Welcome to the Academy!
This beautiful piece of land was originally founded as a gymnasium by Academus (Greek: Akademos) in the 6th Century BCE. It is located about 15 kilometers north of Athens. The gymnasium was a place for young Greek boys to exercise in the mornings and practice reading, writing, and arithmetic in the afternoons. Along with the gymnasium, Acadums planted a sacred grove of olive trees dedicated to Athena to the north of the gym, which will be very important later on! The history of the Academy is usually divided into three parts: The Old Academy, the Middle Academy, and the New Academy.
The Old Academy
In the year ~387 BCE, Plato, an important philosopher, founded his “Academy” on the site of Academus’ gymnasium. Plato had recently spent 12 years on a journey of enlightenment with many other followers of Socrates, who was put to death in ~399 BCE, and wanted a space to share his newly found knowledge with anyone who would listen. Plato’s philosophy was more concerned with the separation of the mind and the body, and also with the idea that everything in it’s “true” form existed somewhere up in the heavens. With hard work, any individual could obtain the knowledge that existed in the heavens if they were trained in the right way.
This institution is often seen as one of the original “universities”. Plato’s school was not just concerned with the normal questions we associate with philosophy today. The teachers of the Academy were willing to teach astronomy, biology, mathematics, religion, or writing. Anyone coming to study at the Academy would be first subjected to an enormous amount of mathematical training. In fact, the inscription above the door to the Academy is under a lot of scholarly debate. Some believe it to have said “Let None But Geometers Enter Here” while others believe it to have said “Let None Who Cannot Think Mathematically Enter”. This shows us the importance that Plato placed on the idea of math and how he believed math to have been one of the few obtainable truths. But, sadly, we have no traces of the original inscription left, only what has been written about in works by other students of the Academy.
The Middle Academy
After Plato’s death in ~347 BCE, the Academy continued it’s academic tradition. The title of “scholarch”, or head teacher of the school, was now passed down to many different individuals, which are all given to us by the Roman writer and orator Cicero. Great thinkers such as Arcesilaus, Lacydes, Evander, Hegesinus, Carneades, Clitomachus, and Philo all had the head title of scholarch and ran the Academy after Plato’s death. But after Plato, who believed that truth was an obtainable thing, died and left the Academy in the hands of Arcesilaus, it’s philosophical ideals went in a new direction. Skepticism, the idea that there is no such thing as real, obtainable truth, now greatly influenced the Academy’s teachings.
The New Academy
But in the beginning of the first century BCE, the last scholarch of the Academy, a man named Philo, made his way to Rome to introduce it’s citizens to a different kind of philosophy: Stoicism. Stoicism was a much different belief system than that of Skepticism or Platonism. Stoics believed that the only true thing that you needed to worry about in life was yourself. Development of the mind and body and understanding the true nature of emotion and feeling was at the top of the Stoic’s agenda. During this time in Rome, Greek philosophy was a highly desired area of study. Many Greek philosophers decided to come to Rome and teach it’s citizens the ancient art of philosophy. Philo came to Rome in ~88 BCE and became a teacher of many prominent Roman citizens such as Cicero.
But, in the year ~86 BCE, a Roman general named Lucius Cornelius Sulla, on his way to drive Mithridates VI out of Greece, made a stop in the city of Athens. And by a stop, I do not mean a stop for lunch. Sulla laid siege to the city of Athens and much of it’s outlying territories. One of the institutions that Sulla came across was the Academy. Sulla raided the building for it’s treasures and either cut or burned (there is debate about which action he took) down the sacred grove of olive trees.
“And when timber began to fail, owing to the destruction of many of the works, which broke down of their own weight, and to the burning of those which were continually smitten by the enemy’s fire-bolts, he laid hands upon the sacred groves…” -Plutarch
This was a sad time for the Academy, Athens, and most of mainland Greece, and the academy fell into a dark time. For many hundreds of years after the sacking of the Academy, Plato’s ideas were spread across much of the Roman empire but did not have any single home. It was not until the late fourth century CE when the idea of the Academy in Athens was reborn. A writer and philosopher named Plutarch revived the Platonic philosophy in a form called Neoplatonism, meaning “new Platonism”. The Neoplatonists were not exactly following Plato’s original teachings. Neoplatonism was mostly a combination of all three earlier ideals of Platonism, Skepticism, and Stoicism. This idea of Neoplatonism was taught by Plutarch and many others until the ending of “pagan” practices by the Roman Emperor Justinian I in the year ~510 CE.
After Justinian I closed the Academy, the last two scholarchs, Simplicius and Damascius fled the city of Athens. Damascius died in his time outside of the city, while Simplicius later returned to Athens and continued writing philosophic texts until his death in ~590 CE.