Where can you find riots, banking crises, 25% unemployment, sweltering heat, reckless drivers, foreign language, and modern ideas with ancient plumbing? Greece in August 2015. That was the bullseye location of my headlong flight.
A verse from Led Zeppelin’s song Kashmir captures one aspect of my life: “I am a traveler of both time and space.” With all fifty United States, most of Europe, and six continents under my belt, what was next? The answer came from the adage, “Know thyself.” It was time to visit the land where that phrase originated. My first heroes of mythology and philosophy hailed from Greece, so here I come.
This is the cradle of Western civilization, where great art, philosophy, science, medicine, history, drama, and architecture were born. The place where an unmatched outpouring of human creativity was produced.
Would this be another solo adventure? I already enjoyed driving cross-country a few times. I even climbed alone up the 7,000 steps of China’s Tai Shan mountains—and found nobody who looked, spoke, read, or wrote like me. Tempting as it was to throw myself into a mysterious journey, this time I would not be alone.
Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.
Seven months earlier I fell in love with an Aristotle scholar named Carrie-Ann Biondi. In fact, the first time we were alone together, we discussed our common interest in the philosopher. This would be our first vacation together. It helped that she translated ancient Greek. Or so I thought. Ancient Greek is quite different from the modern language, but we’d worry about that later. Our goal was to transport our eudaimonia (which means not just happiness but flourishing) to the land where that term originated. Because we both squeeze the most out of any twenty-four-hour time period with a can-do spirit, this would be jam-packed and fun.
During pre-travel research, Carrie discovered one of the internet’s best kept secrets: the site of Aristotle’s school, the Lyceum, was now open to the public. Recently excavated, we had chills knowing we’d walk exactly where the deepest questions of philosophy were discussed. Questions such as: What exists? How do we know it? How should we live?
In mapping out the journey we decided that it would be an Aristotle pilgrimage. We’d explore his birthplace (384 B.C. in Stagira), where he studied and flourished (in Athens), and where he died (322 B.C. in Chalcis). But there’s more, so read on, my friend.
After touching down at the airport, the bus ride offered striking views of graffiti that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid near the South Bronx. Every sign I saw reminded me of long mathematical equations as alpha, beta, and theta through omega were all over the place.
While walking to the hotel from the bus depot, we had our first unplanned photo stop. A spray painted close-up remake of my favorite painting, Raphael’s School of Athens. (As if on cue, I was wearing the same work of art on my t-shirt.) This painting highlights the two most influential philosophers in history: Aristotle and his teacher Plato.
Plato points up to the heavens, where he thinks that the superior world exists. The spray-paint artist chose to ground him in reality by having him twirl a basketball.
Aristotle holds his right palm downward, blessing this world. This demonstrates his view that all knowledge is acquired through observation, evidence, and experience. In his left hand he carries a copy of his work on ethics, which identifies the requirements of living a good life. My own pose shows you which side of these opposite views I am on.
We walked past a dozen old men who were stuck to their rickety chairs, yawning, eyes glazed over as the world passed them by. Everything seemed slow, like walking in Jello. The only thing that went fast were the zooming cars. Red lights indicated more of a suggestion than a fact. The best way to cross the street was to look both ways and then sprint.
After settling in, we knew that the first stop would be the Parthenon. We hoped it would live up to the hype—it did. The steep winding hill made it challenging to walk all the way to the top in ninety-five-degree heat. It was satisfying as the views of the city are spectacular. The grounds were ancient and wondrous, and there was a connected museum that displayed a model of the original. Brilliant colors adorned the building. (We’ve since visited the exact scale replica in Nashville, which captures much of the glory of the original. Highly recommended!)
Strolling the Acropolis grounds, we came upon one vantage point where the Theater of Herodes Atticus was directly below. We envisioned epic plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides thrilling audiences there.
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
The next day we woke up refreshed and walked a mile to arrive at the Lyceum. Aristotle founded this school in 335 B.C. (at age 49) and served as its leader until 323 B.C. After being Plato’s brightest student for twenty years at the Academy, Aristotle was fully capable of running the school when Plato died in 347 B.C. That position went to Plato’s nephew, though, so Aristotle left Athens for twelve years, when, among other things, he would become the tutor for Macedonian King Phillip’s young son, Alexander (before he was Great).
Surrounded by a fence, the Lyceum had dusty packed-dirt walking paths, partially excavated stone building foundations, neat patches of grass, and some folded chairs scattered about. There was only one other person there—a security guard—and we were glad to have this gem of a place to ourselves.
We had goosebumps as we strolled around the exact site where Aristotle, at the height of his intellectual powers, went peripatetic (speaking while walking). He discussed various topics, ranging from anatomy, astronomy, geology, geography, physics, and zoology to knowledge, ethics, politics, and poetics.
