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Ancient Athens


5th century BC, Ancient Greek. Athens

I have heard it said that Dionysus was celebrated here in Greece over a thousand years ago, long before Zeus arrived. And the City Dionysia and the Eleusinian Mysteries keep alive the old ways.

I am now in my sixty-eighth year, sitting upon the steps of my Academy. My beautiful Academy. The journey from Eleusis back to Athens has left me footsore and weary. Aristotle is walking across the courtyard, my pupil Aristotle - he acknowledges my wave but continues his way thoughtfully towards his scrolls.

How different it was when Socrates and I strolled past this tree, this very tree, rapt in conversation, perhaps in the company of Cebes or Menexinus, all those years ago. It has been my unspoken desire to continue the work of my friend and tutor and to bring to bear the full weight of rational enquiry onto the teachings of the Mysteries. To try to prove the truth of them by intellect alone.

I wrote some plays when I was young. I don’t think any of them survive in our library. My quartet was not chosen for performance at the City Dionysia and I think that has coloured my attitude towards drama ever since. But it is the nearest one can come to explicitly revealing the Mysteries in public. It is a tacit agreement. The Olympian gods, the state deities, Zeus, Apollo, Athena – these rule now. Dionysus did not come in the Olympian bundle that Hesiod gathered in for us, although Zeus the all-powerful now claims him as his son. I have heard it said that Dionysus was celebrated here in Greece over a thousand years ago, long before Zeus arrived. And the City Dionysia and the Eleusinian Mysteries keep alive the old ways.

I wrote dialogue when I was young, and I have done so ever since. I had the freedom given to a young aristocrat without the constraint of a father ambitious for his own son. My mother and stepfather looked after me well enough and it might have been supposed that I would have pursued a political career. But Socrates immersed me in a love of knowledge – no, not a love of knowledge but a love of understanding – that has ruled my life ever since. The final defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War made politics a fearful business anyway and the execution of Socrates broke the last tie I had with Athens at that time. I roamed the Mediterranean for twelve years, met Pythagoreans in Italy, temple priests in Egypt, sailors and adventurers who knew the western lands of Iberia and Gaul. And I have kept the memory of my teacher alive with his own voice, recorded on paper.

And what of the questions that we tried to explore?

Perhaps nothing can be proved for certain. My students, I perceive, are beginning to tire of the old arguments and are looking elsewhere for new problems to solve.

The works of Plato, in: Cooper, John M. (Ed) and Hutchinson, D. S. (Associate Ed), 1997. Plato: Complete Works. New translations from Ancient Greek by numerous scholars. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

See for yourself

Plato – Wikipedia

Ancient Athens – Wikipedia

Eleusinian Mysteries – Wikipedia

Dionysus – Wikipedia

The Works of Plato – translations in Modern English, project Gutenberg


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