The Geography of Genius
ONE GENIUS IS SIMPLE: ATHENS
THE LIGHT. MAYBE IT WAS the light.
The thought shimmies into my sleep-starved brain, strutting with the awkward bravado of a tweedy classicist on crack. Yes, I think, blinking away the hours of stale Boeing air, the light.
Most light doesn’t do much for me. It’s nice, don’t get me wrong. Preferable to darkness, sure, but strictly utilitarian. Not the light in Greece. Greek light is dynamic, alive. It dances across the landscape, flickering here, glowing there, constantly and subtly shifting in intensity and quality. Greek light is sharp and angular. It’s the sort of light that makes you pay attention, and as I would soon learn, paying attention is the first step on the road to genius. As I glance out my taxi window, shielding my eyes from the painfully bright morning sun, I can’t help but wonder: Have I found a piece of the Greek puzzle?
I hope so, for it is a daunting puzzle, one that has stumped historians and archaeologists, not to mention the Greeks themselves, for centuries. The question that nags is this: Why? Or, more precisely, why here? Why did this well-lit but otherwise unremarkable land give rise to a people
unlike any other the world had seen, a people, as the great classicist Humphrey Kitto put it, “not very numerous, not very powerful, not very organized, who had a totally new conception of what human life was for, and showed for the first time what the human mind was for”?
This incredible flourishing didn’t last long. Yes, “classical Greece” is officially considered a 186-year period, but the apex of that civilization, sandwiched between two wars, only lasted twenty-four years. In human history, that’s a lightning flash across the summer sky, the flicker of a votive candle, a tweet. Why so brief?
Ancient Greece. As the taxi slows to a crawl (rush-hour traffic not being something the ancients had to contend with), I ponder those two words. They make me shrink, embarrassed by how much I don’t know, bored with the little I do. When I think of the Greeks—if I think of them at all—images of gray men joylessly pondering life’s imponderables spring to mind. What can they possibly do for me? I have bills to pay and e-mails to send and deadlines to meet. The ancient Greeks seem about as relevant to my life as the rings of Saturn, or trigonometry.
Not for the first or last time, I am wrong. The truth is, no ancient peoples are more alive, more relevant today, than the Greeks. We are all a little bit Greek, whether we know it or not. If you’ve ever voted or served on a jury or watched a movie or read a novel or sat around with a group of friends drinking wine and talking about anything from last night’s football game to the nature of truth, you can thank the Greeks. If you’ve ever had a rational thought or asked Why? or gazed at the night sky in silent wonder, then you have had a Greek moment. If you’ve ever spoken English, you can thank the Greeks. So many of our words sprang from their rich language that a Greek prime minister once gave an entire speech, in English, using only Greek-derived words. Yes, the Greeks brought us democracy, science, and philosophy, but we can also thank (or curse) them for written contracts, silver and bronze coins, taxes, writing, schools, commercial loans, technical handbooks, large sailing ships, shared-risk investment, absentee landlordism. Nearly every part of our lives is inspired by the Greeks, including the very notion of inspiration. “We think and feel differently because of the Greeks,” concludes historian Edith Hamilton.
My taxi stops in front of a tired three-story building that, except for a small sign that says TONY’S HOTEL, is indistinguishable from all the other tired three-story buildings. I step into the alleged lobby, a white-tiled room that looks more like someone’s basement, piled high with rickety chairs, broken coffee machines—possessions you no longer need but, out of sentimentality or inertia, can’t bear to part with. Like Greece itself, Tony’s Hotel has seen better days.
So has Tony. The Greek sun has etched deep lines on his face; the Greek cuisine has inflated his gut to monumental proportions. Tony is all rough edges and sweetness, a throwback to an older, drachma Greece. Less euro; more endearing. Like many Greeks, Tony is a natural performer. He speaks a little more loudly than necessary and swings his arms in large, theatrical motions, no matter how mundane the topic at hand. It’s as if he’s auditioning for Greek Idol. All the time.
I plop down on my bed and thumb through the small library of books I’ve packed, a whimsical collection curated from the vast ocean of ink that ancient Greece has spawned. My eyes are drawn to a quirky, little volume called Daily Life in Athens at the Time of Pericles. It’s a pleasing antidote to the usual history, which is written from a mountaintop and is as dry as a desert. Historians typically track wars and upheavals and sweeping ideological movements like so many weather systems. Most of us, though, don’t experience weather that way. We experience it down here, not as a massive low-pressure system but as sheets of rain that slicken our hair, a crack of thunder that rattles our insides, a Mediterranean sun that warms our face. And so it is with history. The story of the world is not the story of coups and revolutions. It is the story of lost keys and burnt coffee and a sleeping child in your arms. History is the untallied sum of a million everyday moments.
Within this quotidian stew genius quietly simmers. Sigmund Freud nibbling on his favorite sponge cake at Vienna’s Café Landtmann. Einstein staring out the window of the Swiss patent office in Berne. Leonardo da Vinci wiping the sweat from his forehead at a hot and dusty Florentine workshop. Yes, these geniuses thought big, world-changing thoughts, but they did so in small spaces. Down here. All genius, like all politics, is local.
From this new, terrestrial vantage point, I learn much about the ancient Greeks. I learn that they loved to dance and wonder what exactly transpired during such numbers as “Stealing the Meat” and “The Itch.” I learn that, before exercising, young men would swathe their bodies with olive oil, and that “the manly smell of olive oil in the gymnasium was considered sweeter than perfume.” I learn that the Greeks wore no underwear, that a unibrow was considered a mark of beauty, that they enjoyed grasshoppers both as pets and as appetizers. I learn a lot, but besides these peccadilloes, I learn what the Greeks produced, not how they produced it, and it is the how that I am determined to nail down.
But first, I need something the ancient Greeks didn’t have: coffee. The nectar of the gods shouldn’t be imbibed just anywhere, though. Location matters.
For me, cafés are a kind of second home, a prime example of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls a “great good place.” The food and drink are irrelevant, or nearly so. What matters is the atmosphere—not the tablecloths or the furniture but a more intangible ambience, one that encourages guilt-free lingering and strikes just the right balance of background din and contemplative silence.
I don’t know about the ancients, but twenty-first-century Greeks are not exactly early risers. At 8:00 a.m. I have the streets to myself, save the occasional storekeeper coaxing the sleep from his eyes, and a handful of policemen outfitted in full RoboCop riot gear—a reminder that, like its ancient self, modern Athens is a city on edge.
I follow Tony’s directions, which he conveyed with wild, swinging arcs, and turn onto a pleasant pedestrian walkway, lined with cafés and small shops, epitomizing the sense of community that characterized ancient Athens. Here I find my great good place. It’s called the Bridge. An appropriate name, I decide, since I’m attempting the quixotic task of bridging the centuries.
The Bridge is nothing fancy, just a few outdoor tables facing Draco Street, positioned as if the customers were theatergoers and the street the theater.
In cafés like this the Greeks indulge in their national pastime: sitting. The Greeks sit in groups and they sit alone. They sit in the summer sun and they sit in the winter chill. They don’t need a chair to do their sitting either. An empty curb or a discarded cardboard box will do nicely. Nobody sits like the Greeks.
I manage a kalimera, good morning, and join the other sitters at the Bridge. I order an espresso and warm my hands on the cup. A morning nip lingers in the air, but I can tell, already, that it’s shaping up to be another fine Greek day. “We may be bankrupt, but we still have great weather,” Tony had announced, triumphantly, as I headed out. He has a point. Not only the sublime light but three hundred days of cloudless skies and little humidity. Might climate explain Athenian genius?
Alas, no. Climate might have sharpened the ancient Greek mind, but it doesn’t explain it. For starters, Greece enjoys essentially the same weather today as it did in 450 BC, yet it is no longer a place of genius. Also, plenty of golden ages blossomed in less agreeable climes. The bards of Elizabethan London, for instance, performed their magic under a dreary English sky.
I order a second espresso, and as my brain reboots, I realize that I’m getting ahead of myself. Here I am hot on the trail of genius, but do I really know what it means? As I said, a genius is someone who makes an intellectual or artistic leap, but who decides what qualifies as a leap?
We do. Francis Galton may have gotten much wrong, but his definition of genius, though typically sexist, points to something important: “A genius is a man to whom the world deliberately acknowledges itself largely indebted.” Admittance to the club of genius is not up to the genius but to his peers, and society. It is a public verdict, not a private assertion. One theory of genius—let’s call it the Fashionista Theory of Genius—states this unequivocally. Admission to the club of genius depends entirely on the whims, the fashion, of the day. “Creativity cannot be separated from its recognition,” says psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the main advocate of this theory. Put more bluntly, someone is only a genius if we say so.
At first, this might seem counterintuitive, even blasphemous. Surely,
some inviolate aspect of genius must exist separate from public judgment.
No, say the proponents of this theory, it does not. Take Bach, for example. He was not particularly respected during his lifetime. Only about seventy-five years after his death was he declared a “genius.” Before that, we assume, he resided in that purgatory “undiscovered genius.” But what does that mean? “What—besides unconscious conceit—warrants this belief?” asks Csikszentmihalyi. Saying we discovered Bach’s genius is tantamount to saying that those who came before us were idiots. And what if, at some future date, Bach is demoted, banished from the pantheon of genius? What does that say about us?
Other examples abound. When Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du printemps premiered in Paris in 1913, the audience nearly rioted; critics called it “perverted.” Today, it is considered a classic. When Monet’s late work the Nymphéas first came out, art critics recognized them for what they were: the result of the artist’s deteriorating eyesight. Only later, when abstract expressionism was all the rage, were they declared works of genius.
Greek vases are another good example of the Fashionista Theory of Genius. Today, you can see them displayed in many museums around the world. They sit behind bulletproof glass, armed guards nearby, tourists gawking at these works of art. That’s not how the Greeks saw them, though. For them, the vases served a strictly utilitarian purpose. They were everyday objects. Not until the 1970s, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York paid more than $1 million for a single vase, was Greek pottery elevated to high art. So when exactly did these clay pots become works of genius? We like to think they always were, and that only later did we “discover” their genius. That’s one way of looking at it. Proponents of the Fashionista Theory of Genius would argue that they became works of genius in the 1970s when the Metropolitan Museum, speaking the language of money, said so.
The relativity of genius is bubbling in my brain as I order another espresso and plan my attack on the Great Greek Mystery. What made this place shine? I’ve already eliminated climate. Perhaps it was something equally obvious: the rocky terrain, or well-ventilated clothing, or the ubiquitous wine?
Athens is finally beginning to stir, and the Bridge affords a prime viewing spot. I sit back and survey the sea of faces. Are these really the offspring of Plato and Socrates? Many academics have asked that same question. A number of years ago, an Austrian anthropologist posited that modern Greeks were not Plato’s heirs but the descendants of Slavs and Albanians who had migrated here centuries later. His theory caused a minor uproar in Greece. People balked at the suggestion that they were anything other than the children of Plato. “I have no doubt that we are the direct descendants of the ancients,” asserted one politician. “We have exactly the same vices.”
And what vices they were! The ancient Greeks were no Boy Scouts. They held outlandish, weeklong festivals, drank heroic quantities of wine, and never met a sexual act they didn’t like. Despite all these antics, or perhaps because of them, Ancient Greece excelled like no other civilization. That much is clear. The rest is as murky as a glass of ouzo. In fact, my investigation into Ancient Greece encounters its first hiccup when I discover there was no such place as Ancient Greece. What did exist were Ancient Greeces: hundreds of independent poleis, or city-states, that, while they shared a common language and certain cultural traits, were very different, as different as, say, Canada and South Africa today. Each polis had its own government, its own laws, its own customs—even its own calendar. Sure, they occasionally traded goods, competed in athletics, and fought a few spectacularly bloody wars, but mostly they ignored one another.
