Athens we should meet

Added: Niles Schmalz - Date: 16.12.2021 09:20 - Views: 48431 - Clicks: 6530

They brought us democracy, science, philosophy, written contracts, taxes, writing, and schools. But the apex of their civilization, sandwiched between two wars, lasted just 24 years—in human history, a lightning flash across the summer sky. For much of its history, Athens was either preparing for war, at war, or recovering from war. But in the window between the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, from to B. Like Silicon Valley today, ancient Athens during this brief period became a talent magnet, attracting smart, ambitious people. A city with a population equivalent to that of Wichita, Kansas, it was an unlikely candidate for greatness: Other Greek city-states were larger Syracuse or wealthier Corinth or mightier Sparta.

Yet Athens produced more brilliant minds—from Socrates to Aristotle—than any other place the world has seen before or since. Only Renaissance Florence came close. One of the biggest misperceptions about places of genius, though, is that they are akin to paradise. To the contrary, ancient Athens was a place of public opulence and private squalor.

The streets were noisy, narrow, and dirty. The houses of the wealthy were indistinguishable from those of the poor, and both were equally Athens we should meet of wood and sun-dried clay, and so flimsy that robbers gained entry by simply digging. How did a small, dirty, crowded city, surrounded by enemies and swathed in olive oil, manage to change the world? This question has stumped historians and archaeologists for centuries, but the answer may lie in what we already know about life in Athens back in the day. The ancient Athenians enjoyed a deeply intimate relationship with their city. Civic life was not optional, and the Athenians had a word for those who refused to participate in public affairs: idiotes.

There was no such thing as an aloof, apathetic Athenian. All of ancient Athens displayed a combination of the linear and the bent, the orderly and the chaotic.

Athens we should meet

The Parthenon, perhaps the most famous structure of the ancient world, looks like the epitome of linear thinking, rational thought frozen in stone, but this is an illusion: The building has not a single straight line. Each column bends slightly this way or that.

In retrospect, many aspects of Athenian life—including the layout and character of the city itself—were conducive to creative thinking.

Athens we should meet

The ancient Greeks did everything outdoors. A house was less a home than a dormitory, a place where most people spent fewer than 30 waking minutes each day. The rest of the time was spent in the marketplace, or working out at the gymnasium or the wrestling grounds, or perhaps strolling along the rolling hills that surround the city. The Greeks viewed body and mind as two inseparable parts of a whole: A fit mind not attached to a fit body rendered both incomplete. Master shipbuilders and sailors, they journeyed to Egypt, Mesopotamia, and beyond, bringing back the alphabet from the Phoenicians, medicine and sculpture from the Egyptians, mathematics from the Babylonians, literature from the Sumerians.

The Athenians felt no shame in their intellectual pilfering.

Athens we should meet

Athens also welcomed foreigners themselves. Some of the best-known sophists, for example, were foreign-born. It was part of what made Athens Athens—openness to foreign goods, new ideas, and, perhaps most importantly, odd people and strange ideas. The city had more than its fair share of prominent homegrown eccentrics. Hippodamus, the father of urban planning, was known for his long hair, expensive jewelry, and cheap clothing, which he never changed, winter or summer.

Athenians mocked Hippodamus for his eccentricities, yet they still ased him the vital job of building their port city, Piraeus. The writer Diogenes, who regularly ridiculed the famous and powerful, lived in a wine barrel; the philosopher Cratylus, determined never to contradict himself, communicated only through simple gestures.

Then there was that greatest of Athenian oddballs, Socrates. Never before or since have a man and a city been so perfectly matched. Eccentric, barefoot, and stubborn, Socrates occupied that precarious position that all geniuses do, perched between insider and outsider.

He was far enough from the mainstream to see the world through fresh eyes, yet close enough to it that his insights resonated. Socrates loved Athens and would never consider living—or dying—anywhere else. He chose the latter. Socrates is remembered as a great philosopher, but he was first and foremost a conversationalist, pioneering conversation as a means of intellectual exploration.

The Athenians were not foodies—most people, no matter their social stature, were satisfied with a hunk of bread, onions, and a small handful of olives. Overall, their caloric intake was remarkably low. Aristophanes, the satirist, credited the meager Athenian diet with keeping their bodies lean and their minds sharp.

And of course, no symposium was complete without wine, and lots of it. While the ancient Greeks enthusiastically endorsed moderation, they seldom practiced it.

Athens we should meet

Moderation was considered an end, not a means; go to enough extremes, they figured, and eventually they cancel each other out. Perhaps every place of genius is equally overzealous. Perhaps that is why they never last long. Inan anthropologist named Alfred Kroeber theorized that culture, not genetics, explained genius clusters like Athens.

He also theorized why these golden ages invariably fizzle. Every culture, he said, is like a chef in the kitchen. Eventually, though, even the best-stocked kitchen runs dry. That is what happened to Athens. Houses grew larger and more ostentatious. Streets grew wider, the city less intimate. People developed gourmet taste. The gap between rich and poor, citizen and noncitizen, grew wider, while the sophists, hawking their verbal acrobatics, grew more influential.

Academics became less about pursuing truth and more about parsing it. The once vibrant urban life degenerated. Popular Latest. The Atlantic Crossword. In Subscribe. From the Ancient Greeks to Yoga Chic.

Athens we should meet

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