This is perhaps my sixth trip to Sicily. I say “perhaps,” because I’m not very good about dates. It’s not that my math skills are particularly deficient. As a schoolboy, I always tested higher in math than in verbal skills. It’s not even my almost complete lack of interest in mathematics, which has kept me blissfully ignorant of most higher math. My real deficiency is something I regard as a virtue: an instinctive refusal to apply numbers to the phenomena of human life. Aristotle did not make the mistake that has been made, over and over, by philosophers since Descartes and Kant: the mania for shoehorning the realities of human experience into abstract categories, whether mathematical or logical.
In general, Sicilians don’t make this mistake. Reading the fiction of Sciascia and Pirandello, one gets the feeling the reality is a thin-skinned onion that can be peeled down to the infinitesimal without ever reaching the truth. Zeno of Elea—a South Italian Greek, who might as well have been Sicilian, challenged nearly every conventional understanding of reality with his paradoxes of the arrow, the station run, Achilles and the tortoise. Try as you might, you will never get anywhere if reality is a series of divisible points. Zeno developed his paradoxes in response to criticisms of his master, Parmenides, the philosopher who was bold enough to conclude that if reality failed to live up to his logical proposition that what is, is, and what is not, is not and cannot be, it could not be very real. This conclusion excludes motion and change, all coming to be and passing away. Without trying to, Parmenides had anticipated the Christian understanding of the divine nature, and, yessiree, we humans do not stack up. The life of us “children of a day”, as Pindar—who spent a great deal of time here in Agrigento and in Siracusa, is a mere dream of a shadow.
If you think I’ve gone a long way round Zeno’s barn to get to Agrigento, you haven’t flown United and Alitalia. On the first of Devember, we did manage to catch the Alitalia flight to Catania, where we rented a Renault Clio and set off on our 90 minute drive through the hills of Sicily. We even managed to find our little house on the property of a B&B close to the temples. If you’ve been to Agrigento, then you know the restaurant Promenade dei Templi. From there just keep walking up the hill and you’ll fine me sitting on the terrace, smoking a cigar, and looking out across the Valley of the Temples to the blue sea. It’s a bit cooler today, and the temperature only reached 64. The wind is coming up off the sea, and I probably only have an hour at most to contemplate this existence which is all the sweeter for being so brief.
Our first full day in Agrigento was the first Sunday of the month, when the archeological park with so many temples is open. We decided to walk rather than worry about parking, but the entrance we thought was open was not, and we were hot, out of breath and out of sorts, by the time we ascended the walkway to the Temple of Hera, before making our way to the so-called Temple of Concord, and all the others. I’ll write more about these magnificent buildings in future posts. The one beer (Moretti) I had with a small lunch at a little cafeteria around the corner has dulled my wits, and I’d rather imagine that I was Empedocles imagining himself as the reincarnation of an ancient hero.
It is fitting that a Trog should be sitting among the ruins of the Greeks. As a character on our website recently observed, “If we’re lucky, we’re all Greeks”—or something like that. Yesterday evening, I came across a similar statement from Edward Freeman, author of a multi-volume history of early Sicily. Embarking on his narrative of the Athenian attack on Syracuse and her allies, Freeman warns the readers to suspend their affection for Athens:
…we must learn to look with Sikeliot [Sicilian-Greek] and not Athenian eyes. It is hard so to do. We are as it were brought up as Athenians. We are at home at Athens as we are at home in no other spot in the contemporary world. We feel as if the tongue of Athens was our own to tongue, as if the men of Athens were our own folk. In reading the story we feel the same kind of feeling toward Athens that we feel towards our own country. We are driven to allow that the Athenian or the Englishman is wrong in this or that quarrel; but we cannot wish that the Athenian or the Englishman should be defeated even in a wrongful quarrel.
Small wonder nobody reads old Freeman any more. He died only 125 years or so ago. My grandparents were living then, but hardly anyone, whatever feelings he nourished in his bosom, would dare write such things about slave-holding Athenians or the Greek colonists who oppressed the Sikel natives.