Philosophy began, on the sunny shores of the city of Miletus, as science. The first philosophers attempted to describe the processes of natural phenomena, and this has largely been the legacy of philosophy in Europe and the Arab world. But before Aristotle cast his discerning eye at the heavens and earth, began sifting and winnowing all that sensory data into categories, and cemented this scientific tone to the practice of philosophy ever after, there existed different methods.
Plato is considered to be the father of philosophy. Though only a relative handful of later philosophers had adopted his literary style of philosophical writing (Friedrich Nietzsche was one of them, prompting a modern commentator to note that Plato and Nietzsche are the only philosophers that contemporary people read for fun) he remains famous for the character of Socrates in the Platonic dialogues and the focus that he had carved out for philosophy.
Philosophy, according to Socrates, was the pursuit of discovering how to live a better life. This knowledge resides in every living person, he posited, and the method of mining this hidden treasure was knowing how to ask the right questions. Philosophy, as Socrates famously described, was not about finding the answers, but about asking the right questions.
The reason I bring this up is because this phrase, repeated so often in our culture that it has become a platitude (no pun intended), seems off to me. Today, I was thinking about some problems in my life that have gone unresolved for several years. Applying my brain – as a human being, my greatest tool – to the task of solving those problems, I have failed daily and repeatedly, though I had struck at the issues from every possible angle, seemingly asking all of the right questions.
Inside my paperback copy of One Hundred and One Famous Poems there is a yellowing bookmark. The book itself is rather plain: a Barnes & Noble publication with a faux-marbled cover and many sentimental poems, all rhyming. Nevertheless, the editor of the collection had taken great care in elevating this rather drab idea for a book into an endearing compilation of verse. He had even written his preface as a contemporary poem, meaningful line breaks and all. It ends: “It is the purpose of this little volume to enrich, ennoble, / encourage. And for man, who has learned to love / convenience, it is hardly larger than his concealing pocket.”
Maybe it was for that portable quality that I had decided to take the book with me on my three-week study abroad trip to Greece in the summer of 2006. It went halfway around the world with me and returned to the United States with a new bookmark: a receipt of purchase from an Athenian cafe. The receipt-bookmark, as I mentioned, now looks aged, and the ink has smudged deeper into the paper and lightened to a gray in the process. The top of it has creased where it protruded beyond the dimensions of the book, and on that portion is written in Greek letters the name of the establishment from which it came: *DIOGENES*.
Diogenes Cafe is located in the Plaka neighborhood of Athens, just below the base of the Acropolis, and its name strangely fit the purpose of my visits during that summer. During the trip, I lived with a group of about twenty American students from my university. When I felt like being as reclusive as the famous philosopher Diogenes (who lived in a tub in the marketplace of ancient Athens), I would walk from our hotel, then meander up the cobblestone alleys of the Plaka to the Diogenes Cafe, order a small cup of strong Greek coffee and a delicious local dessert of yogurt and honey, and read, sometimes from the small book of poetry that I had brought with me.
Reading poems in sequence, one after another, from a collection compiled by an editor is somewhat like watching a movie where every scene is acted by different characters in new settings and portraying unique storylines. Luckily the poems of this particular compilation were arranged with heart and style, so the expectations created by one author’s verse would be fulfilled by the emotions evoked in the next. The rhyming words ebbed and flowed from poem to poem like the waves of Homer’s wine-dark Mediterranean Sea, which wasn’t far away from me at the time.