Let’s travel through this time and place. Before the Greeks in general and Aristotle in particular, in virtually every culture, if people could not explain the cause of something, they would attribute it to a god. For instance, thunder and lightning were caused by Zeus. Rivers, floods, drought, and earthquakes came from Poseidon. Even victory in war was attributed to Nike. Gods were above humans in that they had supernatural powers.
In 624 B.C. a man named Thales changed all of that. He discovered philosophy (“love of wisdom”) by looking for a this-worldly rational account to explain natural phenomena. A few centuries later, Aristotle transformed that approach into a powerful, systematic philosophical method. He combined logical rigor with knowledge gained through sense experience. His philosophy of nature informed his individualist ethics and politics. Even Aristotle’s name is fitting; it means “the best purpose.”
We were having a great time and could have stayed there all day, but we knew we’d return and for now there was more to see. We made our way to the marketplace area called the Agora. As a lifelong New Yorker, whenever I enter a new, crowded place, where pickpockets and scam artists are on the prowl, my street-smarts antenna goes up. My heart raced as we passed armed guards stationed in front of banks. Fortunately, no crimes to report. We bought many Aristotle magnets, calendars, and plaster busts. With each merchant we got to practice our modern Greek way of saying thank you: efcharisto.
“Citius, altius, fortius.” “Faster, higher, stronger” is the Olympics motto. We saw one of the stadiums that was constructed for the first modern Olympics, in 1896. You could almost hear the echo of crowds applauding the discus thrower. Next, we came upon a locked fence which held a six-lane pool. The glistening water seemed to be calling me in. After two solid days of walking miles in sweltering heat, with reddish soil clinging to our sandals, it took all of my might to resist climbing the fence and jumping in for a lap or ten. If I was alone there is no doubt I would have done it, as I’ve done in the past, but trespassing wasn’t on today’s agenda.
The next day was our first time behind the wheel of a rented car as we battled maniac drivers and ventured beyond Athens for a jaunt to Delphi. Even though we didn’t understand the language, we did trade some universally understood hand signals with those who cut us off.
In my readings about Delphi, the Oracle jumps out as the star. This brought me back decades to my first discovery of the music and lyrics of Rush. One song from the epic album 2112, called Oracle: The Dream has this verse: “I see the works of gifted hands that grace this strange and wondrous land. I see the hands of man arise with hungry minds and open eyes.” It was those hungry minds that created a temple with a colossal statue of Apollo. My brain went on autopilot as another Rush epic, Hemispheres, came to mind, as it portrays Apollo as the god of reason.
This model scale of the original temple and statues demonstrate what I love so much about the Golden Age of Greece: their portrayal of man as strong, intelligent, and proud. Although the temple and statue are gone, not all the remaining ruins of it are ruined.
The energy of the mind is the essence of life.
The next day was the most ambitious part of the trip: driving from Athens up to Mount Olympus, then north along the coast to Thessaloniki for an overnight stay. Then onto Stagira the following morning before heading back to Athens by the evening.
White-knuckled driving was the thrill of taking on Olympus, as there were no guard rails and a sharp turn would plunge the car a thousand feet below. My good Samaritan act came when we saw a hiker who was lugging his gear up the steep hill and asked for a lift. I felt it was the right time to interact with someone else besides hotel staff and Starbucks baristas. However, after exchanging a few sentences about spiritualism, we happily reached his destination and parted company. Adios.
After climbing many winding paths, we reached a majestic waterfall that belonged in a Tolkien novel. The soothing sounds blended with the lush greenery, the scent of jasmine, and feel of pebbles under our bare feet. We knew this would be one of the highlights, so we savored the moment.
Again, we wanted to stay longer but Thessaloniki was beckoning, so we started our descent from the clouds. The parking lot had humongous tour busses that made us marvel at how they could make it up and down this narrow, winding path, but they did. One bus driver was right on my tail, but I took my time and pulled over at the first vista to capture views of where Zeus would hurl thunderbolts. We looked down from Olympus on a world of doubt and fear, it’s surface splintered into sorry hemispheres.
One ritual of mine, whenever I travel to a new location of significance, is to take some of my parents’ ashes and toss them. I had long planned this as the spot to release them. Efcharisto, Greece.
When descending the mountain, the blue water in the distance was once again both inviting and tempting—but we were on a mission, and swimming wasn’t on the schedule. Not yet.
A few hours later we pulled into the nicest surprise of the trip so far: the bustling commercial center of Thessaloniki. As with much of northern Greece, this was originally part of Macedonia. The trusted iPhone which had been a lifesaver helped us find a parking spot right in front of our motel.
