MCA Address, February 2020: Speech by Prof. Michael Zammit, Honorary MCA President

As he declares in his own defence, Socrates’ more formidable adversary, the one that will finally prevail, is the long shadow cast into the minds and hearts of his contemporaries, his fellow citizens and judges; a whispering spectre created from the dark materials of the wagging tongues hissing gossip, the pretence of knowing when one really does not. A pretence of being when one really is not. Gossip the wedge that shatters mankind, firmly driven between what one is and what one knows (i.e. that one does not). Socrates’ dialectic therefore strives to resolve, or even address this profoundly distasteful human condition.

Socrates then realises that the real power of speech as subsequently expressed for a thousand years or so, through Plato’s academy and its far reaching effects, derives from a sort of silence; that virile, creative hush that forms the ambience in which his last extraordinary conversations happen…the (prison) cell, the potent, vibrant hub that radiates with possibly his deepest meditation on the immortality of the soul. Knowledge so subtle that it would take Christianity (for example) a millennium to comprehend, absorb and admit as dogma; and most Christians far longer if at all.

The echoing silence of Socrates’ fusion of who he is with what he knows, sits and lives within the throbbing, yet somehow still centre of philosophical endeavour, even as eloquently expressed in the speech formations, the Bhāshā identified with Sanskrit, and by proxy in its Ancient Greek and Latin sibling tongues; the classical languages that of course, later, flower into the stunning pyrotechnic display of what came to be known as the Indo-European family of languages.

Logos, whatever else it may be, is also speech, from legō, I speak; and inasmuch as he spoke (rather than sang, as did the poets) of order and measure, Anaximander was the first Greek philosopher to write in prose, which is to say that he wrote in the language of everyday speech and his medium (as was later adopted by both Socrates and Plato) involved the transcription of a common and shared logos. Common or shared speech, the everyday language transcribed, is prose.

Plato’s Phaedo 58b quotes Socrates’ speaking a mere few minutes from his execution:

This is the ship, as the Athenians say, in which Theseus once went to Crete with the fourteen youths and maidens and saved them and himself. Now the Athenians made a vow to Apollo, as the story goes, that if they were saved, they would send a mission every year to Delos.

A ship, therefore, even in current English usage, is a vessel, a container, a receptacle, and Homeric ships are almost invariably referred to as hollow. We persist in speaking of the ship of state; and as Leon Battista Alberti (architect and Marsilio Ficino’s mentor) was to note much later, in the 15th Century CE:

The ancients…compared the city to a ship on the high seas constantly exposed to accidents and danger through the negligence of its citizens and the envy of its neighbours.

Associations may of course also be compared to ships, but alas we need remember, since ours is a Classics Association that the sea did not sit well with Socrates, the man I would choose to preside over this, our august assembly. You see he objected to things that change, things that move around and are not stable, indeed as ships are wont to do. In Gorgias 519a for instance, Plato makes him link the political decline of Athens directly to its emergence as a sea power.

As is often the case fortunately, there are always other, alternative ways of viewing things.

The Malta Classics Association is a testament as to how philosophical/classical scholarship does for creativity what Plutarch’s thought experiment known as The Ship of Theseus, does for the individual self.

To explain: Theseus, as we have it from Socrates’ last dialogue, who according to legend united the scattered Attic communities and was deemed as the mythical founder of the Athenian polis, transformed Athens from a Mycenaean citadel into a city-state. He was also a sailor.

For a thousand years his ship was maintained in the Piraeus, the harbour of Athens as a living trophy and sailed to Crete annually to re-enact the victorious voyage. Ironically it was a delay in one of these voyages that gave us the occasion to find out our president-of-presidents’ views on the immortality of the soul.

As time began to corrode the vessel, its components were replaced one by one – new planks, new oars, new masts, new sails – until no original part remained. Was it then, Plutarch cheekily asks the same ship? In other words, you discover an old picture of yourself…Is it still you although everything about your body, your mind and possibly your spirit has been replaced by this presently living version of yourself? Shit happens! Almost all of what you are is not what you were and yet you remain, to yourself, who you are!? A conundrum.

Ten years on the MCA may wish to, in the light of the Theseus’ vessel experiment, reconnect with the eternal creative impulse, the ever-present origin that drives these events, these occurrences to happen. My aspiration for an association such as this is, therefore, is for it to flourish and strive to come somehow to be in touch, with the many and varied disciplines that together weave the infrastructural patterns of knowledge needed for the renaissance that our ailing nation (and indeed suffering humanity at large) so desperately and direly yearns for, as we speak.

Let the MCA then serve as Socrates’ silent cell, pregnant with the rich sounds of as many ancient tongues as become available to its members: Chaldean, Sumerian, Phoenician, Egyptian and Arabic alongside of course our dear Sanskrit and its siblings, Ancient Greek and Latin.

Allow me to conclude with a quotation from the Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky who famously opens his essay The Sound of the Tide, with the preamble:

Because civilizations are finite, in the life of each of them comes a moment when centres cease to hold. What keeps them at such times from disintegration is not legions but languages. Such was the case with Rome and before that with Hellenic Greece. The job of holding at such times is done by the men from the provinces, from the outskirts.

Contrary to popular belief, the outskirts are not where the world ends – they are precisely where it unravels. That effects a language no less than an eye.

By reaching out to the exploration, the investigation and the recognition of the Sanskrit language and the astonishing cultures it has spawned, the Malta Classics Association places itself in the language-defined and privileged position where the uplift of humanity may be experienced to unravel, exposing realms and a new vista of a refreshed and upgraded awareness of what it is to be human. This my friends, is the vision we can share with acquaintances and colleagues working in all the other disciplines of knowledge.