In the Agora of Socrates

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

No one knows if it was really in the state prison, the ruins of which are visible today outside the ancient Agora of Athens, that Socrates was kept during the final days before his execution, so many times has the area been destroyed and reconstructed— walking past it sends a chill down my spine. Ancient Greece is visceral and vivid because it entered my imagination early in life; some of the most cherished tales of my childhood came from the crossovers of Hellenistic history and legend, such as the one in which Sikander (Alexander the Great) is accompanied by the Quranic Saint Khizr, in pursuit of “aab e hayat,” the elixir of immortality, or the one about the elephantry in the battle between Sikander and the Indian king Porus, or of the loss of Sikander’s beloved horse Bucephalus on a riverbank not far from Lahore, the city where I was born. I became familiar with ancient Greece through classical Urdu poetry and lore as well as through my study of English literature in Pakistan, but I would read Greek philosophers in depth many years later, as a student at Reed college; I would subsequently discover Greek influence on scholars in the golden age of Muslim civilization while working on a book on al-Andalus— the overlooked, key contribution of Arabic which served as a link between Greek and Latin, and its later offshoots that came to define the cultural and intellectual history of Europe.

Visiting the Agora in the sweltering heat of July, I am amazed by how comfortably these ruins from over two thousand years are nestled in the modern landscaping, park benches and pavements, how familiar the patchy, intensely green grass is, the deep, somnolent shade of oaks— the ancient is home once again, brought down to a child’s scale, at once snug and phantasmagoric, historic and pulsating with new life.

The faces of my children are flushed, they carry their maps and cameras in sweaty hands; I ache for the elders who brought me close to the richness of this world which valued learning above all; they’ve passed on, the generation of my grandparents, some were family, some teachers. The world they venerated, warmed up to, and discussed, was a world none of them felt the need to visit in physical form, true to the spirit of Greek thinkers such as Socrates for whom the life of the mind was more than sufficient and fulfilling and was really the purpose of existence.

I fan myself and the kids with my canvas hat as we find a tree to sit under— the surrounding architecture unclutters the mind; the shapes are grid-like and the colors are vaguely reminiscent of bleached bones. We begin talking in fragments, trying to focus while dealing with the heat and mosquitos but soon we find ourselves engaged in an exciting conversation. The ancient agora was Athens’s city center, a marketplace where it was common for Athenians to engage in debate and discussion, one of the prized cultural habits of the ancient Greeks, and one that was seminal to the idea of democracy but also became the undoing of some. Socrates, a proud Athenian and one of the most important and revolutionary thinkers of all times, was ironically a victim of the same democracy that was built on the principle of freedom of speech. He was tried, found guilty and put to death for “asking too many questions, criticizing the religion of the ancestors and corrupting the youth.”

Socrates was highly critical not only of superstition in the realm of religion and culture, but also of the dogma that eclipsed the so called free-thinking, freely-speaking citizens of Athens. The quarrel that ended his life really had to do with his provocative influence against those who wielded power in the Athenian society of his time. What good is democracy he asked, if the state is vested in warships more than the welfare of the ordinary citizen? Is wealth a good thing? Can democracy build a just society? Knowledge was the ultimate virtue for Socrates, and dialogue, the finest means to it; freedom of speech, therefore, was requisite.

Freedom of speech also recalls the ethos of ilm or knowledge as a divine path in Sufism, one that is not afraid to ask questions frowned upon by the clergy. Many Sufis got into trouble for provoking orthodoxy and the establishment with their questioning. Not unlike Socrates, they brought the sacred down from the heavens to a pedestrian scale, by seeking to make virtue a livable ideal and to access the divine through ilm as well as the supreme value of Ishq or devotional love.

“Ignorance is the only evil,” Socrates famously said, and that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He favored knowledge over the religion of his times because he thought it was the best guide to the understanding of the “human good” in a universal sense. Though Socrates never articulated his faith in a divine being in the way the Sufis did (and all his articulations were in fact recorded by pupils, never written down by himself), his lifelong, utter devotion comes close to the idea of Ishq, especially vivid in the accounts of his last moments, when he held the cup of hemlock and drank with a steady, unflinching hand, even as his followers were in the throes of grief. His calm acceptance of death shows his faith in that genuine pursuit of the truth which for the Sufis is the consummation of devotional love.

Socrates died at the age of seventy, here in the ancient Agora, probably a few feet from where I find myself now. But it was also here that he spent most of his life. As a child he pondered what it meant for his mother to be a midwife—her work was to “free” the baby from its mother’s womb; he keenly observed his father, a sculptor, “free” the true shape imprisoned inside stone. For Sufis too, the truth is always concealed, waiting to be uncovered, set free of our ignorance through ilm, but mystery becomes equally beautiful and inspiring as knowledge when viewed with Ishq. “Wonder,” Socrates said, “is the beginning of wisdom.” In his last moments, as the hemlock began to take effect, Socrates remained tranquil, quite himself, and was even quoted saying mundane things; he had embraced the mystery of death: “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways, I to die, and you to live. Which of these two is better only God knows.”