We first walked to Aristotle Park, which was nothing spectacular. No monument, just a name. Some kids were stretching on the grass before what looked like a pickup game of soccer. Ten minutes further away was Aristotle Square, which was packed with the after-work crowd. This had a statue of The Philosopher sitting in a thinking pose. Local teens were sprawled at the base of the sculpture, texting their friends. More spray paint desecrated the spot. My thoughts were that modern-day Greek reality trumps Ancient Greek philosophy.
The square led to a dock where hundreds of people strolled. The harbor was filled with ships ranging from tour boats to commercial liners bringing in their catch of the day. We enjoyed refreshing gelato to cool off. We also noticed a pack of roving, hungry dogs. It was too hot for them to sprint anywhere unless they suckered someone into giving them food, at which point they were all there in a flash.
We regretted not booking more time in Thessaloniki; it was alive, whereas Athens seemed lost. The one thing better in Athens was the hotel, which we thoroughly enjoyed. This was the first morning we didn’t wake up and have a hearty breakfast with a splendid variety of meats, cheeses, and eggs, all of which would carry us for most of the day.
Next it was on to Aristotle University, which has the best statue of The Philosopher: standing tall, deep in thought, and holding scrolls.
Happiness is the ultimate end and purpose of human existence.
Then onto Ancient Stagira. The iPhone GPS decided it wouldn’t help us, so I resorted to the old-fashioned method of looking at a map. Judging the distance, I figured that on this last leg to Aristotle’s birthplace we should arrive within 30-45 minutes, which we did. No drama.
Stagira looked more like a beach town as we drove closer. The tiny commercial center had about five stores and one restaurant. Prominently displayed stood a white marble half-length statue of Aristotle.
We were hungry and decided to sit down for lunch, but the matron told us the restaurant had just opened and food wouldn’t be ready for 45 minutes. This clearly was not New York, but it did give us time to walk the narrow path that led to ancient Stagira. The blue of the water was clear and swimmers and sunbathers filled the beach. Once again, I was tempted to plunge into the inviting water, but resisted the urge.
We zigzagged up the path which had ancient stepping stones. This was not nearly as strenuous as Mount Olympus the day before. We both had goosebumps as we visualized how 2,400 years ago a young, inquisitive Aristotle would have observed all of the different forms of life, whether in the water, sand, or land. In this lush region he would find similarities and differences between hundreds of plants and animals and divide them into categories. Nobody in history had ever done this before in such a logical fashion or on such a scale.
Aristotle’s father was a doctor, but he died when the boy was ten. Then his mother died, so he was under the care of a guardian. Such an active mind was too vast for this small Macedonian region. At age seventeen he packed up to go to the world’s intellectual center, Athens, to study philosophy with the greatest living philosopher, Plato.
As we walked the grounds we had an overwhelming feeling of his presence. A year later, a story surfaced claiming that Aristotle might have been buried there: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/26/aristotle-burial-place-stagira-macedonia-greece
With our souls satisfied, it was now time to take care of our stomachs. All we wanted were two things: a delicious gyro and an unobstructed view of the statue in the square. We got them both.
The waitress detected my New York accent and asked where we were from. When I told her, she had a big smile, implying that someday she’d love to go to my city. I pointed to the statue and said we came to pay tribute to him. Something was clearly lost in the translation, though, and she didn’t grasp the astonishing achievement that had taken place here ages ago.
We anticipated buying out the entire stock of bookmarks, magnets, and other souvenirs that bore Aristotle’s name, but not much was to be found. We encountered, time and again, locals oblivious to the accomplishments of their forebears. I hoped to hear someone repeat my favorite line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding: “My ancestors invented philosophy while yours were swinging on trees.” Fortunately, the BBC program “Aristotle’s Lagoon” captures some of the master’s achievements. It can be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JN8ortM4M3o
We were back on the road again. Aggressive drivers continued cutting us off, and there were tolls every two miles. I wished we had bought an epsilon zeta (ez) pass as it would have saved time and money.
Looking at the map, we noticed the hot spring (Thermopylae) where 300 Spartans are remembered for holding off the Persians and their quest to rule these lands. A huge statue of King Leonidas stood at the site. I decided to pay tribute by standing in a kick-the-enemy-into-the-pit stance. While taking my photo, Carrie noticed several others who started standing in similar poses. Thanks to the film 300, that is the power of art.
The next morning, we departed for one more Aristotle site: Chalcis. A different mood arose when we crossed the bridge to the island. Not the joy of youth and celebration of achievement from the past few days, but rather the somber feeling that this was where his life ended at age 62.
Although a brilliant thinker, Aristotle was an outsider as a Macedonian and was often treated with suspicion. Added to this conflict was the fact that the Macedonian King Phillip had subjugated Athens, so resentment between the two regions was high.
After Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C., the Greeks recaptured Athens and threatened retribution for all things Macedonian. Aristotle feared for his own life. Similar to Socrates seventy-eight years earlier, the authorities charged him with impiety. Instead of allowing Athens to “sin twice against philosophy,” Aristotle fled to the island of Chalcis (where his mother was born). He would not live more than one year longer.
