Plato founded his first academy as a sanctuary in honor of Athena the goddess of wisdom. At the time, “sanctuary” implied sacred space where both mentors and apprentices could establish the spiritual grounding necessary for the mundane practice of their disciplines. Today we might describe “sanctuary” as a “small safe space in a troubling world, an oasis in a vast desert, or an island in a stormy sea.” But lost in this description is the reverence once associated with places of sanctuary. Plato recognized that learning took more than the careful study of accumulated knowledge. It took an institution that honored the human spirit and revered the work involved in developing it.
In our society, spirituality has been reduced to religiosity measured in church attendance rather than intellectual engagement. Approximately 76% of Americans profess a belief in God and 42% attend Church regularly. But these numbers do nothing to measure who is grappling with theological ambiguities or spiritual contradictions. Ancient Greek spirituality demanded recognition of diversity and struggle with ambiguity. Athena was only one of many gods with unique characteristics expressing insight into what it meant to be human. She was more than the goddess of learning. She was also the goddess of skilled labor and strategic warfare. What, her adherents must’ve asked, is the relationship between education, work, and war?
Spirituality is one of the few activities we engage in which produces nothing of measurable value (in a capitalist society, anyway). We do not need it for basic survival. We do it for some other reason. So it should be fun, joyous, meaningful, or cathartic, right? I suppose that, if someone backed me into a corner and interrogated me, I’d identify as an “agnostic atheist” or some shit. But that’s not entirely true. I attend a lot of live concerts, because it’s there — in the intoxicated sway of the crowd — that I feel a sense of community. I process difficult emotions through the meditative state I conjure with callused fingers sliding across a fret board in A Minor. I keep a copy of the Writings of Eugene Debs next to my bed because, when I feel hopeless, I always find comfort in his words. “Years ago,” Debs told a court about to imprison him, “I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
I am no agnostic atheist. As much as I despise the phrase, I am what they call “spiritual but not religious.” But I have no interest in “spirituality” defined in relation to our society’s current understanding of “religiosity.” What does going to church do for me if it only provides answers to ultimately confused questions? I used to think that spirituality existed to help people come to terms with one particular horror of the human condition. If we are beings toward death, it seemed to ask, what reason do we have to persist? It’s a question as timeless as it is frustrating. But the answer to death lies well beyond a metaphysical event horizon. Anyone who’s answered it has either crossed the threshold and been gutted by unforgiving gravitational forces or discovered something we won’t know until we meet them on the other side. Now I think that spirituality exists because, whether we like it or not, we all intuitively grasp the ambiguity of death and feel isolated, alone, and untethered.
Plato founded his academy after Athens sentenced his mentor to die. Standing before the court, Socrates told his accusers he did not despair his sentence, because he could not fear what he did not know. The answer to death lies beyond a metaphysical event horizon. It is unknowable. There is, therefore, no reason to fear it. Socrates accepted his fate with stoic disregard, and later, his most promising pupil whispered the equivalent of “fuck you, Athens” under his breath and dedicated his school to the same goddess from which the city got its name. Students arrived and committed themselves to Athena’s principles of wisdom, work, and warfare. Maybe they could’ve eventually avenged Socrates on the battlefield. Who knows? But I doubt it. Through their spiritual engagement with the world, they learned that there’s more than one way to win a war. It’s easier to kill a soldier than an idea.