Why so many Greeces? The answer lies in the land itself. Hilly and rocky, it formed natural barriers, cutting off the Greek city-states from one another and creating, in effect, islands on the land. No wonder a variety pack of microcultures blossomed.
And thank goodness it did. Nature abhors not only a vacuum but a monopoly, too. During times of fragmentation, humanity made its greatest creative leaps. This tendency, known as Danilevsky’s law, states that peoples are more likely to reach their full creative potential when they belong to an independent nation, even if it is tiny. This makes sense. If the world is a laboratory of ideas, then the more petri dishes in the lab, the better.
In Greece, one petri dish flourished like no other: Athens. The city produced more brilliant minds—from Socrates to Aristotle—than any other place the world has seen before or since. (Only Renaissance Florence came close.)
At the time, though, the prospect of such greatness was a long shot, to say the least. For starters, that rocky, hilly land wasn’t exactly fertile. “A discarnate skeleton,” Plato called it. Also, Athens was a small city, with a population equivalent to that of Wichita, Kansas, today. Other Greek city-states were larger (Syracuse) or wealthier (Corinth) or mightier (Sparta). Yet none flourished the way Athens did. Why? Was Athenian genius simply dumb luck, the convergence of “a happy set of circumstances,” as historian Peter Watson puts it, or did the Athenians make their luck? That is, I fear, a riddle that would stump even the Delphic oracle. But, fully caffeinated and armed with the courage of the naive, I soldier on, determined to unlock the mystery. What I need to do first, I decide, is meet the right people.
“Welcome to my office,” says Aristotle, with a dramatic, Tony-esque sweep of his hand. It’s a line he’s clearly used before, but given our vantage point, atop the Acropolis with all of Athens spread below, it is, I concede, a good line.
We had met a few hours earlier, in the lobby of Tony’s Hotel. My first impression of Aristotle was that, with his fair skin and unruly, reddish hair that hung across his face like a curtain, he didn’t look Greek. A ridiculous observation, I quickly realized. There is no one way of looking Greek any more than there is one way of looking French or American or anything else. The Greeks are not one race; they never were.
My second impression of Aristotle is that he seems distracted. Whether it is the weight of his name, or the stress of the permanent crisis that Greece finds itself in these days, I can’t say. But no doubt about it: he is buzzing. As we walk and talk, though, I realize that what I have taken for nervousness is actually intensity—a passion for history that flows through him like an electrical current; 220 volts, I’d say. Possibly more.
As we continue our walk toward the Acropolis, I bide my time,
waiting for the right moment to ask about his name. When I first learned that my guide was named Aristotle, I took it as fortuitous. What could be more historically correct, more Greek, than walking in the steps of Aristotle with Aristotle?
As we cross the pedestrian street, now bustling with activity, I dive in, figuring it best to acknowledge the eight-hundred-pound philosopher in the room.
“So, what’s with the name, Aristotle?” I ask lamely.
Aristotle shrugs. It’s inconvenient, he says, leaving it to me to imagine exactly what form this inconvenience takes. His friends call him Ari, which he hates, though he concedes it does provide some distance from the historical Aristotle and, for that matter, the billionaire shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who married Jacqueline Kennedy. With a name such as Aristotle, distance is your friend.
As we dodge tourists and riot police, Aristotle recounts how he fell into the tour-guide business. He wanted to join the Greek army but didn’t make the cut. Why exactly, he didn’t say, and sensing some still-raw wound, I didn’t press. Shut out of the military, he studied archaeology instead and has been looking back ever since. Some twenty-five hundred years back, to be precise. Aristotle’s specialty, his passion, is ancient roof tiles. You can learn a lot about a civilization from its roof tiles, he assures me.
“What we’re doing right now is very Greek,” he says.
“Really? Because all we’re doing is walking.”
“Exactly. The ancient Greeks walked everywhere, all the time.” They were great walkers and great thinkers and preferred to do their philosophizing while on the go.
The Greeks, as usual, knew what they were doing. Many a genius has done his or her best thinking while walking. While working on A Christmas Carol, Dickens would walk fifteen or twenty miles through the back streets of London, turning over the plot in his mind, as the city slept. Mark Twain walked a lot, too, though he never got anywhere. He paced while he worked, as his daughter recalled: “Some of the time when dictating, Father walked the floor . . . then it always seemed as if a new spirit had flown into the room.”
Recently, researchers have begun to investigate scientifically the link between walking and creativity. In a recent study, Stanford University psychologists Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz divided participants into two groups: walkers and sitters. They then administered something called Guilford’s Alternative Uses test, in which participants come up with alternative uses for everyday objects. It’s designed to measure “divergent thinking,” an important component of creativity. Divergent thinking is when we come up with multiple, unexpected solutions to problems. Divergent thinking is spontaneous and free-flowing. Convergent thinking, by contrast, is more linear and entails a narrowing, rather than an expanding, of your options. Convergent thinkers are trying to find the one correct answer to a question. Divergent thinkers reframe the question.
The results, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, confirm that the ancient Greeks were onto something. Creativity levels were “consistently and significantly” higher for the walkers versus the sitters. Curiously, it didn’t matter whether participants walked outdoors in the fresh air or indoors on a treadmill staring at a blank wall. They still produced twice as many creative responses compared with the sedentary group. It didn’t take a lot of walking to boost creativity, either—anywhere from five to sixteen minutes.
The ancient Greeks, living long ago, in an age before the treadmill, did their walking outdoors. They did everything outdoors. A house was less a home than a dormitory. They spent only about thirty waking minutes there every day. “Just long enough to do the necessary with their wives,” said Aristotle, as we neared the gates of the Acropolis. They spent the rest of their day in the agora, the marketplace, working out at the gymnasium or the palaistra, the wrestling grounds, or perhaps strolling along the rolling hills that surround the city. None of these outings were deemed extracurricular because, unlike us, the Greeks didn’t differentiate between physical and mental activity. Plato’s famous Academy, progenitor of the modern university, was as much an athletic facility as an intellectual one. The Greeks viewed body and mind as two inseparable parts of a whole. A fit mind not attached to a fit body rendered both
somehow incomplete. Picture Rodin’s Thinker and you have the Greek ideal: a buff man lost in thought.
The Acropolis, at last. Literally “high city,” it is not a building but a place, and its location—atop a steep plateau, with natural springs nearby—is no accident. The Greeks had a highly refined sense of place. Socrates, for instance, extolled the benefits of southern exposure two millennia before New York real-estate agents. Buildings were not merely physical entities; they possessed a spirit, that genius loci, or genius of place. Greeks believed that where you were influenced what you thought, and at least one of the best-known schools of philosophy owes its name to an architectural style. The Stoics are so named because of the stoa, or elegant colonnades, under which they did their philosophizing.
We hike a bit more before reaching the peak, where the Parthenon, arguably the most famous structure of the ancient world, resides with all the quiet confidence of a Saudi king or a Supreme Court justice. Tenure will do that. Its status is well deserved, Aristotle assures me. The Parthenon represents an unprecedented engineering feat. For starters, workers had to transport thousands of blocks of marble from the surrounding countryside. The project employed carpenters, molders, bronzesmiths, stonecutters, dyers, painters, embroiderers, embossers, rope makers, weavers, cobblers, road builders, and miners. Amazingly, the Parthenon was completed on time and under budget, marking the first and last time any construction project has accomplished that.
“Take a look at the columns,” says Aristotle. “How do they look to you?”
“Beautiful,” I say, wondering where he’s going with this.
“Do they look straight?”
Aristotle smiles a mischievous smile. “They’re not straight at all.” He fetches an illustration of the Parthenon from his rucksack.
What looks like the epitome of linear thinking, rational thought frozen in stone, is an illusion. The building has not a single straight line. Each column bends slightly this way or that. Yet when gazing at the Parthenon, as French writer Paul Valéry explains, “no one is aware that the
sense of happiness he feels is caused by curves and bends that are almost imperceptible yet immensely powerful. The beholder is unaware that he is responding to a combination of regularity and irregularity the architect had hidden in his work.”
When I read those words—“a combination of regularity and irregularity”—they stick with me. I suspect they might explain more than clever engineering. All of ancient Athens displayed that combination of the linear and the bent, the orderly and the chaotic. Within the city walls, you’d find both a clear-cut legal code and a frenzied marketplace, ruler-straight statues and streets that follow no discernible order. We think of the Greeks as reasonable people, the original straight-and-narrow thinkers, and they were, but they also possessed an irrational side, and a sort of “crazy wisdom” prevailed in classical Athens. People were guided by thambos, “that reverential terror and awe aroused by the proximity of any supernatural force or being which one discerns,” as historian Robert Flacelière explains. The Greeks feared madness but also recognized it as “a gift of the gods.”
Disorder is embedded in the Greek creation myth, where in the beginning there was not light but chaos. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. For the Greeks—and, as I’d later learn, Hindus, too—chaos is the raw material of creativity. Might this explain why Athens’s leaders resisted calls to “regularize” the city’s unruly layout? Their rationale was partly practical—the winding streets would confuse invaders—but perhaps they also suspected that messiness stimulates creative thought.
None of this means the Greeks were slackers, says Aristotle, comparing them with another extraordinary civilization. “The Egyptians reached what they considered perfection, and they stopped there. The Greeks always wanted to do more. They always wanted to be the best.” So all-consuming was this quest for the perfect that Greek artisans devoted as much time and effort to the backs of their statues as they did to the fronts. The Parthenon also represented something else: an overt attempt to stick it to the other city-states. Ictinus, the architect who designed the Parthenon, had seen the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and was determined to outdo it. “It was always this sense of competition that drove them,” says Aristotle. Might this competitive zeal explain their genius?
The evolving science of genius has been investigating that very question. In a landmark study, Teresa Amabile, a psychologist at Harvard University, examined what effect a promised reward has on creative thinking. She divided a team of volunteers into two groups. Each group was asked to produce a collage. One group, though, was told that their work would be evaluated by a panel of artists and that those who produced the most creative collages would receive a monetary award. The second group was told, essentially, to have fun.
The results weren’t even close. By a wide margin, those who were neither evaluated nor observed produced the most creative collages (as determined by a panel of art teachers). In many follow-up studies, Amabile and her colleagues found similar results. The expectation of a reward or evaluation, even a positive evaluation, squelched creativity. She calls this phenomenon the intrinsic theory of motivation. Stated simply: “People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and the challenge of the work itself—not by external pressures.” She warns that many schools and corporations, by placing such emphasis on rewards and evaluation, are inadvertently suppressing creativity.
It’s a compelling theory, and one that, intuitively, makes sense. Who hasn’t felt creatively liberated writing in a private diary or doodling in a notebook, knowing no one will ever see these zany scribbles?
The theory, though, doesn’t always jibe with the real world. If we are only motivated by the sheer joy of an activity, why do athletes perform better in the heat of competition rather than during training sessions? Why did Mozart abandon works in progress because his commission was withdrawn? Why does the lure of a Nobel Prize motivate many a scientist? James Watson and Francis Crick, the first scientists to describe the structure of DNA, stated up front that their aim was to win the prestigious prize—and they did, in 1962. And in ancient Athens, this cutthroat nature of life clearly drove some to great heights. “Always excel and be better than others,” urged Homer, and if the Greeks obeyed anyone, it was Homer.
