Notes from a Visit to Delphi
In Greece, we are blessed with sites that are magical in the human vision they convey. Delphi is one such site. There is a strange energy here flowing down from the sky and the rocks into the valley. On an autumn day like today, with few tourists, it is tangible.
But beyond the energy is the recognition that this site stood for something. We can call it mumbo jumbo or religion or whatever, but it inspired and motivated city states and ordinary citizens from all over the Hellenistic world and later to journey here in search of meaning.
Along the way, this culture reinforced itself, so that in the frieze of the Siphnian Treasury or the folds of the Charioteer’s tunic, we see themes that resonated then, and today. The brutal struggle of the shield wall or the austerity of a young aristocrat racing his horses.
The parallel search for meaning imparted by an Oracle with the ultimate search for meaning through arete.
How many things do we do today that are in search of excellence?
How do we define our own sense of virtue?
How much of our sick society actually stands for something, rather than simply criticizes or gossips or loses itself in ephemera or worse?
We can accuse the Greeks of antiquity of many things, and figures such as Pericles, Herodotus, Socrates did so, and at incisively, in terms that are still crystal clear today. I can add to these, pointing to the slaveholdings, the diminished role of women in society, the role of land in determining the voting franchise, and more.
But what strikes me is how focused entire city states were on a concept of excellence. If you were Athenian, you would look up at the Acropolis and the Parthenon. If you were Theban, you were a proud descendant of Cadmus. If you were Spartan you were the descendent of Lacedaemon, a son of Zeus.
Sure, we can sneer about these constructs in our ubiquitous sophistication. But think about it. Today, you are considered “good” if you are competent at something, and if that competence is expressed by riches.
Who do we revere? Tycoons, actors, the odd athlete.
What have these people done for our countries or cities? Very little. It’s a selfish pursuit, marked by electronic euros or likes. And leaves nothing useful behind.
No wonder we are all depressed, divorced and chained to our screens.
Let’s be different.