Famous men have the whole earth as their memorial.
The title of this post comes from Pericles’ Funeral Oration as recounted by Thucydides in History of the Peloponnesian War. My very patient traveling companion read it aloud to me today in the Kerameikos District, the Classical-era cemetery where Pericles gave that oration after the first dead had been returned to Athens at the start of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides remembers Pericles speaking thus: They [the dead] gave their lives to her [Athens] and to all of us, and for their own selves they won praises that never grow old, the most splendid of sepulchres–not the sepulchre in which their bodies are laid, but where their glory remains eternal in men’s minds, always there on the right occasion to stir others to speech or action.
My partner pauses after this passage and says, “Hello, Hannah Arendt’s whole philosophy.” Indeed. Arendt maintained that human beings seek immortality by the distinctive deeds that make us live beyond our mortal lives, and that we need community to witness and testify to these deeds in order to overcome the cyclical sense of time that all of nature inhabits: birth and death, over and over. The possibility of history is in this: that we can act and our actions can live on beyond our own lives. We can break out of the cycle when our deeds are attested to, when they come to have an effect in the world that changes the world. For this reason, we memorialize famous men (and really, too often, it’s the men who are memorialized. Pericles raises the question of what should be said to the women who lost their husbands and sons in battle and he responds that women are best when they do not make themselves heard, which made me worry that Aristotle may be quoting Pericles not Ajax when he quotes a similar line at the end of Politics I, but that is a discussion for another time). Or perhaps, by memorializing, we make them famous.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I trek out to see Plato’s Academy and find little to no memorial. Two guidebooks gave us vague directions that amounted to: “Go that-a-way. For awhile.” When we were about a half hour into “that-a-way,” we suspected all we would find is a sign, probably graffiti’d, that would read, Plato’s Academy stood here. Finally, when we were about to give up, we see an old sign surrounded by orange construction tape acknowledging that this was indeed where Plato’s Academy stood. It took us a little while to walk around and realize there was actually much more to the site that it first appeared, but certainly no one seemed real eager to advertise that information–neither in the signs that did point to the Academy, nor in the guidebooks, nor at that yellow sign pictured above. If our experience of the Academy is any sign, philosophers are remarkably unmemorialized in Athens. Yes, it’s true, there is some conjecture that they have found the place which they call the Poros where Socrates was kept in prison and eventually drank the hemlock. And it is true that Plato’s Academy just is geographically far from the center, but it’s quite unmarked and unremarkable.
Arendt would surely say that the whole earth is Plato’s memorial given the extent his dialogues have influenced Western thinking. Fair enough. But I’ve been pretty frustrated with the quick and easy summaries of Plato’s and Socrates’ thinking that we have encountered on signage and in guidebooks that often amounts to a kind of dogma, an easy encapsulation that frees the reader from having to actually think with Plato or Socrates. As we were walking, it occurred to me for a moment that it would be perfect if we didn’t find it. We spent a good hour and half on the first day in Athens trying to find another memorial that is called Socrates’ prison on Philopappou Hill, but we never did find it, and that seemed just right to me: walking around in Athens, unable to find Socrates. This drive to searching, to questioning, to refusing to be satisfied with what one knows, refusing to rest, always examining to understand that one does not in fact know, seem to me the best memorial that Plato and his characterization of Socrates leave us. Unfortunately, we too often fail to memorialize it. If we can’t memorialize questioning, perhaps we can try to prompt it with further memorials. So I leave with a picture of a stone that proclaims to be what it no longer is, even though we memorialize it because it was. I’ll leave you to come up with the questions that might follow.
Updated: grammar edited. May 31, 2014.