Athens: Visiting Plato’s Academy

Plato's Academy signToday I visited the archeological site of Plato’s Academy.  Around twelve years after the execution of Socrates, Plato founded a philosophical school in the suburb of Athens known as the Academy, after which it took its name.  His school must have consisted of one or more lecture halls.  It was located in public grounds, basically a sort of park, that consisted mainly of a gymnasium with a wrestling school and various shrines and other buildings. Women were not allowed into the grounds of ancient Greek gymnasia but it’s said that two women disguised themselves as men in order to attend Plato’s lectures there.

Ruins at Plato's AcademyThe grounds are now referred to as the “Academy Park”, although originally it was known simply as the Academy, and the philosophical school later came to adopt the same name.  One theory is that the name originally meant “far away deme” or suburb, as it was located outside the ancient city walls of Athens.  (Later a story evolved that it was named after a hero called Academus.)

Plato hermThere’s a nice herm (statue) of Plato close to the park.  Two years ago a small “digital museum” was created nearby, which I also visited.  There’s a short film showing several local people who talk about how economically depressed the area is and that the site of the Academy was neglected until recently because many people didn’t even realize its significance.   One older man said something like “There used to be factories here and now we have thirty hairdressers and thirty pharmacies, and that’s about all.”  In the grounds of the Academy Park, where the ruins are located, children were playing, two guys lurking awkwardly beside the ruined palaestra (wrestling school) were drinking beer and smoking a pipe, and a middle-aged woman on a bench nearby, who looked very dishevelled, was talking to herself.  There’s a bit of litter and graffiti but it’s not too bad.  Still, it made me a little sad to see some of these locations.  On the other hand, the beautiful Acropolis Museum built in 2009 is arguably a much better example of how Greece’s cultural heritage can best be preserved.

Stoics at the Academy

Plato's Academy RuinsPlato’s most famous student at the Academy was Aristotle but after Plato’s death it was his cousin, Speusippus, who became the next head of the school, known as a “scholarch”.  He was succeeded by Xenocrates of Chalcedon.  We’re told that Xenocrates more would retire into himself, in private contemplation, several times each day, and that he assigned whole hour each day to silence.  Xenocrates was succeeded, in turn, by Polemo, who experienced a sort of conversion after hearing him speak.

In his youth [Polemo] was so profligate and dissipated that he actually carried about with him money to procure the immediate gratification of his desires, and would even keep sums concealed in lanes and alleys. Even in the Academy a piece of three obols was found close to a pillar, where he had buried it for the same purpose. And one day, by agreement with his young friends, he burst into the school of Xenocrates quite drunk, with a garland on his head. Xenocrates, however, without being at all disturbed, went on with his discourse as before, the subject being temperance. The lad, as he listened, by degrees was taken in the toils. He became so industrious as to surpass all the other scholars, and rose to be himself head of the school…  (Diogenes Laertius)

Although Polemo got into some trouble as a young man, through philosophy he later acquired a reputation for having such an unshakeably calm demeanour that he sounds like a true precursor of the Stoics.

…from the time when he began to study philosophy, he acquired such strength of character as always to maintain the same unruffled calm of demeanour. Nay more, he never lost control of his voice. This in fact accounts for the fascination which he exercised over Crantor.  Certain it is that, when a mad dog bit him in the back of his thigh, he did not even turn pale, but remained undisturbed by all the clamour which arose in the city at the news of what had happened.

We’re told that he withdrew from society and confined himself to the Garden of the Academy (the surrounding park) where his students built themselves little huts so they could live near the Shrine of the Muses and the lecture hall of the Academy, where they went to hear Polemo speak.

Ruins at Plato's AcademyZeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, was originally (and perhaps mainly) a Cynic philosopher, although he also studied at other schools of Athenian philosophy, including spending ten years attending Plato’s Academy, under Xenocrates and later Polemo.  We’re told that even when Zeno was making progress as a philosopher himself, he was so free from conceit that he would still go to the Academy to study there under Xenocrates and later Polemo. Polemo made the jibe that Zeno was sneaking into the grounds of the Academy through the garden door, stealing their teachings and giving them “a Phoenician make-up.”

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