Today I visited the ruins of the Lyceum palaestra, or wrestling school, in Athens. Pomegranate trees grow around the edge of the archeological site and there were butterflies. (These are some of my photos of the site.) The Lyceum was named after Apollo Lyceus, Apollo “the wolf-god”, to whom the whole area was dedicated. He seems to have been a rural version of the god, who helped shepherds protect their flocks from wolves. Historians aren’t sure of its exact boundaries but the area known as the Lyceum was quite large, lay just outside the city wall to the east of Athens, and encompassed a gymnasium, running track, religious shrines, various other buildings, and extensive gardens where visitors could walk in the shade provided by the trees.
We normally associate the Lyceum with Aristotle. After initially studying at Plato’s Academy, Aristotle parted ways with Plato. He then left Athens and on his return, in 335 BC, finding that the Academy had a new head, Xenocrates, he rented some rooms at the Lyceum and founded a school there. It was also called the “Peripatetic” (walking, or strolling) school because he allegedly used to lecture while walking around the grounds of the Lyceum. Diogenes Laertius says that Aristotle lectured there for thirteen years before retiring to Chalcis in 321-322 BC.
However, philosophers had been teaching at the Lyceum long before Aristotle set up his school there. According to Plato, two or three generations before Aristotle, Sophists including Protagoras and Prodicus, the two most famous among them, used to lecture and give speeches at the Lyceum. It seems that Socrates would also frequently spend his days there discussing philosophy with the Sophists and others. And as we’ll see, the Stoics would later teach there as well.
Socrates and the Sophists at the Lyceum
According to Diogenes Laertius, the first famous Sophist, Protagoras, gave a public reading of his controversial book On the Gods at the Lyceum, at least according to some accounts. (Or some say it was read in public by one of his students.)
As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life.
That caused some controversy as you can imagine. We’re told that, incensed by these words, the Athenians expelled Protagoras and burnt his writings in the agora, the city centre or marketplace of Athens.
However, according to Plato, Socrates would often walk to the Lyceum to discuss philosophy with the Sophists teaching there. Socrates mentions being on his way to the Lyceum in Plato’s Lysis, returning from it in the Euthyphro, and in the Euthydemus he recounts a conversation he had there with two young Sophists.
Crito: Who was the person, Socrates, with whom you were talking yesterday at the Lyceum? There was such a crowd around you that I could not get within hearing, but I caught a sight of him over their heads, and I made out, as I thought, that he was a stranger with whom you were talking: who was he? […]
Socrates: He whom you mean, Crito, is Euthydemus; and on my left hand there was his brother Dionysodorus, who also took part in the conversation.
Crito: Neither of them are known to me, Socrates; they are a new importation of Sophists, as I should imagine. Of what country are they, and what is their line of wisdom? (Euthydemus)
In the pseudo-Platonic dialogue called the Eryxias, Critias is saying that if an intemperate man cannot refrain from over-indulging in food and drink, and other pleasures, then, paradoxically, it’s better for him to be poor than rich so that he can’t gratify his unhealthy desires. In other words, as the Stoics later argued, money is neither good nor bad in itself, but can be used either well by the wise or badly by the foolish. Socrates says that he heard the famous Sophist Prodicus using the same argument the day before in the Lyceum:
I heard that very argument used in the Lyceum yesterday by a wise man, Prodicus of Ceos; but the audience thought that he was talking mere nonsense, and no one could be persuaded that he was speaking the truth. And when at last a certain talkative young gentleman came in, and, taking his seat, began to laugh and jeer at Prodicus, tormenting him and demanding an explanation of his argument, he gained the ear of the audience far more than Prodicus. (Eryxias)
At the end of Plato’s Symposium, when everyone else is drunk and has fallen asleep, we’re told that Socrates leaves early in the morning to spend the rest of his day at the Lyceum, presumably discussing philosophy:
Socrates, having laid them to sleep, rose to depart; Aristodemus, as his manner was, following him. At the Lyceum he took a bath, and passed the day as usual. In the evening he retired to rest at his own home. (Symposium)
So long before Aristotle’s time, the Lyceum was associated with the Sophists and later with Socrates, who liked to go there to talk with them and their students. What about the Stoics, though?
The Stoics at the Lyceum
After Zeno, the founder of Stoicism died, the Athenians honoured him with an official decree, which Diogenes Laertius quotes in full. Curiously, it was permanently inscribed on two stone pillars installed at the Academy and the Lyceum, the homes of the Platonic and Aristotelian schools respectively.
Whereas Zeno of Citium, son of Mnaseas, has for many years been devoted to philosophy in the city and has continued to be a man of worth in all other respects, exhorting to virtue and temperance those of the youth who come to him to be taught, directing them to what is best, affording to all in his own conduct a pattern for imitation in perfect consistency with his teaching, it has seemed good to the people – and may it turn out well – to bestow praise upon Zeno of Citium, the son of Mnaseas, and to crown him with a golden crown according to the law, for his goodness and temperance, and to build him a tomb in the Ceramicus at the public cost. And that for the making of the crown and the building of the tomb, the people shall now elect five commissioners from all Athenians, and the Secretary of State shall inscribe this decree on two stone pillars and it shall be lawful for him to set up one in the Academy and the other in the Lyceum. And that the magistrate presiding over the administration shall apportion the expense incurred upon the pillars, that all may know that the Athenian people honour the good both in their life and after their death. Thraso of the deme Anacaea, Philocles of Peiraeus, Phaedrus of Anaphlystus, Medon of Acharnae, Micythus of Sypalettus, and Dion of Paeania have been elected commissioners for the making of the crown and the building. (Diogenes Laertius)
We’re also told that after Zeno’s death, the third head of the Stoic school, Chrysippus, actually lectured at the Lyceum, presumably in addition to speaking at the Stoa Poikile, the traditional home of the Stoic school.
Demetrius above mentioned is also our authority for the statement that Chrysippus was the first who ventured to hold a lecture-class in the open air in the Lyceum. (Diogenes Laertius)
It’s not clear what Diogenes Laertius means. Perhaps that previous philosophers had either spoken to small groups while walking there or lectured inside buildings whereas Chrysippus was the first to hold formal lectures publicly in the grounds of Lyceum. It’s possible, though, that he means Chrysippus was the first Stoic to hold lectures at the Lyceum, which by that time was mainly associated with the Aristotelian school, but certainly not off-limits to other philosophers.
Centuries later, the last famous Stoic, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, would formally reintroduce a chair of philosophy at the Lyceum, after visiting Athens, a few years before his death.
One reply on “Athens: The Sophists, Socrates, and the Stoics at the Lyceum”
Really enjoying these dispatches from Athens. Thanks!