Some recent studies cast doubt on the intrinsic theory of motivation.
Jacob Eisenberg, a professor of business at University College Dublin, and William Thompson, a psychologist at Macquarie University, found that experienced musicians improvised more creatively when enticed with cash prizes and publicity. These results appear to fly in the face of the intrinsic theory of motivation. Is the theory flawed or the study?
Neither, actually. What matters, Eisenberg and Thompson suspect, is the type of people involved in the studies. Amabile’s participants tended to be novices, with no background in art, while Eisenberg’s were veteran musicians, with at least five years’ experience. Competition apparently motivates experienced creators but inhibits inexperienced ones.
An evolving theory suggests that some combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is ideal. Some, for instance, might initially be motivated by the promise of an external reward (money, status, etc.), but once immersed in the work they enter a psychological state known as flow. They forget about any external pressure and even lose track of time. That is what Watson and Crick said happened to them. They desperately wanted to win the Nobel, but once they immersed themselves in the research, the prize receded to the back of their minds.
A crucial question is not whether someone is competitive but, rather, for what (or whom) they are competing. In ancient Athens, the answer was clear: the city. The ancient Athenians enjoyed a deeply intimate relationship with their city, the likes of which we can scarcely imagine. The closest term we have to describe this sentiment is civic duty, but that carries the weight of obligation and doesn’t sound like any fun. What the Athenians practiced was more like civic joy. That we find that juxtaposition of words odd speaks volumes about the chasm that separates us and the ancients.
Civic life, though, was not optional, and Aristotle tells me the Athenians had a word for those who refused to participate in public affairs: idiotes. It is where we get our word idiot. There was no such thing as an aloof, apathetic Athenian, at least not for long. “The man who took no interest in the affairs of state was not a man who minded his own business, but a man who had no business being in Athens at all,” said the great historian Thucydides. Ouch. And to think how I whined like
a petulant child when I found myself stuck on jury duty for two weeks.
Aristotle and I find a rock and sit down. From here, all of Athens is visible. In every direction, as far as my eye can see, it is unrelentingly urban. An endless sea of low-rise apartments, office buildings, highway cloverleafs, microwave towers. Here I run headlong into a most inconvenient truth: the Athens of today is not the Athens of 450 BC. Modern Athens has indoor plumbing and outdoor demonstrations. Modern Athens has traffic and bankruptcy and iPhones and Xanax and satellite TV and processed meat.
The past, it’s been said, is a foreign country. They do things differently there. Yes, they do, and unfortunately this particular foreign country, known as Ancient Greece, has extremely tight border controls. It doesn’t take kindly to interlopers such as me. Yet if I’m going to solve the Athenian Mystery, the past is exactly where I need to be. What to do?
“Squint.” That was the advice of a friend back home when I’d mentioned my plans to visit Athens. I’d laughed it off, but now I realize it’s actually a smart tactic. Sometimes we can see more by narrowing our field of view than by expanding it. The zoom lens reveals as much as the wide angle, and sometimes more.
“Don’t squint too much,” Aristotle warns. If I could time-travel to Athens circa 450 BC, he says, I’d probably be disappointed. The great Athens, the cradle of Western civilization, the birthplace of science, philosophy, and so much else we hold dear, was a dump. The streets were narrow and dirty. The houses, constructed of wood and sun-dried clay, were so flimsy that robbers gained entry by simply digging. (The ancient Greek word for robber means “one who tunnels through walls.”) As a time traveler I would definitely notice the noise—vendors hawking their wares at the agora, a lute screeching off-key—but what would grab my attention and not let go is the stench. People relieved themselves in the courtyard of their own home, or even right in the streets, where the mess would sit until a slave sluiced it away. Conditions were such that, as historian Jacob Burckhardt put it, “no sensible and peaceful person of our day would want to live under them.” And he wrote those words in the nineteenth century!
Let’s take stock of what we have so far. A small, dirty city, situated on unforgiving land, surrounded by hostile neighbors, and populated by a people “who, when we get down to facts, never cleaned their teeth, never used handkerchiefs, wiped their fingers on their hair, spat everywhere regardless, and died in swarms of malaria or tuberculosis,” as historian Robert Flacelière reminds us. Not exactly a recipe for a place of genius. Or is it?
One of the biggest misperceptions about places of genius, I’m discovering, is that they are akin to paradise. They are not. Paradise is antithetical to genius. Paradise makes no demands, and creative genius takes root through meeting demands in new and imaginative ways. “The Athenians matured because they were challenged on all fronts,” said Nietzsche, in a variation of his famous “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger” line. Creativity is a response to our environment. Greek painting was a response to the complex light (the Greek painter Apollodoros was the first to develop a technique for creating the illusion of depth), Greek architecture a response to the complex landscape, Greek philosophy a response to the complex, uncertain times.
The problem with paradise is that it is perfect and therefore requires no response. This is why wealthy people and places often stagnate. Athens was both wealthy and not; it was, to turn John Kenneth Galbraith’s observation about 1960s America on its head, a place of public opulence and private squalor. The houses of the wealthy were indistinguishable from those of the poor; both were equally shoddy. Athenians were deeply suspicious of private wealth, and the plays of Aeschylus are rife with stories about the misery it causes. Nearly everyone, from craftsman to physician, received the same salary. Laws limited how much money could be spent on funerals and forbade women from carrying more than three dresses on a journey. In ancient Athens, notes the great urbanist Lewis Mumford, “poverty was not an embarrassment: if anything, riches were suspect.”
These policies had their downside—forget about that nice water clock you’ve been eyeing at the agora—but it also meant that Athenians were liberated from the burdens of frantic acquisition and
consumption. “Beauty was cheap and the best goods of this life, above all the city itself, were there for the asking,” says Mumford.
When it came to public projects, though, the Athenians spent lavishly and, if they could help it, with other people’s money. They paid for the Parthenon, and other glorious projects, using the funds amassed by something called the Delian League. It was the NATO of its day, an alliance formed to fend off a common enemy, the Persians. It worked, and so the Athenians said, in effect, Thank you very much. We’ll take this money and do great things with it. Nobody ever said places of genius were nice.
Flush with other people’s cash, Athens was suddenly the hot spot of the ancient world, explains Aristotle as we circle the Parthenon. “So, if you were an engineer or an architect or a sculptor, or a philosopher, this is where you wanted to be.”
This is what I call the Magnetic Theory of Genius. Places such as ancient Athens, or Silicon Valley today, are creative because they attract smart, ambitious people. They are talent magnets. This is true but also a little too convenient, and circular. Creative places are creative because all the creative people move there. Yes, but what was the attraction in the first place? How did the magnet become magnetized?
Timing is important, and Pericles, the great Athenian leader, had exquisite timing. 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 454 to 430 BC, Athens was at peace, and this is when Pericles doubled down on cultural projects such as the Parthenon. One of the prerequisites for a golden age is peace.
But wait, I hear you say, hasn’t wartime generated all sorts of innovations—the jet engine, radar, and much more? Yes, war can spark a few innovations, but they are narrowly focused—a better gun, a faster plane. And while these advances do sometimes spawn civilian applications, the net result of war, concludes Dean Simonton after an exhaustive study, is negative, and “the negative effect holds true for every form of creativity, even for technology.”
Aristotle and I are sitting on a stone slab as old as the ages, the Mediterranean sun bearing down on us, the tourists swarming like angry wasps, when
I ask point-blank what he thinks. Why Athens? What was in the air?
Aristotle doesn’t have a ready answer, no illustration in his backpack to whip out, no clever one-liner. People don’t usually ask him that question. Athenian greatness is taken as a given. He thinks for a long while before finally speaking.
“It had to be the political system. First of all, there was freedom of speech and open debate. Something that the other city-states didn’t have. In the assembly, you had to stand up at the speaker’s platform and address some seven thousand men, forty times a year. No topic was off-limits. If you had any ambitions to become a statesman, you needed the skills of public speaking, and you also had to be educated. Plus, you needed stamina. They would stay there from sunrise to sunset and start with mundane issues, like water or grain supply, then move on to weightier issues.
“So, yes,” Aristotle says, the certainty in his voice peaking, “it was democracy.”
I’m not so sure. For starters, there is the old chicken-and-egg problem. Was Athens creative because it was democratic, or was it democratic because it was creative? And then there is the voice in my head, that of Dean Simonton, who, again, has crunched the numbers and says no correlation exists between golden ages and democracy. Freedom, not democracy, is what’s needed, he had told me. They’re not the same thing. “You can have enlightened autocrats. China never had democracy but they had enlightened autocrats.” Some psychologists go even further, suggesting that oligarchies may actually foster more creativity than democracies since, with less public oversight, they’re more willing to engage in risky or “unnecessary” projects. So, as much as I hate to disagree with someone named Aristotle, I don’t think democracy alone explains Athenian greatness. I need to keep digging.
We’re on the move again, this time, Aristotle assures me, heading to the heart of ancient Athens. It was not, as many people (myself included) assume, the Acropolis. We have left that sacred site far behind. A few minutes later, we enter a gate and spread before us is a collection of ruins, some nearly intact, others little more than stumps of stone. “This is it,” says Aristotle with a verbal flourish.
The agora. It literally means “place where people gather,” but it was much more than that. When Athenians set about rebuilding their city after it was sacked by the Persians, they did not begin with the temples of the Acropolis, as you might expect. They began here, with the true heart of the city.
This messy, chaotic place was replete with the sound of shopkeepers hawking their wares, sophists their oratorical services. It also had an undercurrent of menace. Often, arguments broke out, and sometimes scuffles. Athenians loved their agora, but others didn’t see the appeal. The Persian king Cyrus said he had no respect for a people who allocated a special space “where they could come together to cheat each other and tell one another lies under oath.”
The Athenian agora was the original everything store. If it existed in the ancient world, you could find it for sale at the agora. As the comic poet Eubulus enumerates, items available included “figs, witnesses to summonses, bunches of grapes, turnips, pears, apples, givers of evidence, roses, porridge, honeycombs, chickpeas, lawsuits, beestings-puddings, myrtle, allotment machines [for random jury selection], irises, lambs, water clocks, laws, indictments.” Everything had its place. Separate sections existed for fresh fruit and dried fruit, smoked fish and nonsmoked, spices and perfumes, footwear, and horses. There was even the agora of the kerkopes, the thieves’ market, where stolen goods were sold.
No one was fonder of the agora than Socrates. He came here to haggle with shopkeepers, catch up on the latest gossip, to discuss the nature of beauty. He is said to have idled away hours at the shop of a cobbler named Simon. No one knows for sure, though. Just when archaeologists think they’ve found traces of old Socrates—a clay cup, for instance, with the name SIMON etched on it—it turns out to be a false lead. I can hear Socrates laughing across the centuries. “I’m over here; no, over there. Catch me if you can.” He was a man who refused to be pinned down—in life and in death.
It’s getting late. Aristotle and I are about to say good-bye when he stops and turns. He’s been thinking about my geographies of genius, my attempt to nail down a recipe of sorts, and he’s not optimistic. “To
be honest,” he says, strands of auburn hair cascading down his face, his hands uncharacteristically still, “I don’t think you will ever find a formula for these places of genius.” His words bounce off me and tumble downhill before landing with a thud on the hard and ancient ruins of the agora.
