The Academy of Plato

Founded in 387BC

Since the words "academy" and "academic" come from the name of the area where Plato taught, it is worth spending a moment to describe the park which was used for gymnastics from the sixth century BC. Academus or Hecademus, a mythical hero who had a cult following, left a garden and grove, which was about a mile north west of the centre of the city of Athens, to the citizens to use for gymnastics. The area, named after Academus, was developed by Hippias, the son of Peisistratos, who built a wall round it and put up statues and temples. Excavations have detected the foundations of Hippias's wall. The statesman Kimon planted olive and plane trees there and diverted the river Cephisus to make the dry land fertile. Festivals were held there, as were athletic events in which runners would races between the altars, and funeral games also took place in the Academy.

It must have been a beautiful park when Plato, who had a house nearby and a garden within the area, began to teach there in around 387 BC. The first point that we must make is that the modern use of the word 'academy' will give us a false impression of what Plato actually set up. Chermiss writes [1]:-
What, then, did Plato really do in his Academy? ... 'Academy' and 'Academic' are terms which men of formal training ... have been pleased to apply to themselves and their organisations. It is not surprising, therefore, that by a more or less unconscious retrojection modern scholars have attached the particular significance which 'Academy' has in their own milieu to the garden of Plato's which was situated in the suburb northwest of Athens called 'Academia' after a mythical hero ...
The fresco The School of Athens by Raphael represents the modern idea of an academy and he has placed Plato and Aristotle into such a setting, but the reality of Plato's Academy must have been totally different. A similar sentiment is expressed by Glucker [3]:-
To us ... the word 'Academy' has come to mean an institution of learning, a learned society, or at least a place of theoretical ('academic') education. In ancient Athens, the Academy was first and foremost a public park dominated by its gymnasium, and the connection between it and Plato's school was only one of the numerous historical reminiscences in an area rich in history.
Glucker goes on to look at the writings of Pausanias who gives what is essentially a tourist guide to Athens written in the second century AD (when the Academy was still supposed to be in existence). He describes the graves, altars, and olive trees of the Academy (i.e. the olive grove). He says that a memorial to Plato is found not far from the Academy but there is no mention of Plato's school nor, for that matter, is there any mention that Plato was connected with the Academy which is simply a park.

What then was Plato's Academy? Chermiss writes [1]:-
All the evidence points unmistakably to the same conclusion: the Academy was not a school in which an orthodox metaphysical doctrine was taught, or an association of members who were expected to subscribe to the theory of ideas ... The metaphysical theories of the director were not in any way 'official' and the formal instruction in the Academy was restricted to mathematics. ...

Plato's influence on these men, then, was that of an intelligent critic of method, not that of a technical mathematician with the skill to make great discoveries of his own; and it was by his criticism of method, by his formulation of the broader problems to which the mathematician should address himself, and ... by arousing in those who took up philosophy an interest in mathematics that he gave a great impulse to the development of the science.
We should look at perhaps the only 'fact' which is usually given about the Academy in Plato's time. This is that above the door Plato inscribed "Let no one who is not a geometer enter". This is not stated in any literature which has come down to us earlier than a document from the middle of the 4th century AD which, therefore, was written about 750 years after Plato founded the Academy. Before we discuss whether it is likely that indeed this was written above the door of the Academy, let us give what is probably a more accurate translation - "Let no one who cannot think geometrically enter".

First we note that above the doors of sacred places there was often placed an inscription "Let no unfair or unjust person enter". What is reported above the door of the Academy is exactly the same Greek words except "unfair or unjust" has been replaced by "non-geometrical". Next we note that the sentiment is exactly what Plato might have written, for it expresses an idea which runs throughout his writings. However, it seems highly unlikely that something of this nature would be handed down by word of mouth for 750 years before being written down, so despite it being an attractive idea, it is almost certainly fictitious.

It appears that the Head of the Academy was elected for life by a majority vote. The first few to lead the Academy were: Plato, Speuisppus, Xenocrates, Polemon, Crates and Crantor. Aristotle was a member of the Academy for many years but never became its Head. We should note, however, that Cicero, writing in the first century BC, traces the Academy back earlier than Plato and gives its leaders up to 265 BC as: Democritus, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Parmenides, Xenophanes, Socrates, Plato, Speusippus, Xenocrates, Polemo, Crates, and Crantor. A new phase began when Arcesilaus became Head of the Academy in 265 BC. Some authors see this as the beginning of the New Academy as opposed to the that from the time of Plato to that of Crantor which is called the Old Academy. Cicero gives the leaders of the New Academy as: Arcesilaus, Lacydes, Evander, Hegesinus, Carneades, Clitomachus, and Philo.

Philo left Athens in about 85 BC and went to Rome. About a year earlier Lucius Sulla had marched an army on Athens. During the siege of Athens many of the trees in the Academy park were cut down to provide timber for the war effort but there is no evidence that by this time the school led by Philo had any connection with the Academy parkland. It appears that after Philo left Athens the activity in the school ended and there is little evidence that it was restarted before the 2nd century AD. The usual suggestion that Plato's Academy existed from 387 BC until Justinian closed it down in 529 AD is, therefore, not only inaccurate because it appears that there was no Academy from 85 BC until the 2nd Century AD but also because the Academy continued to exist after Justinian's edict to close the pagan schools. Damascius was Head of the Academy in 529 AD and he left Athens at this time with Simplicius and other members of the school. However Simplicius returned to Athens where he certainly wrote, undertook research and was Head of a very restricted Academy until his death in 560 AD.

References (show)

  1. H Chermiss, The riddle of the early Academy (New York, London, 1980).
  2. D H Fowler, The mathematics of Plato's Academy : A new reconstruction (New York, 1990).
  3. J Glucker, Antiochus and the Late Academy (Göttingen, 1978).
  4. J P Lynch, Aristotle's School : A study of a Greek educational institution (Berkeley, 1972).
  5. A Cameron, The last days of the Academy in Athens, Proc. Cambridge Philos. Soc. 95 (1969), 7-29.
  6. D Sedley, The end of the Academy, Phronesis (1981), 67-75.

Last Updated August 2004