Rebuilding Plato’s Academy

Exploring the Historic Ruins in Athens

Exploring the Historic Ruins in Athens

Every single “academy” in the world is named after the original Akademia of Athens. Founded by Plato after the execution of his teacher, Socrates, at the start of the 4th century BC, Plato’s Academy was the first major school of philosophy, the first academic institution. It’s one of the very foundation stones of Western civilization. For centuries, it was considered a centre of learning, and a beacon of light, throughout the Western world.

“What happened to it?”, people ask, “Where was it located?” and “Does Plato’s Academy still exist?”

I’m an author, writing about philosophy, who happens to live in Athens. So this topic comes up a lot for me in conversation. “What happened to it?”, people ask, “Where was it located?” and “Does Plato’s Academy still exist?” In a nutshell, it was destroyed by the Roman dictator Sulla in the 1st century BC. He gutted its buildings and tore down the surrounding trees to build his siege engines. The area in which it was once located is a public park today, containing some ruins, and so no, unfortunately, it’s no longer standing. However, maybe it’s not gone forever…

Living in Athens

I was born in Scotland, emigrated to Canada, but currently have permanent resident status in Greece, and live in a suburb of Athens called Kypseli. It’s just over half an hour’s walk from Akadimia Platonos Park, the original location of Plato’s Academy. I often go there. It’s very popular with local Athenians walking dogs, practicing martial arts, jogging, and letting their kids play. However, it’s perhaps not as well-known to tourists yet as it should be.

The grounds are now referred to as the “Academy Park”, although originally it was known simply as the Academy. Plato’s philosophical school based there came to adopt the same name. One theory is that “Akadimia” originally meant “far away deme” or suburb, as it was located outside the ancient city walls of Athens. Later another story evolved that it was named in tribute to a legendary Greek hero called Academus.

There’s a nice statue (herm) of Plato close to the park. A few years ago a small “digital museum” was created nearby, which I also like to visit. There’s a short film showing several local people who talk about how economically deprived the area is and that the site of the Academy was neglected for years because most 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!”

The first time I visited the grounds of the Academy Park, where the ruins are located, children were playing, two guys lurking beside the ruined palaestra (wrestling school) were drinking beer and smoking, 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. It could easily be cleaned up. The philosopher Simon Critchley recently wrote a very sniffy article about it in The New York Times. He called it “a public park in a not particularly nice part of town”. I guess he didn’t see its potential. I feel very connected with the past there. I also think it’s a beautiful park and I go there often to walk and reflect on my writing.

The Original Academy

Plato’s school was founded about twelve years after the death, in 399 BC, of Socrates. We don’t know what it looked like. It was possibly just a house where he held symposia, at which philosophical discussions took place. Similar discussions were often also held while walking around outdoors in the park. We do know his school of philosophy was located in what the ancients called a gymnasium. There were three main gymnasia in classical Athens: the Academy, Lyceum and Cynosarges. Plato founded his school at the Academy, Aristotle set up at the Lyceum, and Antisthenes taught at the poorer Cynosarges, possibly the home of the Cynic school of philosophy.

The English word “gymnasium” refers to a room or building used for exercise. However, in ancient Greece a gymnasion was more like what we’d call a “sports complex” or perhaps a “recreation ground” — a large park with walks, running tracks, wrestling schools, baths, and other buildings. Athletes competing in games such as the Olympics would train there. The grounds contained palaestrae, buildings for training in boxing, wrestling, pankration, and ball games. (A palaestra is a bit closer in meaning to our modern notion of a building called a “gymnasium”.) The word gymnasion is also related to the Greek for “naked” as the youths who exercised there did so in the nude.

Gymnasia, such as the Academy, also incorporated shrines, as they were dedicated to the gods. Even more surprisingly, to our modern minds, they were places of learning and conversation, where older men, in particular, would socialize and talk about philosophy and the arts. The Greek Sophists gave speeches in the gymnasia and Socrates could often be found discussing philosophy there with his friends. There were public libraries. Later, philosophical schools such as Plato’s famous Academy appeared. Women were not allowed into the grounds of ancient Greek gymnasia but there’s a story that two women disguised themselves as men in order to attend Plato’s lectures there.

Students at the Academy

Plato’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.

He was succeeded, in turn, by a student named Polemo, who experienced a sort of conversion after hearing Xenocrates speak.

As a youth he [Polemo] was so unbridled and promiscuous that he carried money about with him to procure the immediate gratification of his desires. He even kept sums hidden in narrow lanes. And even in the Academy a three-obol piece was found next to a pillar, where he had buried it for the same purpose. One day, by agreement with his young friends, he burst into Xenocrates’ school in a drunken state, wearing a garland on his head.

The teacher was completely unfazed:

Unperturbed, Xenocrates proceeded with his discourse as before, its subject being temperance. The boy, as he listened, was gradually captivated, and thereafter became so diligent that he surpassed all the others and eventually became 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 precursor of the Stoics.

…from the time he began to study philosophy he developed such strength of character that his demeanor remained the same on all occasions. Even his voice never varied… At any rate, when a mad dog bit him in the back of the thigh, he did not even turn pale, and remained unmoved by the uproar that arose in the city at the news of what had happened.

We can see here that some students of philosophy actually took up residence in the grounds of the Academy park.

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. — Diogenes Laertius

Zeno 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.

“The unexamined life,” Socrates said, “is not worth living.”

Rebuilding the Academy

I’ve been talking for a while about “creating something new” near the original location of Plato’s school, in the Academy Park. Recently, our plans have started to come together. I’m working with an amazing team of people on ways of holding events there, and contributing to the overall improvement of the area, in ways that will hopefully benefit everyone, including the local residents. I doubt it’s realistic to literally “rebuild” the original Platonic Academy but there are other ways of bringing it back to the area.

Greece brought philosophy to the world. Now wealthy countries can give something back by helping to protect her cultural heritage, and learning to appreciate her potential. We could all be walking in the footsteps of Socrates and Plato, talking about wisdom and virtue, and learning to question ourselves more deeply. “The unexamined life,” Socrates said, “is not worth living.” You can do that anywhere, of course, but wouldn’t it be inspiring to do it at the original location of Plato’s Academy?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *