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Athens
... several tall buildings had risen from the ruins 

Early that evening Sophie's mother went to visit a friend. As soon as she was out of the house Sophie went down the garden to the den. There she found a thick package beside the big cookie tin. Sophie tore it open. It was a video cassette.

She ran back to the house. A video tape! How on earth did the philosopher know they had a VCR? And what was on the cassette?

Sophie put the cassette into the recorder. A sprawling city appeared on the TV screen. As the camera zoomed in on the Acropolis Sophie realized that the city must be Athens. She had often seen pictures of the ancient ruins there.

It was a live shot. Summer-clad tourists with cameras slung about them were swarming among the ruins. One of them looked as if he was carrying a notice board. There it was again. Didn't it say "Hilde"?

After a minute or two there was a close-up of a middle-aged man. He was rather short, with a black, well-trimmed beard, and he was wearing a blue beret. He looked into the camera and said: "Welcome to Athens, Sophie. As you have probably guessed, I am Alberto Knox. If not, I will just reiterate that the big rabbit is still being pulled from the top hat of the universe.

"We are standing at the Acropolis. The word means 'citadel'--or more precisely, 'the city on the hill.' People have lived up here since the Stone Age. The reason, naturally, was its unique location. The elevated plateau was easy to defend against marauders. From the Acrop-olis there was also an excellent view down to one of the best harbors in the Mediterranean. As the early Athens began to develop on the plain below the plateau, the Acropolis was used as a fortress and sacred shrine... During the first half of the fifth century B.C., a bitter war was waged against the Persians, and in 480 the Persian king Xerxes plundered Athens and burned all the old wooden buildings of the Acropolis. A year later the Persians were defeated, and that was the beginning of the Golden Age of Athens. The Acropolis was rebuilt-- prouder and more magnificent than ever--and now purely as a sacred shrine.

"This was the period when Socrates walked through the streets and squares talking with the Athenians. He could thus have witnessed the rebirth of the Acropolis and watched the construction of all the proud buildings we see around us. And what a building site it was! Behind me you can see the biggest temple, the Parthenon, which means 'the Virgin's Place.' It was built in honor of Athene, the patron goddess of Athens. The huge marble structure does not have a single straight line; all four sides are slightly curved to make the building appear less heavy. In spite of its colossal dimensions, it gives the impression of lightness. In other words, it presents an optical illusion. The columns lean slightly inwards, and would form a pyramid 1,500 meters high if they were continued to a point above the temple. The temple contained nothing but a twelve-meter-high statue of Athene. The white marble, which in those days was painted in vivid colors, was transported here from a mountain sixteen kilometers away."

Sophie sat with her heart in her mouth. Was this really the philosopher talking to her? She had only seen his profile that one time in the darkness. Could he be the same man who was now standing at the Acropolis in Athens?

He began to walk along the length of the temple and the camera followed him. He walked right to the edge of the terrace and pointed out over the landscape. The camera focused on an old theater which lay just below the plateau of the Acropolis.

"There you can see the old Dionysos Theater," continued the man in the beret. "It is probably the very oldest theater in Europe. This is where the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were performed during the time of Socrates. I referred earlier to the ill-fated King Oedipus. The tragedy about him, by Sophocles, was first performed here. But they also played comedies. The best known writer of comedies was Aristophanes, who also wrote a spiteful comedy about Socrates as the buffoon of Athens. Right at the back you can see the stone wall which the actors used as a backdrop. It was called skene, and is the origin of our word 'scene.' Incidentally, the word 'theater' comes from an old Greek word meaning 'to see.' But we must get back to the philosophers, Sophie. We are going around the Parthenon and down through the gateway ..."

The little man walked around the huge temple and passed some smaller temples on his right. Then he began to walk down some steps between several tall columns. When he reached the foot of the Acropolis, he went up a small hill and pointed out toward Athens: "The hill we are standing on is called Areopagos. It was here that the Athenian high court of justice passed judgment in murder trials. Many hundreds of years later, St. Paul the Apostle stood here and preached about Jesus and Christianity to the Athenians. We shall return to what he said on a later occasion. Down to the left you can see the remains of the old city square in Athens, the agora. With the exception of the large temple to Hephaestos, the god of smiths and metalworkers, only some blocks of marble are preserved. Let us go down ..."

The next moment he appeared among the ancient ruins. High up beneath the sky--at the top of Sophie's screen--towered the monumental Athene temple on the Acropolis. Her philosophy teacher had seated himself on one of the blocks of marble. He looked into the camera and said: "We are sitting in the old agora in Athens. A sorry sight, don't you think? Today, I mean. But once it was surrounded by splendid temples, courts of justice and other public offices, shops, a concert hall, and even a large gymnastics building. All situated around the square, which was a large open space ... The whole of European civilization was founded in this modest area.

