Saturday, 31 December 2016

A Dialogue on Place

The following imaginary dialogue happened in a street in Athens sometime in the 4th century BCE. The two people involved are philosophers, Aristageles an older man and Xanthon a younger protégé.

ARISTAGELES: Ho, Xanthon! Where are you off to so hastily on such a fine morning?

XANTHON: I have much to do today, Aristageles.

ARISTAGELES: People have been talking and wondering what has become of the learned Xanthon. You haven’t been seen in weeks, not since the symposium at Alkaios’ house at any rate. Your friends miss you.

XANTHON: I’ve had very much on my mind, Aristageles. The weight of it has been such that I’ve had no time for friends or frivolity, not even for philosophy.

ARISTAGELES: May I enquire what has detained you in such fashion?

XANTHON: Oh, Aristageles, it is something about which I dare not speak for shame. My heart is a hollow vessel of sadness.

ARISTAGELES: Is it something that cannot be shared with one who cares? ‘A heavy sack between two is no burden’, the saying goes.

XANTHON: If only. I’m afraid the grief is solely mine to bear.

ARISTAGELES: But is there no way a friend could help? Remember, philosophy beats paths through all things.

XANTHON: Yes, I know it does, but for me? You see I have no way out.


XANTHON: I am going into exile, Aristageles.

ARISTAGELES: Ah, so this is the rock that sits on your soul?

XANTHON: Yes, it is. I was chosen for the expedition against the Macedonians, which as you know is only days away. I’m not a fighter, cannot fight, will not fight again. The very thought of the battlefield sickens me and I have a feeling in my gut that if I go to war again I will die.

ARISTAGELES: It is very normal to hate war, my friend. War is a plague, a curse, and it is a great stain on Athens, on our civilisation, that we have danced to the blood frenzy more than many other cities; even as much as some barbarians. Nor is it unmanly to refuse to fight. Reason is a divine gift, and it makes no sense to walk into butchery, even if sanctioned by the laws of the land.

XANTHON: You are right, Aristageles. But do you know what weighs on me heaviest, even more than being known as a coward and losing my honour? It is the thought of leaving Athens. It fills me with the blackest dread.

ARISTAGELES: Do you fear never returning?

XANTHON: Yes. Athens is home. I have only ever left Attica twice in my life, and then only to Corinth. Athens is everything to me; it is my life, my soul. What will I do without the sight of her hills every day, her temples and squares? The Acropolis, the life of the agora, the processions and singing of the Panathenaea, Boreas sweeping through the leaves of the plane trees by the Ilisos, even the chaos of the Piraeus – all these have made me, have built what I am block by block. And soon I will have only impressions of her for comfort, mere memories, and I will be entirely undone. So here I am, Aristageles, running around furtively making preparations for my voyage.

ARISTAGELES: Did you know that the Ilisos was one of Socrates’ favourite places to walk? It is said he often went there with his companions. They would pay their respects to Pan and the wood nymphs and talk philosophy for hours.

XANTHON: Ah, philosophy. What of it, now? What can it ever say to us when we are in such dolor?

ARISTAGELES: Well, it speaks to us most in the darkest times. It teaches us always to follow the gods, and as you have strived to do so here in Athens, so shall you, I am sure in ... Where is it you are going?


ARISTAGELES: By Zeus, that far! You will be missed.

XANTHON: But how is the pain healed by the gods? How is this city, this soft earth of Athens, to be replaced with anything I find anywhere else?

ARISTAGELES: The wise tell us that gods and men are kin. And as you stand on your ship watching the shore of the Piraeus recede in the distance and weep for your loss, so the great ones will be weeping with you. Every place has its own gods – its temples to a particular guardian, its goddesses in the sacred groves, its satyrs and nymphs in the hills and rivers. Where one city builds shrines to Artemis, another will honour Apollo or Demeter or Hephaestus. But what does the multitude of gods from all the corners of the world have in common? What is the shared thread, whether the sacred garment is woven for one or another?

XANTHON: I confess I don’t know.

ARISTAGELES: Do they not all represent the good, some variation of it?

XANTHON: They represent power, it is true. Of the good, I am not sure. Ares is rarely anybody’s favourite, and Dionysus has a wild edge of intoxication and violence.

ARISTAGELES: Power implies choice. The gods offer us a choice – do we respond to conflict with a neighbour in the way of Athene, with justice and dignity, or descend into bloodshed? Do we accept Demeter’s laws about the tending of the wheat fields or do whatever we like when it comes to nourishing our city and the land? Do we honour Dionysus with wine and song, or become prudish and miserable? If we truly follow the gods, we follow what’s best.

XANTHON: I have had no cause to think deep thoughts in the past few weeks.

ARISTAGELES: All that you have learnt in Athens, all that is noble in this city, all that has nurtured your soul, your family and friends and lovers, the wisdom of philosophy – take these in your heart to your new home. Will you not find the good in Olbia? Not in the same forms as here in Athens, not with the same people or the same soil, but in some local shape nonetheless. And if Olbia prove barren and inhospitable, go to another place and find what you seek there. The world opens to those with the mettle to grasp it.

XANTHON: They are kind, wise words, Aristageles.

ARISTAGELES: And as you go about your new life, friend, be sure to ‘keep your hands soft’. Have you heard that old phrase? It means to change as conditions arise; not in the way of a fool who has no idea what they are doing, but as someone whose hands shape fortune in their life and the lives of others. As Euripides says, ‘that I may lightly change my ways, my ways of today when tomorrow comes, and be happy all my life long’.

XANTHON: Thank you, Aristageles.

ARISTAGELES: And one last thing. Before you set forth on your journey, do pay a visit to Agathe. She hasn’t seen you for a long time and misses you terribly.

XANTHON: I will.