We say good-bye and head in opposite directions. The harsh afternoon sun has softened into a pleasant crimson, and though Tony’s Hotel is quite far, I decide to walk, like Socrates.
“Socrates was the Dude.”
The words are spoken with great certainty, without a trace of irony. I’m not sure how to respond. By now, I know something of Socrates. I know he is one of the founders of Western philosophy, that he liked to ask lots of questions, and that he was, sadly, executed by the city he loved, charged, unfairly, with impiety and “corrupting the youth.” His dudeness, though, comes as news to me. Perhaps I misheard.
“Socrates was the Dude,” I hear again, this time with even greater conviction. The words are spoken by Alicia Stallings, poet, longtime Athens resident, and certified genius. She’s a recipient of the coveted (and lucrative) MacArthur Fellowship, informally known as a genius grant. If anyone can explain the genius of Athens, surely it is Alicia. At least that’s what I’d thought until she started with this dude business.
Earlier, she had suggested we meet at a café in her neighborhood. “It’s near the Temple of Zeus,” she had told me, as if that were the most natural landmark in the world. That’s what I love about Greek directions; they’re so much more interesting than back home. “Look for the Temple of Zeus” resonates more deeply, is freighted with more history, than “turn left at the Dunkin’ Donuts.” Athenians aren’t being pretentious when they name-drop the gods. They’re simply working with what they have. The Temple of Zeus. McDonald’s. They’re all part of the mix.
And so here I am, wine in hand, trying to wrap my mind around this Socrates-as-dude theory. Alicia is clearly using dude in The Big Lebowskian sense, which is the best sense, but still, comparing one of history’s greatest thinkers to a White Russian–drinking, pot-smoking character in a Coen brothers movie? I don’t know. It seems wrong.
Look at the facts, Alicia says, sensing my skepticism. While the world swirled around him, Socrates remained an island of calm. A rock. That’s very Dude-like behavior. During his long and fulfilling life, Socrates never wrote a single word. He was too busy being the Dude. And then there is this: at the hour of his execution, just before drinking the hemlock that would still his enormous heart, Socrates implored his followers, “I would ask you to be thinking of the truth and not of Socrates.” Not only is that statement admirably Dude-like in its selflessness—it’s not about me, it’s about the truth—it is also noteworthy in that Socrates spoke of himself in the third person. You don’t get any more Dude-like than that.
Yes, Socrates was the Dude, but more than that, he was an Athenian dude. The Athenian dude. Never before or since have a man and a city been so perfectly matched. He loved Athens and would never consider living—or dying—anywhere else. He could have avoided execution by fleeing Athens, but rejected that offer out of hand. He had a contract with the city, and he was going to fulfill his end of it.
Eccentric, barefoot, and endearingly stubborn, Socrates occupied that precarious position that all geniuses do—perched between insider and outsider. Far enough outside the mainstream to see the world through fresh eyes, yet close enough so that those fresh insights resonated with others.
Genius is many things, but beautiful is not one of them. Socrates was a profoundly ugly man. “Bearded, hairy, with a flat, spreading nose, prominent, popping eyes, and thick lips,” relays the historian Paul Johnson. Socrates, though, was not the least bit troubled by his appearance and often joked about it. In Xenophon’s Symposium, Socrates challenges Critobulus, a handsome young man, to a beauty contest. Critobulus points to Socrates’s elephantine nose as evidence of his ugliness. Not so fast, retorts the great philosopher. “God made the nose for smelling, and your nostrils are turned down while mine are wide and turned up and can receive smells from every direction.” As for my outsize lips, Socrates continued, they confer kisses that “are more sweet and luscious than yours.”
Whatever Socrates lacked in physical beauty, he made up for with exquisite timing. He was born at a propitious moment in human history, during
the time of Pericles, a mere nine years after the Chinese philosopher Confucius died. Socrates was twelve years old when the Hebrew priest Ezra left Babylon for Jerusalem, bringing with him a freshly transcribed version of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Torah. During this period, known as the Axial Age, old orders were crumbling, and new ones were not yet solidified. Cracks appeared, and as it’s been said, the cracks are what let the light in. The genius, too.
Socrates, like all geniuses, benefited from “zeitgeist fit.” This doesn’t necessarily mean he fit happily with the spirit of his times. What distinguishes geniuses is not a seamless fit with their times but, rather, what psychologist Keith Sawyer calls “the capacity to be able to exploit an apparent misfit.” This was certainly the case with Socrates; he pushed the boundaries of acceptable discourse—and got away with it, until he didn’t. His ideas resonated even as they riled. That is the way it is with geniuses. They fit in their times the way a pearl fits in an oyster shell. Uncomfortably yet essentially. A useful irritant.
Socrates is remembered as a great philosopher, but he was first and foremost a conversationalist. Before Socrates, people talked, but they didn’t have conversations. They had alternating monologues, especially if one person was of higher status than the other. Socrates pioneered conversation as a means of intellectual exploration, of questioning assumptions, ones so deeply ingrained we don’t even know we have them.
Conversation, I realize, is also a vehicle for the sort of group genius I’m probing. Sometimes ideas are the deliberate result of conversation, but just as often they arrive as an unexpected, but no less pleasing, by-product. Henry James recounts how his novel The Spoils of Poynton grew from “mere floating particles in the stream of talk.” Socrates dipped into that stream often, delighting in how it was never the same stream twice and he was never the same Socrates.
As the waitress brings another bottle of wine, Alicia tells me how she contracted the Greek bug at an early age. “The ancient authors are more modern than what is being written now,” she says, delighting in the apparent contradiction. “Their writing has an immediacy to it.”
I sip my wine and ponder her words. They explain a lot. They explain
why Alicia speaks of the ancient Greeks in the present tense. They also explain what distinguishes a good work, even a great one, from a true work of genius. A good poem or painting speaks to people of a certain time. A work of genius, however, transcends those temporal bounds and is rediscovered anew by successive generations. The work is not static. It bends, and is bent by, each new audience that encounters it. As Pablo Picasso said, “There is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present, it must not be considered art at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past, perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.”
If I’m going to understand the Greek mind, Alicia tells me, I need to step back and put myself in their sandals. The Greeks didn’t have a word for “create,” at least not in the way we mean it. If you asked a Greek poet what he was doing, he would say he was engaged in poiesis, literally “to make,” a word that applied equally to making a poem or making a fire or making a mess. “They weren’t trying to do poetry or be creative,” says Alicia. The Greeks created much of what we now consider art, but, as we saw with the vases, didn’t put it on a pedestal. So large did the arts loom in daily life that they were a given. Art was functional. Beauty was a bonus.
This kind of embedded beauty is, I think, the best kind. Today, we go to great lengths to ensure that the rarefied world of art never brushes against our grubby, workaday lives. We have proclaimed art “special” and therefore placed it out of reach.
Alicia knows a thing or two about the intersection of art and life. One day, not that long ago, she was at home with her eight-year-old son. Her husband was at a dentist’s appointment. The phone rang.
“Are you alone?” the caller asked.
Alicia thought this was an odd question. “Well, my son is playing in the other room, but other than that, I am alone. Why?”
That’s when the caller told her that she had been selected as a MacArthur Fellow. It came with a cash award of $500,000, plus the unofficial title of “genius.”
Alicia hung up the phone. That much she remembers. Everything afterward is a blur. If geniuses are the secular world’s gods, Alicia was
now sitting atop Mount Olympus, peering down at the mortals. The view from up there is nice, but godliness comes not only with benefits but also burdens. For a while she couldn’t breathe. Then she could breathe but couldn’t sleep. This phase lasted two weeks. She would sit up at night excited, but also worried. Worried about an army of envious poets ambushing her. Worried about the unanticipated consequences of her newfound notoriety. Her sudden genius “has been something to navigate,” she says, as if describing a rough patch of white water, or an Athens street during rush hour. “Sometimes I feel like a genius. I mean, the words are flowing. Other times, I write something and think, ‘Do I want to publish this? This is not a work of genius. It’s a crappy poem.’?”
Finally, the hour late, my head fuzzy from the wine, I decide to ask Alicia a time-travel question. If she could transport herself to Athens circa 450 BC, who would she want to share a bottle of wine with? I fully expect her to say Socrates. The Dude.
“Aspasia,” says Alicia.
“Who was he?”
“She. Aspasia was the consort of Pericles.”
In the classics, we hear little about the women of Athens, and what we do hear is not exactly positive. The best a woman could achieve, it was said, was to be neither seen nor heard.
Such anonymity was not for Aspasia, though. She was seen, and definitely heard. She is rumored to have written some of Pericles’s speeches, including his famous Funeral Oration. Aspasia was a feminist about twenty-four hundred years before feminism and the unsung hero of the Athenian flourishing. As I would later discover, these sort of invisible helpers are essential to a golden age. These are people who work behind the scenes, sometimes quite heroically, to make genius happen.
“The people of Athens feared her,” says Alicia, her tone of voice belying that, as far as she is concerned, that was a good thing. A very good thing.
The next morning my alarm clock goes off and I curse Plato. He was a brilliant philosopher, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, but he also
invented the water clock, an ingenious but diabolical device that utilized water pressure to sound an alarm. Plato’s clock was also used to time political meetings; thus the common complaint about long-winded orators who gave speeches that were “nine gallons long.”
Plato’s water clock represents a rare example of Greek technology. Today we associate innovation almost exclusively with technology, but that was not the case in Ancient Greece. They had slaves to perform menial tasks and so had little incentive to invent time-saving devices. Pursuing new technologies was considered “trivial and unworthy,” says Armand D’Angour, a classicist at Oxford University. To be a tinkerer or inventor in ancient Athens was to be relegated to the lowest rung on the social ladder, and to toil anonymously.
The kleroterion, for instance, was an ingenious device, used to randomly select jurors, yet nowhere do we find even a mention of the inventor’s name, let alone any Steve Jobsian folklore surrounding him. Should a Silicon Valley technokind suddenly materialize in ancient Athens, he would be treated like any other craftsman, with a puny salary, no recognition, and, when his back was turned, a derisive sneer. He was working with his hands, making things; he was not a warrior or an athlete or a thinker. An ancient-Greek Steve Jobs would have died penniless and unsung.
I turn off the snooze button—a feature that never occurred to the genius Plato—and scramble downstairs to the Bridge, where I annex a table, order a coffee, and plan my attack du jour on the Great Athenian Mystery. Socrates, I’m beginning to suspect, holds the key. He claimed neither wisdom nor followers. All he did was ask a lot of annoying questions. Just like me, I think, and smile. Yes, a conversation seems fittingly Socratic, but with whom?
Brady. You must call Brady. That’s what everyone says. If you want to understand Socrates and Athens, ancient or otherwise, Brady is your man, they assure me.
Every city has a Brady. Often the Brady is an expat, but not always. Sometimes the Brady is a local. Either way, the Brady has so absorbed the sinew and marrow of a place, so thoroughly inhaled its essence, that
it’s impossible to discern where the place ends and the Brady begins. For someone such as myself, trying to grasp a place as complex and confounding as Athens, a Brady is indispensable.
So I call the Brady, who turns out to be a former US diplomat, and a kind of genius, too. He invites me to his apartment, to a symposium. Well, okay, it’s a dinner party, but since this particular dinner party is taking place in the storied Plaka district of Athens and not, say, Brooklyn, I prefer to call it a symposium because, let’s face it, symposium sounds a lot more intriguing than dinner party. It certainly sounds more Greek.