"Words such as politics and democracy, economy and history, biology and physics, mathematics and logic, theology and philosophy, ethics and psychology, theory and method, idea and system date back to the tiny populace whose everyday life centered around this square. This is where Socrates spent so much of his time talking to the people he met. He might have buttonholed a slave bearing a jar of olive oil, and asked the unfortunate man a question on philosophy, for Socrates held that a slave had the same common sense as a man of rank. Perhaps he stood in an animated wrangle with one of the citizens--or held a subdued conversation with his young pupil Plato. It is extraordinary to think about. We still speak of Socratic or Platonic philosophy, but actually being Plato or Socrates is quite another matter."

Sophie certainly did think it was extraordinary to think about. But she thought it was just as extraordinary the way her philosopher was suddenly talking to her on a video that had been brought to her own secret hideout in the garden by a mysterious dog.

The philosopher rose from the block of marble he was sitting on and said quietly: "It was actually my intention to leave it at that, Sophie. I wanted you to see the Acropolis and the remains of the old agora in Athens. But I am not yet sure that you have grasped just how splendid these surroundings once were ... so I am very tempted to go a bit further. It is quite irregular of course ... but I am sure I can count on it remaining just between the two of us. Oh well, a tiny glimpse will suffice anyway ..."

He said no more, but remained standing there for a long time, staring into the camera. While he stood there, several tall buildings had risen from the ruins. As if by magic, all the old buildings were once again standing.

Above the skyline Sophie could still see the Acropolis, but now both that and all the buildings down on the square were brand-new. They were covered with gold and painted in garish colors. Gaily dressed people were strolling about the square. Some wore swords, others carried jars on their heads, and one of them had a roll of papyrus under his arm.

Then Sophie recognized her philosophy teacher. He was still wearing the blue beret, but now he was dressed in a yellow tunic in the same style as everyone else. He came toward Sophie, looked into the camera, and said:

"That's better! Now we are in the Athens of antiquity, Sophie. I wanted you to come here in person, you see. We are in the year 402 B.C., only three years before Socrates dies. I hope you appreciate this exclusive visit because it was very difficult to hire a video camera ..."

Sophie felt dizzy. How could this weird man suddenly be in Athens 2,400 years ago? How could she be seeing a video film of a totally different age? There were no videos in antiquity ... so could this be a movie?

But all the marble buildings looked real. If they had recreated all of the old square in Athens as well as the Acropolis just for the sake of a film--the sets would have cost a fortune. At any rate it would be a colossal price to pay just to teach Sophie about Athens.

The man in the beret looked up at her again.

"Do you see those two men over there under the colonnade?"

Sophie noticed an elderly man in a crumpled tunic. He had a long unkempt beard, a snub nose, eyes like gimlets, and chubby cheeks. Beside him stood a handsome young man.

"That is Socrates and his young pupil, Plato. You are going to meet them personally."

The philosopher went over to the two men, took off his beret, and said something which Sophie did not understand. It must have been in Greek. Then he looked into the camera and said, "I told them you were a Norwegian girl who would very much like to meet them. So now Plato will give you some questions to think about. But we must do it quickly before the guards discover us."

Sophie felt the blood pounding in her temples as the young man stepped forward and looked into the camera.

"Welcome to Athens, Sophie," he said in a gentle voice. He spoke with an accent. "My name is Plato and I am going to give you four tasks. First you must think over how a baker can bake fifty absolutely identical cookies. Then you can ask yourself why all horses are the same. Next you must decide whether you think that man has an immortal soul. And finally you must say whether men and women are equally sensible. Good luck!"

Then the picture on the TV screen disappeared. Sophie wound and rewound the tape but she had seen all there was.

Sophie tried to think things through clearly. But as soon as she thought one thought, another one crowded in before she had thought the first one to its end.

She had known from the start that her philosophy teacher was eccentric. But when he started to use teaching methods that defied all the laws of nature, Sophie thought he was going too far.

Had she really seen Socrates and Plato on TV? Of course not, that was impossible. But it definitely wasn't a cartoon.

Sophie took the cassette out of the video recorder and ran up to her room with it. She put it on the top shelf with all the Lego blocks. Then she sank onto the bed, exhausted, and fell asleep.

Some hours later her mother came into the room. She shook Sophie gently and said:

"What's the matter, Sophie?"

"Mmmm?"

"You've gone to sleep with all your clothes on!"

Sophie blinked her eyes sleepily.

"I've been to Athens," she mumbled. That was all she could manage to say as she turned over and went back to sleep.


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