First Day in Athens: Wonder
Aristotle begins his Metaphysics noting that human beings are marked by their desire to know, a desire that is prompted by wonder, wonder that has before and continues to lead human beings to philosophize. So it seems fitting that our first day in Athens has brought wonder, both big and small. There’s the small kind of wonder that leaves you baffled that the plane is delayed for two hours because the individual television program is not working and the wonder about how long that kid can actually screech before falling asleep so that you can read your book in peace. There’s also the renewed wonder with Celsius degrees, wonder at the giddy-so-far-past-tired-jet-lag of the first day in Europe, especially after a nine hour flight, the longest flight I’ve ever taken to Europe, the wonder that I’m still awake writing this blogpost. There’s the wonder that seems almost closer to delight as when you come across a street called Pygmalion Road and your husband poses you just as he would like for a picture. The wonder that Airbnb can arrange such nicely located, reasonablly-priced and pleasant homestays. Or the wonder that comes from seeing that studying Aristotle’s Categories had some value after all since, as my husband said, acknowledging our difficulty in speaking modern Greek, “If all else fails, we can just recite Aristotle’s categories.” Aristotle’s categories are the ten different ways he lists that we talk about how something is: (1) substance – as a thing in itself; (2) how many it is; (3) what kind of thing it is; (4) in relation to what other things it is; (5) where it is; (6) when it is; (7) what its position is; (8) what it has; (9) whether and how it acts; and (10) and whether and how it can be acted upon (1b25–2a4). The joke is that if you know the Greek for these categories, you pretty much know how to start any question you need to. This reminds me of another wonder: the wonder of the strangeness of modern Greek pronunciation to a student of ancient Greek, and also how much Greek as a language eschews substantives and loves prepositional phrases and question words.
This big kind of wonder stops you in your tracks and brings goosebumps when you round the corner on Philopoulou Hill and see the Parthenon through the trees and stop short. This wonder prompts you to think about what it means and why it matters to share the same geographical space with people, gods and heroes whose stories you read, texts you’ve pored over, and ideas you’ve been shaped by. A sense of distance in time and a pervasive and more existential sense of distance from history seems to motivate an almost giddy glee when we encounter the same places as did thinkers, ideas and texts that matter deeply to us.
In the next several days, I’m hoping to channel my wonder to think more carefully about this place that is at once ancient and modern and its ancient sites that have a particular appeal as ancient sites could not have had when they were fully in use for the purpose they were created and yet they are also uniquely unable in our own time to have the appeal that they once did. Or perhaps we need to consider whether they ever did have that appeal or if they were built in an effort to hold on to some sense of the divine that escaped even those who considered the Greek gods their gods and the Greek temples their sacred places. I’m looking forward to circling around these themes of ancient and modern, sacred and secular, natural and conventional, natural and artificial, gods and mortals.
But for now, the wonder of sleep.