The symposium—literally “to drink together”—was a centerpiece of life in old Athens, and Socrates was a regular. Food was served, but that was almost beside the point. The main draw was the entertainment, which consisted of “anything from good talk and intellectual puzzle games to music, dancing girls, and similar titillations,” notes historian Robert Flacelière. No symposium, though, was complete without wine, and lots of it. The Greeks had some funny ideas about alcohol, as they did about so many things. Aristotle believed that consuming too much wine made you fall on your face, while too much beer landed you on your back, and for reasons not immediately clear, the Greeks always diluted their wine—five parts water to two parts wine, mixed in a large bowl called a krater.
Which brings us to one possible explanation for Athenian genius: the booze. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Alcohol and creativity have long been linked in the public imagination, and in the imagination of inebriated writers and artists down through the ages. William Faulkner said he wasn’t able to face the blank page without a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Many painters, from van Gogh to Jackson Pollock, liked a swig or four while working. Winston Churchill claims he could not have written The World Crisis, his five-volume memoir, without his muse, booze. Indeed, some call this alcohol-fueled productivity the “Churchill gene.” There is no evidence such a gene actually exists, but researchers have identified a genetic variation, called the G-variant, which causes alcohol to act more like an opioid drug, such as morphine, in some people. Theoretically (and it is only a theory), this genetic peculiarity lubricates the wheels of creative
thinking in some individuals but not others. Or, as Mark Twain put it, “My vices protect me but they would assassinate you!”
You’d think there would be boatloads of research investigating the connection between alcohol and creative genius, given the enormous interest in the subject, not to mention the plethora of willing volunteers, yet I am able to find surprisingly few empirical studies. Nevertheless, a few brave researchers have bellied up to the laboratory.
To understand the significance of the research, we need to step back and examine the four stages of the creative process: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. Alcohol affects each of these stages differently. One study, by Swedish psychologist Torsten Norlander, found that alcohol consumption facilitates the incubation stage—that is, when you’re not actively trying to solve a problem but, instead, allow it to marinate, letting your unconscious have a crack at it—but impairs the verification stage. In other words, you may come up with brilliant ideas but you won’t be able to recognize them.
In another study, psychologists at the University of Illinois served twenty volunteers a moderate amount of alcohol, vodka and cranberry juice. They cut off the volunteers when their blood-alcohol levels reached 0.075 percent, or just below the legal limit for driving. These moderately sloshed volunteers, along with a control group of twenty sober participants, were then given a test that measures divergent thinking—again, an important aspect of creativity.
The results, published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, are enough to make you reach for a drink. The sober men took, on average, 15.4 seconds to come up with a creative response, but the vodka drinkers needed only 11.5 seconds. Later the researchers asked the volunteers (presumably after they sobered up) how they approached the task. The inebriated group tended to describe their approach as “intuitive,” while the sober group used words like “analytical.” The study provides the first empirical evidence of something we have long suspected: alcohol decreases inhibition and, for some at least, opens creative channels otherwise shuttered.
Two key questions, though, remain unanswered: Which people and how much alcohol? What the researchers didn’t do was conduct the same experiment but this time with double, or triple, the amount of alcohol consumed. I’m willing to bet they would get different results, that the creativity boost witnessed at lower levels of alcohol consumption would evaporate.
The ancient Greeks certainly thought so. Not only did they dilute their wine, but they served it in shallow cups, designed to encourage sipping rather than gulping.
Finally, I make my way across the stone streets of the Plaka neighborhood and, after a few wrong turns, find Brady’s apartment. It is cozy and well-worn. Troves of books in several languages, living and dead, occupy prime real estate in every room, including the bathroom. Brady is smart. Scary smart. He begins sentences with phrases like “I was just reading Lysias this morning in the original Greek.” My sentences do not begin that way. More likely they begin with “I was updating my Facebook status this morning, in the original English.”
The guests arrive and our symposium unfolds exactly like an ancient Greek one, only without the dancing girls or the slaves serving food and diluting the wine. That last detail proves crucial, because without someone cutting the wine (or the mojitos or the gin and tonics) a symposium can quickly degenerate into a drunken blur. Indeed, that’s precisely what happens. Many profound conversations may have transpired that evening, but I can’t recall a single one. Except the light. Someone said, “The light is different here in Athens,” and everyone nodded. Also, someone mentioned Socrates. Or was it Plato? Like I said, no one was cutting the wine, so the evening might as well have transpired entirely in ancient Greek.
The next morning, once properly hydrated, I call Brady and he agrees to meet again, this time sans alcohol. Sitting at a café near his house, I am grateful that the sky is unexpectedly overcast, with a light rain falling. Hangovers and severe Athenian light do not mix. I’m also grateful for this second chance with Brady and his smartness. I’m hoping to find answers to questions, or at least better questions, as Socrates would say.
The café, while no Bridge, is pleasant nonetheless. Most of the tables
are arranged outdoors under a large awning, the entire ambience infused with an unspoken understanding: Come, weary traveler. Order a coffee, one will suffice, and sit all day.
Brady explains how his first love was archaeology. This makes sense. I can tell already that he is naturally shy, more comfortable among ancient ruins than living people. Archaeology is the perfect profession for people like Brady, and Aristotle. Rocks and skeletal remains tell stories, sometimes wondrous stories, but they do not make eye contact or small talk or ask you what you’re doing Tuesday evening.
I tell Brady about my search for the circumstances of genius. He takes a sip of his espresso and gazes into the distance, ignoring the tourists on Segways motoring past us, trailing their guide like a flock of helmeted geese.
Does Brady think I’m on track, or a complete idiot—in the modern, not the ancient-Greek, usage? He doesn’t say, and his face reveals nothing. Just like Socrates, who was famously poker-faced, and much admired for it.
I reach into my satchel and show Brady a few of the books I’m reading. He nods, neither approving nor censuring, but merely acknowledging that, yes, these are the usual suspects. I show him one book, though, called The Greeks and the New. “I haven’t heard of that one,” he says, and I feel a twinge of victory. I have surprised Brady. I know this because the expression on his face remains completely unchanged.
Brady has lived in Israel, Morocco, and Armenia, picking up languages the way most of us pick up lint. Athens, though, stole his heart. How could it not? In Athens, the past is closer than it is elsewhere, and Brady never tires of that nearness. He still visits the museums occasionally, he says.
I confess that I have a museum problem. I don’t like them. Never have. Large and intimidating, they seem designed to invoke feelings of inadequacy: guilt factories disguised as cultural institutions. Brady is sympathetic: “It takes a long time to appreciate museums. First you have to study archaeology for a long time, then you have to forget it for a long time. Then you can go to a museum.”
That is, I realize, a very Greek thing to say. The ancients believed that
knowledge was good but recognized the dangers of its reckless, indiscriminate accumulation. They possessed a “shiny ignorance,” as Alicia called it. None was shinier than that of Socrates. “The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing,” he said.
Some twenty-five hundred years since Socrates uttered those words, social scientists have begun to investigate whether he was onto something. One researcher has focused on a rare neurological disorder known as anosognosia, in which a person who suffers from a disability—paralysis, typically—remains completely unaware of his or her disability. If you put a glass of water in front of the right hand of people with anosognosia and ask them to pick it up, they won’t do it. If you ask them why, they’ll say they’re tired or they’re not thirsty. The damage to their brain that caused their paralysis also leaves them unaware of their paralysis.
David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, uses anosognosia as a metaphor to explain the research he’s done on ignorance. In a series of studies, he and his colleague Justin Kruger tested a group of undergraduates in such skills as logical reasoning, grammar, and humor. They then showed each participant his results and asked him to estimate how he fared compared to others. The people who did well on the exams estimated their rank accurately. No great surprise there. What is surprising is that those who didn’t do well on the exams were convinced they did. They weren’t dissembling. They simply were unable to assess their competence, or as Dunning, in an interview with the filmmaker Errol Morris, put it, “We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.”
That’s because the skills we need to solve a problem are the very skills we need to realize we can’t solve it. It’s the intellectual equivalent of anosognosia, and this phenomenon, now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, explains a lot. It explains why most people consider themselves above-average drivers, a statistical impossibility. (Somebody has to be below average.) It also explains, I think, why more of us aren’t geniuses. The first step in any breakthrough is realizing that a breakthrough is necessary, realizing that your knowledge is imperfect. Those who possess this “thoroughly conscious ignorance,” as the Scottish physicist James Clerk
Maxwell put it, are more likely to achieve creative breakthroughs than those who are convinced they have it all figured out.
Brady and I linger at the café, indulging in some world-class sitting and talking, our conversation no more linear than the columns of the Parthenon. And that’s fine. Here, unlike back home, there is no mutually understood cutoff point, no unspoken “we should really get going” signals exchanged. This is Athens. It’s been around for at least four thousand years and isn’t going anywhere. Why should we? All of this past around us, beneath us, makes the present feel a bit less precarious. Maybe that is why the Greeks of today have given up walking and prefer to sit so much. They like the feel of all that reassuring history under their buttocks, steadying them against the cruel present.
We order two more espressos, then lunch, then two beers, and finally two more espressos. “For balance,” explains Brady. I understand. My entire time in Greece, it seems, consists of seesawing between alcohol and caffeine, groping for equilibrium. In doing so, I stumbled across a dirty little secret about the Greek notion of “nothing in excess.” It’s a lie. The ancient Greeks enthusiastically endorsed moderation but seldom practiced it. The Greeks viewed moderation as an end, not a means. Go to enough extremes, they figured, and eventually they cancel each other out and you find yourself in perfect de facto moderation. (That is the theory, at least.) They were closet extremists—“adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment,” as Thucydides put it. Perhaps every place of genius is equally overzealous. Perhaps that is why they never last long.
Did people, I wonder, appreciate the goldenness of the age? Did they know they were living in special times, or is such a verdict only possible in hindsight? Digging through the ancient texts, I’ve stumbled across evidence that the Athenians knew they were hot stuff. Witness this bit of swagger from the comic poet Lysippus: “If you haven’t seen Athens, you’re a fool; if you have seen it and are not struck by it, you’re an ass; if you are pleased to go away, you’re a packhorse.”
That statement is highly revealing. For starters, it tells us that in
ancient Athens, the worst thing you could be, the absolute worst, was a packhorse. Second, it exposes a confidence that borders on the arrogant. Pericles laid it on even thicker when he famously called Athens “the school of Greece.” Presumably this relegated the Spartans and Corinthians and all the other Greeks to the status of pupil and goes a long way toward explaining why the Athenians were so widely despised. Yet this confidence rarely veered into outright arrogance. Why?
“Hubris,” says Brady, who had until now been listening, stone-faced, like Socrates.
Ah, yes, hubris, excessive pride.
“Yes, but be careful with hubris,” he says, as if speaking of some particularly dangerous species of rodent, or maybe a bad stock pick. “The Greeks didn’t mean it the way we do. Hubris wasn’t only a matter of excessive pride. It was an insult against the gods.” And if ancient Greece teaches us anything, it is that we anger the gods at our own peril.
The particular god charged with punishing the hubristic was Nemesis. His name, Brady explains, means literally “going beyond one’s allotment.” This makes sense. Hubris is a form of greed. You’re not content with the lot the gods have given you, so you grab more. That it was a crime against the gods (not a sin, mind you; sin—a Christian concept—wouldn’t be invented for another five hundred years) ensured that Greek self-confidence didn’t balloon into arrogance, at least not too often.
