, carefully maintained or anything. There was no one there besides me. And as I carefully looked back and forth between the photograph and the jumble of rocks, studying it from different angles, it finally became clear that these were, unmistakably, the ruins I sought.

Socrates had been in prison a month while the sacred boat from Delos was awaited. During this time Crito had come to offer to pay the expenses for Socrates' escape and relocation with his family to another country. It could all be so easily arranged, and, as Crito argues in the dialogue that bears his name, it was Socrates' moral obligation, to his family and friends and his calling, to escape the consequences of a wrongful verdict. Socrates' argument against taking advantage of this offer is not only persuasive, it is the paradigm, if that is not too weak a term, of disinterested reasoning. The arguments of the archaeologists who made the claim of these rocks being the foundation of the prison are a little on the thin side, but certainly no more so than Socrates' arguments for eternal life in the dialogue, the Phaedo, where they find their evidence. In the Phaedo the boat has returned and Socrates' friends convene at the prison to spend his last day with him, as he must drink the hemlock at sunset. In the dialogue Socrates uncharacteristically is placed in the roll of one proposing a thesis with which others find fault, and the thesis is that Socrates' soul will survive his death. He insists that they objectively discuss the merits of the arguments to pass his last hours on earth, and encourages his friends to find the errors in his logic even if it means his accepting his own mortality. Plato's rendering of Socrates' belief in this process and his calm practice of it until the last minutes of his life, along with the serenity with which he accepts the poison, paints the noblest scene of one of the most noble lives in history. It would be a famous story, even if it were fiction. But it is Phaedo's clear description of Socrates' retiring, at one point, into another room to bathe, thereby sparing those who will care for his dead body that task and perhaps for ritual purification, that convinced the archaeologists that this was the location of his cell. For at the ruins I viewed, which are not like a house or like any other known type of characteristic building of ancient Greece, there is a row of several small rooms opening on a narrow courtyard and what must have been a sort of tower, perhaps a guard tower. Only the end room has an adjoining chamber that has no exit to the courtyard, and in it are a washbasin and a sunken bath. It was the cell of final honor, for the man condemned to die.


Thanks to Steve Wozniak for being a good sport on the last one. By the way he says he can fix a laptop, if the need arises. Probably not yours or mine, though.

So my sister writes and reminds me my fourth grade teacher to which I mistakenly referred in the dispatch called City-States was Mrs. Miller who was not a battle axe at all but very nice, making it necessary for me to dredge up the horrifying visage of Mrs. Knopf of fifth grade. Thanks a barge load. That's what sisters are for, I guess.

Mr. Shrode has returned to the boat bearing Latitude 38s and work at the yard had to stop while we read them. I noticed that Tom and Sharon Alexander's Sam is competing in the Pacific Cup with Tim and Karin Knowles and Del Olsen and Gail Yando. That's some crew. Out money's on you, so best of luck.

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