Immortalization in the Agora


Something I felt very strongly when visiting Athens was the dichotomy between the acropolis and the agora.  Of course everyone associates the acropolis with the wisdom of Greece–the Parthenon, Athena, the PanAthenaic Festival and all that.  And of course that is important.  But we need to remember that Socrates spent his time in the agora, the marketplace, bringing the dialog to the people, the sacred to the everyday. Plato mentions the acropolis only a couple of times; his main concern is with the agora.  How ironic–or

fitting–then, that Socrates should die there, poisoned by the people he was trying to enlighten.  His last day is well-documented in the dialog The Phaedo which is a kind of summary of all his teaching, and a great primer on the idea of immortality.

I had the privilege of being at the site of the prison with Gregory Nagy, Director of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies, and he has an interesting take on Socrates’ last words: “…don’t forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios.”   He relates it to the process of immortalization, i.e. how heroes are created through performing certain rituals.  What Plato stresses throughout his dialogs is that Socrates is a new kind of hero–not one who relies on military accomplishments for his kleos (although he apparently did have them),  but rather his efforts to persuade through reason that the Ideal exists and we can come to know it directly.  In other words, that we can transcend the physical world and realize that we are already immortalized, like Socrates, like Jesus.

Greg makes the point that when one made a sacrifice to Asklepios, the god of healing, one would then enter into a state of incubation.  This is a special kind of sleep, not unlike death, which enables one to offer up the particular illness to a more universal state, and in the process become cured of it.  In the case of Socrates, the specific sacrificial rooster dies, but the form “rooster” lives on, crowing on the morning of the next day.  Socrates will leave his own body, but his essence–that of engaging in dialog–will go on, and he will thus be immortalized.  Another “tourist” on this trip, a psychoanalyst from Ottawa named Cecilia Taiana, put it this way in a comment to Greg’s article,”Healthy people incubate them into something new, thereby preparing them to engage the new day as ‘new’ (creativity) and not as a repetition (trauma).”

So we need to ask ourselves: how often do we allow ourselves to engage in repetition rather than creativity?  How often do we repeat things over and over when we could just let them go and be free?  I believe this is a core message of all spiritual traditions: that we don’t need to live among past “traumas,” including the trauma of being reduced to an ego.  We can let go of the experiences that hold us as prisoners and greet each day–indeed each moment–as new, fresh, creative.  By doing so we show our kinship with Socrates, and with the whole Ideal tradition.

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