For the Greeks, Brady explains, virtue and genius were inseparable. You could be the greatest poet or architect in the world, but no one would consider you so if you were an arrogant jerk. I marvel at how that differs from our modern view of genius. Not only are we willing to overlook character flaws if the character in question produces brilliance, we have come to expect them from our geniuses. Think of Steve Jobs and his famously peevish personality. Only a true genius, we conclude, could get away with that. That’s not how the Greeks saw it. A man was judged not only by the quality of his work but also the content of his character.
Two more Mythos beers arrive, courtesy of the management. These threaten to upset our hard-earned moderation, but we’re willing to take that chance. I fear, though, that we’re nibbling around the edges of
my question, so I blurt it out: “Why Athens? How did a small, dirty, crowded city, surrounded by enemies and swathed in olive oil, manage to change the world?”
The answer, Brady suggests, lies in expertise, or rather the lack of it. Ancient Athens had no professional politicians, or judges or even priests. Everyone did everything. Soldiers wrote poetry. Poets went to battle. It was strictly amateur hour, and that, as far as the Greeks were concerned, was a good thing. They viewed expertise with suspicion, for theirs was the genius of simplicity.
All intellectual breakthroughs, says Brady, from Darwin’s theory of evolution to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, made the world a little bit simpler. “There is this chaotic mess of seemingly unconnected data out there, and then someone says, ‘Wait, here is how it all fits together.’ And we like that.”
Mathematicians, for instance, speak reverentially of an “elegant proof.” An elegant proof is not merely correct but highly streamlined. Nothing extraneous, and nothing missing. An elegant proof is pleasing to the mind the way an elegant design is pleasing to the eye. The Greeks always sought the most elegant solution to any problem. Invariably, that meant finding connections, for, as historian Edith Hamilton put it, “to see anything in relation to other things is to see it simplified.”
Brady concedes that, despite his scary smartness, he often falls into the complexity trap. He can’t help it. He’s an academic at heart, and complexity is what academia encourages and rewards.
When President George H. W. Bush visited Athens, Brady was assigned translation duties. The president was about to address the Greek parliament and thought it would be nice to open his comments with a few words in Greek.
“How do you say ‘Long live Greece’ in Greek?” President Bush asked Brady.
“Well, Mr. President, there’s actually no simple answer to that question because, you see, there are at least two ways of saying ‘Long live Greece,’ each with a very different connotation. For instance, if you say . . .”
Brady looked up. President Bush was nowhere in sight. He had gone to ask someone else how to say “Long live Greece” in Greek.
I’m digesting that story, my mind a churning whirlpool of caffeine and alcohol, when Brady does something I haven’t seen anybody in Athens do before. He looks at his watch. He has to go.
He starts to walk away, but suddenly stops and pivots. “It’s all about interlocking feedback loops.”
What? Wait, Brady. What does that mean? But it’s too late. The Brady is gone, swallowed up by a glistening sea of Greek light, now in its full afternoon glory.
I reach for my fork but it is not there. Nor is my napkin or, most alarming of all, my coffee. Where have they gone? They don’t exist yet. Not in the Athens of 450 BC, and that’s where I am now. I’m dining at a restaurant called Archeon Gefsis, or Ancient Flavors. It aims to re-create the dining experience of Athens in the time of Socrates. It strikes me as the perfect place to explore the connection between food and creativity, an area littered with romantic notions such as that of the starving artist. That’s nonsense, of course. A truly starving artist creates nothing but his own misery. We need food in order to create, but how much and what kind? Did the Greeks eat their way to genius?
The restaurant is tucked away on a small street in a largely immigrant neighborhood, well off the beaten tourist paths. When I had entered, a waiter, dressed in the loose-fitting, togalike clothing of the day, handed me a copy of the Ancient News, which doubles as a menu. Cute. The interior is all stone walls and dim lighting and chairs covered in white fabric that looks as if it was cut from the same cloth as the waiter’s outfit.
My dining companion is Joanna Kakissis, the National Public Radio correspondent in Athens. Raised in North Dakota, she returned to her ancestral homeland a few years ago. I like Joanna, and besides, in ancient Athens to eat alone was considered barbarous, and I make it a point not to be barbarous.
We sit down and peruse the Ancient News. My eyes are drawn to a quote by Epicurus: “The source of all pleasures is the satisfaction of the stomach.”
A nice sentiment but a misleading one. The Athenians were not foodies. Far from it. Most people, no matter their social stature, were satisfied with a hunk of bread, two onions, and a small handful of olives. The typical Athenian meal consisted of two courses, “the first a kind of porridge, and the second a kind of porridge,” quipped the historian Alfred Zimmern. Even the food served during religious festivals was cardboard bland. Clearly, Greek genius did not extend to the kitchen.
Athenians simply didn’t care what they ate, or even how much. Their caloric intake was remarkably low. Aristophanes, the satirist, credited the meager Athenian diet with keeping their bodies lean, their minds sharp.
I return to my menu. Some of the items—olives and chickpeas, for instance—sound familiar. Others, such as the stuffed piglet and goat leg, less so. None of the dishes contain potatoes or rice or tomatoes. The ancient Greeks didn’t have any of these. They did have wine, thankfully, and the Ancient News contains this bit of wisdom from Sophocles: “Drunkenness relieves pain.” No argument there. We order a carafe of red, which arrives, I am pleased to report, undiluted.
I order a pomegranate salad and smoked fish. It isn’t bad. Inoffensive is the word that comes to mind. Joanna feels the same about her lamb shank. And I can vouch that forks are overrated. I manage fine with my knife and spoon.
We try to take our minds off the lackluster food with conversation. Now that I think about it, perhaps that is why the Greeks were so eloquent—it was a coping mechanism, something to take their minds off the god-awful food. As I pick at my salad, I wonder, if ancient Greek cuisine had been better, maybe they wouldn’t have invented democracy or philosophy or any of their other accomplishments?
It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. We only have so much creative energy; we can channel it into philosophy or soufflés, sculpture or truffles. Yes, I recognize that cooking can be a creative act, and Julia Child was no doubt a culinary genius, but every activity we pursue comes with an opportunity cost, as the economists remind us. Time spent commuting to
work is time not spent with your kids. Time spent debating the relative merits of kale versus arugula is time not spent discussing the nature of beauty and truth. I look down at my plate of bland grub with newfound respect.
I have another reason for meeting Joanna, one that extends beyond the gastronomical. I’m curious how she, a Greek American, feels about the burdens of history. Normally, we think of these burdens in terms of war and sundry calamities, but golden ages can also scar. Future generations feel the sting of comparison, and nowhere is the distance between past glory and current ignominy greater than in Athens.
“People feel they can’t live up to the ancients, so why bother?” says Joanna, gnawing at a chewy slab of lamb. That’s why so few Athenians visit the Acropolis, she says. It’s not the site’s familiarity but, rather, its greatness that deters them. Look at what we once had, at what we once did. The Acropolis looks down upon modern Athens in more ways than one.
Does this burden of history, though, weigh on all Greeks equally? It’s one thing to be a Greek taxidriver or nuclear physicist. Those professions didn’t exist in ancient Greece. But philosopher most definitely did. What does it feel like to live and work under that shadow? I take a sip of wine and then explain to Joanna that I’m looking for a Greek philosopher.
“Well, there’s Socrates, of course, or Aristotle. Oh, you could try Thales, too, but he was pre-Socratic.”
“No, I’m looking for a modern Greek philosopher. A live one.”
Joanna furrows her brow. This is not a typical request. Most visitors to Greece prefer their philosophers dead. Philosophy is like wine. There are good years and bad years but, in general, the older the better.
“I did know one philosopher . . . Never mind.”
“What? I’ll take whatever I can get.”
“He’s dead. He committed suicide.”
I stare at my ancient food, silently wondering why, from its inception, philosophy has gone hand in hand with suffering.
“Wait,” says Joanna, suddenly perking up. “I know a philosopher. A live one. His name is Plato. He travels a lot, though. Let me check with him and get back to you.”
First Aristotle. Now Plato. Any moment now, I think, and I’ll be meeting a Socrates.
We nibble a bit more on our food, then, in typically generous Greek fashion, Joanna picks up the tab. She pays by credit card, which the waiter gladly accepts. It’s the restaurant’s one concession to the twenty-first century.
Plato sends his regrets. He’s on a business trip and won’t be able to meet with me. Why are these Greek philosophers so difficult to nail down? Joanna is completely out of live philosophers and tries again to foist a dead one on me, but I demur. I make a few queries elsewhere and, sure enough, stumble upon a real live Greek philosopher. His name is Nikos Dimou, and he is a minor celebrity in Greece. Back in the 1970s he wrote an essay called “On the Unhappiness of Being Greek.” It hit a nerve when it was first published and continues to hit various Greek nerves as the nation mines ever-deeper reservoirs of unhappiness.
Nikos lives in a far northern suburb of Athens, so he suggests we speak by phone. I call him at the appointed time, pleasantly surprised that Tony’s phones work. Nikos is friendly but sounds a bit stressed. Being a son of Socrates isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, he says. “We’re all very proud of our ancestors and we love to say that philosophy and drama were born here, but we haven’t actually read any philosophical books or plays. It’s terrible—not only to be unable to surpass your father’s work, but not to understand it either.”
Nikos, though, understands it. As I said, he’s a philosopher, and a good one.
“What does it feel like to be a twenty-first-century Greek philosopher?” I ask.
“Hungry. It feels very hungry.” He’s joking. Sort of. The sophists of ancient Athens may have made a killing, but in today’s Athens philosophy doesn’t pay well, and meanwhile the ghosts of Plato and Socrates haunt the academic corridors.
Nikos is most acutely aware of “this awful burden,” as he calls it, when he attends seminars abroad. “If you say you are Greek, they say,
‘Aha, you are coming from the land that created philosophy,’ so you better be good. If you are good, it is very good, but if you are not good, it is very bad,” he says philosophically.
The philosophers of ancient Athens—unlike, say, the pharmacists of ancient Athens—still have much to teach us. “Each great philosopher is like a monument that stands on its own, and it never gets old,” he says. “You can read Plato and he is as alive now as he was two thousand years ago. But, actually, I don’t read Plato. I don’t like him.”
Whoa. Did I hear correctly? You don’t like Plato? You are a Greek philosopher and you don’t like the philosopher king himself? Isn’t that like being a classical musician and not liking Mozart, or a New Yorker and not liking bagels?
Nikos laughs, his voice crackling over the phone line. He’s clearly not afraid of Plato’s ghost. “Plato was a good writer but not a very good philosopher. He was an aristocrat and he hated democracy. Also, he separated the body and the soul. No, I don’t care for Plato.”
This is an advantage, one of the few, of being a Greek philosopher in the twenty-first century. You can say things like “I don’t like Plato” and get away with it. Heritage has its burdens but its privileges, too.
Before saying good-bye, I’m curious about something. Philosophy is a big tree with many branches. What did Nikos specialize in?
“The Skeptics,” he replies. “My PhD dissertation was on the Skeptics.”
Of course, I think, hanging up the phone. Of course.
The next morning, I find myself in need of inspiration when I discover that not far from Tony’s Hotel is a place called the Hill of the Muses. I like the way this sounds. What writer wouldn’t? Most Greeks considered the muses minor deities, but not the poets. For the poets, and other “creative types,” the muses were definitely majordomo deities. The muses determined not only when you wrote but also what you wrote. Homer was the world’s first writer and also, it turns out, the world’s first writer with writer’s block. He begins The Odyssey by thanking the muses. Like all authors, Homer craved legitimacy. Today, that is provided by the likes of
the New York Times Book Review and Goodreads. In Homer’s time, it was the muses. The original validators.
