Stoicism at Plato’s Academy

A Walk in the Park of Philosophy at Athens

A Walk in the Park of Philosophy at Athens

The name “Academy” is most commonly associated with the home of Platonic philosophy but the same location, in Athens, also plays a part in the history of Stoic philosophy. Zeno of Citium studied at the Platonic school in the Academy for at least a decade before founding his own Stoic school, located at the famous Stoa Poikile or Painted Porch, in the Agora of Athens. Toward the end of his life a monument was erected in the grounds of the Academy. It was a pillar with an inscription commemorating Zeno’s exemplary virtue and temperance, and honouring his contributions to philosophy.

Socrates once walked there discussing philosophy, while Plato was still a young student of his, and his rivals the Sophists probably gave speeches there too.

The Academy was one of Athens’ ancient gymnasia or recreational grounds. It contained a wrestling school, libraries, shrines, etc. The area was described as a pleasant wooded grove, until the Roman dictator Sulla cut down its trees to rebuild his siege engines in the 1st century BC. The Academy was most famously associated with Plato’s philosophy, with which it quickly became synonymous after he set up his school and began teaching there. However, other philosophers also taught in the grounds of the Academy. Socrates once walked there discussing philosophy, while Plato was still a young student of his, and his rivals the Sophists probably gave speeches there too.

The Founder of Stoicism

Centuries later, Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, spent ten years attending lectures in the Platonic school at the Academy, which at that time was headed by a successor of Plato called Xenocrates of Chalcedon. Over the years, Zeno began to build a reputation himself as an expert on dialectic, however, he continued to attend lectures at the Academy, delivered by Xenocrates’ successor, Polemon of Athens, a rebellious youth who turned his life around and became renowned for his temperance as a philosopher.

Zeno was therefore admired for showing intellectual humility by attending the public lectures of a famous rival philosopher. Nevertheless, Polemon is said to have joked:

You do not escape my notice, Zeno, slipping in by the garden door, stealing my doctrines and clothing them in a Phoenician style!

In other words, he borrowed ideas from Polemon’s Academic philosophy and incorporated them into Stoicism.

After founding the Stoic School, Zeno earned such a reputation as a teacher and role model to the youth that when he reached an advanced age, the Athenians passed a decree publicly honouring him and had it inscribed on two stone pillars “one in the Academy and the other in the Lyceum”. It begins with the words:

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.

This information seems to be derived by our source, Diogenes Laertius, from an earlier author Antigonus of Carystus, whose Successions of Philosophers was written in the 3rd century BC, shortly after Zeno’s death. Antigonus of Carystus adds that to the inscription were added the words “Zeno of Citium, the philosopher”, as Zeno had insisted that his status as a foreign immigrant at Athens should not be forgotten.

Bringing Philosophy Back to the Academy

A few years ago, I was walking in the park of Akadimia Platonos in Athens when it struck me that we should still be doing philosophy there. I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t an international conference centre nearby where events could be organized celebrating the history of Plato’s Academy, allowing authors and academics to discuss ancient Greek wisdom with a modern audience. It would certainly bring much-needed foreign revenue and investment into a suburb of Athens that’s suffered economically and could benefit from urban renewal.

I began talking to my friends in Greece about the idea and it somehow caught fire. We ended up starting a new nonprofit, based in Athens, called The Plato’s Academy Centre. Before long we’d established a board of advisors including several highly-regarded authors and academics, as well as representative from the political and business spheres. During the pandemic, we began organizing virtual events and building an online community to discuss Greek philosophy and its relevance to modern life. We’re also working on the long-term goal of fundraising to create our conference centre adjacent to and overlooking the historic park, where Plato’s school once stood. Feel free to get in touch if you’re interested in learning more about the project.

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