I left the Philippines in 2004. And looking now at pictures posted in social media makes me easily notice the changes that have happened in the last 13 years, particularly in Metro Manila. Setting aside the rampant criminality and the horrendous traffic, the country seems to have undergone tremendous financial growth. Filipinos dress better – whether in their corporate attires, Sunday best, or even in their daily wear. Likewise, seeing posted selfies-while-eating makes me think that the taste buds of many Filipinos have become somewhat sophisticated. It seems Manila has finally caught the food bug where chefs are the new rock stars. One can also notice the booming real estate business, especially with condominium ownership. I think many high-rise residential buildings can even surpass the ones I see in downtown Los Angeles or San Diego. And how does one expect to travel from an elegant abode to a fancy restaurant? Of course by driving in a brand new car! Truly, this is not the Metro Manila I left more than a decade ago. But what is even more astounding are the gigantic malls sprawled almost everywhere. Almost everyday, people flock to the nearest mall to relax, meet up, cool off, dine, watch a movie, shop and do whatever one can do publicly. For many, malling is the symbol for modern living.
In a similar fashion, more than 2,000 years ago, Athens was just like Metro Manila. Approximately 500 years before Christ, Athens experienced what we call the Golden Age. Having defeated numerous invaders, this Greek polis or city-state was the most important commercial hub in the entire Mediterranean region. With money from neighboring cities and merchants pouring in, magnificent architectural structures were built. Athenians experienced a cultural rebirth. The Golden Age was the time when people desired not just to survive the daily grind of ordinary Greek life but to experience thriving or enjoying to the fullest all the benefits that can make a person happy. However, the Greeks did not just indulge in a “drink, eat, and be merry” attitude. Life was more than that. It was about having the good life. And for one to have this good life, a citizen should be able to acquire as much wealth as possible and get all the honors that can be achieved along the way. As such, everything boiled down to money and prestige. This attitude became evident in the edifices that were built in the agora or the marketplace, the center of commerce, culture, and the symbol of the good life. Everyone flocked to this agora in order to experience such thriving. In this place, one could find the most affluent, educated, beautiful, and powerful personalities in Athens. Hence, instead of picturing an Athenian agora like an ordinary town market, it is more appropriate to picture it just like a modern day megamall. It was the heart that gave life to the city. However, amidst the restaurants, boutiques, parks, entertainment centers, such an eyesore was always present. There was Socrates.
Portrayed as beggar-looking and ugly, Socrates was the exact opposite of what Athens was all about. He was not only a problem to the eyes; he was seen as a nuisance, a troublemaker. However, despite this notoriety, a crowd of young Athenians always followed him. They would gather around him, throw questions at him, and listen to him talk all day. Amidst the noise of commerce and the glamor of the agora, people would constantly hear Socrates say: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Apology 38a) Imagine what one will feel, if while shopping or dining out with friends, one will hear a nearby conversation of killjoys. While having fun, you hear “life is not just about fun.” In short, Socrates was the ultimate party pooper. However, there was a bigger problem – many believed what the party pooper was saying. As such something had to be done.
While a city becomes richer, and when its citizens are more concerned about indulging in luxury, life has a way of balancing itself. In order to do so, someone has to do the dirty work of reminding that there are things far more important. But like all things, it has a price. Thus, in approximately 399 BC, Socrates was sentenced to death. One of the charges cast against him was that he was “corrupting the minds of the youth.” With a majority vote from 500 men, he was found guilty. In his trial, Socrates said to his jury: “…I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you and in my usual way to point out to anyone of you whom I happen to meet: ‘Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?’” (Apology 29e)
Introducing the concept of eudaimonia or the “happy life,” Socrates not only forwarded that true happiness cannot be achieved through riches, fame, and power – he argued that most likely acquiring them could even harm the psuché or the soul. It is good to note however that Socrates was not referring to the religious idea or to that something that goes to another dimension when somebody dies. Socrates was referring rather to the “person inside” or one’s true nature. He said: “…All that the soul undertakes and endures, if directed by wisdom, ends in happiness.” (Meno 88c) For him, virtues like wisdom, truth, justice, and courage, to name a few, are more important than gaining material wealth and success. By themselves, the virtues are sufficient to make one happy. Of course, that does not mean that one should opt to be poor or choose ignominy. What he was saying was, in a way, if our acquisition of wealth and power will cause us to be bad to ourselves and to others, then we should desire something else. Something that will make us become good persons – ethical human beings.
It is in this sense that in the ushering of the Golden Age – or the rise of the ancient “megamall” – that Philosophy was born.
In many ways, I see a lot of similarities with Athens and the new Metro Manila. Money is abounding. Young people are excited to work and earn money. Everything seems to be about new clothes, gadgets, cars, condominiums, or anything that has a price tag. Some are enamored by having titles, degrees, or anything that can raise one’s prestige. And still many are lustful for power. I am not saying that these are bad in themselves. In trying to point out that maybe there are things that are more important than the material, mundane, and temporal – maybe it’s also necessary for us to search for something that will make our existence more meaningful.
I do not want to be a killjoy. I just hope that amidst all the noise, we can still hear again what Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And maybe this time, we will not kill the messenger.
(All translations are from G.M.A. Grube)