We may have outgrown many unfortunate Greek practices, such as slavery, but when it comes to the creative process, we are still very much Greek. We still beckon our muse. We may not believe they are actual beings, but these forces remain just as mysterious, and fickle, as the nymphs who romped on the Hill of the Muses. It’s impossible to understand Greek creativity, friends tell me, without understanding these deities. They speak a garbled tongue, though. Best to bring an interpreter.
Mine is Robert Pitt. Robert is an epigraphist. He reads the writing on the walls. On the pottery and statues, too. He comes highly recommended, not only for his command of this ancient language but for his ability to breathe life into it and, in true Greek fashion, simplify it so that even a cretin such as me can understand.
Robert is a trim, lanky man who looks considerably older than his thirtysome years. But nothing about him is the least bit geriatric, mind you. He’s just one of those people who was born middle-aged. Like the ancients, Robert believes in the power of place. That’s why he lives in Athens, not Oxford or Boston. To truly know the Greeks, he tells me, “you need to know their topography, their mountains, sounds, and smells.”
As we hike the winding path that leads to the summit of the Hill of the Muses, Robert tells me how as a young boy growing up in England he fell in love with the ancient Greeks. “I remember reading The Iliad and just being blown away by it, by the artistry and the story, and the immediacy of it.” A three-thousand-year-old tale with immediacy to it? I realize that for the Roberts and Bradys and Alicias of the world, the past is not such a foreign land. For them, I suspect, it is the present that is alien.
It’s still early but already the Mediterranean sun has grown fierce. I suggest we rest for a while. We find two rocks in the shape of benches and sit. “Socrates might have sat here,” says Robert matter-of-factly. That’s what I love about Athens. The past is always brushing up against you, with such tantalizing what-ifs as “Socrates might have sat here.”
I ask Robert about the role that language played in the Greek miracle.
Words mattered to the ancient Greeks, he says, in ways we can hardly imagine. For them, “talk was the breath of life.” They had a word for those who didn’t speak Greek: barbaros. It is where we get the English barbarian.
“It was an extraordinarily poetic language, yet at the same time an incredibly precise and subtle one,” he says. Not content with simply the active and passive voices, the Greeks invented an intermediate voice, something no other language had.
Always keen to synthesize, the Athenians combined their love of language with their love of drinking. The result was a game where participants tried to outverse one another. Robert has seen this practice preserved on pottery. “We have lots of vases from the symposia where people are scratching out verses and shouting, ‘Oh, I thought of a good one.’?”
The love of language was instilled at an early age. Children were weaned on a steady diet of Homer—and expected to memorize all twenty-seven thousand lines. It’s difficult to overemphasize the influence of Homer on Greeks of this time. Think Shakespeare, Freud, Mark Twain, and John Grisham combined and you get an inkling of how large Homer loomed in the Greek imagination.
More than just the imagination, actually. In a fascinating study, psychologist David McClelland found a direct link between Greek accomplishments and the prominence of “achievement themes” in the literature of the day. The greater the amount of such inspirational literature, the greater their “real-world” achievements. Conversely, when the frequency of inspirational literature diminished, so did their accomplishments.
At first, this might seem odd. Backward. We believe that thought shapes language, and not the other way around. First we have a thought, then we express it. Or do we?
Consider the color blue. In English, we have one word for blue. We can modify it by describing something as light blue or dark blue or sky blue or baby blue. But with the exception of artsy hues such as cobalt and ultramarine, blue is blue. Not so in Russian. That language has two distinct words for blue: goluboy for lighter blues, siniy for darker blues.
Something interesting happens if you show a group of Russians and
Americans flash cards with colors on them. Not only can the Russians describe more shades of blue, they can actually see more shades. In the 1930s, linguists Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir advanced a theory first suggested by nineteenth-century thinkers called linguistic relativity. Language, the theory claims, determines not only how we describe the world around us but also how we perceive that world. Language doesn’t merely reflect our thinking, it shapes it as well. The Greeks used words not only to record greatness but to manufacture it as well.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Robert, a lover of languages, dead or otherwise, chooses Thucydides, “the Shakespeare of his day,” as the historical figure he would most want to meet. “He was a genius,” Robert says with quiet certitude. “He’s literally inventing language. He’s a linguist and a psychologist. He’s not only describing events, he’s looking at why they happened. He’s really the first to investigate why people do the things they do and what are the patterns, what are the relationships between words and deeds. He basically invented this entire field and did it in such a way that even today, after being studied for two thousand years, we still see books and articles written about him, and you go, ‘Oh, God, absolutely. Here’s another whole layer of genius beneath all these other layers.’?”
Thucydides, like so many geniuses, was a tragic figure. Exiled from Athens, he died, unsung, his masterpiece, A History of the Peloponnesian War, unfinished. It’s brilliant nonetheless, Robert assures me, and recommends a translation.
Enough sitting. We resume our trek up the Hill of the Muses, climbing higher and higher. As we finally reach the summit, Robert says slyly, “You wanted to know what made Athens Athens. Well, there it is.”
Spread below us like a blanket of blue is the Aegean Sea, glimmering in the bright afternoon light. Some twelve miles away, the waters meet a spit of land. The port of Piraeus.
Without that port, there would be no classical Athens, says Robert, and quotes Pericles: “Because of the greatness of our city, the fruits of the entire earth flow in upon us.” Athens was the world’s first global city. The Athenians, master shipbuilders and sailors, journeyed to Egypt,
Mesopotamia, and beyond and brought back every good imaginable. Embedded in those goods were some stowaways: ideas. This happens often. Ideas insert themselves into the fiber of merchandise and lie dormant until a careful observer unlocks them. This is why authoritarian regimes that believe they can open their economies but not their politics are fooling themselves. It may take a while, but eventually these subversive ideas, embedded in a can of tomato soup or a pair of Crocs, squirm free.
The Greeks readily “borrowed” these foreign ideas, if you’re feeling generous, “stole” them if you’re not. Here I find myself staring down an uncomfortable but unavoidable conclusion: The ancient Greeks didn’t invent much at all. They were, in fact, tremendous moochers. They borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians, medicine and sculpture from the Egyptians, mathematics from the Babylonians, literature from the Sumerians. They felt no shame in their intellectual pilfering. The Athenians, for all their many flaws (see slavery and treatment of women), didn’t suffer from the Not Invented Here complex. They recognized that, as Goethe said, “it is unconscious conceit not to admit frankly that one is a plagiarist.”
It sounds like a sacrilege, I know. Was Einstein a plagiarist? Bach? Picasso? Yes, in the sense that they borrowed liberally from others. Picasso was largely influenced by Velázquez and van Gogh, as well as African art. Bach by Vivaldi and Lutheran hymns. Of course, they took those borrowed ideas and put their own stamp on them. Athens did, too. Whatever they stole, they then “Athenized,” or, as Plato, with more than a touch of hubris, put it, “What the Greeks borrow from foreigners they perfect.”
Take pottery. The Corinthians invented the craft but never deviated from their standard animal frieze. Competent work, yes, but static and dull. The Athenians added richer colors and entire narratives: a couple embracing, a child playing a game, men drinking and reciting poetry. Similarly, the Egyptians invented statuary thousands of years earlier. They were stiff and lifeless representations, though. The Athenians animated them, liberating the human form from the block of stone.
This willingness to borrow, steal, and embellish distinguished Athens from its neighbors. Athenians were more open to foreign ideas and, in the
final analysis, more open-minded. At the symposia, they enjoyed the poetry of outsiders as much as that of locals. They incorporated many foreign words into their vocabulary and even began wearing foreign clothes. Athens was both Greek and foreign, in much the way that New York is an American city and not.
Athens embraced not only foreign goods and ideas. It also welcomed foreigners themselves. They were free to roam the city, even during times of war, an admittedly risky policy since, as Pericles himself acknowledged, “the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit from our liberality.” The Spartans, by comparison, walled themselves off from the outside world, and nothing kills creativity faster than a wall.
These foreigners who lived in Athens were known as metics (today, we’d call them resident aliens), and they contributed mightily to the city. Some of the best-known sophists, for instance, were foreign-born. Athens rewarded them with everything from a simple wreath to meals for life at public expense.
On an individual level, psychologists have identified this “openness to experience” as the single most important trait of exceptionally creative people. The same holds true for societies, as Dean Simonton’s research shows. He examined a country that has, historically, been among the world’s most closed societies: Japan. Looking at a long stretch of time, from 580 until 1939, Simonton compared Japan’s “extra cultural influx” (travel abroad, immigration, etc.) and its national achievements in such fields as medicine, philosophy, painting, and literature. He found a consistent correlation: the greater Japan’s openness, the greater its achievements, especially in the arts. This hold true, he believes, for all cultures; every leap forward is preceded by an exposure to foreign ideas.
It isn’t the ideas themselves, though, that drive innovation. It’s that they shine a bright light on that normally invisible sea called culture. People realize the arbitrary nature of their own culture and open their minds to, in effect, the possibility of possibility. Once you realize that there is another way of doing X, or thinking about Y, then all sorts of new channels open up to you. “The awareness of cultural variety helps set the mind free,” says Simonton.
Athenians tolerated not only strange foreigners but also homegrown eccentrics, of which there were many. 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 assigned him the vital job of building their port city, Piraeus. Athens even tolerated characters such as Diogenes, who lived in a wine barrel and regularly ridiculed the famous and powerful. (After Plato described man as a rational animal, a kind of featherless bird, Diogenes plucked a chicken and tossed it over a wall, yelling, “Heads up. Here comes a true man.”) Then there was the philosopher Cratylus, who was so determined not to contradict himself that he was reduced to communicating only through simple gestures. Athens welcomed them all.
That evening, back at Tony’s Hotel, I heed Robert’s advice and curl up with Thucydides. No, that’s not right. One does not curl up with Thucydides. One does battle with Thucydides, locks horns with him. There’s nothing cuddly about the general. He’s all hard edges and cold facts. I’m trying to get him, to see what Robert Pitt sees in him, but it’s tough going, and I find solace in the words of historian Edith Hamilton, who concluded, “There is no joy in the pages of Thucydides.” Amen.
No joy, perhaps, but plenty of insights. Thucydides was the world’s first historian and journalist (sorry Herodotus). His chapter on the great plague of 430 BC captures not only the medical details but also the incredible suffering that swept through Athens. Thucydides describes how “people in perfect health suddenly began to have burning feelings in their head; their eyes became red and inflamed . . . next the stomach was affected with stomachaches and with vomiting of every kind of bile that has been given a name by the medical profession.” That profession, such as it was at the time, was helpless in the face of the disease and, adds Thucydides, “equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of oracles, and so forth.”
That is about all Thucydides has to say about the gods. Zeus, Apollo, Athena, and all the rest do not appear in his pages. This is no coincidence.
He couldn’t say the gods didn’t exist—that would be impiety and could land him in Socrates-size trouble—so he cleverly chose to simply ignore them. Sometimes what distinguishes a work of genius is not what is included but what is omitted.
I read on and find that, page after page, Thucydides recounts, in great detail, various forms of death and suffering. The ancient Athenians were keenly aware of their mortality, and I realize that this awareness, oddly, contributed to their creative breakthroughs.
