“Well,” said Plato, taking a massive rip from a bong Virgil had given him for Saturnalia. He exhaled. “It's not like these things ever end well.” Smoke rolled out of his mouth as he leaned into a tattered beanbag chair. A stubbly-faced Aristotle lit a cigarette on the surrounding hellfire and picked up a guitar that was painfully out of tune; all the instruments in the First Circle were. “Come on,” he begged rather pathetically, “I'm trying to hook up with that Amazon girl.”
Plato was unconvinced. “I'm not a huge Lupe Fiasco fan, plus I try to avoid Bacchanals ever since Socrates tried to light his fart on fire at the Bacchants' suite.” Just then Socrates walked in, groaning audibly. “I'll have you know I was making a philosophical statement.”
[Related: Bacchanal 2014]
Plato, irritated by a FIFA losing streak, looked at him with hostility. “Save it, dude. The last thing I need right now is another one of your Socratic Monologues.”
This kind of trivial banter was typical in the First Circle, where those born before Christ were punished with a perpetual finals week at Columbia. Plato, studying mathematics, had for his senior thesis the impossible task of locating the mathematical point in space at which the universe began. Aristotle, studying philosophy, was condemned to the never-ending assignment of describing the conditions of the First Cause. And Socrates—who was unfit for any major since he refused to write—was doomed to forever fail the swim test. Not a soul could graduate.
As if that part of their punishment wasn't enough, the conditions were downright hellish. Their dorm was located on the banks of the River Styx in a part of Morningside only accessible by the A, C, and E lines. The bedrooms were unbearably hot—not because of the ambient fire, but because negotiating a comfortable temperature in a Columbia dorm room required an engineering degree and minute-to-minute adjustments of the heating dial and the suicide-proof windows.
Plato threw his seven-colored Rubik's cube to the floor in a fit of frustration. He had had enough of this Sisyphean finals week. He didn't want to hear any more douchebags squabbling about honors and awards, or take classes with fools who actually believed that a GPA was somehow an accurate reflection of intelligence. Is this what had become of his precious Academy?
The University had once been an electric place where minds roamed freely and connected—not for the advancement of careers, but for the tacit understanding that life was to be tread on lightly, scrutinized, tasted, squinted at, and, most importantly, laughed over. Now it meant long hours in the bowels of a lab pipetting saline into a test tube or blowing dust off the cover of a dull book in an obscure aisle of the stacks. The Academy had wittingly and willingly devolved into the esoteric in pursuit of grades and a career.
Plato resolved to break free of the cloistered, cloistering Academy. He closed his J.P. Morgan orientation pamphlet. He shut off his iPad. He popped the cap off a 40 and set out for center campus, stealing a piece of chalk from Philosophy Hall on the way. In front of Alma Mater, in thick block letters, he wrote, “The object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful. Come chat!” Passersby, friends, and acquaintances alike arrived and engaged Plato in debate. Socrates arrived with an Olde English, and they discussed the bounds of reason, followed by Aristotle, eager to talk about friendship. Word of the occasion got out and people came from all the caves of campus armed with 40s and chalk. Soon enough, a crowd had formed on the steps. Bud Light and malt liquor bottles littered the steps alongside aphorisms. “One of the most beautiful qualities of friendship is to understand and to be understood,” a buzzed Seneca penned triumphantly in front of the columns. “It is a good thing to be foolishly happy once in a while,” scribbled Horace with a smile.
Plato talked about geometry with Euclid and about the human condition with Orpheus. Homer and Ovid had a rap battle while Cicero and Averroës argued about law. More and more people came, looking for good conversation and the company of good friends. Speakers rolled in. The sun shone. Columbia provided free water and sunscreen. Epicurus enjoyed a glass of Franzia while Pythagoras explained a theorem he was coming up with. Plato and Aristotle had an especially spirited debate, complete with lively gestures: Plato pointed up to the sky—to perfect unity—while Aristotle reached downward—to the physical world.
The whole campus laughed and raised glasses for a toast while Raphael sketched what would be the most epic yearbook picture of all time. Content and exhausted from jubilation, the partygoers passed out early that night. Our friends Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates had broken the spell of never-ending finals week. Dante, delighted by their genuine discourse, wrote them out of their punishment, and, after attaining the highest wisdom—learning as its own end—they became the first class to graduate from the First Circle.
Jake Goldwasser is a Columbia College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. Thinking Twice runs alternate Tuesdays.
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