As we drove across a second, more narrow, pedestrian-filled bridge we ran into congestion, honking horns, and no parking spots. But we knew that a bust of Aristotle stood somewhere, so we were determined to find it.
Sure enough, we crossed the bridge back to the mainland and saw the bust across the bay. We parked the car near a public beach and took a stroll to see the master of them who know. Once again, people whizzed by, ignorant of the man who gazed at them.
Since we were already parked near the public beach and the August sun was shining, it was finally time to enjoy the luscious blue water.
For the next few hours, while Aristotle gazed toward the horizon, we swam in the clear water and sunbathed on the beach. For the first time in five days this actually felt like a vacation.
When we left, Carrie realized that she forgot her swimsuit in the lady’s locker room. She was upset. I calmed her down by saying that she only lost her swimsuit in Chalcis, while Aristotle lost his life there. This brought things into perspective.
We made a quick stop at Marathon, the site of the battle that gave rise to the global race that bears its name. As one who ran the NYC marathon seven times I wanted to pay tribute to Pheidippides, who in 490 B.C. ran from this battlefield to Athens (26.2 miles away) to announce the defeat of the Persians. After he delivered his message, “Nike!” (Victory!), he keeled over and died.
Carrie’s friends recommended we catch a much-lauded sunset at Sounion, which is on the southern tip, so onward we journeyed. At the Temple of Poseidon we gathered in silent reflection with hundreds of others. When the sun vanished, at the end of a golden-purple sunset, everyone burst into applause.
Next was the Piraeus where we searched for the port which is the opening setting of Plato’s The Republic. My sister Evelyn gave me this book when I was fifteen. I was captivated by these characters who discussed ideas such as virtue and justice.
Since internet was spotty at the hotel, at the end of each day we’d walk several blocks to Starbucks. We’d let everyone know we were alive and then told them about the latest adventures. Now it was time for some research.
After several days of seeing artistic tributes to Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Dionysus, and Poseidon, I longed to see my favorite mythological hero: Prometheus. I found a 19th-century building that featured artwork depicting the story of Prometheus. It turned out to be next to the Athens Academy which we passed every day, a few blocks from our hotel. This massive building had outdoor statues of a seated Plato and Socrates, with Athena standing behind overlooking her city.
The security guard/tour guide on site was impressed that we knew the building had a large fresco depicting the story of Prometheus. His voice rose in excitement as he told us the events of how Prometheus (whose name means forethought) first created man and then stole fire from the gods to give him light, heat, and the ability to cook food. For this he was condemned and tortured at Zeus’s command. The legend of a creator being punished by an envious powerful figurehead is as old as the sun.
At one point I asked him which bird pecked daily at Prometheus’s liver. I’d read in some places that it was a vulture and in others that it was an eagle. He said it was the noblest bird and symbol of strength: the eagle.
This guard was one of only two curious young people we met during the entire trip. The other was the hotel’s parking attendant. Whenever we’d return the car after a long day’s journey, we’d share some exciting stories. One day he asked what we thought about Greece’s economic status, so we gave our opinion. After some more back and forth, he told us that he would likely go into the military because it offered steady income and it was his duty. When we asked why we hadn’t seen any of the riots we’d read about a few weeks earlier, he told us that it was too hot. The anarchists were all at the beach. Ah, the revolution.
On our final night we made a third trip to the Lyceum—this time to witness a performance of Euripides’s Rhesus, which included excerpts from Aristotle’s writings.
It was an interesting multi-media performance, spoken in Greek but with English subtitles reflected on a nearby building. There was conflict with battle scenes, but it felt more like a novelty than pure drama. We hoped there would be elements of Aristotle’s Poetics, where he says that fiction is of greater importance than history. For the latter tells us only what is, while fiction tells us what could and should be.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
As you can see, this trip was a major success, filled with memorable experiences. We were prepared to run into catastrophes of some sort, but none came. We didn’t overcome obstacles on the scale of Odysseus and Penelope, but did tackle whatever modern-day challenges we faced. We hit our planned targets, improvised a bit and shared our love and joy at this historic land. Plus, we felt the continual presence of our hero. When Issac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” he means Aristotle more than anyone else. That is why we admire him so much.
The reality is that, like most of Europe, modern Greece is one gigantic museum, looking only backwards. Most of the construction works are restoration of relics, which are worth preserving, but you also need to look ahead. One has a better chance of seeing the young Achilles dipped into the river Styx than seeing a new skyscraper constructed.
Perhaps if Greece would learn more about the philosophy of reason, individualism, and happiness as their greatest teacher taught, they could turn that setting sun into another Golden Age. We hope they do.