Psychologists Christopher Long and Dara Greenwood recently investigated the connection between awareness of death and creativity. They asked a group of undergraduates to write humorous captions for New Yorker cartoons. Some of the students, though, were first “primed” with subliminal messages of death. These students produced cartoons judged to be more creative and more humorous.
What might explain this finding? Is it simply a matter of laughing in the face of death? Or is there more to it?
Armand D’Angour, a classicist who was also trained as a psychotherapist, believes that this ability to process grief actually helps explain the Greek miracle. “The inability to acknowledge and mourn loss is apt to lead to a shutdown of vital creative impulses . . . only the resolution of loss allows for a fresh start and renewed access to sources of creativity,” he says in his book The Greeks and the New. This is a remarkable statement. He’s suggesting that mourning, the fully conscious encounter with loss, is not only vital for our mental health but for our creative lives as well.
This dynamic might explain why a disproportionately large number of geniuses, of any era, lost a parent, usually a father, at a young age. A study of some seven hundred historical figures by psychologist J. M. Eisenstadt found that 35 percent lost a parent by age fifteen and nearly half, 45 percent, by age twenty. The list includes Dante, Bach, Darwin, Michelangelo, Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain, and Virginia Woolf. These geniuses possessed not only an ability to rebound from suffering but to transform that suffering into productive, and creative, outlets. Winston Churchill, who also lost his father when he was young, said, “Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong; a boy deprived of a father’s care often develops, if he
escapes the perils of youth, an independence and vigor of thought which may restore in afterlife the heavy loss of early days.”
That’s a big if though. Psychologist Robert Sternberg reviewed the data and concludes, “The only other groups that suffered approximately the same proportion of childhood trauma caused by loss of a parent were delinquents and suicidal depressives.” The question is why some people who lose a parent go on to become geniuses while others become delinquents or suicides. Perhaps, I think, dog-earing Thucydides and reaching for a glass of ouzo, what marks the genius is not that they suffered but how they suffered. Carl Jung defined neurosis as “a substitute for legitimate suffering.” The Greeks were not neurotic. They suffered legitimately, and authentically. They knew that, as John Adams said some two thousand years later, “genius is sorrow’s child.”
I wake the next morning with a bad Thucydides hangover. Symptoms include headache, dry mouth, and frequent urges to smite a Spartan. What would Socrates do? He would no doubt pepper me with many annoying yet pointed questions, tricking me into examining assumptions that I didn’t even know I had made until, eventually, I realized, in a flash of insight, that the truth was right in front of me all along.
Okay, what else would Socrates do? He would go for a walk. Yes, that is what he would do, and that is what I will do. I will walk. Like Socrates. Unlike Socrates, mine is not an aimless ramble; I have a destination in mind, and despite my anti-museum bias, it is in fact a museum. Brady had recommended this one, at the agora, assuring me it would induce a minimal amount of guilt, and hinting that important clues to the Great Athenian Mystery are to be found there.
I stumble downstairs and find Tony yelling at his TV. It is not poetry that rouses the modern Greek but soccer. I inform Tony of my plans, and he says he approves of walking, though judging by the size of his expanding paunch, this approval does not extend beyond the realm of the theoretical. Tony’s belly says more about the divide between ancient and modern Athens than a library’s worth of books. They’ve gone from a city of walkers and thinkers to one of sitters and worriers.
I climb a steep street near the hotel before reaching a dirt path that circles the Hill of the Muses. Yes, I think, this is good. I can see why the ancient Greeks liked walking so much. It quiets the mind without silencing it completely. With the volume turned down, we can hear ourselves again.
I pass a few hearty runners, huffing and puffing, and a small flock of dog walkers. A short time later, I find myself in another Athens, this one sanitized for your comfort. Tram cars painted like toy trains circle, their occupants snapping photos of ancient relics as if on safari. Now here comes a woman selling balloons, and, yes, one of them is of Mickey Mouse. The transformation is complete. Ancient Athens has been Disneyfied.
I stroll down the Pantheistic Way, the Broadway of its day, before passing under an archway and entering the small Agora Museum. In one room, I find myself staring at a collection of tiny bottles behind the glass of a display case. How cute. What could they be? I squint and read the small placard: “Black glazed medicine bottles perhaps used to hold hemlock—employed in executions.” On second thought, maybe not so cute. I move on to a collection of Athenian coins. They are impressive, with detailed, intricate designs that put our quarters and nickels to shame. Once again, I marvel at how the ancients infused beauty into everyday objects. Not us. We segregate form and function. Occasionally, someone comes along and unites the two, and we call him a genius.
I turn a corner and there it is, the clue I’ve been seeking: several dozen reddish pottery shards. Etched on each is white lettering, still clearly legible after all these centuries. These are no ordinary shards. They’re called ostrakon, the source for our word ostracize. They are ballots. The white letterings are names. This was not a contest you wanted to win, though, as the placard explains: “Each voter scratched or painted on a potsherd the name of the man he thought most undesirable.” The “winner” was exiled for ten years. That’s a long time. Accounting for inflation and limited longevity, it was even longer back then.
What could get an Athenian citizen voted out? Questioning the existence of the gods could do it. That’s what happened to Protagoras, the
Richard Dawkins of his day. So could excessive vanity. Phidias, a painter, was exiled for sneaking a portrait of himself onto a statue of Athena, in what amounted to an early form of photobombing. These cases are understandable. What is more mysterious is why the Athenians also exiled some of their most successful citizens, often on flimsy charges.
We gain some insight by this comment from one Athenian citizen: “Among us no one should be the best; but if anyone is, then let him be elsewhere and among others.” In other words, people were expelled for being too good. For the Greeks, banishment was a way of keeping the contest fair, a way of providing, as Nietzsche put it, “protection against the genius—a second genius.”
When I first read that, I was perplexed. A second genius? What does that mean? And if there is a second genius, who (or what) is the first genius? The answer is Athens itself. As competitive as the Athenians were, they did not, as we’ve seen, compete for personal glory but, rather, for the glory of Athens. Anyone who lost sight of that imperative risked exile.
Ostracism, though, served another constructive purpose, albeit an unintentional one. Some of those ostracized Athenians did their best work while in exile. Thucydides, for instance, wrote his masterpiece after he was banished, ostensibly for bungling a military campaign. Does rejection spur some people toward greatness?
Sharon Kim, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, conducted a series of experiments designed to investigate the relationship between rejection and creativity. The results were surprising. Those who had been made to feel rejected scored higher on a creative-thinking exam than those who had not. This was especially true for those who had, in a questionnaire, described themselves as “independent.” For these people, says Kim, rejection “confirms what they already feel about themselves, that they’re not like the others,” and that confirmation actually drives them to greater creativity.
The findings raise some intriguing public policy questions. These days, every school district and corporation across the land preaches the importance of inclusion. Should they instead engage in selective rejection? How do
we identify those who are likely to benefit from rejection and those who will be harmed by it?
The Greeks didn’t have the benefit of studies like these, but they clearly understood the power of rejection, and its close cousin, envy. They believed that man is naturally envious, and that this is a good thing. At first blush, this seems absurd. Envy, after all, is one of the seven deadly sins—and, as essayist Joseph Epstein points out, the only one without any redeeming qualities.
For answers, we must, as usual, turn to the gods. In this case, Eris, the goddess of strife. She had two very different sides. “One you would welcome when you came across her, the other is hateful,” writes the poet Hesiod. The good Eris, he said, propelled men to great heights by “rousing them to labor” and to outperform their compatriots. This good envy enabled the Greeks to transform competition from a toxic to a productive force. Somehow, they extracted the motivational juice from envy (I want to best my neighbor) without succumbing to its darker side (I want to strangle my neighbor). How did they pull this off? And if they can do it, why can’t we?
As I walk back across the Hill of the Muses, past the toy trains and the Mickey Mouse balloons, past the souvenir shops selling philosopher calendars (Socrates is Mr. November), past the runners and the dog walkers, I turn the question over and over in my mind, rotating it like the spits of lamb I see at the ubiquitous souvlaki stands.
I walk and think, think and walk, unconsciously reenacting a ritual as old as this hill. Before I know it, though, I’m walking into the lobby of Tony’s Hotel, invigorated by my outing but with no answers, only better questions. Good, I hear Socrates say. Keep asking. The road to wisdom is paved with good questions.
On my last day in Athens I head to the Bridge for one final espresso and some serious sitting. Ensconced at my favorite table, I reach for my notebook and draw a question mark.
Why Athens? Of all the volumes I’ve read about these strange and wonderful people, one sentence, from Plato, stands out: “What is honored
in a country will be cultivated there.” I marvel at its simplicity, how it conveys something both obvious and profound. We get the geniuses that we want and that we deserve.
What did the Athenians honor? They honored nature and the power of walking. They were no gourmands but enjoyed their wine, as long as it was sufficiently diluted. They took their civic responsibilities, if not their personal hygiene, seriously. They loved the arts, though they wouldn’t have phrased it that way. They lived simply and simply lived. Often, beauty was thrown in, and when it was, they paid attention. They thrived on competition, but not for personal glory. They didn’t shrink from change, or even death. They deployed words precisely and powerfully. They saw the light.
They lived in profoundly insecure times, and rather than retreat behind walls, as the hawkish Spartans did, or under a plush blanket of luxury and gourmet food, as other city-states did, the Athenians bear-hugged that uncertainty, thistles and all, remaining open in every way, even when prudence might dictate otherwise. This openness made Athens Athens. Openness to foreign goods, odd people, strange ideas.
The Athenians got so much right, yet their golden age was, as I said, remarkably brief. What went wrong? In a way, nothing.
In 1944, an anthropologist named Alfred Kroeber published a little-known book called Configurations of Culture Growth. Despite the dreadful title, this ambitious and fascinating work aimed to do no less than chart the ebb and flow of human accomplishment. Kroeber believed that culture, not genetics, explained genius clusters such as Athens. He also theorized why these golden ages invariably fizzle. Every culture, he said, is like a chef in the kitchen. The more ingredients at her disposal (“cultural configurations” he called them), the greater the number of possible dishes she can whip up. Eventually, though, even the best-stocked kitchen runs dry. That is what happened to Athens. By the time of Socrates’s execution, in 399 BC, the city’s cupboard was bare. Its “cultural configurations” had been exhausted; all it could do now was plagiarize itself.
The Athenians hastened their demise, though, by making several missteps, and succumbing to what one historian calls “a creeping vanity.”
They practiced democracy at home (for some) but not abroad. Toward the end of his reign, Pericles reversed his open-door policy and shunned foreigners. He also underestimated the resolve of Athens’s foe, Sparta, and finally, in a classic case of overreach, Athens (under a new leader) blundered into the Sicilian Expedition, Athens’s Vietnam.
The rot came from inside, too. Houses grew larger and more ostentatious. Streets grew wider, the city less intimate. People developed gourmet taste. (If the proliferation of foodies foreshadows the downfall of a civilization, then America’s goose is well and truly cooked.) 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 into a circus atmosphere, “with professional freaks, contortionists, and dwarfs usurping the place once occupied by self-respecting citizens,” explains Lewis Mumford.
Every place of genius contains the seeds of its own destruction. The Greeks, I think, were aware of this. While they didn’t know precisely when their day in the sun would end, surely they knew that just as “human happiness never remains long in the same place,” as Herodotus said, neither does human genius.
Sure enough, after the fall of Athens, genius drifted several thousand miles east, where a very different, but no less brilliant, golden age blossomed.