“Ignorance, the root and stem of all evil.”
It was an olive tree almost like any other possible olive tree. Its grey trunk, gnarled into a multitude of unnavigable paths and protrusions, as if to demurely lead the public gaze far away from the most trenchant and vituperative depredations of the aeons carved upon it, stood ancient, knotted and doubled over itself with age. If it was Heraclitus who revealed that things keep their secrets, then this tree was accomplished at keeping its own counsel, for nothing save the gentle rustling of its leaves could in anyway betray the confidences of the past, nor lend any premonition as to its knowledge of its own destiny.
It was the last of its kind. Well before it achieved this singularity of fame, it was merely one of many comprising a sacred grove of olive trees dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom, outside the city walls of ancient Athens. The archaic name for the site was Hekademia, which by classical times evolved into Akademia and was explained, at least as early as the beginning of the 6th century BC, by linking it to an Athenian hero, a legendary “Akademos.”
The site of the Academy was sacred to Athena and other immortals; along with its brothers, our olive tree it had sheltered her religious cult since the Bronze Age. Most likely than not, it had borne mute witness to Akademos’ revelation to the Divine Twins Castor and Polydeuces as to the location of Helen, hidden within the grove by Theseus. The road to Akademeia was lined with the gravestones of Athenians. Funeral Games would be held there along with a torchlit night race from altars within the city to Prometheus' altar in the Akademeia. This was the Iera Odos, the Sacred Way.
If tradition is to be believed, it was also under this particular olive tree that the philosopher Plato sat, in order, not so much to teach, but rather, to pose problems to be discussed and solved by others. His “Academy” was a place, not so much of politics but of science. According to the Neo-Platonist Simplicius, Plato had instructed the other members of his Academy, to discover the simplest explanation of the observable, irregular motion of heavenly bodies: "by hypothesizing what uniform and ordered motions is it possible to save the appearances relating to planetary motions.” Further, inscribed upon the entrance to the Academy was the telling phrase: “Let none but geometers enter here.”
More so out of respect for its long tradition and the association with the Divine Twins, that any association with the dialectics of Plato, the otherwise unsentimental Spartans would refrain from ravaging the original “groves of Academe” when they invaded Attica. This piety was not shared by the barbarous Roman Consul Sulla who axed the sacred olive trees of Athena in 86 BC, in order to construct siege engines. It was here that the famous Academy came to an end. Denuded of its trees, it was not considered a suitable place to teach by the last undisputed head Platonist, Antiochus of Ascalon, and he moved the Academy to a gymnasium known as Ptolemy.
Our tree, which looked on benignly and shaded Plato and his students as they speculated on the theory of Forms, saw his brothers fall victim to the Roman axe and yet survived. At that time, it would have been approximately one thousand years old. In the centuries to come, it would remain deeply rooted to the Attic soil, witnessing the annihilative mania of Goths, Gauls and other predatory groups. Our weary olive tree was there when the great City of Constantinople fell and with it, the final memories of an ancient and unique philosophical and literary tradition and it was there still in 1821, when a renascent Greek nation rose up to reclaim that past, certain that in paying homage to it, they would ensure their own success. And for the next one hundred and fifty years, Plato’s tree was compelled to stand silent as the beneficiaries of his bequest to the nation steered that nation into civil war and political strife, bankruptcy, corruption and irrelevance. Brief moments of brilliance as the nation rallied to repel foreign invaders were crushingly overshadowed by internecine conflict, vested interests, and inane, archaistic military coups until that fateful day in 1976 when a bus, veering off the side of the road, collided with it and smashed its venerable trunk.
Plato’s tree’s body may have been shattered, yet its spirit remained indomitable. Just as the re-establishment of democracy in Greece that very year heralded hope for yet another re-birth and a second chance for a nation founded in noble ideals from which it had markedly diverged, so too did our tree re-emerge, tentatively putting out new shoots and slowly, painstakingly reclaiming its place in the sun. It did so as demagogues led the Greek people astray with illusory promises of change, reducing a previously hardy and self-reliant people into indolent clients and cronies, waiting for the next government handout and inexorably eroding their belief in all the traditions and vales that they not only held dear, but which sustained them during the turbulent vicissitudes of the past two thousand years.
Last week, Plato’s noble and ancient three thousand year old tree was completely uprooted and chopped up for firewood. Not even a rhizome remains to claim its place within the Attic soil and promise a miraculous return. It is gone, never to return. And though some may grieve for the loss of a tree that has presided over the existence of our people, in suffering its complete extirpation from its soil, Plato’s tree is doing naught else than that which it has been doing for the past three thousand years: sharing in and reflecting the fate if its people. Greece’s General Directorate of Antiquities is at pains to point out that the tree cut for firewood was not the same one under which Plato sat, but a replacement, giving lie to the story that Plato’s tree regenerated in 1976. It did not, it seems. And neither did we.
A nation that fails its people to the extent where they, barbarised and infantised by broken promises, rapacious acquisitiveness and cynical sound-bites, turn on their own past and uproot it root and branch, no longer has need of cultural symbols for they have come full circle and divested themselves of their own identity, returning instead to a startling form of primitivism that was unknown during previous and one would venture to suggest more serious crises such as the Second World War, where the Greek troops drew inspiration from their faith and the exploits of the ancients in order to repel invaders and survive famine. We have now exhausted our resource of historical and cultural capital and have nothing more to draw from.
No greater sacrifice could have been made by Plato’s tree than, divested of its symbolic value, to offer itself upon the pyre of its people’s basic needs. For us, the post-neo-Greeks, the immolation of such a symbol signals the final funerary dirge upon our selective and self-serving aping of a past we cannot possibly ever hope to resuscitate or surpass. As the Theanthropos himself commanded in the Gospel of Matthew, “Every tree that brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.” Now, finally freed from the burden of that past, we can embrace the future and the vacuum of cultural values that it is a harbinger of, comforted in the knowledge that when Plato, our erstwhile compatriot posited that: “There must always remain something that is antagonistic to good,” he was referring to us.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 26 January 2013